Does Pleasure Have a Place in Sex Ed Curricula?


Earlier this week, we mentioned that several schools in Ontario, Canada are experiencing a backlash from parents who are upset with the new sex ed curriculum. Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto, was forced to offer a “sanitized” version of the curriculum to first graders, as a way to stop parents from pulling their children out of class. And there has been push-back in other school districts as well.

Part of the problem? Parents feel the curriculum isn’t appropriate for young children. And many are uncomfortable with the idea of introducing the concept of pleasure into the classroom, versus simply using the more traditional, fear-driven approach to sex ed that primarily highlights the negative risks and consequences of being sexually active. In Ontario’s revised curriculum, lessons begin mentioning pleasure as early as seventh grade as a factor in making decisions related to sexual health.

Sexual health can be a slippery thing to define, and most early definitions didn’t even make any mention of pleasure. In 1975, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed and published its original definition of sexual health in order to move beyond the pathologization of sexuality. Still, their definition made no mention of pleasure, and neither did any of the definitions that followed from other organizations.

Then, in 2007, Planned Parenthood published a white paper on “The Health Benefits of Sexual Expression,” citing numerous studies on how sexuality is important to overall health. The benefits of pleasure, and the ways in which it is essential to overall health, appeared throughout the paper.

In 2008, the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) published “Sexual Health for the Millennium: A Declaration and Technical Document.” In a companion piece, Terence H. Hull, Ph.D. writes that the WAS Declaration is “aimed at helping people overcome problems and attain a high degree of sexual health. … However, no less important for sexual health is the ability to attain sexual pleasure and satisfaction, which is recognized as a key element of overall well-being in the final statement of the declaration.”

Despite this, issues of pleasure continue to be contested within the varying definitions of sexual health that exist. Groups such as the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) place pleasure front and center in the work that they do, with initiatives that focus on integrating the concept of pleasure into sexual health education. Planned Parenthood itself offers resources that make clear the health benefits of sexual pleasure.

As for the definition used in the glossary for the Ontario curriculum, it is one taken from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s guidelines for sexual health education. Here, sexuality is defined as “a term that encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles, and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious, and spiritual factors.”

The issue of whether or not pleasure as a concept belongs in our classrooms—or, for that matter, in definitions of sexual health—is not an issue that is likely to be settled anytime soon. But it will certainly be interesting to observe the effects of its inclusion in some of the new sex ed curricula that are being rolled out.

(image via Flickr)