Sex education: when pleasure comes first

People have sex because it feels good. But, whether at school or as adults, sex education often centres on fear or even shame. What if we put pleasure first, instead?

“How can we sell everything on sexiness, from toothpaste to cars,” asks sex expert Anne Philpott, “yet we sell condoms and contraception on fear?”

Debate is currently raging about whether sex education should be compulsory in all UK secondary schools: the Local Government Association warns that a lack of education across the board is creating a “ticking sexual health time bomb”.

But from pregnancy to chlamydia, learning about sex is often focused on what we don’t want, not what we do. And an increasing number of voices say we need to reframe the discussion entirely. Though pleasure is arguably the most powerfully motivating factor for sexual behaviour, we’re rarely taught about how pleasurable it can be. Learning how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections is, of course, important, but a so-called ‘prevention and plumbing’ approach carries negative messages about sex.

“What is rarely taught, even now, is the one thing young people most want and need to know: how do I give pleasure to myself and to someone else?” says James McConnachie, author of The Rough Guide to Sex.

“School was awash with misogyny and misinformation – and sex education only went a small way towards countering the myths and the anxieties they spawned. Traditional sex education was misleading or even dishonest about both pleasure and desire. If you want positive sexual experiences to flourish in a society, you need to show people what ‘good sex’ looks like.”

What is rarely taught, even now, is the one thing young people most want and need to know: how do I give pleasure to myself and to someone else?

Schools are trying to improve: sex education lessons are less grimly mechanic and take in love and relationships, too. There are also attempts to address the sexual pitfalls of our digital age.

Though creating positive narratives around sex is not a new idea, there is a fresh wave of projects making sex education sexy, and embracing the digital world to do so. One of the organisations leading the way is Love Matters, a multimedia platform about sex and relationships for young people around the world. It shares resources about safe sex in parts of the world where such information is censored or considered taboo.

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“Sex education shouldn’t be only about preventing negative consequences but about achieving ideal ones,” says Michelle Chakkalackal, global content strategist for Love Matters. “You can’t talk about consent and boundaries unless you also talk about pleasure.”

The pleasure pioneers

UK-based The Pleasure Project is an educational resource promoting safer sex by focusing on the real reasons most people have sex: satisfaction, desire and pleasure. The project influences sex education organisations to take pleasure seriously, and the pleasure industry to take safer sex seriously. Its global ‘pleasure map’ charts the people and resources who promote ‘sexy safe sex’ in the public health world. The Pleasure Project was founded by Anne Philpott in 2004 after she was left frustrated by attitudes at a global conference about Aids.

“I realised I could spend the entire conference not hearing any conversations about sex, almost imagining it was an airborne disease. Hardly anyone spoke about s-e-x. Many cultures consider sex a destructive or dangerous force, and religion often characterises sex as negative. Of course, much of the world is terrified of women’s pleasure and people carry out terrible acts such as female genital mutilation as a result.”

If you want positive sexual experiences to flourish in a society, you need to show people what ‘good sex’ looks like

There is a societal hierarchy of who is ‘allowed’ to enjoy pleasure, she suggests, starting with heterosexual couples and ending with single women and other stigmatised groups such as sex workers or lesbians. Choice is, naturally, fundamental to any positive kind of sexual experience – and that includes how often – or whether at all – to have sex.

Antón Castellanos Usigli, a public health professional and activist from Mexico who works on sexual rights around the world, has found that the pleasure taboo manifests itself in unique ways in certain groups. “I interviewed a trans activist based in Bangkok who mentioned how big of a taboo it is for trans people to talk about pleasure due to concerns about the erotic expectations of their partners, or fear of being judged based on how they use their genitalia.”

Sex education shouldn’t be only about preventing negative consequences but about achieving ideal ones

But while negativity about sex is culturally rampant, there’s often a concurrent obsession with the pleasure of sex. Consider pornography, women’s or men’s magazines or the highly sexualised rituals of stag and hen parties. Says Philpott: “The first sex-positive messages I heard were from women’s magazines, but they were also very pressurising, as if you needed to have an orgasm before breakfast every day to be a whole woman.”

So what does a pleasure-focused approach look like?

To begin with, it allows people to talk about their actual sex lives, rather than how society or school expects them to be. Philpott points to studies from the US and Germany that suggest women who feel good about their sexuality are more likely to use contraception and be assertive about consent. There is also a small body of evidence that suggests that eroticising condom-use increases safer sex.

What about reframing concepts from sex education with a pleasure twist? “Putting on a condom could be like squeezing into your favourite sexy boots or latex dress, ready for action,” suggests Philpott. “Telling your lover what you want could be foreplay. Sex education could include creative masturbation techniques.”

After examining more than 37m page views from Love Matters websites in India, Kenya, Mexico, Egypt and China, Chakkalackal and her colleagues made a discovery. Their ‘pleasure pages’ – those about love, relationships and making love – were 1.6 times more popular than their traditional sex education pages covering anatomy, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control. And they were seven times more popular than the site’s family planning pages. So are themes of love and relationships the most compelling hooks on which to hang educational messages?

It’s impossible to consider the role of the internet in sex education without taking pornography into account. Like it or not, watching online porn has become the dominant way young people all over the world learn about sex. The website Pornhub alone attracts 70 million visitors each day – and recently launched its own sex and sexuality education channel. “No one is doing a better job at grabbing people’s attention,” notes Love Matters’ Chakkalackal.

One person to step into this space is gay porn actor Jason Domino. Owner of a master’s degree and an eloquent speaker on sexual health, Domino makes porn that includes education about sex. After an HIV scare following the filming of his first porn scene, he started taking PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis. The drug can protect the partners of people with HIV from infection but is currently only available via the internet. PrEP has been credited for a 40 per cent reduction in new HIV infections among gay men at four London health clinics in 2016, compared to 2015 – a reduction medical experts call “extraordinary”.

Domino went on to found Porn4PrEP, spreading the word about PrEP’s benefits by using his pro le. “As a porn actor, people already listened to me about sex: they expect transparency.”

He is clear that porn’s many and well-documented problems also need to be tackled, from underage viewing and illegal content, to human trafficking, but insists the industry offers a huge opportunity for education.

Bringing sexy back

Not all are convinced. “Porn glories in abusive and potentially risky behaviours,” says McConnachie. “I disagree that porn is about pleasure. At least, it’s like the ‘pleasure’ of scoffing the worst junk food. It delivers a rapid empty-calorie x that you know is bad for your health. It’s horribly inauthentic yet weirdly compelling. It makes you crave more, and start to hate yourself for doing so. But there is a positive. The danger of porn presents a golden opportunity for sex-positive people to persuade wider society to get behind sex education, at last.”

Organisations advocating for a pleasure-positive approach are usually underfunded, and hit frequent hurdles. Obscenity filters on internet ‘gatekeepers’ such as Facebook and Google meant that between December 2015 and July 2016, Facebook rejected between six and 27 per cent of campaign posts created by Love Matters across its five sites, according to the organisation.

There is a golden opportunity for sex-positive people to persuade wider society to get behind sex education, at last

But pleasure advocates remain undaunted. Growing up in Mexico convinced Usigli that things need to change. “I grew up in a culture of silence. The message that I got was clear: sexuality is shameful. A culture like that was very hard for me as a gay teenager. But I realised my feelings were a consequence of a society that promotes sexual ignorance and homophobia, as well as a lot of sexual shame and stigma. Sexuality should not be about fear but about happiness, satisfaction and fulfilment. There are advocates who are doing extraordinary work on sexual health and sexual rights to break the taboo on pleasure.”

What do you love about sex?

Michelle Chakkalackal
Global content strategist, Love Matters

“I love the range of feelings and emotions in sex: joy, humour, release, awkwardness and intimacy. I love that sex allows you to feel connected, without words, to yourself, someone else or even to something greater. I love how sex can make you feel free.”

James McConnachie
Author of The Rough Guide to Sex

“Sometimes I think Plato had it right. When we find our ‘other half’, as he put it, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’. And an orgasm, as my biology teacher told a stunned classroom of 13-year-olds, can also be a great way to relax and get to sleep.”

Anne Philpott
Founder of The Pleasure Project

“Gosh! So many things. Where to start? I love that it feels good. Pleasure is an amazing gift for our bodies and minds to experience. I love that it doesn’t have to cost anything, can make you feel good and can connect you to people. Also, it gets better as you get older!”

Jason Domino
Porn actor and sexual health speaker

“Sex is where I push my comfort zones. It’s where I learn to celebrate different parts of my personality. The dominant part of my sex life feels like I’m a reliable, victorious sports player. The submissive part feels like I’m a kitten, helpless to the joy of having its belly rubbed.”

Photography: Tara Moore,

Models: Andressa Claas and Marc Mullen,

Hair, makeup, grooming: Eszter Hercsik,

Assistants: Luke Johnson and Sonya Hurtado

This feature is from issue 89 of Positive News magazine

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