Birth control, STDs, orgasms, and beyond

The Washington Post recently printed a discussion of research about sex. More specifically, they printed a discussion of what sort of research isn’t happening. The article begins:

This just in, from a global study on sexual well-being released last month: More than half of Americans are unhappy with their sex lives.

Or are they? Last year, another international survey reported that more than two out of three are quite satisfied.

So it goes in the relatively new world of research on sexual satisfaction. For all that we know now about the problems associated with sex — HIV/AIDS, erectile dysfunction and unwanted pregnancies, to name three — we understand very little about how sex contributes to our quality of life.

What is the connection between sex and emotions? How important is sex to happiness? Sixty years after Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey made sexuality a topic for serious study, we are still groping in the dark when it comes to how much we enjoy it.

There are reasons for this.

The article then goes on to discuss the lack of federal funding when it comes to talking about sex in ways unrelated to pregnancy or STDs. The government apparently prefers to fund studies with titles like: “Social and Behavioral Aspects of Fertility-Related Behavior” which did not include the word sex in the first four pages of the proposal. That gap, the article says, is being filled by corporation-funded research. The results of this corporation-funded sex research depressingly often support whatever product line the particular funding corporation sells.

Here’s a good research nugget for you: “People ages 16 to 24, many of whom lead busy, even frenetic lives, were more likely than their older counterparts to say they’d like more time alone with their partners, as well as more romance and tenderness.” Well, yeah! That’s when people are learning how to be romantic and tender. Hopefully by the time they’re older they understand the importance of romance and tenderness in a relationship, and understand that the best way to get those things is to give them.

The article goes on to say:

The age of first intercourse has declined, and the age of first marriage is increasing; thus, young Americans will be having sex for more years outside marriage than in the past. Also, older Americans are living longer, and drugs are enhancing their sexual function.

I’m not sure when the article author was thinking about the age of first intercourse declining from, because I’m pretty sure it’s been going up in recent years. But it is certainly true that fewer people are waiting for marriage, and marriage is happening later. So I strongly appreciate the need for more understanding about sexual pleasure (both in terms of number of orgasms and other forms of physical and emotional connectedness).

I find this to be particularly important because I find that it is so often left out of conversations about sexuality with teenagers. Sometimes parents and other adults ask me why teenagers have sex at such young ages. My answer is one I am sure they could come up with if they thought about it for a minute: Because it feels good. If parents, adults, sex educators want to reduce teenage pregnancy and STD rates and raise the age of first oral sex and intercourse, we have to address sexual pleasure with teenagers. That line deserves to be repeated all by itself:

If we want to help teenagers delay pregnancy, oral sex, and sexual intercourse and reduce STD contraction rates, we have to talk about other ways for them to get sexual pleasure.

Ignoring this incredible driving force (i.e., sexual pleasure) when talking about sexuality with teenagers will completely miss the point for them. And so I look forward to the day when we as a society are willing to look more closely at sexual pleasure as a critical component of our sex lives and our general life satisfaction.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Talking about sexual pleasure makes people uncomfortable, and telling the truth to teenagers makes adults uncomfortable, so…it’s a lot of discomfort we have to get past. Odd, really, considering that sexual pleasure is something that all people, even babies, experience from time to time.

    There is, of course, also the emotional component of bonding with someone that can be very attractive to anyone but especially risky for young people.

  2. Its important to directly address female orgasm here. A friend of mine says she tells every adolescent girl she gets a chance to: “You shouldn’t have sex with anyone you don’t want to have an orgasm with.” Its far too easy for young women to be timid about getting their own sexual pleasure needs met, too easy to let the more assertive male partner drive/control the interaction.

    What do you suggest, Karen, to say to pre-sexual, pre-adolescent girls?

    In my case, the “What’s Happening To My Body Book for Girls” has been fruitful for discussions with my 10-yr-old daughter. She has been too shy to talk directly with me about masturbation, but she was able to listen as I read aloud that section, and the one about sexual fantasy.

    (That particular evening brings a smile to my face every time I think about it. She is not one to go to bed without being reminded. But that night, after reading the sections about masturbation and sexual fantasy, the next section dealt with the urethra. She stopped me right there, covered her mouth with a few fake yawns, and said, I’m tired now, I think I’ll just go to bed. She didn’t ask for the normal “backy-scratchy” that night.)

    I think its important that the act of masturbation is acknowledged to these kids – to let them know its normal, to let them know just about everyone does it, to let them know that some people do it in each others’ company. Mutual masturbation is a very safe alternative to oral sex and intercourse.

  3. I think it is critical to talk about masturbation with girls and boys of all ages. First, of course, to encourage them to utilize the privacy of their own room. Then, eventually, to make sure they know it’s healthy and that they should feel totally comfortable being hands-on in learning about their own bodies (literally, of course).

    Out of those conversations should eventually come a discussion of the importance of continuing the pleasure of masturbation as a couple. When that conversation should happen really depends on the individual, but I think it would be lovely if teenagers thought sexual pleasure and orgasms were more important to a romantic relationship than sexual intercourse. Because, of course, it is.

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