Can Passion Have a Place in Safe Sex?

Sexual health educators at a recent youth festival in India emphasized the “sex” in “safe sex,” departing from the more traditional, fear-based rhetoric on sexual health. 

The sex-positive approach to talking about safe sex is heartening in India, where sex is still taboo and HIV rates are high. Could Americans learn something from this approach?

It’s easy to be discouraged by the resistance to sex ed in our schools. If conservative forces resist the discussion of contraception as a health issue, what would they think about a pleasure-based dialogue? But the truth is, high school students aren’t the only group whose education we need to fight for. Americans of all ages contract STIs (middle-aged people are often neglected in the discussion, for example). While a fact-based, clinical approach to sex education has gone a long way toward empowering youth and adults, I agree with Anne Philpott, founder of the Pleasure Principle, that something is missing from the way we talk about sexual health.


Philpott’s organization promotes sexual health education that makes pleasure a central player. She’s brought this idea to her work in Africa and Southeast Asia, and to AIDS Conferences around the world.


Many health advocates have pointed to female empowerment as a lynchpin in the effort to stem the AIDS crisis in Africa and Asia. To that end, great work has been done to develop and promote female-controlled protection, like female condoms and microbicides. And without a doubt, many women who would like to use protection don’t because they don’t feel able to ask their male partners to use condoms, or their partners refuse.


But this is only part of the story. What about women in healthy relationships?

"Talking about disease and fear haven’t worked very well. People believe they are in a safe relationship and that disease does not apply to them," said Arushi Singh, a resource officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which trains health educators in South Asia.

In a good relationship that’s about to become sexual, the introduction of a condom can seem like the introduction of a lot of baggage: fear, disease, death. In the most intimate moment, it can seem like you’ve invited a host of health educators into the bedroom. For many people, when the condom has been presented along with a lecture, it loses its sex appeal. 

It’s hard to find the right tenor for a discussion about sexual health. Because, in truth, sex can have very serious consequences. But for many people, passion – and even a sort of irrationality – are essential components of sex. Until we learn to incorporate passion and pleasure into our discussion of sexual health, we may lose people – young and not-so-young – to these very pursuits, beckoning from outside the safe sex debate. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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  • invalid-0

    Thanks for this post. The one thing the scientists often forget to emphasis are the things that happen “offline”, while focusing a bit too much on the things that happen online (e.g., perceptions of risk and vulnerability, risk reduction skill, etc.). One of the few to really talk about this, among the major HIV prevention heavyweights, Jeff Kelly Ph.D., used to talk about the reinforcement value of unprotected sex, which is what most sex occurring in the world is. But even that’s a fairly sterile way to describe what you are getting at here (no offense to Kelly). Anyway, thanks of helping to push our consciousness and science forward a bit with posts like this.

  • invalid-0

    You bring up a very interesting point about how the use of condoms can be increased by employing positive messages of pleasure rather than negative messages of disease. It is rare to see the condom portrayed as a positive tool, bringing more pleasure than a nuisance, needed to prevent unfavorable consequences of intercourse, such as STD infection and pregnancy. However, it makes sense that positive messages of condoms have a greater effect than messages that scare people into using them. This is especially true of populations, such as those in monogamous relationships, that believe they are not susceptible to STD infection. Presenting condoms as enhancing the pleasurable experience makes it “applicable to everyone.” I was especially intrigued by the notion that the femal condom can be viewed as an “erotic accesory.” It is a brilliant marketing strategy that should be employed to a greater extent in places where condom use is still stigmatized.

    I am curious to know your opinion on how these messages of condoms as objects of pleasure affect promiscuity. One of the major criticisms of safe sex education is that it places less emphasis on abstinence, and instead promotes the notion that sex can be had without consequences. In fact, even the Pope has refused to advocate the use of condoms, even though they are used to prevent STDs. Do you think that promoting safe sex as pleasurable gives a free pass to people to have more sexual partners or have sexual relations at an earlier age? Thus, it seems that this kind of strategy is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it does promote greater use of condoms, especially for people that are in relationships. On the other hand, it could send a message that downplays the emotion behind sexual acts. I think programs that advocate the use of condoms, especially ones that portray them as increasing sexual pleasure, ought to also educate people on the emotional aspects of sex and the benefits of abstinence. With that said, it is quite impressive that these programs have been able to present condoms in a more favorable light and increase their usage.