Enormous resources have been devoted to encouraging healthy sexual behavior in young people from an early age in an effort to prevent STDs and unplanned pregnancies. Typical sex education programs in public schools in the U.S. tend to focus on preventing pregnancy and STDs, largely through the promotion of condom use.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), represent a large burden of disease globally. These diseases are largely preventable; and while all are treatable, some have no cure and can be fatal. Unintended and teen pregnancies, although in decline in recent decades in the United States, still present a huge obstacle for equality between the sexes around the world. Both of these outcomes are worthy goals, but are they being met as effectively as possible?
New research finds that one way to increase health positive sex behaviors is to make sure that sex ed classes cover topics such as pleasure and desire as well as disease and pregnancy prevention. This might seem counterintuitive to some, who assume that giving people facts about sex beyond preventing pregnancy and STDs might encourage them to explore sex at an early age.
The risks of not discussing pleasure in the classroom far outweigh the potential awkwardness for educators of broaching the topic.
New research from the World Health Organization’s Pleasure Project casts doubt on the idea that offering information about pleasure in a sex ed curriculum might lead students astray on a path of pleasure-seeking sexual risk.
Their meta-analysis of 33 programs that included pleasure as a component showed that these types of programs can have significant positive impacts for students. They tend to instill a stronger self-belief in behavior change, greater intent to use condoms, and higher actual condom use compared with programs that exclude pleasure.
Similar results have been found in European countries that teach a comprehensive sex education curriculum in public schools. In Denmark, where discussion of consent, different types of birth control, non-heterosexual sex, gender expression and sexual pleasure are mandatory in sex ed programs, young people tend to wait longer to have sex with a condom.
Comprehensive sex education curricula focus on more than just disease and pregnancy prevention; they incorporate information on what a positive sex life can look like.
The data for analysis were limited to HIV/AIDS prevention programs aimed at populations believed to be vulnerable. For this reason, the researchers hope that future studies can examine programs meant for a more general audience in order to glean better insight about the potential impact of pleasure education in sex ed curricula.
Beginning conversations about sexuality and reproductive health early in a child’s life can help keep the door open for ongoing dialogue and be far easier than trying to fit all sexual health topics into one big “Talk.”
The study team warns that the risks of not discussing pleasure in the classroom far outweigh the potential awkwardness for educators broaching the topic. By ignoring the conversation, educators could be missing out on a key framework that helps people make less risky sexual health decisions. They note that stigma and misunderstanding have led to a general avoidance of the topic in sex ed and HIV/AIDS education programs worldwide.
If you are a parent of caregiver raising young people and are unsure whether your children’s school-based sex education program includes lessons on pleasure, consent and other comprehensive sex education topics, it may be worth contacting the school health teacher or nurse to inquire. If not, consider having the conversation with your young person yourself. Beginning to have conversations about sexuality and reproductive health early in a child’s life can help keep the door open for ongoing dialogue, and be far easier than trying to fit all sexual health topics into one big “Talk.”