Can We Talk About Sex Positively?

Amanda Marcotte

Most people experience sex in positive terms. But much of sex education employs the "disease, disaster, dysfunction" language for sex education. Incorporating pleasure and fun will serve us better than focusing only on the negative.

In 1994, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS, and when directly asked her opinion on masturbation as a safer sex strategy, answered with what turned out to be too much common sense: "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught."

Obviously, what Elders meant was that sexual health education programs should address masturbation, teaching that the widespread, harmless practice is, well, both widespread and harmless. But Republican opponents conjured up hysterical images of classrooms full of teenage girls being stripped naked and judged on their vibrator-wielding technique, and the controversy proved too much for the cowardly Clinton administration, who let Elders go. In 1994, the price of admitting that sex is about pleasure was getting canned, but surely in the 15 years since then, people have come around a little more to common sense, right?

Well, yes and no. No, because no one has gotten fired from prominent public health positions for admitting they know about a practice embraced by over 90% of the public (and a handful of liars). On the flip side, as the experts Rewire recently invited to live chat about the language of sex pointed out, there’s still a strong tendency, even amongst self-identified sex-positive activists, to use the "disease, disaster, dysfunction" language for sex education. The problem with this is that most people experience sex in positive terms. As healthy as orgasms are, people aren’t having orgasms for their health. Discussions about sex that incorporate pleasure, fun, and relationships attract a lot more attention than those that focus merely on the possible negative outcomes, even if you’re focusing on minimizing them. You only have to look at Dan Savage’s popularity to confirm this reality.

Of course, talking about sexual pleasure, particularly with young people, is embarrassing and that’s why sexual health advocates sometimes shy away from the topic outside of parenthetically acknowledging that people will have sex whether the anti-choice movement likes it or not (because it’s fun). And really, it’s fine to be a little embarrassed about the topic; I’m blushing as I write this. Young people don’t need sex educators to try and fail to be hip or daring, but what they do need is for sex educators to be frank about why people want to have sex, and to let young people know that they’re well within their rights to desire sexual pleasure and that it’s a natural part of being human and not shameful at all.

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With this reality in mind, the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health at NHS Sheffield has published a pamphlet called “Pleasure” to instruct parents and educators how to talk to teenagers about sexual pleasure in ways that reaffirm teenagers’ self-regard and don’t cause everyone to run for the hills with embarrassment. The pamphlet’s materials are what any reasonable person would consider tame: acknowledge the existence of the clitoris, teach kids that masturbation is not only harmless but good for your health, and teach kids that trusting, consensual experimentation is part of the fun of having sex (and has the side benefit of teaching them ways to delay intercourse, like engaging mutual masturbation or oral sex). We’ve all benefited from learning this stuff, if we learned it, so why be stingy with teenagers?

Unfortunately, as Joycelyn Elders’ firing 15 years ago demonstrates, many people will not allow common sense or concern for teenagers’ health to get in the way of having a leg-flinging temper tantrum over the fact that teenagers, as they have since the beginning of time, enjoy sexual pleasure as much as adults. You’d think after eons of trying to change this by pouting and screaming, reactionaries would realize that you’re never going to make teenagers asexual, but sadly, this isn’t how reactionary politics work.

No, instead British conservatives resorted to a misinformation campaign, accusing the NHS of child abuse, lying about the contents of the pamphlet by claiming that they’re distributed to children directly (instead of to adults to teach them to work with kids) or claiming that the pamphlet encourages kids to have sexual intercourse every day. Obviously, it does no such thing and it’s obvious that the emphasis on masturbation and other sexual activities are there to help adults teach kids that they can do other things besides intercourse. But as the Elders example shows, reactionaries can be counted on to panic over masturbation as if it was some boutique perversion. At the end of the day, the most routine way to set off conservative alarm bells is to suggest that people, especially young people, have a right to a private sexual life outside of right wing control.

Indeed, since the pointless panic attacks of reactionaries will never change, those of us who sincerely want better sexual health outcomes for young people need to start tuning them out and doing what’s right, regardless of who throws a temper tantrum or lies about it. And what’s right is talking about sex in a way that makes it clear to your audience that you even know what it’s all about.

And contrary to the lurid claims of reactionaries, admitting what kids already know—that sex is fun and that’s why people do it—won’t entice kids to have sex and younger ages. Responsible discussions about sexual pleasure can drive home the message that if it’s not fun for you, then you’re not ready yet.

Director Steve Slack indicated as much:

"Far from promoting teenage sex, it is designed to encourage young people to delay losing their virginity until they are sure they will enjoy the experience," he said.

When we tell kids that sex is about pain and fear and misery, then when they’re young and they’re in painful, scary situations—such as having sex before they’re ready or having sex without proper protection—they won’t have the tools to say, “Hey this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” It’s this bit of common sense we need to cling to as sex-phobes try to shut down rational discourse through knee-jerk anti-sex hysterics.

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