I’ve worked as sex educator in various capacities for the better part of a decade. I often hear folks talking about the depressing lack of quality sexual health education in the school systems or via medical professionals. It’s true that many of us did not receive what we feel is comprehensive sex education when we were growing up. Let’s see how that shakes out.  

In the United States, there are no federally regulated standards or requirements for sex education. The US government leaves that up to each individual state. As of December 1, 2019 (source):

  • Just 39 of 50 states, and the District of Columbia, mandate sex education and/or HIV education.
    • 10 of those only mandate HIV education, not sex education more broadly
    • Only 17 states require program content to be medically accurate.
    • 29 states require that abstinence be stressed.
    • Only 26 states and DC require instruction to be appropriate for the students’ age.
    • Only 9 states require the program to provide instruction that is appropriate for a student’s cultural background and that is not biased against any race, sex or ethnicity.
    • Only 3 states prohibit the program from promoting religion.

These statistics are as of late 2019. Only 5 years prior, in 2014, only 24 states had sex ed mandates. Before that it was even fewer. This means that not everybody even gets sex education, and when they do, it doesn’t look the same from person to person. And here we’re just talking about the bare minimum of sex education. This is to say nothing of sex education that is inclusive of all bodies, inclusive of folks with disability, affirming to folks of every gender, relevant to all people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and lacking racial, ethnic, and religious bias. 

Many of my sex ed colleagues, myself included, recognized these major gaps in sexual health education, which is why so many of us take a reformative justice approach to our work. Inclusive, affirming sexual health education is a right that everyone should have access to. Education is the most impactful when we can relate to the information being relayed to us. If we don’t see ourselves in our education, we will pay less attention to it, and then it won’t stick because it doesn’t seem to apply to us. That’s just how our human brains work. 

A (different kind of) pleasure gap. 

Another major gap in sex ed content is any mention of pleasure. This gap is no accident. Often, standards around sexual health education expressly prohibit any content that even hints and sexual pleasure. For example, many pre-teen and teen sex educators are tasked with discussing condoms, barriers, and birth control with their students. These same educators must do so without allowing their students to ever touch a condom. Often this occurs at schools that prohibit distribution of free condoms to members of their student body. It’s like the Dolores Umbridge approach to sexual health education. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Umbridge takes over the Defense Against the Dark Arts Class. This conversation is from her first day as their teacher: 

DOLORES UMBRIDGE: You will be pleased to know from now on, you will be following a carefully structured, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic. Yes?
HERMIONE GRANGER: There's nothing in here about using defensive spells.
DOLORES UMBRIDGE: Using spells? Well I can't imagine why you would need to use spells in my classroom.
RON WEASLEY: We're not gonna use magic?
DOLORES UMBRIDGE: You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way.

There is widespread concern amongst parents and legislators that giving teens access to birth control, condoms, and information about sex will make them more likely to have sex and to engage in sexual behavior earlier than they would have if they didn’t have that information or those resources. Most officially sanctioned sex education is “prevention” education that stresses a focus on abstinence and flatly ignores any discussion of sex that doesn’t result in STIs or pregnancy. This monster-under-the-bed approach to sex ed frames all sexual outcomes as a series of unwanted consequences that ought to be avoided. 

Science, however, tells us a different story. The goal of abstinence-based sex ed is to stop or delay sexual behavior outside of marriage (and often this means the marriage of a cisgender man to a cisgender woman). Scientists have been studying the efficacy of these programs for over 20 years and what they’re finding is that, even by this paltry standard set by those who endorse them, these programs are at best, largely ineffective and at worst, harmful (source). There’s no evidence that these programs do anything to delay sexual behavior or prevent individuals from waiting for marriage. These programs also overinflate the risks of birth control, downplay the efficacy of condom use, and blow the impact of STIs drastically out of proportion. The goal seems to be scare tactics that paint a picture of sex as unpleasant, inconvenient, and potentially life-threatening, in the hopes of preventing teens and adolescents from having sex. The impact, however, seems to be that when folks do have sex, they do so with less comfort using barrier methods, less faith in hormonal birth control, and harmful increase of stigma around STIs. Most people do not wait until they’re married to have sex. Even the small percentage of individuals who do make the (perfectly valid) choice to wait until they’re married to have sex deserve accurate information about their sex health and pleasure.  So this approach is not only ineffective, it’s also irrelevant and ignores the important needs of the people it purports to serve. 

Sex should be fun. Sex ed should be, too. 

Recently, Teen Vogue did a really amazing piece on how to safely engage in anal sex (source). This piece, like much Teen Vogue content lately, was revolutionary, in that it acknowledged that teens and adolescents have sex *gasp* and they do it just for fun *MORE GASP*! Some parents thought this was an awesome, refreshing approach to sexual health education that really understood the needs of their teens (source). Not everyone agreed with them, however, and Teen Vogue faced some pretty serious backlash (source) for their “scandalous” approach. The biggest reason this caused an uproar (both celebratory and critical), was the way they openly addressed sexual pleasure in an honest way. This wasn’t a piece full of scare tactics, or an admonishment to avoid sex lest you get pregnant or die. This was a piece that embraced what could arguably be the number one most frequent reason people have sex: because it’s fun. 

I’m of the opinion that responsible sexual health education has an obligation to address pleasure. Even when people have sex to make babies, they deserve to enjoy it. When people have permission to seek out sexual experiences that feel good, that directly informs their ability to give consent, their ability to identify medical and psychological issues that may need to be addressed around their sex lives, and their relationship with their sexual behaviors and their sexual partners. 

Sex education that understands and endorses pleasure gives people permission to enjoy their sexuality. That permission reduces shame and stigma. Reduced shame improves relationship outcomes, identity outcomes, and sexual health outcomes like barrier use, contraceptive use, and STI testing/treatment. Education that understands pleasure gives people permission to insist on mutually enjoyable experiences in their relationships and even casual sexual encounters. Increased sexual pleasure is strongly related to increased life satisfaction (source). 

Because of all of this, and much more, I believe strongly in the importance of medically accurate, empirically based sexual health education that prioritizes sexual pleasure. I work hard to help fill the pleasure gap in sex education, and I will be working hard to bring pleasure informed sex education to you.