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

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.” And, 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 for 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 that most parents would get behind a curriculum that taught about sexual pleasure?  I imagine that 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.

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  • ehf

    This is an awesome post! 

    More than anything, I think it reveals the very big and very real divide between what we should be teaching and what we can teach. This mostly comes up in the largely overhyped “battle” between abstinence only and comprehensive sex ed. (We find that that “battle” is between the vast majority of parents who want comprehensive education and a very scary, loud minority.)

    It blows my mind that we don’t just look at research, see what works, and implement it. But it also bothers me that we don’t think of sex education as sexually healthy (or unhealthy) adults who took some path to being that way. How do we teach what we know works while also taking what we know to be the greater scope of human sexuality and giving young people an easier path than what we had? (After all, I can say with certainty that I was far more interested in how to get a certain boy to like me than I was in how to prevent pregnancy.) 

    Unfortunately, our big questions are these: How do I get this by the school board? Does it meet the standard course of study? What parent will complain? What will the preacher at the megachurch think? What if the reporter at the newspaper doesn’t like the one role play with ambiguously gendered names like Jamie and Tracy (could they be gay!?)? 

    This post is a great illustration of the real world politics of sex ed and how it pulls us away from the best we could be doing. 

  • prochoiceferret

    This post is a great illustration of the real world politics of sex ed and how it pulls us away from the best we could be doing.


    Would that look anything like the Our Whole Lives program?


    I think it would be helpful to have a good example to point to, so that people don’t get the idea that teaching pleasure means demonstrating the use of a St. Andrew’s cross in the classroom.

  • vernacchio

    I once heard somone say, and I agree, that the goal of comprehensive sexuality education is not to produce people who never engage in sexual activity or are afraid of it.  I believe the goal is to produce sexually healthy individuals who can make informed choices about their sexual activity. Knowing about pleasure is absolutely a part of that informed choice.  

  • emiliacw

    I think that we need to keep fighting the good fight to expand access to sexuality education and not settle for the tiny piece of the corner given to us. Obviously it’s not easy or simple, but we have to keep on fighting. I guess in terms of a “hierarchy of needs”  harm reduction would come before experiencing pleasure, but I wonder if in this case, the teaching of pleasure and not fear or avoiding of potential negative consequences would actually lead to the risk reduction inherently.