Sex Education Is Most Effective When It Focuses on Pleasure, Finds Study


Feb 15, 2022


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In a Sex Education episode, Maeve Wiley who runs a sex therapy clinic at the high school wafts this seemingly rebellious idea at a school-mandated, sex-segregated sex education class: “You shouldn’t be shamed for having sexual desires. You make sex sound terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be fun and beautiful and teach you things about yourself and your body.”

She speaks of a module that preaches abstinence over sexual gratification. Clearly, as the show highlights and cultural discourse around safe sex goes, the idea is not to stigmatize desire or make people wary of sex just as they begin to understand it. What will it take to make the conversation around safe sex more accessible and effective for students? It’s all about making condoms “sexy” and focusing on pleasure over protection, according to a new analysis of safe sex programs globally.

The review, published in PLOS One journal last week, looks at the scope of sexual health programs in emphasizing the notion of sexual pleasure. The groups included safe sex programs in the U.S. targeted towards men, sexual health classes for young people in Spain and Brazil, among others. The researchers, from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and the World Health Organization, found that sexual health programs that do focus on pleasure “significantly improved” the likelihood of participants using condoms. For instance, if a program framed condoms as an essential to “have fun” or lubrication will “enhance sexual pleasure,” the researchers noted a change in people’s behavior regarding safe sex.

In other words, programs that only focus on disease prevention have limitations in terms of convincing people. “This review provides a simple message: programs which better reflect the reasons people have sex — including for pleasure — see better health outcomes,” said study co-author Lianne Gonsalves. Increased condom usage also lowers the risk of sexually transmitted infections and diseases. In this case, a group using safe sex interventions centered around the idea of pleasure saw a 50% decrease in HIV/STI incidence — as compared to a group using a more traditional route.

Arguably, sexual pleasure is a muffled conversation due to various social and cultural barriers. The dominant form of most sex education curriculums and programs focuses on abstinence or how to minimize risk. In tussling with the idea of sexual gratification, they ignore how safe sex can “also promote intimacy, pleasure, consent, and wellbeing,” Gonsalves said.

Related on The Swaddle:

How Novels Have Shaped Women’s Understanding of Sex in the Absence of Sex Education

What should sex education not look like? Take this infamous dialogue from Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex in the missionary position, don’t have sex standing up. Just don’t do it, promise?” says Coach Carr to a group of teenagers.

The prevalence of STIs or STDs is not unheard of. Every day, almost one million cases are detected globally. In India, each year almost 30 million people report an infection related to sex, although the number could be much higher. Since most cases are asymptomatic, they pose a long-term health burden — increasing the risk of cancer, HIV, fetal complications, and even death in some cases.

Using condoms, then, is the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections, experts say. Interestingly, India-specific data shows most men are aware that consistent use of condoms can reduce the chance of getting HIV/AIDS — still, one in ten choose not to wear one, according to a government survey. In 23 of the 36 regions for which data was collected, condom use amounted to less than 10%. “Yet, use remains low in both urban and rural areas; previous studies have shown the lack of sexual satisfaction, lack of comfort, the stigma of purchasing condoms at stores as possible reasons,” The Swaddle reported earlier.

This not only makes it a public health conversation, but a cultural one. “An increase in female sterilization coupled with continued stagnation in male sterilization uptake shows that the onus of family planning still lies with women,” as The Federal put it.

If focusing on sexual pleasure can shape the way people perceive safe sex, implementing it in education modules is a necessity. “This study helps support the idea that a focus on pleasure is correlated to sex that’s less risky,” said Rosara Torrisi, founding director of the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, who was not involved in the study.

The idea is that if people are comfortable articulating what they’re interested in, what they like, what their wants are, the topic of safe sex becomes easier to broach. It can be a segue for partners to talk about “how to actually have safer sex.”

As Gonsalves said: “The hope is that these results galvanize the sexual and reproductive health and rights community to promote services that educate and equip users to engage in sex that is safe, consensual, and pleasurable.” 


Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.


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