One factor has been found to be surprisingly powerful in sex education, but remains relatively little used: pleasure. A new systematic review into health interventions that incorporated pleasure found that explaining enjoyment around sex may encourage safer habits. Programmes that taught people about achieving sexual pleasure were found to improve condom use more than those that focused on the dangers of unprotected sex.

“It’s worth talking about the positives beyond protection, too, such as how using a condom can be fun and can help you connect with a partner,” says Mirela Zaneva, one of the study’s authors and a PhD candidate in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford.

Zaneva found that pleasure tends not to be mentioned much, or at all, in sex education. This means that if your child isn’t hearing about pleasure from you, it’s very likely they’re not hearing about it from school, either. “It is likely that a lot of young people miss out on positive, empowering conversations about sex in their current school sex education,” she says.

She notes that the Pleasure Project, a public health project involved in the research, offer a range of practical tips on how to incorporate pleasure into discussions with young people around sex.

“The evidence so far is that discussing pleasure can help young people practise more safe sex, have more knowledge and positive attitudes about sex, as well as have more confidence and self-efficacy.”

Finding trusted sources

Parents are usually the primary source of sex education for young children, but adolescents tend to tap many sources for information, such as their peers, teachers, and popular culture. And parents may not be the only ones who can feel squeamish. Research undertaken in Ireland found that while in the past, parents’ ignorance and embarrassment were the main obstacles to open discussions of sex, nowadays, it was the young people who tended to block these talks, by claiming to already know the facts, becoming irritated or annoyed, or even leaving the room. That does not mean parents should avoid the subject, but it does show how important it is to frame the chats in a way that make everyone feel comfortable.

“Let your child know ahead of time when you want to discuss something delicate, potentially embarrassing or difficult to talk about. They don’t feel ambushed this way, and they are more likely to be prepared and to talk with you,” says Goldfarb.

Overcoming that squeamishness may even turn out to be freeing experience. After all, sex and healthy relationships – or as the Finnish researchers call it, “body emotions” – are important at any stage of adult life. Young people are at the start of that journey, and have the chance to define values, habits and priorities that can benefit them over a lifetime, not just in intimate situations, but as a part of moving through the world safely and considerately. You may find that it is life-affirming, and not remotely awkward, to be part of that journey. 

* Sophia Smith Galer is the author of Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, published by Harper Collins.


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