Teaching Young Women to Say Yes to Sexual Pleasure

Photo: lauritadianita (CC)
By Amie Newman |

In February, President Obama proposed a 2017 federal budget that strips all federal funding for disastrous abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education and increases funding for comprehensive sex education. It’s a long-awaited smart move based on evidence. Over the past 25 years, almost $2 billion has been spent on abstinence programs, with very little to show for that stunning investment.

A 2007 federally funded evaluation of abstinence-only education, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, found these programs to be ineffective at delaying sexual initiation or reducing teen pregnancy. In other words: a waste of money.

At the same time, comprehensive sexuality education — education that provides age-appropriate, accurate, unbiased information on contraception, sexuality, human development, relationships, decision-making, and disease prevention — has been shown to both delay sex and increase contraceptive use.

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But are there more than just two sides to this issue?

In a fascinating New York Times op-ed, “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” author Peggy Orenstein delves into what young women, in particular, are missing out on as our country continues to struggle with how we teach young people about sex. Young women who are exposed only to “just say no” programs learn little or nothing about what it means to find pleasure in sex and in their own bodies. Orenstein tells the story of a 21-year-old college student who emailed her because of how “ill equipped” she felt talking about sex, after her abstinence-only high school sex-ed program. The young woman used pornography, even as she recognized all of the problems with it, to “gain some knowledge of sex.”

It’s not hard to see why. If we teach young people that sex is something to be feared and avoided at all costs, when we don’t encourage healthy dialogue about sex and sexuality, or if we avoid talking about sex at all (as is the case in many schools and homes throughout the country) we stand in the way of young people’s ability to learn about their own bodies, their sexual selves, and ultimately how to find the pleasure and joy in sex.  They are left to test drive more obvious vehicles, like pornography, to learn about sex and their bodies.

Orenstein writes that even many comprehensive sex ed programs don’t teach more than rote anatomy for young women, blurring if not outright ignoring the differences between a vulva, labia, and clitoris.

And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?

And even the best comprehensive sex ed programs may not do enough to encourage young women to embrace sexual pleasure as something to which they are entitled.

Hiding information from young women doesn’t lead to better decision making or health outcomes. The opposite is true. Talking openly and honestly with young women about sex, pleasure, and trust not only leads to healthier decision making but allows young women to feel more comfortable with their bodies and their sexual pleasure.

In the Netherlands, for example, comprehensive sex education starts as early as four years old, when children are in primary school. While there is no explicit talk of sex at that age, there are discussions about love, honesty, and trust. The approach values sexual development as a “normal process that all young people experience.” It’s hard to imagine a better start to sex education than that.

The positive benefits, in Dutch society, are striking. The Netherlands is home to some of the best health outcomes for teen sexual health, in the world. Not only do most young people, ages 12 to 25 years old, report “wanted and fun” first sexual experiences, when they do have sex an astounding nine out of ten Dutch teens report using contraception. The teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world, five times lower than the United States.  

For those of you looking for trustworthy and accurate information as well as safe spaces to find and engage in helpful discussions about sex, sexuality, and pleasure: here are some of our favorites. Go forth and enjoy!

  • ScarleteenScarleteen’s tag line is “Sex ed for the real world.” Start your search at this independent, highly regarded sexuality education site. Though aimed at young people, it’s useful for everyone. The staffed, moderated message boards are a lively place to ask and answer questions. (Bonus: Scarleteen’s founder (and OBOS contributor) Heather Corinna has a book called S.E.X. that’s a must-read for anyone wanting inclusive information on sex and sexuality for young people).
  • Get Real. Get Real is a comprehensive sexual education curriculum for middle and high school students that emphasizes social and emotional skills.
  • Planned ParenthoodPlanned Parenthood’s web site is host to information on sex, sexual and reproductive health, relationships and more and is an excellent resource because of the spectrum of medically accurate information it provides. If you’re a teen, a parent, or an educator, you’ll find resources specifically geared to what you need.
  • WOCSHNWomen of Color Sexual Health Network represents women of color in the U.S. sexuality field and offers a comprehensive directory of sexual health educators. In a powerful article on why there is a critical need for this type of network, one of the co-founders writes of the shame around pleasure for women of color because of the ways in which women of color are either hyper-sexualized or seen as virginal and pure.
  • Advocates for YouthAdvocates for Youth has been helping young people make informed decisions about their reproductive and sexual health since 1980. They advocate for a positive and realistic approach to adolescent sexual health and have tons of information on their site for parents to learn more about sex ed, for young people to take action, and for educators to access lesson plans.
  • Betty Dodson with Carlin RossBetty Dodson and Carlin Ross are intergenerational sex-positive feminists whose dialogue on sexuality and feminism entertains and educates. With honest blog posts like, “When I Touch My Clitoris It Isn’t Sensitive” they create a platform where women can feel safe and right at home.

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6 Comments

  1. Mavra Stark says:

    I moved to Pennsylvania recently. My daughter and grandson, 17 years old, live here in Pittsburgh. I understand that Pennsylvania has minimal sex ed, really nothing compared to NJ, where I came from. I’ve bought my grandson a book by Jane Fonda about sex for adolescents. What more can I do to provide him with materials that would provide the sort of sex ed that young teens really need? I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk to him about these matters. But I think he needs some help.

    • Amie Newman says:

      Thank you for the comment and for sharing your story, Mavra! If you feel comfortable, I would suggest sending him a link to Scarleteen with a note about the site.There are bulletin boards/message boards where young people can get advice, ask questions, read more about issues they may need or want to understand, etc. That way, he can visit on his own and know that he’s got a resource at his disposal. I also think that if he knows you’re there for him, to ask questions if he needs answers, that goes a long way! Here’s a direct link to Scarleteen’s message boards: http://www.scarleteen.com/bb/. Good luck!

  2. Here is another sex ed resource that you need to know about– one endorsed by Judy Norsigian: the SmartSexapp. It is a reliable resource with sex topics, quizzes, news and more. SmartSex provides information to help you make healthy choices and enjoy the pleasures of sex. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Weekly blogs are available on our website. Co founder: joyce