"Sex is about pleasure too, not just about being in love."

By Arielle Tschinkel
November 12, 2020
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If your only memories from sex ed involve a couple of diagrams of reproductive organs, weird, preachy films, or messages about pregnancy or STIs that left you feeling downright terrified, you're not alone. Hilary Duff, Ashley Benson, and Sarah Hyland recently teamed up with an ob-gyn to talk about the ways sex ed is (or isn't) taught to teenagers. During their chat, Duff highlighted one major topic that's often left out of these classes: sexual pleasure.

The actresses were joined by ob-gyn Sherry A. Ross, M.D., F.A.C.O.G, for an episode of Lady Parts, a weekly educational comedy series about sexual health hosted by Dr. Ross and Hyland. This week, their conversation centered around all things puberty — including sex ed. (Related: 4 Things Every Woman Needs to Do for Her Sexual Health, According to an Ob-Gyn)

Not only did Benson and Duff both admit they once thought that any sexual activity would lead to pregnancy, but Duff also noted that she never learned about pleasure (particularly female pleasure) in sex ed. "One thing that's a bummer that people don't really talk about when you're younger is that sex is for pleasure too, not just about being in love," she shared.

During puberty, Duff continued, "you're having a lot of different feelings in your body, and a lot of people are ready [to have sex] at different times." As a result, your own enjoyment in the experience often falls by the wayside, Duff explained. "I guess I never got taught that [sex] was about feeling good and connecting with someone," she said. "That's a really terrible mentality to go into starting to have sex with." (Related: How Shifting Your Mindset Can Bring More Pleasure to Your Sex Life)

Hyland agreed, adding that she remembered once feeling sex was more about satisfying the other person than herself. "That's probably the biggest misconception that we all had as young women," she said.

It's true that sex ed in the U.S. — if you receive it at all, given that fewer than 30 states require both sex and HIV education in school — heavily focuses on risk reduction (read: pregnancy and STI prevention) with minimal, if any, emphasis on pleasure or sexual agency. A recent paper published in the American Journal of Public Health noted that sex-ed curriculums commonly "overlook many key aspects of young people's current and future sexual lives, including the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships; the right to decide whether, when, and with whom to engage in sexual behavior; and the fact that sex should be pleasurable, to name just a few."

There's also the fact that sex ed in the U.S. is overwhelmingly heteronormative (meaning it promotes heterosexuality as the norm) and rarely inclusive of LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, and people of color. When young people don't see themselves represented in their sex-ed lessons, they might not feel confident or prepared to own their sexual agency and understand things like consent — including the notion that mutual pleasure can and should be part of their sexual experiences.

"Teaching folks about their bodies, that they have the right to tell others not to touch them, and how to identify a trusted adult, are all critical to helping them find their voice so they can protect themselves against coercion," Sarah Flowers, Dr.P.H., vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, previously told Shape. "Sex education should also be sex-positive, meaning it should be delivered without shame or fear tactics and, instead, center on pleasure." (Related: What Is Consent, Really? Plus, How and When to Ask for It)

As for how the narrative can shift beyond outdated, misleading conversations about sex and pleasure, Dr. Ross summed it up perfectly. "Ground zero is puberty," she said. The sooner you start talking to young people about sex, she continued, the more confident they'll feel, "and there will be no more shame."

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