Understanding Sexual Pleasure Isn’t Just Fun—It’s Crucial
What if sex education centered around pleasure, rather than fear?
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
In "Unscrewing Ourselves," our first annual Sex Month on Broadly, we explore the state of sex ed today by highlighting the individuals and ideas changing our sexual health for the better. Read more from this series here.
Andrea Barrica grew up Catholic Filipino—meaning, she explains, the only sex education she received was being told not have sex before she got married.
"That was pretty much it," the 27-year-old tells Broadly. The message was that "all things that you do before marriage is a sin. I never learned about consent. The reason why I never learned about consent is, why was I even thinking about it? It was all or nothing. Whether you make out or go and have full-on intercourse, that's like, burning in hell."
The harmful effects of this fear-mongering, abstinence-only approach to sex ed made Barrica realize that sex positivity is crucial for effective sex ed. Motivated by this realization, Barrica and her team are launching O.School, an online platform powered by live streaming and live chat, this October. O.School aims to give people a safe space to learn about sexual pleasure, identity, and communication in bed.
"The vision is to become the most trusted place online to talk about sex, to solve intimate problems, and to explore your sexual identity," Barrica says. "That's really different from the fear-based stuff you get in school: 'Here's how you avoid getting pregnant; here's how you avoid getting an STI; this is menstruation; this is your body.' That's all really important, but that doesn't even begin to cover what learning about sex and pleasure is. The fact that we even talk about pleasure is something you probably wouldn't get outside of purely anatomically explanations in a science class."
One of the byproducts of destigmatizing pleasure—helping people cast away sexual shame and awkwardness —is safer sex. In the Netherlands, for example, comprehensive sex ed starts as young as age four, and educators there support the philosophy that sexual pleasure is normal. In a 2011 study in Women's Health Issues, nine out of ten Dutch teens reported using contraception during their first sexual encounter. And the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is less than a quarter of that of the US, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
A number of studies have linked the inclusion of pleasure in sex ed to other positive outcomes, including "more communication about sexual practices and identities, the development of critical (feminist) awareness, the development of increased knowledge of sexual bodily response and logistics, and increased sexual agency and empowerment, particularly but not exclusively for young women," according to a review in Sex Education.
Pleasure-based sex ed may even help people understand consent. Once people have the tools to articulate what they want in bed, Barrica argues that they'll also have the tools to articulate what they don't want. "By making sex education positive, we teach people about desire, and when you teach people about desire, then you can start talking about consent and all these other amazing things that teach people how to be safe and how to negotiate boundaries," she says.
"Sex positivity gets people to know that having sex is not a bad thing."
Megan Stubbs, a board-certified sexologist based in Michigan, is also a huge proponent of teaching people about pleasure. "Once you are able to give yourself permission to say, 'I'm a sexual being'… [you have] real power in making decisions and advocacy for [your] own sexual well-being," she tells Broadly.
"Women are commonly pleasers" when it comes to sex, Stubbs continues, and learning how "powerful" the word "no" is could benefit their sexual health and well-being.
In fact, a review of 22 sex-education programs for adolescents and young adults published in International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that 80 percent of sex ed programs with at least one lesson on gender and power saw significant decreases in pregnancy or STIs, compared to just 17 percent of those that didn't.
"In all this," Barrica says, "we're getting people to talk about sex more. People are very rarely taught to talk about sex. In the movies, it's supposed to be effortless. You're supposed to know exactly what to do, and this leads to [unsafe] sex because maybe you don't talk about what barriers feel the best. Or maybe you don't talk about your history because you're so scared to talk about the thing you're about to do."
"Sex positivity gets people to know that having sex is not a bad thing," she continues. "Sex is a good thing. And because it's a good thing, why shouldn't you talk about it? Why shouldn't you get what you want from it? When you grow up in a 'sex is bad' mentality, then you're not really given all the tools to protect yourself."