Pleasure is not a Dirty Word
Why it’s important to talk about pleasure in sexual health checks
Why is talking about pleasure important?
Sex education has a long history of being ‘preachy’. Whether it is spruiking abstinence only education, or people to ‘just use condoms’, there is never much room for the things that people really want to know about. Questions like “how do I know if my partner likes what I’m doing? How do I make sex better? I don’t really like the sex me and my partner have…what do I do?”
Unfortunately, the majority of sexual health promotion and public health campaigns have only focused on the prevention of poor health outcomes (e.g. STIs, unplanned pregnancy) and ignored or avoided talking about positive sexual experiences.
In short … we do not talk about pleasure.
But sexual health is not just about preventing infirmity or disease, the WHO definition also includes “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences”. So how do we change our conversations to be more strategic and actually make real change?
What happens when we do not talk about pleasure?
When we do not talk about pleasure, we miss the point. Conversations about sexual health feel out of touch, and by avoiding talking about how sex experiences can be positive and empowering we reinforce the shame and stigma surrounding it. And it is very difficult to convince someone to look after their health (or their partners’) if they feel shame around their desires.
For most people, no one has ever opened a space to talk or learn about pleasure and how to ask for it. So instead, we learn about it through other avenues such as media, where sex is often intense, passionate and sometimes even violent. It is much more common to see a heated impromptu elevator make-out scene than a tender conversation about boundaries and what feels good (and how much better sex can be as a result).
Without any modelling about how sexual experiences could be different, safety is positioned as inherently opposite to pleasure (e.g. asking to slow down, or stopping to grab a condom kills the mood). So, for example, when we tell people to use condoms, what they hear – is us asking them to have less pleasurable sex, or arguably worse, face the possibility of being rejected by a partner. Neither of those sounds like particularly enticing options, but if we reframe the conversation to how sexual experiences can be improved through communication and safer sex practices, we can create opportunities for that safe and open space for the wider conversation.
Barrier methods – a case study
After five years of working as a sex educator, I cannot count the number of times that young people have said they thought we would tell them how to have sex and all the things they are not ‘allowed’ to do. But when we open up the conversation and talk about how to make sex more enjoyable, they engage from a place of genuine interest.
People choose not to use condoms for different reasons, which may include changes in feeling and sensitivity, pain and difficulty maintaining an erection. If we just preach condom use without acknowledging the potential impact to pleasure, we are missing the primary reasons people do not use condoms. Instead, we deliver education on pleasurable condom use.
Most young people know what condoms are and (loosely) how to use them, but have little knowledge on how to make condoms feel better. Something that always captures people’s attention when talking about condom use, is that roughly 70% of people who do not like using condoms are using the wrong size. So when we run workshops, we bring out different sized demonstrators and different sized condoms and get young people to try to find the correct condom size for each demonstrator. We talk about how condoms are supposed to feel when they are the correct size, that they should never cause pain or discomfort and how adding lube can increase pleasure for everyone. At the end of the session, we give out ‘Find Your Right Fit’ packs a free pack of 5 different sized condoms so they can try different sizes to find the best fit for them. Suddenly the conversation changes from being about ‘STI prevention’ to how to make sex more pleasurable for everyone involved. Not only is the engagement better, but young people leave with information and resources that feel relevant to them.
Tips for GPs:
If someone says they aren’t using condoms, follow up by asking why:
- If they say: “it is difficult to stay hard, it feels like it’s cutting off blood flow, or it keeps coming off” it might mean that they need a different size. Condoms should fit snuggly, but they shouldn’t be too tight. You can also direct people to the WAAC website where they can order their own ‘Find Your Right Fit’ packs.
- If they say: “it doesn’t feel as good, it’s less sensitive, or my partner says that it feels more uncomfortable”. They might need lube! Add a few drops of lube before putting on the condom to increase sensitivity and also after the condom is on to make it more pleasurable for a partner.
- If they say: “it is sore, itchy or warm” they might need to look at what products they are using, are they sensitive to latex or ingredients in lubricant.
Highlight the pleasurable aspects of using condoms, such as increased duration of sexual activity, reduced anxiety about STIs and pregnancy, and opportunities to discuss sexual desires.
We hope that by normalising conversations about pleasure, we can increase buy in from the community and start to make real improvements in sexual health.