Teaching pleasure — for the sake of safety, protection and empowerment!

Nika Norvila, CAPP Health Educator at Northwell Health, brings us this perspective. CAPP and PREP providers, please continue the conversation in the comments!

As CAPP and PREP providers we are bound to the evidence-based curricula we are assigned to facilitate. Whether it’s Making Proud Choices! or Be Proud! Be Responsible!, pleasure is not a subject that we delve into very deeply. I am not trying to advocate for the re-vamping of our EBPs or for educators to make any red-light adaptations, but rather for educators to consider the value of including pleasure in the conversations we have with our students, whether it is in one-on-one sessions, add-on sessions after EBP cycles, or–for the lucky few–workshops and group activities in our own spaces.

As health educators we are worried about unintended pregnancies, STDs, and HIV–which are all very important and valid for youth. However, when we think about why a lot of people have sex, including adults, the most common reason is for pleasure. People have sex because sex (hopefully to some degree, most of the time, for most people) feels good. To ignore this aspect of sex when teaching about sex seems unfair to the young people who are curious and well-deserving of truthful information about the ever present topic of sex and sexuality.

Some studies have shown that teaching youth about sexual pleasure and treating them like sexually autonomous beings allows them to feel like responsible sexual agents who need to take responsibility for adult things, like having sex.

In her book Girls & Sex (2016), through over seventy interviews with young women across the U.S., Peggy Orenstein explores the current of sex and sexuality. Orenstein writes, “If girls are unable to advocate for their own pleasure, they are also less likely to feel able to advocate for their own safety. Emphasizing male pleasure, especially without teaching about consent, perpetuates rape culture. Pain or uncomfortable sexual encounters are normalized for girls and women. In all kinds of ways, we expect women to be complacent in their discomfort.”

Teaching teens, but particularly teaching young women and girls, about pleasure–which historically has been intentionally dismissed and ignored–can not only led to better sex, but to safer sex, and to more empowered girls and women inside AND outside the bedroom.

Without re-vamping our EBPs, how can health educators incorporate pleasure into conversations and lessons with our students without taking away the intended messages of the EBPs? Would talking to students about pleasure detract from any of our safe sex messages, or simply make them stronger, if there is a link between pleasure, consent and safety? Can’t we hope that new messages of pleasure for women and girls will empower them? By learning about the clitoris and encouraging adolescents to explore their bodies, to learn what feels good, what doesn’t feel good, and where their boundaries are, leave them feeling empowered to only seek sexual encounters that feel good to them, instead of feeling only pressured to perform and please their male partners?

Please share your thoughts, questions and comments. You can also email me: nnorvila@northwell.edu

Nika Norvila – Nika Norvila, Northwell Health

9 thoughts on “Teaching pleasure — for the sake of safety, protection and empowerment!”

  1. Hi Nika! Love your reflections on the intersection of pleasure and evidence-based programming!

    We try to incorporate pleasure into our conversations about safer sex. For example, we say that lubrication is a great way to increase pleasure (while also improving condom effectiveness). Normalizing self-love and self-pleasure has the dual benefit of reducing sexual risk AND teaching young people to put themselves first. We also make a point of breaking down the terms “mutual masturbation” and “masturbation” even if it’s awkward in the classroom. I like to remind participants that sex is a spectrum of activities that can all provide pleasure. When we have the chance to talk about anatomy, we always spend time talking about the function of the clitoral tissue in providing pleasure. Most of the time, we find that young people don’t know this information (because it’s strictly about pleasure, and not about prevention)!

    Another few books on this topic are: Becoming Cliterate and She Comes First! Great reads that help contextualize the conversation about pleasure.

    1. Hi Sona,

      Thank you for your response! I will definitely check out your book suggestions soon!
      It’s really great to hear that you’ve been having these conversations already and have been able to incorporate them in the classroom! Have you ever experienced any push-back from any of the teachers, administrators, your own colleagues, or even some of your own students when these topics come up? If so, how have you handled it?

  2. While I am not sure where all my colleagues stand on this issue, I believe that “Pleasure” comes naturally in a relationship that is based on mutual consent, respect, and knowledge–AND that is what we should be concentrating on. Once our youth understand what makes up a “good relationship” and has self-confidence and respect for themselves and others, pleasure will come.

  3. I agree with Nika that helping people understand pleasure can be wonderfully empowering. As adults and educators we need to deal with our own discomfort and help our hosts understand why we teach this way.
    Talking about pleasure is a powerful way of dealing with sex in an honest way. Making Proud Choices has a great brainstorming session (Activity 1E) that acknowledges pleasure as one of the reasons why teens have sex. Then we can refer back to that conversation later when we talk about Making Condoms Fun and Pleasurable (Activity 7B). BPBR has only the 2nd activity so we have to make sure WE are acknowledging pleasure early in the curriculum–like when Sona suggested teaching that lube increases pleasure.
    Over the years, I have had several cis-girls tell me or a peer educator that they have stopped having sex once they considered their own lack of pleasure. Once they realized they were exposing themselves to risk but not feeling pleasure they decided to wait until they had a partner who was willing to communicate and explore the relationship in a way that felt good physically and emotionally to both partners. Brava!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kelly!

      And thanks for highlighting the activities in the curricula we use that already mention pleasure– we are lucky enough to have at least some small opportunities to talk to students about pleasure within the curriculum itself.

      I think the point you made about the cis- girls and their experiences is exactly why teaching pleasure can be so empowering. Once students realize that they are putting themselves at risk for little pleasure in return, they may opt for more safe experiences– and this is exactly what our goal is! It is amazing that students have come to a realization like that because I think adult women also still struggle with these things.

  4. After reading through comments, I realized another way we can talk about pleasure that is not currently mentioned in BPBR or MPC. We can approach the subject while discussing pornography and the sometimes unrealistic expectations pornography can give any of us about what sex looks and sounds like. Discussing pornography, while it is awkward and maybe taboo, is a good way to gauge where young people are getting sexual information from. If a lot of the information they are receiving is from hetero-normative pornography then it is likely not centered on pleasure for those with vaginas. Typically, hetero-normative pornography is centered on the person with a penis reaching orgasm and then that is it. What does this tell young people? What kind of messages do they receive about giving and receiving pleasure? If we ask our participants these questions and a healthy discussion is fostered it will likely be beneficial for all students, even those not currently sexually active.

    I also think discussing masturbation and pleasure is SO important! Just like our doctors teach us to perform self breast or testicular exams because we know our bodies best, we should also be encouraging our youth to explore their our own bodies! It makes them giggle and clam up but it also validates their experiences and lets them know that it is okay to seek pleasure their own bodies. I joke with students that the best sex you can have is with yourself! Their looks of confusion often prompts a really wonderful discussion about pleasure and how we can help inform our partners of what we want in the bedroom if we already know for ourselves.

    Thank you for this post! I think the things that make us uncomfortable often teach us the most!

    1. Hi Mallory!
      Thank you for your comment! Are you able to work with students in or outside the classroom for additional activities? I think that might be a great opportunity to discuss things like pornography and dispelling myths about pornography and sexual pleasure, I don’t think that it would necessary work as an EBP adaptation. Are there ways to discuss these topics outside of the EBP sessions?

      And I definitely agree with you about masturbation! Fortunately, I think masturbation comes up at least briefly as one of the ‘safe’ activities in the HIV risk continuum– so this may be an opportunity to expand a little more about it (briefly– while not taking away time or the main message of the activity..)
      Thank you for sharing! I hope that as educators we can find creative ways to discuss these things with our students in the short amounts of time see them!

  5. Nika, I love this! This is often a thought I have when talking with young people. First because I know that our role is to educate them on preventing the transmission of STI’s as well as unintended pregnancies. But we can’t ignore the fact that young people want to talk about pleasure just as much as we want to talk about prevention. I am pondering on your question of how we can talk pleasure with youth while still facilitating (in my case) CAPP EBP? I wonder if the questions that young people many times have which touch base on pleasure, are the opportunities we as educators use to have conversations about pleasure? Also, I find that much like Sona stated, talking about mutual masturbation and terms that come up during some modules is a great opportunity to use the content to talk further about those things, because we can’t ignore the reality that is, young people are not thinking about STI & pregnancy prevention separate from Sex and pleasure.

    Thanks for starting this conversation Nika, I enjoyed reading this. Especially since this is something I have been thinking about for a while.

    1. Hi Coniqua!

      Thank you for your response! I totally agree with you and Sona that, there are other smaller opportunities outside of the EBPs such as in one on one conversations to engage with students more around the topic of pleasure. And you’re right– sexual pleasure and STI/pregnancy prevention don’t have to be completely separate conversations. Like some other colleagues have already mentioned lube and condoms are a great way to incorporate pleasure into safe sex lessons and this is a perfect example of how safe sex and pleasure intersect.

      I really appreciate everyone’s comments so far and encourage everyone to keep the conversation going over time. If someone has the opportunity to do any activities outside of the EBPs about pleasure I would love to hear about the exact activity and how students reacted, and the overall process. And I can do the same for whoever is interested!!

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