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Where Does the "O" Belong in Sex Education?

When people think of sex education they often think of the basics: birth control, sexually transmitted infections, anatomy, abstinence. More comprehensive programs like Health Connected’s Teen Talk series may even cover additional topics like healthy relationships, gender and sexual identity, and media literacy. While many educators and parents are quick to explain the risks of sexual activity, they often assume that young people understand one of the implicit rewards of having sex: it can feel good. Educators and parents may worry that teaching adolescents that sex can feel good will entice them to try it, despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, pleasure - one key aspect of healthy sexuality - is often swept under the rug when discussing sex education with young people.

July 31 is National Orgasm Day, a day celebrating the pleasure that is often linked with sexual stimulation and positive sexual experiences. Orgasm is a deeply personal and sensitive experience for many people, which can make it somewhat uncomfortable to talk about in an educational and age-appropriate way. In order to circumvent the topic of orgasm, people often refer instead to the physiological processes of erection and ejaculation. In doing this, however, educators may negatively impact their student’s sexual development by minimizing the value of pleasure in healthy sexual relationships.

What’s more, by focusing on two primarily male biological responses, students internalize that there is no place for female pleasure in sexual encounters. Many young people are already under the impression that penetrative sex can be painful for females. Avoiding the topics of orgasm and pleasure - including ways to increase pleasure and reduce discomfort - contributes to the loss of female sexual agency and self-esteem. As a result, females may grow up thinking that sexual pleasure is something they can only give but not receive.

To better address these topics in the classroom or when talking to your own kids about sex, emphasize the importance of ongoing communication. An important part of healthy sexual development is the ability to talk with your partner about what feels good and what doesn’t, what you like and what you don’t like, what you are willing to try and what you are not willing to try. Promoting these communication skills empowers young people to think about and express their feelings as a means to improve their future sexual experiences.

In fact, discussing ways to increase sexual pleasure go hand-in-hand with ways to stay healthy and safe during sex. Not only does discussion of pleasure lend itself to vital topics like consent and personal boundaries, but it can also fit into conversations around STI and pregnancy prevention as well. Introducing pleasure as an aspect of sexual development that is closely linked with sexual health may make it easier to discuss with young people. Ultimately, including pleasure in sex education is an essential a way to promote sexual health, sexual safety, and sexual agency.

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