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Bringing the Dreaded “P-word” into Sexuality Education

“In case you didn’t see this,” read the subject line of an e-mail from my friend forwarding the story “The joy for sex—for teens!” from Salon’s “Broadsheet.”

The story was indeed eye-popping by any standard. It covered how the National Health Service in the United Kingdom had recently published a pamphlet for young people telling them, among other things, that orgasms feel good. Its title: “Pleasure.” The “finger-wagging moralists” were outraged, reported Broadsheet.

To give you some perspective on the brouhaha in the U.K. over the pamphlet, consider what would happen if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, or any of state health departments across the U.S. published such a pamphlet.

What’s that expression?: “All hell would break loose.”

In America, the P-word draws lightening whenever you join the topics teens and sex. Many people here—as I’m surprised to learn in the U.K., too—think that any mention of the word “pleasure” in a talk about sex with young people sends the wrong message, whether the talk is taking place between parents and their kids or between students and their teachers using a classroom curriculum. That message? That talking about pleasure encourages young people to have sex.

Americans tell pollsters that of course they talk to their children about sex and support sex education programs in public schools. But there’s always a caveat to that support: These discussions must emphasize the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The thinking goes something like this: If we shroud sexual behavior in fear and shame, then we shall discourage young people from engaging in it at too early an age.

If the conversation is about sexual pleasure, many people think we’re sending the opposite and inherently wrong message. The powerful abstinence-only-until-marriage movement, on which the U.S. spent more than half a billion dollars, is predicated on instilling fear and shame into young people by telling them only about the drawbacks to having sex as a teenager or outside of marriage.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has removed this funding from its 2010 budget, but that doesn’t mean leaders are going to suddenly endorse instruction about pleasure.

The U.K. pamphlet encourages “parents and educators to add a dose of honesty about carnal delights to traditional sex talks.” A spokesman for the conservative British organization Family and Youth Concern called the pamphlet and approach “nothing less than child abuse.”

My hunch is that if such a pamphlet were to ever see the light of day in the U.S.—and I think it would be a long time coming, if ever—a slew of groups and politicians would use the same words, doing their best to ensure that the pamphlet would never appear in any public school or library.

This whole controversy reminds me of a comment I once heard from a 15-year-old teen awaiting the birth of her first child due to unplanned pregnancy. “I sure hope,” she said, “that giving birth won’t hurt as much as having sex.”

Obviously, the first and perhaps only time this teen had had sex before getting pregnant was far from pleasurable. I thought to myself at the time that probably no one in her life had ever told her that sex was supposed to be a mutually pleasurable experience. I doubt that anyone had ever mentioned the word “orgasm” to her, or told her about attraction, stimulation, lubrication, foreplay, intimacy, and enjoyment.

Had she been able to read a pamphlet such as “Pleasure,” she might have realized that she could delay losing her virginity until she was more knowledgeable about sex and the pleasure it’s supposed to provide. She might have also learned that sexual behavior is a two-way street, and that she deserved to feel satisfaction when engaging in it. She might have learned that she and her partner could have used protection, it would not have detracted from that pleasure, too.

My hunch is that if we talked to many young women who starting having sex at 13 or 14 years of age, we would find them abysmally ignorant about sexual pleasure, orgasms, and all the good stuff about human sexual response. Of course, they see sexual behavior on TV, the Internet, and in movies all the time—yet I wonder how many young heterosexual women ever get a chance to talk to anyone about the fact that sex is supposed to feel good for them as well as the guy.

For far too long, we have focused on the negative and dangerous aspects of sex. The outcomes of this approach are none too good. The U. S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western industrialized world and, according to the latest statistics, one in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease.

Enough of the dire warnings about sex: Let’s take a new approach in a new century. Let’s use the P-word with young people. I’ll take any bet from any reader that if we adopt a positive approach and communicate honestly about sex’s delights, then we can raise a generation of young people who are more careful and more caring about their sexuality.

If young people understand that there is something precious about the gift of human sexuality, they might treat it with more respect than they presently do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments in more progressive states like New Jersey, for starters, should publish pamphlets similar to “Pleasure.”

It would take a lot of courage to step up and speak honestly to young people about the pleasurable aspects of sex—but what a gift they would give them.

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