Making Safe Sex Sexy

"When I was 18, I was a victim of female genital mutilation. When I was 21, I had my first orgasm!" This was just the beginning of an astonishing story told by one woman who travelled over 5,000 miles to tell it to a room full of strangers. Flying from Africa to Denmark to speak at the Women Deliver 4th Global Conference last month, she was only one of many women who revealed their challenges, and triumphs, in being able to experience sexual pleasure, each to a full round of applause.

Why is this important? Because doing so can help save lives.
'Sex sells, but women aren't supposed to talk about it," says Anne Philpott, Founder of The Pleasure Project. "When we do, however, we are more apt to protect ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases."

Pleasure is the single most powerful motivating factor for sexual behavior
. And since HIV is spread primarily through sexual transmission, efforts to prevent HIV need to consider the role that sexual pleasure and desire play in sexual behavior. "Unsafe sex is the highest risk factor for girls, but girls need self-esteem to make the right decisions for themselves," says Hannah Bowmen, of Love Matters. Essentially, we need to make safe sex sexy.

It is not at all coincidental that the Conference was held in Denmark, labeled the 'Happiest Country in the World,' as well as the 'Best Country for Women.' The Dutch even have its own unique word for sexual pleasure, Hygge. If you need any further proof, just consider the results of a recent study that compared Dutch and American teenagers and found that while American girls felt a lack of control over sexual experiences, Dutch girls usually described their sexual experiences as being wanted, mutually decided, and enjoyed. Not surprisingly, Dutch teenagers also have higher rates of contraceptive use and lower rates of unwanted pregnancy, abortion and STIs than their American peers.

And here lies the reason. Dutch teens were more likely to have received comprehensive sexuality education that includes a focus on relationship skills that foster mutually consensual, pleasurable and responsible sex. Conversely, it has been found that sexual education programs for young people which focus solely on risks and negative outcomes of sexual activity, while ignoring pleasure or desire, tend to put-off adolescents rather than capturing their attention.

And the global impact of these results should not be underestimated. "When we talk of married adolescent girls, we need to remember that they are engaging in sex that may not be consensual, pleasurable, or safe," said Conference Panelist Dr. Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, who works on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRH) in the World Health Organization's Department of Reproductive Health and Research. "So rather than focusing only on their 'uptake' of family planning, or when they 'switch' their contraceptive methods, or whether the reason for using contraception is 'spacing' between births, if we also focused on their sexual well-being, provided them and their spouses with sex-positive education that helps them develop mutually respectful, loving relationships, we may be contributing significantly to these young girls' lives and addressing their realities. After all," Chandra-Mouli continued, "We know that a majority of married adolescent girls' experience of sex within marriage is violent, scary, and unwanted."

And unwanted sex is rampant in many parts of the world. A study in northern Ethiopia revealed that 81% of child brides interviewed described their sexual initiation as forced. In India, they were three times as likely to report being forced to have sex than girls who married later. Studies have also found that child brides typically continue to experience non-consensual sex throughout their marriage. "Believe it or not, porn is more accessible to young people than is contraception," Chandra-Mouli added.

But by linking pleasure with safer sex, women and girls can become more confident in their choices. The Pleasure Project even provides an online tool to help women and organizations that are working to promote, advocate and campaign for pleasurable ways to have safer sex, map their progress. "That's why we've been putting the sexy into safer sex for over a decade." Philpott says, "One is only so effective without including the other."

Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist who writes about the global empowerment of women and girls.