Pleasure-Inclusive Sex Education

“I wish I’d been taught that in my sex ed” is something I hear quite often from participants in the “pleasure physiology” workshops that I teach. Clearly, sexual pleasure is important to most people, but rarely do we get comprehensive education on the subject unless we actively seek it out. In my workshops, I love talking about anatomy and physiology from a pleasure, rather than just reproductive, perspective and exploring how to eroticize safer sex practices. Certainly, I think that reproductive education is important, but when most folks have sex, it’s for pleasure, not procreation. Likewise, teaching about sexually-transmissible infections (STIs) is important, but the ever-popular “gloom-and-doom” approaches to STI prevention leave a lot to be desired.

Anecdotal experiences aside, there’s actually quite a bit of academic research on the value of pleasure-inclusive sex ed (1-3). “Pleasure” is even included in the World Health Organization’s definition of “sexual health.” Not only does much of this education have the potential to improve people’s sex lives, it’s also a good strategy for increasing male and female condom use. Researchers suspect that the correlation between pleasure-inclusive sex ed and increased condom uptake is due to the fact that this education better reflects the lived experience of people’s sexual decisions. Pleasure is one of the primary reasons people do it and it makes sense to talk about STI prevention within the context of that motivator, especially since “reduction of pleasure” is one of the most commonly reported reasons for not using barriers.

“But won’t teaching about pleasure encourage people to engage in more risky activities?!” critics may ask.

In fact, there’s no evidence to suggest that this approach increases risky sexual behaviour. Critics may worry about this approach being taught to young people, but like all sexuality education, age-appropriateness is key. No public health practitioner I know of is proposing that we teach ten-year olds about how to have pleasurable partner sex in explicit detail. In the vast majority of studies I’ve read (pleasure-inclusive sex being the topic of my masters thesis), the target group was 18 and over. However, I do think it’s appropriate to teach adolescents about things like the location and function of the clitoris, how to communicate about sexual feelings, and that lubricant can be used to increase the enjoyment and safety of condom/barrier use when they do choose to have sex. These sex-positive messages have the potential, for all ages, to open up dialogue about sexual practices so that whatever reduction in pleasure may occur from barrier use is more than mitigated by other pleasure practices.


1.            Higgins JA, Hirsch JS. The Pleasure Deficit: Revisiting the “Sexuality Connection” in  Reproductive Health. International family planning perspectives. 2007; 33 (3):133-9.

2.            Knerr W, Philpott A. Promoting Safer Sex Through Pleasure: Lessons from 15 Countries. Society for International Development. 2009; 52 (1):95-100.

3.            Philpott A, Knerr W, Maher D. Promoting protection and pleasure: amplifying the effectiveness of barriers against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Lancet. 2006 (368):2028-31.

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About Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs, MPH is a NYC-based sex educator + blogger. She's the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for sex educators, researchers, and other folks who love having geeky conversations about sex.