The Need for a Pleasure-Based and Feminist-Informed Sexuality Education System
Writer: Hemapriya Dhanasekaran
Date: Fall 2016
Citation: Dhanasekaran, H. (2016). The Need for a Pleasure-Based and Feminist-Informed Sexuality Education System. Rutgers Research Review, 1(2).
While a sexuality education system in the United States based off a public health framing educates students on how to prevent HIV/STI transmission and unwanted pregnancies, it does not teach the power and importance of sexual agency and pleasure, especially for women. Sexual agency is defined as the "the ability to advocate for one's interests in the sexual arena" (Bay-Cheng, 2003). Sharon Lamb describes the need for a pleasure-driven pedagogy in sexual education "in response to three historically problematic areas for women and girls: objectification, abuse and victimization, and stereotypes of female passivity" (Lamb, 2010). As women are "trained through and into positions of passivity and victimization, young women are currently educated away from positions of sexual self-interest" (Fine, 1992). Women's sexuality is only viewed in terms of satiating men's desire and pleasure, and women are positioned as potential victims of sexual aggression. This leads to sexuality education in schools increasingly focusing on only the negative aspects of sexuality, where for example, students are only taught that having sex could lead to many incurable STIs and could lead to unwanted pregnancies. And even when the concept of sexual agency is taught, it is assumed that the perspective of the heterosexual, middle class white women applies to all cultures, and therefore the specific sexual health needs of women of color and non-heterosexual women is not addressed.
Patricia McFadden argues that sexual pleasure and choice for women in Africa is often ignored and any mention of female sexuality gains negative attention, and is deemed to be '"bad," "filthy," and "morally corrupting" (McFadden, 2003). McFadden claims that these societal structures are put in place by conservative, heterosexist and patriarchal attitudes that scrutinize women in the expression of their sexuality. She also argues that a culture's "socio-sexual anxiety" or fear of sexual pleasure, allows society to aggressively police a woman's choice, not only in terms of sexuality, but also when a woman is trying to advance through her different educational levels, when she is subject to public attention, and when she tries to "transgress cultural and social boundaries in the name of 'tradition'"" (McFadden, 2003). There is a fear within society that is associated with allowing women to express their sexuality which in turn gives her a sense of power. As a response, McFadden argues that a feminist agency would be "the most effective response to sexual violation, abuse, femicide, and all naturalized patriarchal and heterosexist patterns of behaviour" (McFadden, 2003).
Analyzing these arguments mentioned above, a case can be made for educating college-aged women to overcome the inherent fear of pleasure, or women's sexuality, and helping these students be more aware of a multicultural perspective of women's sexuality. Having a feminist-informed and pleasure-based model of sexuality education would help to inform students that their "choice" could include options for reducing the chance of transmission of HIV and other STIs, but also in terms of sexual pleasure as well. In addition, the idea that "sexual pleasure is the fundamental feminist choice" can also be transcended, because choice also applies to whether a woman chooses to express her sexuality in the same way that other women do (Pereira, 2003).
Correspondingly, even in many existing comprehensive sexuality education courses for women, programs are designed without considering the cultural diversity of their audience. It is presumed that the middle class, educated white woman's perspective of sex is unanimous amongst all women. Many feminist ideals have arisen from the perspective of white, middle class women with Western ideals, and exclude women of color because their notion of healthy sexuality is comparatively different based on their culture. Many Black and Latina women are forced to counteract the stereotype being propagated in mainstream media as being a "jezebel," in which women are viewed as "loose," oversexed and immoral (Froyum, 2010). Despite the existence of this stereotype, current sexuality education models do not cater to women of color who could particularly be affected by this stereotype. Charmaine Pereira makes a case for investigating the multicultural perspective of women's sexuality. For example, despite the generalized suppression of women based on their sexualities, many cultures allow for a healthy representation of an individual's sexuality, that may not resemble western feminist ideals of sexual pleasure and choice. For example, she mentions how "within Islam, women also have formal rights to sexual satisfaction in marriage, and the denial of such satisfaction constitutes grounds for divorce" (Pereira, 2003). Lamb writes that "pleasure, subjectivity, voice, desire, words that evoke a delicateness and specialness about teen girls' sexuality, unwittingly also evoke conceptions of a white, middle class, heterosexual femininity that needs to be protected" (Lamb, 2010). Women in the LGBT+ spectrum are affected in similar ways, where although a sexual health educator aims to talk about sexuality in terms of a woman's desire and pleasure, they could assume a heterosexist attitude towards teaching sexuality education, effectively ignoring ways to address non-heterosexual desire.
The notion that sexuality is "bad" and "filthy" is a relatively new concept that emerged during colonial times after which, the Victorian interpretations of Christianity became more dominant and entitled in the society. This gives a group of people the power to monitor various "do's" and "don'ts" about women's sexuality, and to determine which way is the right or wrong way. This severely disadvantages women of color and women in the LGBT+ spectrum in terms of giving them resources to overcome this socio-sexual anxiety. In fact, research suggests that through a model of sexuality education that promotes sexual agency, women are more likely to experience "entitlement, rather than victimization, autonomy rather than terror" (Lamb, 2009). Work done by Horne and Zimmer-Gembeck suggests that heterosexual women who took ownership of their desire showed higher levels of self-efficacy in condom use, higher levels of sexual self-awareness and low levels of sexual anxiety. They were also likely to have higher sexual body-esteem and feel a higher sense of entitlement to sexual pleasure from their partners. Therefore, a feminist-informed pedagogy of sexuality education that prioritizes inclusivity could perhaps attempt to cater to a community's specific needs for information about sexuality.
- Bay-Cheng, L. (2003). The trouble of teen sex: the construction of adolescent sexuality through school-based sexuality education. Sex Education, 3, 61-74.
- Fine, M. (1992). Disruptive voices: The possibilities of feminist research. University of Michigan Press.
- Froyum, C. M. (2010). Making "good girls": Sexual agency in the sexuality education of low-income black girls. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 12(1), 59-72.
- Lamb, S. (2010). Feminist ideals for a healthy female adolescent sexuality: A critique. Sex Roles, 62(5-6), 294-306.
- McFadden, P. (2003). Sexual pleasure as feminist choice. Feminist Africa, 2, 50-60.
- Pereira, C. (2003). "Where Angels Fear to Tread?" Some Thoughts on Patricia McFadden's "Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice." Feminist Africa, 2.