Teaching Pleasure in Sex Ed: Answering Difficult Questions
By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
November 10, 2016
Have you read Jessica and Holly's recent blog on talking about pleasure in sex ed? They did an awesome job. If you haven't read it yet, it's worth it.
While they covered very compelling arguments, as educators sometimes when you're standing in front of a classroom it doesn't seem very possible. You might think, "I want to prevent sexual violence and help young people find their own healthy view of sexuality, but these are other peoples' children. I don't want to introduce them to anything. I don't want to shock them or overstep my boundaries." Those are real fears for an educator. You are the one who has parents at your door at the end of the day.
In response to these concerns, here are three things to keep in mind when it comes to discussing pleasure in sex ed:
1. Young people are well aware that many adults have sex for reasons beyond reproduction.
Young people are observant and smart. This is what makes them fun to work with! They have been watching the world around them for many years, and the cat is already out of the bag: they are onto our big pleasure secret. In fact, if we don't face it, if we don't address their knowledge that people have sex not just to make babies but because they want to – because they like it – we come off as disingenuous and dishonest, which will ultimately affect young people's educational outcomes and our relationships with them.
Furthermore, some young people need to hear us acknowledge that there are non-reproductive sexual encounters. For LGBTQ youth, ignoring pleasure in our conversations subversively erases their identity.
2. Young people do not have sex because an adult told them facts about it. They have other motivating factors.
Even if by some very slim chance teens didn't already know that sometimes people have sex because it feels good to them, them finding out in class doesn't mean that they are now going to run off and have sex. And isn't it better that they find out from a safe adult in an educational setting that people have sex for pleasure, than from rumors in the playground/hallway/locker room? If they hear it from a safe adult first, they now know that they can trust adults to give them straight, accurate information. They don't have to rely on unreliable peer-hearsay.
Not to mention, research shows that talking with young people about sex doesn't encourage them to have sex. In fact, it reduces sexual partners and delays sexual activity. And teens are asking that adults talk to them more about sex. The least we can do is listen to them.
3. As sex educators, it's our job to give our students objective, accurate information, and then refer them back to their parents or guardians for values.
At the end of the day, that's all this conversation is: we're still giving accurate information and referring them to their parents or guardians for more. Informing young people about the facts of sexual pleasure shouldn't be any different than how we treat talking about pregnancy prevention, puberty, or any other subject.
Hopefully those three points alleviate some of the concerns you might have about bringing up pleasure in sex ed. But how can you discuss pleasure appropriately?
One opportunity for discussing pleasure is talking about orgasms. Instead of just talking about ejaculation (and thereby only recognizing the reproductive purpose of a male orgasm), you can talk about orgasms for all sexes. By acknowledging orgasms for all sexes, you are saying that sex should feel good for all parties – you are talking about pleasure AND you can stick to factual information.
But what does that actually look like? Here's one example:
A student asks you, What does an orgasm feel like?
This question can immediately make you feel awkward. You want to answer, but every answer you can think of feels like you’re answering out of personal experience: in other words, inappropriate and nope.
So, how do you tell someone what an orgasm feels like without giving a play-by-play of your own?
Before anything else, make sure you're not reacting in any way that would indicate that you are uncomfortable. Then, start with what an orgasm IS. Get away from talking about how your toes curl and stick to the facts. This question doesn’t ask for any values; it’s almost as if it is easy to answer.
Thanks for asking that question. I’m going to start by defining “orgasm” for people in the class who may not know. An orgasm is a contraction of muscles, generally but not always as a culmination of sexual stimulus. For a person with a vagina, the vaginal wall muscles are the ones contracting. For a person with a penis, the contractions are what causes ejaculation.
Try it out. Say it out loud. Practicing answering questions that make us uncomfortable is the only way to overcome our discomfort.
But the question was what an orgasm FEELS like, and you haven’t really answered that. So, here are some of my thoughts on how to make an orgasm description more general. Again, stick to the facts – what is physiologically occurring and how does that feel in a body. That keeps the answer information-based.
Orgasms are accompanied by the release of endorphins, which inevitably feels different for every person. Most people describe orgasms as being pleasurable and remark that they vary by sexual encounter and partner.
Orgasms generally occur after a build-up of sexual tension, so some people describe them as feeling like a release – physiologically similar to a sneeze. People also use words like “waves” or “sparks” to describe the feeling.
Have I answered your question?
What do you think? Does this answer work for you or would you say something else?
Continue to send in your questions or dialogue with me at rkolb@coloradoyouthmatter!