Acknowledging pleasure as a key driver of sexual behaviour has more success in teaching safe sex than traditional sex education – as well as promoting STI/HIV risk reduction
Researchers find that sex education, inclusive of sexual pleasure and desire, can improve knowledge and attitudes about sex – increasing condom use and helping younger people better understand consent.
The meta-analysis found that education which discusses STI/HIV risk reduction can also benefit from considering sexual pleasure and sexual desire, as it incorporates more realistic sex scenarios and how people can avoid unsafe practices.
Each year, billions of dollars are spent on sexual and reproductive health and rights services and programs, yet there continues to be a huge global burden of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
With fewer than ten years to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which target sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, researchers sought to understand sex education in a more inclusive, and realistic setting.
More realistic information which incorporates pleasure into sex
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of literature research conducted from 2005-2020, which overall notes that incorporating pleasure in sex education programs can have positive effects on attitudes and safer sex behaviour.
The research additionally recommends revisiting sexual education and health intervention approaches that do not acknowledge that sexual experiences can be pleasurable, such as educational programmes which advocate solely for abstinence or having sex just for pregnancy.
The Pleasure Project, WHO’s Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research, and researchers reviewed 33 unique interventions targeting STI/HIV risk reduction which incorporate sexual pleasure, and meta-analysed eight of them.
From this, they found that incorporating sexual pleasure can have significant positive effects across information, as well as knowledge-based attitudes, including participants’ self-belief in behaviour change, and motivation to use condoms, as well as in behaviour and condom use.
They also reviewed other sexual health interventions – such as contraception and family planning interventions – but ultimately only included STI/HIV-related programs targeting populations traditionally considered ‘vulnerable’ in their research.
Teaching pleasure in sex education can assist people in understanding consent, also, as we develop a clearer understanding of what feels good and what doesn’t – as well as teaching people when to say no and how to listen to their partners.
Policymakers are advised by these researchers to be more acknowledging that pleasure is a key driver of sexual behaviour, and that incorporating it in sexual and reproductive health services can reduce adverse outcomes and protect the population.
Ending sexualised stigma to promote better safety
The authors argue that continuing to avoid pleasure in sexual health and education risks misdirecting or ineffectively using resources – to which they call for a fundamental changeround of programme orientations.
The authors add: “Pleasure has been over-looked and stigmatised in health promotion and sex education, despite its obvious connection to sexual health and well-being.
“Our systematic review and meta-analysis, the first of its kind, shows that including sexual pleasure considerations in sexual and reproductive health services improves condom use and so may also improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
“Eight years out from the Sustainable Development Goal deadline, innovative strategies that can accelerate progress towards SRHR targets, including for STI and HIV prevention, are urgently needed. Programs adopting a sex-positive and pleasure-inclusive approach is one such innovation that should be urgently considered.”
The authors highlight that additional work is necessary to incorporate and evaluate pleasure-inclusive interventions in the reproductive health space and for general populations.