For more sex education resources, check out our Better Sex Ed guide.
In January 1993, Joycelyn Elders was appointed the first Black surgeon general of the United States. A mere 15 months after her confirmation, she was forced to resign.
While Elders was known for being outspoken about topics like sex education, the breaking point came when she spoke at a United Nations conference on AIDS. When asked about promoting masturbation as an alternative to riskier forms of sexual activity, she replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught.” Her resignation came soon after.
When I saw Elders speak at the 2017 National Sex Ed Conference, she stood by her initial remark, reiterating that learning about self-pleasure could help to reduce unintended pregnancies and the spread of STIs. While she didn’t necessarily advocate teaching how to masturbate, she felt it was important that students know masturbating is natural.
Twenty-seven years after her resignation, people are still arguing about whether pleasure has a place in sex education. For example, a bill introduced in Rhode Island in February called for courses in family life or sex education to, among other things, “affirmatively recognize pleasure-based sexual relations, different sexual orientations and be inclusive of same-sex relationships in discussions and examples.” The Rhode Island Republican Conservative Caucus opposed this legislation, releasing a statement that referred to such education as “positive indoctrination.”
“People should realize that this is not simply a reference list of every possible sexual combination but an order from government to positively promote each and every one,” caucus chair Barbara Holmes-Brackett said.
Why pleasure in sex ed is such a point of contention
The contents of sex ed curricula have long been a source of moral panic. And a lot of that comes down to fear. By and large, those who resist comprehensive sexuality education are afraid that teaching about sex is the same as encouraging students to have it.
And when you bring pleasure into the equation? Allow me to throw on this strand of pearls so that I may clutch them.
“If you frame sexual activity as something that is going to feel good,” said Nadine Thornhill, a certified sex educator specializing in child and adolescent sexuality, people believe that “immediately, youth will consider it tacit permission to go out and do it indiscriminately. So, a lot of people’s instincts around having conversations with kids around sexuality is to mitigate desire by talking about things like risk.”
Why pleasure is an essential part of the sex conversation
If you’re in favor of comprehensive sex ed, you already know that talking to your kids about sex—or about pleasure—does not automatically inspire them to become sexually active. And in fact, the opposite often happens.
In a paper published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, Jessie V. Ford, a sociologist who conducts research at the intersection of social science and public health, cites research showing that health programs that incorporate sexual pleasure consistently lead to increased knowledge about sexual health, partner communication, condom use, and safer sex behaviors. In addition, such programs also tend to boost the adoption of safer sex practices.
Health benefits aside, Ford also believes lessons about pleasure could reduce the stigma that exists around sexuality. “If we could normalize it,” she said, “if we could destigmatize it, if we could make it more commonplace to think about and talk about pleasure with friends and family and with our other social supports, I think all of that could be really beneficial.”
And educators agree.
“If we’re going to be open and honest with our kids and talk about how babies are made, a piece of that is the fact that it’s pleasurable,” said Saleema Noon, a sexual health educator. “We don’t want them to think it’s gross or bad or scary. If we don’t talk about pleasure when we’re talking about reproduction, we’re only telling a half-truth.”
Thornhill, in fact, considers lessons that omit talk of pleasure to be, in a way, dishonest.
“Sex is the most common way people make babies,” she said, “but it’s also how they show love and affection and experience pleasure.”
Both Noon and Thornhill believe that early conversations about pleasure—sexual or otherwise—will help children become adults who engage in healthy sexual relationships.
“I meet people who are just lost or who have lackluster sexual experiences or who have no idea how to create the experience they want,” Thornhill said. “They don’t know how to create boundaries or tune into their body. When people feel so unattached to their bodies and ill-equipped to navigate sexual negotiation … we deny ourselves experiences that could really bring us joy.”
How to talk to your kids about pleasure
I’ve written previously about why parents can’t rely on their school districts to give students all the information they need to fully understand their sexual selves. And even when schools are kicking butt, it’s essential these conversations also happen at home.
So, what does that look like? Does talking to your kids about pleasure require “show and tell” with your sex toys? Will the conversations you have with them be the most awkward, terrifying conversations of your life? Will your kids cover their ears or roll their eyes at you or declare you totally uncool and embarrassing?
The answers to those last three questions are “nope,” “maybe, but you’ll survive,” and “perhaps, but that’s kids for you.”
As for the first question, those conversations will look different depending upon how old your kids are. But here are a few tips.
Help them build a vocabulary around pleasure
Thornhill recommends that, with young kids, we simply validate the pleasures they feel in their bodies and the pleasures they feel emotionally, helping them to build a vocabulary around those sensations.
For example, as they take a warm bath, describe what they’re experiencing: Is that warm? Does that feel good?
As they get older and develop more of an ability to vocalize their preferences and their boundaries, it’s important you validate those as well.
“This can allow them to express to a partner in the future what feels good to them and what doesn’t,” Noon said. “Teaching our kids about pleasure gives them the agency to say, ‘No, I don’t want or need to do that.'”
During their middle kid and tween years, Thornhill advises parents to talk to their kids about how emotions feel in their bodies.
“We tend to think of emotions as nebulous experiences,” Thornhill said. “But there are physiological and biochemical reactions that occur, and these provoke different sensations in our bodies.” She explains that learning how positive emotions manifest in their bodies teaches kids what it feels like to feel good.
“If they start to move into sexual relationships and the conversation extends into sexuality,” she said, “they’ll have a context for understanding how physical and emotional and psychological and spiritual pleasure work together and affect one another.”
Model your own experiences of pleasure
It’s not just about what we say. Kids also learn a lot from what they observe. Thornhill says we should let our kids see us enjoying foods and activities, and even the physical and emotional interactions we have with our partners.
And we should wholeheartedly enjoy things with them, too. When you laugh together or read books together or do things with them that they enjoy, you are showing them that it is awesome to engage in activities that make you feel good.
Of course, all of the above helps to establish pleasure as a natural part of life. But as your kids grow older and they roll their eyes extra hard at you, you might also want to share resources with them that they can peruse in their own time or use as jumping-off points for further conversations with you.
And if you’re still nervous that having these conversations will send your kids into the arms of another?
Noon shares a powerful framework she uses when teaching kids how to make major life decisions, including those around sexuality.
“When making major decisions in life,” she said, “it’s important for their head, their heart, and their body to be aligned. The body might be saying, ‘Hell yeah!’ But what about the heart? How do they feel about this person? Are they comfortable with them? Do they trust them? As for the mind, are they ready for the responsibilities that can come with sex? What are the outcomes they need to consider?”
In this way, they know that pleasure isn’t the only thing that should drive their decision-making.
“I think pleasure gets really simplified,” Ford said about our aversion to including pleasure in sex ed. “People think we’re teaching students how to have an orgasm, but they’re missing all the other pieces—the intimacy and sense of safety that pleasure can provide. The way it contributes to sexual health and healthy relationships. Pleasure gets demonized and simplified and misunderstood. But it has the potential to be connected to so many good things.”