By Mia Barrett, MEd | December 19, 2019
Research Associate, ETR
Cheers erupted from the audience at the 24th Congress of the World Association of Sexual Health (WAS) in Mexico City when Anne Philpott of The Pleasure Project urged sexuality educators to “Stop preaching and start having fun! Learn to say YES to good, safe sex!” Later, WAS released an official Pleasure Declaration, stating that sexual pleasure is a fundamental human right. In a world where public health is so often focused on preventing negative outcomes and managing ill-health, this declaration and the conference’s focus on pleasure was revolutionary.
Pleasure—references to it, the acknowledgement of it, the celebration of it—is usually excluded in sexuality education. This despite the fact that people have always had sex for the pleasure of it. There was a moment during the 1980s AIDS crisis when public health educators included pleasure in safer sex messaging campaigns, but for the most part, pleasure has been excluded from sexuality health programming. According to WAS presenter Debby Herbenick, just 12% of those surveyed reported that pleasure was included in the sexuality education their received.
There is a danger in excluding pleasure from sexuality education. Ellen Laan states that pleasure-absent sexuality education maintains sexual pleasure inequalities in two obvious ways. First, by focusing on STI and pregnancy prevention (without including pleasure), there is an implicit message that sex is limited to vaginal intercourse and that penile ejaculation is the focal point. Secondly, pleasure-absent sex education fails to teach people how to say yes to what they want, which is a critical skill in sexual violence prevention efforts. Saying ‘no’ to unwanted behaviors is easier when one feels empowered to say ‘yes’ to what they do want. This is especially important for those who have experienced trauma and previously not had the ability to say no.
Obviously, not all pleasure is sexual. People receive pleasure from all sorts of things: eating chocolate cake, having a meaningful conversation, watching kitten videos on Instagram. The WAS Pleasure Declaration defines sexual pleasure as the “physical and/or psychological satisfaction and enjoyment derived from shared or solitary erotic experiences, including thoughts, fantasies, dreams, emotions, and feelings.”
Pleasure is not inherently a positive emotion. It may be accompanied by complex associations. Just as someone can feel happiness, and then guilt about that happiness, so can people feel shame, disgust, guilt about experiencing sexual pleasure. This may be especially true when factoring in trauma. Sexual pleasure, or the feelings people have about sexual pleasure, may be complex.
Despite WAS’s stance that pleasure is a fundamental right, it would be naïve to promote its inclusion in research and education without recognizing the systemic barriers to sexual pleasure that many people face. Cultural and social norms around who is permitted pleasure are impacted by ableism, racism and classism. Education and research that is pleasure-inclusive must be informed by peoples’ lived experiences.
According to the Global Advisory Board for Sexual Health and Wellbeing, sexual pleasure must be addressed in combination with sexual rights and sexual health. Only when approached in this way, can pleasure-inclusive education and research contribute to sexual liberation – otherwise, it serves only a specific, privileged population.
I bet you’ve taken a Buzzfeed quiz or two, just for the fun of it. Could your data collection survey be a little more like a Buzzfeed quiz? Adding images, GIFs, emojis and other lighthearted but relevant visuals can change the tone of the survey from stuffy to enjoyable without losing data quality (see Toepoel, Vermeeren, & Metin, 2019). How can you add a little fun to the surveys you administer?
Your participants are already there to answer questions about sex and relationships. Why not include questions that are fun to answer or that ask about pleasure? For example, the Kinsey Reporter App asks about flirting—because flirting is fun and exciting to think about. Researcher Dr. Dennis Fortenberry suggests including questions about kissing, an often-pleasurable activity that is left out due to its low risk for STI or other negative consequences. Fortenberry contends researchers need to think beyond intercourse when studying adolescent sexuality to include pleasure derived from sexting, kissing, masturbation, viewing pornography, and dancing in order to gain a broader understanding of adolescents’ experience of pleasure. This broader scope would acknowledge and include those who have often been ignored or suppressed in research inquiries.
The easiest way to incorporate pleasure into sexuality education is to acknowledge it. Often in sexuality education, claims Fortenberry, pleasure is replaced with love or trust as the reason people have sex. For example, the Circles of Sexuality, a commonly used educational tool that illustrates the complexity of sexuality, uses words like sensuality and intimacy but fails to mention pleasure. But what if we acknowledge the role that pleasure plays in people’s decision to have sex? Youth and adults alike value honesty in sex education and are more likely to be receptive to the messaging if it is perceived as honest.
Include pleasurable active learning techniques to create a fun learning environment. You don’t even have to be talking specifically about pleasure to incorporate it into your work. For example, at a WAS 2019 workshop with Dr. Sara NasserZadeh addressing intercultural fluency, she paused between topics and encouraged us to stretch, make circles with our hips, and wiggle around – just for the pleasure of it! A workshop or lesson on the topic of pleasure can also be pleasurable itself!
The tone when discussing pleasure should be casual and relatable. Due to discomfort with the topic of pleasure, sexuality educators often talk about pleasure from a medicalized or scientific perspective. By framing pleasure in this way, the educator moves the focus away from feelings about pleasure and towards thoughts about pleasure. Though scientific language may be more comfortable for the educator, it puts distance between the students and their affective learning about pleasure (Lamb et al., 2012).
Sexual pleasure was a focal point of the WAS conference, a topic of many presentations at the National Sex Ed Conference and the theme of the North Carolina Sexual Health Conference; the topic of pleasure is in global, national and regional conversations. This is not the first time educators have recognized the potential value of pleasure-focused sexuality education (Allen & Carmody, 2012; deFur, 2012), but we’re still struggling with how to include pleasure. How are you incorporating pleasure into your sexual health work?
Mia Barrett is a Research Associate at ETR as well as a sexuality educator for young adults and health care professionals. She received her Master’s in Education in Human Sexuality at Widener University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.