The ‘P’ word

Failing to communicate well in a relationship about sexual behavior can end up leading to disappointment, shame, exploitation, coercion and even assault.

In sexuality education circles, there is something I call the “p” word.

It does not, as you might imagine, refer to the anatomically correct (or even a slang term) for a part of the reproductive anatomy on male-bodied folks.

It does not, as you might otherwise imagine, refer to a slang term for reproductive anatomy on female-bodied folks.

The “p” word in sexuality education is — pleasure.

Honestly, if you work in sexuality education, you would think this was a swear word. I cannot tell you how many adults go into full on freak-out if they think I, or any other sexuality educator, will be talking to their youth about pleasure.

There is so much shame and stigma around sex and sexuality in our culture that many people are afraid to talk about pleasure. They are afraid to embrace sexuality as a good part of their human existence.

Let’s think about this.

Pleasure is something that should be associated with sexual behavior because it has a whole lot to do with consent. If it’s not a pleasurable experience for both parties, then something is likely wrong.

Perhaps there isn’t full consent.

Perhaps someone isn’t really ready.

Perhaps someone is trying to please another person by doing what that other person wants even if it’s not really what that someone wants to do. Perhaps someone is using someone else.

Consensual sexual behavior comes with a huge amount of responsibility. It takes two people making decisions about what is OK and what is not OK with each of them in that particular moment.

This takes discussion, questions and answers — it takes communication that many adults aren’t adept at, let alone teens. It takes understanding that body language alone is unreliable, and one should check in with one’s partner to make sure everything is agreeable along the way. This takes maturity, sobriety and an ability to receive and respect a “no” or a “not right now.”

In healthy and consensual sexual relationships, pleasure is mutual. Behavior is not coerced. And partners know that there are many ways to experience pleasure other than intercourse.

But failing to understand what a healthy sexual relationship looks like and failing to communicate well in a relationship about sexual behavior can end up leading to disappointment, shame, exploitation, coercion and even assault.

The pleasure I’m talking about is not a hedonistic rampage. It’s an awareness and respect for one’s body and one’s partner’s body, their values, their readiness, their consent. When people are able to talk about pleasure without shame, then sex becomes about intimacy in a relationship, not just about one body’s pleasure.

So yes, we need to talk to our youth about pleasure. We need to let them know that if they aren’t enjoying the interlude — not only physically, but also emotionally — then something is not right, and it’s OK to stop. They need to know that it’s important to really know if their partner is experiencing pleasure, too — that guessing is not good enough.

And they need to know that something this potentially pleasurable is powerful and requires some mature thinking about potential consequences and how to be prepared.

Pleasure isn’t the only thing we should be talking about with our youth in regard to sexuality.

But for goodness sake, don’t leave it out.

Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Contact