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jennifer loviglio
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Forewarned is Foreplay

Few topics can incite people as much as sex ed. And yet for all the energy and money we're investing in it, we're still doing something wrong. The overall rate of unplanned pregnancies remains unchanged; the rate for poor women is rising. And the latest study to join the abstinence education vs. contraceptive education debate -- from the Mathematica Policy Research Institute -- shows that the former doesn't work. The conservative right however, argues that there are at least a dozen studies showing that abstinence education does work.

We can go around and around on this, but I have an idea. My cursory and unscientific survey of what my sons, ages 10 and 13, have learned in the public schools about sex ed reveals that something is missing: pleasure. When we teach young people about foreplay and intercourse we forget to say that they're fun. It's counterintuitive, but I think this could help reduce some unwanted pregnancies.

In grade school sex ed classes now, a nurse or doctor teaches the anatomy and biology of reproduction. Most of it. There's not even a quick, clinical mention of how the human body is designed to make sexual intercourse enjoyable. And in middle school, where some students are already having intercourse, sex education teachers today omit the biological components of pleasure and orgasm. Instead, they concentrate on the nuts (ha-ha) and bolts of what goes where, along with a faint-inducing lecture, one recent hot May afternoon, about STDs.

In the 70s, admittedly a laissez-faire blip in what has turned out to be a generally oppressive era, I learned at home and in school that pleasure was a biological part of courting, foreplay and sexual intercourse. I'm not sure why pleasure has since been removed from the curriculum -- AIDS? The Christian Right? Local parents, perhaps?

Anyway, every time I sat in a sex ed lecture in school -- I remember 6th grade and 8th most clearly -- pleasure was an integral part of the discussion. Certain flooding feel-good hormones. Certain throbbing body parts. In 8th grade, we learned about orgasms from Ms. Thompson. "An orgasm is when every cell in your body says, 'Wow.'"

"Wow," I thought.

You might think that being steeped in the if-it-feels-good-do-it culture of the 1970s would have encouraged me to have sex. But, in fact, knowing in advance about those passionate urges helped me stave off intercourse until I was older and really ready. And it was not easy.

From my first kiss with a little boy named Paul in 1st grade -- both of us standing on a toilet seat in the girls' bathroom -- all I ever wanted to do was kiss and hug and whatever came after that. When, at 12, I started having boyfriends consistently, every cell in my body yearned to say "Wow" during hot and sweaty make-out sessions.

"Just a little 'Wow!'" my cells would scream.

And then: "Give me some 'WOW' NOW."

But then the clinical sex-ed voice would cut in: "Here's that sneaky species-perpetuating pleasure they warned you about."

And: "Don't let the passion lead you into something you aren't ready for." That voice was cold water splashing onto my burning desire. It caused me to think.

"Wait," the voice said. "Not now."

"You don't want a baby," it said.

And, when I was a bit older: "Do you even know this guy's name?"

That voice extracted me from sticky situations when I was young and woozy with yearning. When I was older and ready for intercourse, it helpfully reminded me to get up and find the contraceptives.

I'm not saying grade schoolers should learn all the lurid details of how sexy and fun kissing, etc. is. Nor do I think middle schoolers would benefit from reading a stapled packet of erotica excerpts. (Though I doubt they'd complain.) Comprehensive sex education should include telling students (in age-appropriate ways) that feeling good is nature's way of ensuring humans reproduce. It wouldn't hurt. And it might even help young people in the throes of what seems to be overwhelming desire, to stop and think.