Sex Ed: A Tasteful Discourse

Alexandra Eisler

Sexual health is important. So important that I—along with thousands of others—have devoted careers to it. I’m lucky I get to talk about it all… day… long. But what do we talk about when we talk about sexual health? STIs? Blood tests? Pap smears? Condoms? Not having it? Yup. That’s what we talk about,because it’s important. But seriously, have we really boiled sexual health messages down to: risk avoidance OR risk reduction?

Sex is one of the few “risky” behaviors for which we expect a nearly 100% participation rate. That means just about everyone will eventually give it the “ole’ college try.” (In the US, average age of first sex is 18).

We come to sex ed class and talk about all the scary things like pressure, disease, anatomy, and unwanted pregnancy. Those things are great to talk about, but the young people sitting in front of us are navigating a complex web of information and a biological “pull” to have sex, and there is also a clear message they are getting (and not just from the media): sex is fun…really fun. No, you don’t understand, like, really, really fun. Eventually most young people will figure out that this is true. So it seems, at minimum, disingenuous to leave out the “fun” part of the conversation.

For those who know me the following analogy will come as no surprise, so bear with me.  What would happen if, when we talk about sex, we substitute the word “sex” or “sexuality” for “food” or “cuisine”? If you want to go to dinner with someone you should talk about the type of cuisine you’d like, right? And wouldn’t it be nice to choose a restaurant you both like? Maybe you’ll find something on the menu you’ve never tried…and might enjoy! But shouldn’t you also have the right to skip dinner or just have dessert? Sexuality is as much a part of who we are, how we socialize, and build families, as food is to nourishing ourselves and our loved ones.

Unfortunately, many adolescents (and adults, too) learn about pleasure from places like pornography. That’s like learning your eating habits from Man vs. Food (a Brooklynite travels the country looking for the biggest, greasiest, most cholesterol-ridden piles of food and eats until it looks like he’ll puke)! Dr. Sven Axel-Mansson’s research on adolescents and pornography[1] says that the vast majority of youth have watched porn at some point (about 95%) and said their own sexual experiences were not like what they saw on-screen (surprise!). We’re missing a valuable opportunity to talk openly about a central part of growing up: learning to express our sexual selves in healthy, appropriate, supportive ways. In other words, when it comes to sex, we need to say what we want, how we want it, with whom we want it and how we want to respect and protect ourselves and our partners.

It’s often easier to talk about what we don’t want (Chlamydia, HIV, unplanned pregnancy, being called a “slut”) than it is to talk about what we do want. This includes conversations about waiting to have sex. Studies have shown that the majority of sexually experienced teens wish they’d waited longer[2]–until a certain age, a certain relationship status, a particular economic status, or until they were “ready.”

If we become more honest in how we approach sex and recognize that it can (and should!) be fun, we can open broader discussions of consent, wellness, mutual respect, and communication.  I challenge you to think about what it would look like to flip how we talk about sex: from prevention to something that can be positive and result in an enriched life: promoting healthy decisions.[3] There are even fantastic sexual health educators that have figured out how to weave pleasure into sexuality and reproductive health education—they’ve done the work for you![4]

How do you think bringing pleasure into sex ed can help us better reach youth?

Alexandra Eisler is the Training and TA Coordinator at Healthy Teen Network. 

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4 Comments

  1. Alexandra, My name is Christie. I’m a sex educator too, and want to compliment you on the many good points you make in this article. Your sex/food analogy is a very good one. Over-eating = Indigestion of the worst kind. Eating foods we’re not ready for = Danger. We would never feed an infant a juicy prime rib with BBQ sauce!
    But in our culture, sex sells. And our kids are being given food they can’t properly digest. Not to mention that much of the food they’re being sold is poisoned!! We look at our young people today, and we see so many of them are heart-sick. They were told sex would get them happiness, acceptance, and love…but instead it’s making them emotionally ill.
    I agree that part of the reason many teens feel pressured to have sex before they are truly “ready” is because of the “silence epidemic” when it comes to talking about the emotional side of sex, the important bonding role it plays in mutually monogamous, committed relationships such as marriage. We have to get kids thinking about the benefits of waiting for the best time to enjoy sex. And, like you said, this is more than just STD avoidance and pregnancy prevention (although those are crucial). Kids, like adults, are sexual and relational beings, on a quest to understand their sexuality and how it affects their relationships.

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  2. I think the pleasure aspect can reach a lot of youth. I was fortunate enough to have a great public library system in the city I grew up in (Little Rock, AR) and some awesome librarians that didn’t prevent me from checking out books on sex. I went from learning about puberty, sex, and such to learning about pleasure. Most of what I know about sex was learned from the library and Planned Parenthood. Even with Planned Parenthood’s fabulous website, I don’t remember seeing much about pleasure. I very well could be mistaken.
    Also, it would be nice if sex educators didn’t always talk about sex in the context of a committed monogamous relationship. There should be a conversation about those who just like sex but don’t want the complications of emotions or a committed relationship and it’s okay not to want to be in a committed relationship. Polyamory should also be discussed.

    Reply
  3. Thank you for this! I was just sitting down to work on a blog post about sex-positive parenting this afternoon when I saw it. I’ve realized the primary messages I received about sex growing up were, “you’re not allowed” and “people are going to try to rape you, be very very careful”- there was no positivity associated with sex at all. Only now, in my 30s am I understanding that the urge I’ve always had, but thought was wrong, to enjoy sex is normal and awesome! There seems to be a fear that giving kids information about sex will cause them to have it before they can handle it but really I think that understanding what an awesome thing it is and all the forms it can take and ways it can exist would make them so much more able as people to handle sex, relationships, being human.

    Reply
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