Sexual health educators at a recent youth festival in India emphasized the “sex” in “safe sex,” departing from the more traditional, fear-based rhetoric on sexual health.
The sex-positive approach to talking about safe sex is heartening in India, where sex is still taboo and HIV rates are high. Could Americans learn something from this approach?
It’s easy to be discouraged by the resistance to sex ed in our schools. If conservative forces resist the discussion of contraception as a health issue, what would they think about a pleasure-based dialogue? But the truth is, high school students aren’t the only group whose education we need to fight for. Americans of all ages contract STIs (middle-aged people are often neglected in the discussion, for example). While a fact-based, clinical approach to sex education has gone a long way toward empowering youth and adults, I agree with Anne Philpott, founder of the Pleasure Principle, that something is missing from the way we talk about sexual health.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Philpott’s organization promotes sexual health education that makes pleasure a central player. She’s brought this idea to her work in Africa and Southeast Asia, and to AIDS Conferences around the world.
Many health advocates have pointed to female empowerment as a lynchpin in the effort to stem the AIDS crisis in Africa and Asia. To that end, great work has been done to develop and promote female-controlled protection, like female condoms and microbicides. And without a doubt, many women who would like to use protection don’t because they don’t feel able to ask their male partners to use condoms, or their partners refuse.
But this is only part of the story. What about women in healthy relationships?
"Talking about disease and fear haven’t worked very well. People believe they are in a safe relationship and that disease does not apply to them," said Arushi Singh, a resource officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which trains health educators in South Asia.
In a good relationship that’s about to become sexual, the introduction of a condom can seem like the introduction of a lot of baggage: fear, disease, death. In the most intimate moment, it can seem like you’ve invited a host of health educators into the bedroom. For many people, when the condom has been presented along with a lecture, it loses its sex appeal.
It’s hard to find the right tenor for a discussion about sexual health. Because, in truth, sex can have very serious consequences. But for many people, passion – and even a sort of irrationality – are essential components of sex. Until we learn to incorporate passion and pleasure into our discussion of sexual health, we may lose people – young and not-so-young – to these very pursuits, beckoning from outside the safe sex debate. But it doesn’t have to be that way.