Sex & Relationships

How Do You Solve A Problem Like the 'P' Word? Should School-Based Sex Education Address Pleasure?

Is the inclusion of pleasure in sex education necessarily an all-or-nothing issue?

No, not that “p” word.  These days, that one is—forgive me—no big thing. 

The “p” word to which I am referring is “pleasure.” Its role in school-based sexuality education is among the hottest topics being debated among sexuality educators today.

For some who read this, the idea of including pleasure within sexuality education is a no-brainer. For others, it is the forbidden subject—the Voldemort of sex ed that should not be named under any circumstance. But is the inclusion of pleasure necessarily an all-or-nothing issue?

Those who advocate proactively teaching about pleasure will ask, “How can one teach about sexuality and not acknowledge the pleasurable aspects?” After all, sexuality education is about providing medically accurate information, and the medically accurate fact is that sexual behaviors can (and should) produce pleasure. But we also know that far too many people’s introduction to sexual behaviors is negative. If one’s baseline experience is coercive, assaultive or negative in other ways, the expectations for future sexual relationships will reflect that baseline. Including pleasure in teaching sex ed can provide a more positive baseline and help to correct misinformation learned through negative life experience.

Unfortunately, sexuality education has always focused on the prevention of, rather than the promotion of something—STD and HIV prevention, pregnancy prevention, and so on. This, along with the decades of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, has hammered into young people’s heads that “shared sexual behaviors only result in bad things, and therefore sex is bad.” It is confusing for a young person to receive a barrage of negative messages about sex accompanied by the reassurance that, miraculously, when one is in an adult, long-term, committed relationship sex will morph into something positive.

The age-old concern has been that if young people know that sexual behaviors are pleasurable, they will want to engage in those behaviors. But guess what? Most young people already know that sex is pleasurable, whether shared sexual behaviors or masturbation. Failure to acknowledge that sexual behaviors can produce pleasure can significantly reduce our validity with young people, which in turn can reduce the effectiveness of our work with them.

In addition, research has shown that the more young people know about sex and sexuality, the more likely they are to wait to be in a sexual relationship until they feel ready, and to practice safer sex with their partner.  Further, health behavior theories reinforce that people engage in particular behaviors for a reason. Without addressing the benefits a person gets from engaging in particular behaviors, sexual or otherwise—including unhealthy behaviors—it will be impossible to support healthy practices relating to those behaviors.

Having read that, it would appear that I am pushing for including pleasure in the school curriculum—but I actually am not; or, at least, not necessarily. What I am advocating is that we think about the rationale behind what we propose teaching at particular age levels. I am also advocating for us all to acknowledge the reality in which schools operate today and realize that this often does not match the ideal for which we strive. And while it is only by pushing the proverbial envelope that we can make social progress and change, if we press that ideal without acknowledging reality, we are only setting ourselves—and the young people we serve—up to fail.

The latest School Health Policies and Programs Study is a good example of this. This data showed that, on average, the amount of time devoted to sex ed in high school is 8.1 hours per year. How likely is it, therefore, that the concept of pleasure, beyond acknowledging that people do sexual things because they feel good, will be a part of any school curriculum?   

Ideally, schools should both offer sex ed classes and integrate healthy sexuality messages throughout the entire school curriculum. Ideally, sexuality education should be about physical, emotional and psychological health promotion, rather than about the prevention of pregnancy and disease alone. But if all the time we have to teach young people is 8.1 hours, is pleasure among the most important topics to include? In a culture that is conflicted about adult sexuality and that would prefer to ignore (or that blatantly fears) young people’s sexuality, is it realistic to think most parents would get behind a curriculum that taught about sexual pleasure? I imagine some would say yes, some no, and some remain in between. Thus, the debate continues.

For those of us who call ourselves “sexuality educators” and who address sexuality related issues every day, we understand how vitally important it is for this topic to be addressed with young people at the earliest ages and throughout the lifespan. But we also have to remember that the vast majority of professionals teaching sex ed in schools do not self-identify as “sexuality educators.” They are health teachers, school nurses, school social workers, counselors, and others who have been charged with teaching about sexuality. Their school and community climates vary across a wide spectrum of politics and levels of support. Their personal comfort varies across a wide spectrum as well. In some school districts, where teaching about reproduction is considered controversial, proposing that sex ed include pleasure could make the difference between whether the program continues or is cut. 

We must pick our battles wisely. And any efforts to support curricular change and improvement in school-based sex ed must acknowledge the reality of that school community, and recognize whatever efforts they have made as potential building blocks for future progress.

Elizabeth Schroeder is the executive director of Answer. A national spokesperson on sexuality education issues, she has trained thousands of youth-serving professionals, adolescents, and parents in the United States and overseas.