The joy of sex -- for teens!

An educational pamphlet on sexual pleasure is sparking scandal in the U.K.

Published July 14, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

If you think teaching teens about condoms gets conservatives riled up, just imagine the response to an attempt in the United Kingdom to tell youngsters that orgasms feel good. A National Health Service pamphlet titled "Pleasure," which encourages parents and educators to add a dose of honesty about carnal delights to traditional sex talks, has been met by finger-wagging moralists and accusations of child abuse. You know, par for the puritan course.

Beyond having the audacity to suggest that educators tell students that sex can feel pleasurable, the booklet says that teenagers have "a right" to sexual satisfaction, so long as it is in a safe and consensual situation. It also advises honesty about masturbation being perfectly healthy -- it  winkingly says that "an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away," which strikes me as a cheesy attempt to be cool -- and that sex isn't always about procreation.

In response, Dr. Trevor Stammers, a spokesman for Family and Youth Concern, called it "nothing less than encouraging child abuse," Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, declared it "deplorable" -- and so on and so forth. The U.K. tabloids also went to town: The Sun trumpets, "NHS tells kids: Sex each day is healthy," and Times Online reports that NHS is "telling school children" to have "an orgasm a day" -- neither of which is true. I guess the more acceptable approach would be to tell kids that masturbation kills kittens and makes you go blind, and that sex is a painful experience that always results in pregnancy?

The outrage is absurd on many levels, the most practical of which is that most teenagers are already well aware that there is pleasure to be had in doing the horizontal tango; it isn't exactly a nationally guarded secret. Acknowledging that forehead-slapper of a fact adds basic legitimacy to sex ed classes and parental "birds and the bees" chats, which so often send kids' eyes rolling. Teenagers know what's up, and I don't just mean this generation of know-it-all Googlers and porn-watchers -- kids have always been keen social observers.  So, when they're sat down and told that sex is a dirty and shameful act, they recognize adults' doublespeak.

If we're not telling them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, why should they trust any of what we say about sex? If we're not to be trusted on the topic, they're simply going to toss aside our directions and embark on their own sexual odyssey. That's not only useless but enormously counterproductive sex "education." This pamphlet, on the other hand, seems like an attempt to come clean with teens, and to acknowledge and respect their sexuality. Instead of strapping them into that faulty chastity belt of fear and repression, it's suggesting that there is no contradiction in teaching safe sex and smart choices while also delivering a fist-pumping (so to speak) ode to orgasms.

The guide also celebrates enthusiastic consent. Instead of promoting sex as something that you must resist "giving up," if you're a girl, it's framed as something that you do because it feels right and you actively want to -- it isn't a bargaining chip, an operatic act that is performed to keep a guy around. "Far from promoting teenage sex," says Steve Slack, director of the Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, which published the handout for NHS, "it is designed to encourage young people to delay losing their virginity until they are sure they will enjoy the experience."

It doesn't at all surprise me that people are scandalized by such a statement -- adults are expected to turn sex into a big bad boogey monster in hopes that kids will stay away. In 7th grade, apropos of nothing, my militaristic history teacher announced to the class that sex would bring us some of the most painful, devastating and humiliating experiences of our lives. In my memory, I've embellished his declaration to be accompanied by a portentous clap of thunder, because he had effectively taken from us this beautiful, sparkly gem of a thing and tossed it down a deep, dark well, where it suddenly became grotesque and frightening. Some consider that a successful sex talk, and that's nothing short of tragic.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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