Learning About Sensuality Shouldn’t Be Taboo
Originally Published: April 23, 2021
Revised: May 21, 2021
I’ll admit I didn’t really know what sensuality was until this year. Not once did I learn about it in my sex education classes. Sensuality relates to pleasure and deriving enjoyment from one’s own body or the bodies of others. But aside from my training at Sex, Etc., whenever I’ve heard about pleasure in the past, it was usually centered around penile-vaginal intercourse and mainly focused on the pleasure of a man.
The media—movies, T.V., music—often perpetuates the idea that sex is just about a guy’s pleasure. And when sexually explicit media, like pornography, includes images of women screaming in pleasure and having numerous orgasms, it sets unrealistic expectations about sex and how people experience sensual pleasure.
For some teens, especially those not receiving comprehensive sex education, the media may be their only source for information about sex. It got me thinking. How do the portrayals of sex and pleasure in the media and porn contradict how sex really is? Is pleasure the same for everyone? And how can we learn about sensuality if more people aren’t willing to talk about it honestly and it’s not talked about in sex ed?
How do the portrayals of sex and pleasure in the media and porn contradict how sex really is? Is pleasure the same for everyone? And how can we learn about sensuality if it’s not talked about in sex ed?
Unrealistic Portrayals of Sensuality
The way sensuality and sex are portrayed in the media and porn can influence what people think is “normal.” “I think the media tends to glamorize sex,” says Jane, 19, of Berkeley, CA. “It likes to portray sex as this hot, sensual session and skip over the awkward, uncomfortable, even funny parts of sex that are present in real life.”
Exaggerated and unrealistic portrayals of sex affect how we think about sensuality and sexual orientation. “Porn can be a way of exploring your sexuality, but it’s definitely not accurate to real life,” says Kaya, 16, of Maplewood, NJ. “It can give young people an unrealistic idea of what sex is or should be like. For example, porn with two women is often targeted toward straight men. Because of this, it is not a very accurate portrayal of sex between women.” I noticed this same thing when I was watching an episode of my favorite show, Gilmore Girls. Two friends, Rory and Paris, are at a party, and in order to get the attention of the guys in the room, they’re encouraged to kiss. After Paris kisses Rory, they suddenly get a lot more attention from the guys. But were the girls enjoying it? Girls’ pleasure is not a performance.
Representations of pleasure on T.V., in film and pornography don’t reflect what sexual relationships are like in real life. Porn may be a way of exploring fantasies, but it’s not meant to be an example of how we are “supposed” to experience pleasure. What people enjoy physically varies from person to person. And pleasure isn’t just about people’s genitals, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from porn. People can experience physical pleasure from a range of things, like holding hands and whispering in someone’s ear to caressing and even taking a nap together!
We Aren’t Learning About Sensuality in Sex Ed Class
The first time I was introduced to information about pleasure was in my training for Sex, Etc. I learned about the sexual response cycle, which is made up of four phases: desire, arousal, orgasm and resolution. But it isn’t always that simple. Not everyone experiences pleasure in this order. Some people can have multiple orgasms before resolution, and some people don’t orgasm at all.
Sensuality may be a taboo topic to some, but I would love to see more information on it integrated into sex education classes. I’d love for us to talk more about why it’s considered taboo in the first place and what the benefits are of learning about sensuality. For example, teens should know that there are many sensual behaviors—like kissing, hugging and snuggling—that people can engage in that are safe and don’t involve the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Teens should also learn that sex should feel good—whether masturbating or with a partner! The idea that sex is pleasurable is often left out of sex ed, but it’s important. If every person knows they (and not just their partner) deserve pleasure, they may not feel obligated to do something that doesn’t feel good to them. Understanding this is essential.
I’m not the only one whose sex ed class was lacking information on sensuality. “I think the only situation where we said the word ‘orgasm’ was when we described when the man would ejaculate semen,” says Mae, 19, of Grand Rapids, MI. This doesn’t cover what an orgasm is like for people who don’t ejaculate! “I have definitely not learned about sensuality in school,” says Daliah, 16, of Maplewood, NJ. “I also don’t think that the way we think of sensuality and pleasure is the same for everyone. Especially with women because so many can and can’t orgasm in different ways. Each person is different.”
People respond to different kinds of touch and stimulation. It’s a good idea for people to find out what feels good and right to them, so they can communicate that to a partner. When a person can communicate this with partner, it opens the door to other necessary conversations about boundaries, consent and safer sex.
Sensuality Is Not the Same for Everyone
Speaking of figuring out what you like sexually, when I first started puberty, I got lost in comparing my experiences to those of my peers when it comes to pleasure. Gossiping at sleepovers, my friends would describe what felt the “best” for masturbation and what pleasure is “supposed” to feel like. But what feels good for one person might not for another. I was never taught that—at home or at school—so I felt like there was something wrong when what I liked and what my friends liked were completely different things.
“Some of us experience sensuality in different moments and times,” says Mae. People respond to different kinds of touch and stimulation. And sex and sensuality don’t always involve penetration. Pleasure is about whatever feels good to a person.
“Pleasure is definitely not the same for everyone,” says Mary, 19, of Berkeley, CA. “Just like how not everyone likes the same ice cream flavor (and some might not like ice cream at all!), people have different preferences and will vary in how much they enjoy something.” It’s important to recognize that the ways in which people feel—or don’t feel—pleasure vary and that this variation is valid.
Sensuality Is Normal
It’s normal to want to feel pleasure and to want to learn about it. Not talking about sensuality is what makes it taboo. A lot of sex ed classes spend most of their time on contraception and STDs and rarely touch on sensuality. While learning about contraception and STDs is important, learning about a topic as complex as sensuality is also important. When we learn that sex should feel good and that there are different ways people can experience pleasure, we are better prepared to figure out what’s right for us and to communicate that with a partner when the time comes.
What if more adults talked honestly about sensuality? This would be so much better than shaming teens for wanting to feel pleasure. And it would be much better than having teens learn about sensuality from the oversexualized, inaccurate presentations of sex that we sometimes see in movies or T.V. It would be helpful if more parents, caregivers and educators were open about it, offering support when teens have questions, or just being there without judgment. This could decrease shame and increase knowledge. It could make teens feel like their experiences and feelings are valid and, yes, totally normal.
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