From Prevention to Pleasure: The Next Frontier for Sex Ed?

When a federal judge ruled earlier this year that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had to restore funding to two Baltimore-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, it was only the latest chapter in the decades of controversy that surround sex education. 

Should teens receive abstinence-only education in school, or should programs talk openly about topics like contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections?

Now, the advocates from the Healthy Teen Network who brought the Baltimore case to court are calling for sex education that reframes the question entirely, widening the focus beyond STIs and pregnancy reduction. 

According to the Healthy Teen Network, an Alliance partner, sex ed should also include social, emotional, and psychological topics: consent, healthy relationships, love, and the focus of a new initiative: pleasure. 

Effective Sex Ed: What States Require vs. What Science Says

htnSex education varies widely across the country. Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, but this looks very different from place to place.

Eighteen states require sex ed curricula to provide information schools on contraceptives, whereas 37 require information on abstinence (27 of these require that abstinence be stressed in curricula). Thirteen states require that information provided is medically accurate. California is the only state to require consent education.

While state requirements on sex education might vary, both research and public opinion offer greater consensus. When it comes to pregnancy and STI prevention, the more information, the better. 

Studies consistently find that stressing only abstinence in curricula does not reduce pregnancy and STI rates. Conversely, programs that offer information on STI prevention and contraceptives do lead to lower rates of transmission and pregnancy

For the most part, Americans are on board. In one study, nearly 90 percent of parents agreed that high school sex ed should cover puberty, healthy relationships, abstinence, STIs, and birth control.   

Studies have also found that encouraging teens to talk more comfortably and openly about sex, gender, and power leads to higher rates of successful contraceptive use and lower rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

In other words, an important part of reducing teen pregnancy and disease-transmission is to talk about more than pregnancy and disease-transmission. 

Moving Beyond Pregnancy- and Disease-Based Models

Sex education that includes psychological, emotional, and social topics often leads to healthier environments in other respects, too. These comprehensive approaches––ones that focus on social emotion learning (SEL) like communication, healthy relationships, and empathy––create healthier attitudes and school climates. 

For instance, programs that include SEL topics (like Second Step) lead to healthier environments for students, reducing homophobic bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence among middle and high schoolers. And young people themselves are interested––Harvard researchers found that a majority of young adults wish that they’d sex ed that included information on social and emotional aspects of sexuality.

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That’s why, advocates say, programs should strive for affirmative messages that promote healthy conceptions of sexuality and healthy behaviors, rather than focusing exclusively on dangerous potential consequences. 

For the Healthy Teen Network, this means talking about pleasure. 

Adding Pleasure to the Conversation

“We want to support and enable adolescents to become healthy adults. And that means that if they choose to be sexually active, they are able to think about, articulate, and respect their own and their partners’ pleasures and desires. That’s all foundational for consent,” said Gina Desiderio, director of communications at Healthy Teen Network. 

“Acknowledging that sex is about more than reproduction also affirms the identities of LGBTQ people, whose identities are often erased in pregnancy prevention curricula,” she added.

To advance these goals, the Healthy Teen Network, in partnership with youth + tech + health, has issued a design challenge for students, educators, and advocates to center pleasure in sex education in communities around the United States. 

“When you’re talking about how to best respond to the dynamic needs and changing lives of young people, you’ve got to be innovative about how you’re providing those programs and services.” said Desiderio.

The #HealthyTeen18 Challenge asks designers to consider how programs can incorporate pleasure into sex ed that “foster[s] authentic conversations about sexuality and promote[s] positive sexual experiences.”

By focusing on pleasure, the organization hopes to generate a more positive, inclusive, and healthy conversation around adolescent sexual activity. In addition to creating an opportunity for new supports and innovations around healthy sexuality, Healthy Teen Network will partner with the winning design to pursue development and implementation. 

“We’ll attempt to push our field beyond the pregnancy and disease-prevention model—that stubborn, deeply rooted axiom that grips our work and casts all adolescent sexual activity in the narrowest, most sex-negative of lights: potentially dangerous at best, and catastrophic at worst,” Sufrinko wrote

“Let’s assemble a new language for the field that fosters authentic conversations in classrooms—conversations centered not on plumbing and pathology, but on pleasure… Let’s push the field forward.” 

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