For Teachers & Professionals
Sex-positive or Sex-negative?
Young adults are still subjected to sexually transmitted diseases and are ignorant of different topics that surround sexuality. Sexual education programs have varied from “abstinence only” to those that address abstinence along with medically accurate information about safer sexual practices, including the use of contraceptives and condoms. Only a few studies addressed the efficacy of abstinence-only programs, but the critics argue that the programs in these studies are not representative of most abstinence-only programs. Instead, the evaluated programs differed from traditional abstinence-only programs in three major ways: they did not discuss the morality of a decision to have sex; they encouraged youth to wait until they were ready to have sex, rather than until marriage; and they did not criticize the use of condoms. This is similar to a sex-positive approach.
Sex-positive approaches suggest that sex is a healthy and pleasurable practice and avoid making moralistic value statements. Instead, sex-positive approaches promote the diversity of sexuality in the world and the ability to make personal choices. Sex is seen as neither good nor bad in itself, its valence is dependent on context and how it is experienced. The majority of health communication interventions do not include value judgements and work to establish broad knowledge.
Sex-negative messages are instead more focused on fear-led education and are concerned with negative outcomes. Sex-negative societies focus on risk and the more problematic aspects of sexuality. They are characterised by prejudice against certain sexual practices, with strong links to sexism and homophobia.
Two important characteristics make one of these approaches better:
1. Sex-positive messages are more desirable
Sex-positive messages were better received by students. Sex-positive messages feel more truthful and believable. If someone thinks something is true, they are more likely to take it seriously and take action. On the contrary, messages such as ‘all premarital sex is bad’ although perfectly clear, are not believable, nor persuasive.
2. Sex-positive approaches in a gain-frame
Students prefer gain-framed messages such as why sex is great and what positive outcomes it has. Not only are loss-framed messages typically more difficult to understand because far from one’s experience, but also the perceived losses are not as believable, persuasive, relevant or discussable. Outcomes from not doing something, like not having sex, are far less evident and tangible.
Sexual education too frequently draws on negative discourses about sexuality and rarely addresses issues such as pleasure, intimacy and desire. Pedagogies of pleasure sit uncomfortably with the current sex-negative approach, making a focus on pleasure risky business for teachers. All teachers need to have opportunities to reflect on and explore these feelings and practice teaching about pleasure in a safe environment; one in which they can be supported to take the personal and professional risks necessary to build comfort, competence and conviction to say ‘I do have the confidence to teach controversial subjects such as sexual pleasure’.
Abstinence Education Programs: Definition, Funding, and Impact on Teen Sexual Behavior. (2018, June 1). KFF. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/abstinence-education-programs-definition-funding-and-impact-on-teen-sexual-behavior/
Brickman, J., & Willoughby, J. F. (2017). ‘You shouldn’t be making people feel bad about having sex’: Exploring young adults’ perceptions of a sex-positive sexual health text message intervention. Sex Education, 17(6), 621-634.
Ollis, D. (2016). ‘I felt like I was watching porn’: the reality of preparing pre-service teachers to teach about sexual pleasure. Sex education, 16(3), 308-323.
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