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To teach safe sex, don't forget about pleasure, study suggests

Sex. Consent. Education.
Sex. Consent. Education. 23:05

The best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases is to center sex education around not just safety but pleasure — namely, making condoms "sexy," new research says. 

Researchers from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom and the World Health Organization set out to find out how effective it would be to incorporate sexual pleasure, the "key driver of why people have sex," into sexual health education efforts. Billions of dollars have been invested into sexual health services and programs, the authors said, but sexual pleasure has been "insufficiently addressed," despite its positive benefits.  

By analyzing studies on the outcome of various sexual health programs that either do or do not provide an emphasis on sexual pleasure, the researchers found that those programs that do focus on pleasure "significantly improved" participants' use of condoms. 

The majority of programs the researchers analyzed discussed sexual pleasure in the context of behavioral skills, such as "making condom use fun or sexy" and "using lubrication to enhance sexual pleasure," researchers said. Doing so, they found, did result in behavioral changes. 

This improvement was seen in a variety of settings, including in groups in the U.S. designed for men who have sex with men, and in sexual health classes for young people and teens in Spain and Brazil. Their findings were published in the journal PLOS One on Friday. 

Improving condom use outcomes, researchers found, also reduces instances of sexually transmitted infections and diseases. 

More than 1 million sexually transmitted infections are acquired every day across the world, according to WHO. Most of those cases are asymptomatic, which can result in more long-term issues for those who contract them, including increasing the risk of HIV, fetal and birth complications, cancer and death. The best way to prevent them, according to WHO and health care providers, is to wear a condom during sex. 

One of the pleasure-inclusive interventions they analyzed saw a 50% decrease in HIV/STI incidence compared to a more traditional intervention, the researchers found. 

The World Health Organization has said that good sexual health is fundamental to peoples' overall health and well-being. One of the international agency's representatives, study co-author Lianne Gonsalves, said in a statement that traditionally, educational programs teach safe sex by focusing on reducing risk and preventing disease, but also ignore how safe sex can "also promote intimacy, pleasure, consent and wellbeing." 

"This review provides a simple message: programs which better reflect the reasons people have sex — including for pleasure — see better health outcomes," Gonsalves said. "The hope is that these results galvanize the sexual and reproductive health and rights community to promote services that educate and equip users to engage in sex that is safe, consensual, and pleasurable." 

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