Pleasure is both a physical and emotional feeling, but why is it an ethical issue?  What does sexual pleasure have to do with ethics?  Surprisingly, there are a host of issues that come up around pleasure that are related to ethical problems regarding freedom, oppression, equality, justice, and care.

Consider these questions:

  • Who is permitted pleasure?  You would think everyone, but think again.
  • What ideas and practices in our society support pleasure for some but not for others?  This question may be hard.  Remember that some societies believe sexual pleasure is wrong.  Do we have ideas and practices that suggest that?
  • Who feels entitled to sexual pleasure and who does not?
  • What does it mean to feel entitled to sexual pleasure?  Is that different from being selfish or thinking of one’s own pleasure first?
  • How does guilt and shame (moral emotions) interfere with sexual pleasure?
  • Do we in our society shame or scold people for feeling sexual pleasure?
  • Are there ethical and unethical ways of pursuing sexual pleasure?


In this lesson we will talk about several important issues:  childhood sexual pleasure, the treatment of women and its effects on sexual pleasure, condoms and responsibility, and a discussion surrounding who has the right to sexual pleasure.

Childhood Sexual Pleasure

People are sexual creatures from birth unto death…but not everyone has sex.  So what does it mean to be a child and a sexual creature?  At the beginning, it means that you have sexual feelings and that touching your genitals feels good.  Research shows that 1/3 to ½ of children play sexual games—and that might be an underestimation.  Some parents stop their children from doing this; some parents don’t.  What are the messages parents want to give their 3-5 year olds about touching themselves?

Don’t do that!

That’s private! Do it alone in your room!

Go right ahead! It’s normal!!

Slightly older children play sexual games from “doctor” to “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”  Children also imitate what they see that’s sexual in society.  Some children will play house; some will play at being sexy dancers.  Almost all of this play is done between peers and in private.  Some say, “What’s the harm?”  Some say that this is wrong.  How do we differentiate between normative sexual play and what could be harmful or wrong in children?

Discussion Questions:

  1. You may be thinking it’s pretty typical for children to play these games.  Why is it still uncomfortable to talk about it?  Why is there so much guilt?
  2. Imagine you are babysitting, and you walk in on the young boy and girl in your care engaging in a game of “doctor.”  What do you do?  Would this situation be any different if you were a parent of these children and not a babysitter?
  3. Are there certain sexual feelings and acts for children that seem way too grown-up?


Here are some of the things that grown-ups told Lamb (2002) that they felt were abnormal:

  1. Thinking about anything to do with sex a lot as a child  (from age of 7 on)
  2. Drawing pictures of very large breasted women  or very large penises and passing them around (from age of 6 through middle school)
  3. Setting up naked Barbie doll games and “torturing” them  (age 9)
  4. Sneaking into parent’s room and stealing a copy of a porn magazine to look through  (age 11)
  5. Watching a porn movie with friends  (age 12)
  6. Playing “puppets” with the lips of the vagina to make the vaginas talk to one another  (age 10)
  7. Playing that you were a murdered sexy beautiful lady in a crime show  (age 11)
  8. Playing house and then rubbing against each other when pretending to be the mom and dad in bed together (age 7)
  9. Examining a friend’s naked body using “tools”  (age 9)
  10. Licking each others’ penises  (age 8)


Let’s take away the word “normal” and replace it with “healthy and unharmful.”  And let’s imagine that all of the above took place among peers.

  1. What do you think of each of these?
  2. Under what circumstances could each of these be unhealthy or harmful?
  3. What would you need to know about the kids involved to determine if this was a problem or not?


Reading and Discussion: Learning about Sexuality in Two Different Societies

From Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only


The Inis Beag people live on an isolated island off the coast of Ireland.  For the most part, this small population of about 350 is poor and either fish or farm for a living.  This culture has been referred to as one of the “most sexually naive cultures in the world.”  One of the reasons for this is that sex is never discussed at any time.  Daughters are not taught about menstruation, intercourse, orgasms, or childbirth.  Both the onset of menstruation and of menopause are greatly feared, and menopause is believed to cause madness.  Oral sex, fondling of the penis or breast, homosexuality, anal intercourse, and even French kissing are either unknown or considered totally depraved.  The men believe that sexual intercourse will destroy their health.  The only position for intercourse is the male-above “missionary position” with no foreplay.  Female orgasm is considered a sign of possession by the devil.

Nudity is forbidden.  Mothers bathe their children in a smock so that they never see them nude.  Husbands and wives never see each other naked, and the children and adults only wash hands, feet, lower arms and legs, and faces.  Men would rather risk drowning than wear swim trunks that expose their legs.

Marriage occurs late; for men at 36 and for women at 25.  Marriages are arranged by the parents without concerns for the wishes of the couple.  Premarital intercourse does not exist.  Families are large, with an average of seven children.  Sons are favored by their mothers, and this often results in open resentment between fathers and sons.  Hostility frequently exists between husband and wife because there is usually no love in the relationship, and the wife often resents the husband’s freedom.


The Mangaians inhabit the Cook Island in the South Pacific.  In private, boys and girls are free to engage in all forms of sexual activity, with adults pretending not to be aware of these activities.  In public however, Mangaian boys and girls are segregated from the age of 3 to 4.  Even hand holding is considered very immodest.  Yet prior to the age of segregation, boys and girls run around naked and masturbate in public.

The Mangaians believe that sexual pleasure should come first, before any affection, in the formation of an intimate relationship.  They find the American belief that you do not have sex with someone you do not love or have a strong affection for very strange.

Adolescent sex is very open and encouraged by adults.  Boys undergo a type of circumcision at the age of 13 or 14.  Once the wound is healed, the teenage boy has intercourse with an experienced older woman.  Both sexes are taught the art of sexual pleasuring, and masturbation is encouraged.  Orgasm is universal for both boys and girls, and heterosexual intercourse, including oral and anal sex, is enjoyed in a variety of positions.

Parents encourage premarital sexual activity with many partners.  In their teens and 20s, young men and women engage in intercourse several times a night.  Extramarital sex occurs when a woman goes back to the man with whom she first had sexual intercourse.  It also occurs when men and women are separated from their spouses.  The Mangaians believe that regular sexual activity keeps a person from becoming ill and losing his or her mind.

www.SexEdStore.comReprinted with permission from Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only.

© 2009 by The Center for Family Life Education. For more information, please visit


  1. What are your thoughts on these two cultures?
  2. Considering issues of freedom, autonomy, jealousy, etc. that you have studied in previous chapters, what are your ethical reactions to the sexual practices in these cultures?
  3. Where does the U.S. fall in terms of sexual behavior?  In other words, what characteristics, if any, does our culture share with the Inis Beag and/or Magaian people?

The Treatment of Women and its Effects on Sexual Pleasure

The diagram below depicts many of the things that affect a woman’s ability to feel sexual pleasure, have pleasurable feelings, or enjoy the pleasurable feelings:  bad body image, abuse in her past, focusing on the partner’s pleasure, focusing on how she looks to the partner, having a partner who doesn’t care about her pleasure, fear of talking about pleasure.  Can you think of other factors that might affect a woman’s ability to feel sexual pleasure?

Diagram: A woman's ability to feel sexual pleasure

Reading and Discussion:  Iris Marion Young

Iris Marion Young wrote her essay “Throwing Like a Girl” in the 1980’s.  It was published in 1990 and she used philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s work on women as a foundation for her thinking.  Young writes that de Beauvoir says that in society, women and girls are always the “other” and men are the subjects.  This means that men are the focus, or who we think of when we think of human beings, and women are the extras, afterthoughts or accessories, or the ones who play a supporting role as in taking care of others.  Because of this, women are denied some of the creativity, independence, and subjectivity that men have.   On the one hand, a woman is free and can do what she likes, and she is thus a “subject.”  But because she’s a woman, she is also an object.  We’ve talked earlier about what it means to be an object, but Young concentrates on what it means to PHYSICALLY be an object.  She believes that being an object affects girls in three ways:  a) the way they hold their bodies; b) the way they use their bodies in performing tasks; and c) the way they perceive their bodies.  As you read, think of Young as talking about girls’ bodies and the space around them.

From On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays (2005):

“The previously cited throwing example can be extended to a  great deal of athletic activity.  Now, most men are by no means superior athletes, and their sporting efforts more often display bravado than genuine skill and coordination.  The relatively untrained man nevertheless engages in sport generally with more free motion and open reach than does his female counterpart.  Not only is there a typical style of throwing like a girl, but there is a more or less typical style of running like a girl, climbing like a girl, swinging like a girl, hitting like a girl.  They have in common first that the whole body is not put into fluid and directed motion, but rather, in swinging and hitting, for example, the motion is concentrated in one body part; and second, that the woman’s motion tends not to reach, extend, lean, stretch, and follow through in the direction of her intention.

For many women as they move in sport, a space surrounds us in imagination that we are not free to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a constricted space.  Thus, for example, in softball or volleyball women tend to remain in one place more often than men do, neither jumping to reach nor running to approach the ball.  Men more often move out toward a ball in flight and confront it with their own countermotion.  Women tend to wait for and then react to its approach, rather than going forth to meet it.  We frequently respond to the motion of a ball coming toward us as though it were coming at us, and our immediate bodily impulse is to flee, duck, or otherwise protect ourselves from its flight.  Less often than men, moreover, do women give self-conscious direction and placement to their motion in sport.  Rather than aiming at a certain place where we wish to hit a ball, for example, we tend to hit it in a “general” direction.

Women often approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy.  Typically, we lack an entire trust in our bodies to carry us to our aims.  There is, I suggest, a double hesitation here.  On the one hand, we often lack confidence that we have the capacity to do what must be done.  Many times I have slowed a hiking party in which the men bounded across a harmless stream while I stood on the other side warily testing my footing on various stones, holding on to overhanging branches.  Though the others crossed with ease, I do not believe it is easy for me, even though once I take a committed step I am across in a flash.  The other side of this tentativeness is, I suggest, a fear of getting hurt, which is greater in women than in men.  Our attention is often divided between the aim to be realized in motion and the body that must accomplish it, while at the same time saving itself from harm.  We often experience our bodies as fragile encumbrance, rather than the media for the enactment of our aims.  We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our bodies to make sure they are doing what we wish them to do, rather than paying attention to what we want to do through our bodies.

All the above factors operate to produce in many women a greater or lesser feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness.  We have more of a tendency than men do to greatly underestimate our bodily capacity.  We decide beforehand—usually mistakenly—that the task is beyond us, and thus give it less than our full effort.  At such a halfhearted level, of course, we cannot perform the tasks, become frustrated, and fulfill our own prophecy. In entering a task we frequently are self-conscious about appearing awkward and at the same time do not wish to appear too strong.  Both worries contribute to our awkwardness and frustration.  If we should finally release ourselves from this spiral and really give a physical task our best effort, we are greatly surprised indeed at what our bodies can accomplish.  It has been found that women more often than men underestimate the level of achievement they have reached.

None of the observations that have been made thus far about the way women typically move and comport their bodies applies to all women all of the time.  Nor do those women who manifest some aspect of this typicality do so in the same degree.  There is no inherent, mysterious connection between these sorts of typical comportments and being a female person.  Many of them result, as will be developed later, from lack of practice in using the body and performing tasks.  Even given these qualifications, one can nevertheless sensibly speak of a general feminine style of body comportment and movement” (pp. 146-147).

. . .

“… At the root of (a female style of holding and moving the body), I have stated in the previous section, is the fact that the woman lives her body as object as well as subject.  The source of this is that patriarchal society defines woman as object, as a mere body, and that in sexist society women are in fact frequently regarded by others as objects and mere bodies.  An essential part of the situation of being a woman is that of living the ever-present possibility that one will be gazed upon as a mere body, as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention.  [Teacher’s note:  This means she always is potentially looked at instead of being the one doing the looking.] The source of this objectified bodily existence is in the attitude of others regarding her, but the woman herself often actively takes up her body image as a mere thing.  She gazes at it in the mirror, worries about how it looks to others, prunes it, shapes it, molds and decorates it.

This objectified bodily existence accounts for the self-consciousness of the feminine relation to her body and resulting distance she takes from her body.  …  Thus, to the degree that she does live herself as mere body, she cannot be in unity with herself, but must take a distance from and exist in discontinuity with her body.  The objectifying regard that “keeps her in her place” can also account for the spatial modality of being positioned and for why women frequently tend not to move openly, keeping their links closed around themselves.  To open her body in free, active, open extension and bold outward-directedness is for a woman to invite objectification.

The threat of being seen is, however, not the only threat of objectification that the woman lives. She also lives the threat of invasion of her body space.  The most extreme form of such spatial and bodily invasion is the threat of rape. But we daily are subject to the possibility of bodily invasion in many far more subtle ways as well.  It is acceptable, for example, for women to be touched in ways and under circumstances that it is not acceptable for men to be touched, and by persons—i.e., men—whom it is not acceptable for them to touch.  I would suggest that the enclosed space that has been described as a modality of feminine spatiality is in part a defense against such invasion.  Women tend to project an existential barrier closed around them and discontinuous with the “over there” in order to keep the other at a distance.  The woman lives her space as confined and closed around her, at least in part as projecting some small area in which she can exist as a free subject” (p. 155).


  1. As you read what she writes—and she speaks about all women or all girls—do you get the feeling “that was then and this is now”?  For example, we have many more great female athletes now?  Is it fair to say now that women “approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy”?
  2. Can that phrase be applied to sexual interactions?
  3. What do you think about her views of self-consciousness?  If you are a self-conscious person, and many teens would describe themselves as such, have you ever thought of this as coming from society rather than from within your personality?  What in the world around us makes us feel self-conscious?
  4. She writes that girls live with the expectation that she will “frequently [be] regarded by others as objects and mere bodies.”  How does she say that this affects the way girls hold their bodies in public?  Is it true that to be “free” with your body invites people to look at you and judge you?
  5. She also writes that the threat of rape or “invasion” keeps girls and women living in a space that is closed around them; that girls and women project a “barrier” around them, for protection.  What’s your sense of whether or not that is true?  Do you think it’s more true for girls who have grown up abused or harassed?
  6. If a boy is gay and worried about homophobic attacks, might he too begin to hold his body differently in public?  Might that too affect his range of movement?
  7. And to challenge Young, what about the way heterosexual young men are so stiff and unyielding in their bodies?  In some ways it doesn’t seem as if boys have that much more range of movement.  Are there some movements that boys can’t make because of restrictions?
  8. How would these restrictions affect people as sexual partners?  In terms of feeling free? In terms of feeling self-conscious?  In terms of feeling safe?  In terms of feeling sexy?


Students will need to find, or the instructor can bring in, several magazines with articles about “How to please your guy.”   If students go out to look for articles, see if any can find articles that cater to “How to please your woman.”  What is the assumption underlying these articles?  Why are there so many articles about women pleasing men?  List all the messages to young women that these articles imply.  Do girls feel empowered if they are good at pleasing men?  Why?

For the Teacher/Groups After They Have Done the Exercise:

Here are some of the messages to help students look for:  it’s his pleasure that’s important; it’s hard to please men and you must work at it; it’s a competition that you will be evaluated on and other girls may win out (as in the Pussycat Dolls song, “Don’t Cha Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me? Don’t Cha Wish Your Girlfriend Was a Freak Like Me? Don’t cha?”); that doing things to someone creates pleasure rather than being with someone you really like; that one needs to learn specific sexual skills and if you don’t learn them you will not be “good in bed”; that one needs to buy products to please someone; that this is one of the most important things to know about in a woman’s life!

Discussion:  Masturbation

Former President Bill Clinton appointed as his Surgeon General an African American Woman named Jocelyn Elders.  She cared deeply for the health of teenagers.  But one day, she suggested publicly, in response to a question, that maybe it was okay to teach teens to masturbate as part of sex education!  And what happened?

“Amidst a sea of controversy over a statement made at World AIDS Day at the United Nations regarding the teaching of masturbation in schools, Dr. Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign her post as U.S. Surgeon General in December 1994. The Surgeon General had just finished a routine speech at the conference on the spread of communicable diseases when, Dr. Rob Clark a New York psychologist, asked her if she would consider promoting masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. Elder, as quoted in US News & World Report responded, ‘With regard to masturbation, I think that it is something that is a part of human sexuality and a part of something that should perhaps be taught.’ That statement so enraged both conservatives and moderates alike, that it ended in Elder’s termination. For Elders the political climate in Washington at that time was less than favorable for even the most minor misstep. The Republicans had just taken over the House of Representatives—for the first time in more than 40 years—and the Clinton administration was reeling. Elders infraction could not be overlooked…

…Elders responded not with anger but with grace. She did not buck, nor did she apologize. She stood by her comment, all of her comments, saying ‘Jocelyn Elders was Jocelyn Elders and I’ve always tried to speak what I knew to be the truth’” (From, Celebrating Women’s History)


  1. Do you think masturbation should it be taught?
  2. Should parents talk to children about it?
  3. Is it wrong for a mother to give a daughter a vibrator?
  4. Is it wrong for a father to joke about jerking off?
  5. Is it wrong to use pornography?
  6. Is it wrong to masturbate when you are in a relationship?

Condoms, Pleasure, and Responsibility

As you learned in health class, condoms are one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of HIV and STD’s.  And yet, as teens get older, their condom use goes down.  What are some of the reasons?


Why do couples like to use condoms? Why don’t couples like to use condoms?


Some Ideas:


Why do couples like to use condoms? Why don’t couples like to use condoms?
Both people can enjoy the experience without worrying about pregnancy, STDs, HIV/AIDS Decreases pleasure
They are relatively inexpensive and readily accessible for the moment Keeps you from feeling as close to your partner
They don’t affect hormones Ruins the spontaneity of the moment; you have to interrupt the process
Can be less messy Brings up the idea of STDS and pregnancy, which can ruin to mood
Purchasing them doesn’t require a doctor’s visit, and in many cases, doesn’t require parental permission There is a worry that the condom will break
They come in many different flavors, colors, and sizes! Feels “medical”


Discussion: Requests Made for Pleasure

Who can ask for pleasure?  Who can’t?  Why?

In early Christianity, it was believed that the pleasure that comes with sex was not part of God’s plan.  Later, Paul wrote that sexual desire was an important component of marriage, as it kept people in relationships.

ACTIVITY: Drawing Dictations

Divide up into groups of 3.  There should be a girl and a boy in each group if possible.  Each student chooses to be number 1, 2 or 3.  The 1’s will be the drawers, the 2’s will be the subjects and the 3’s will be the observers.  In this exercise, the drawer, under the direction of the subject, will be drawing a sketch of the subject.  The subject will watch the drawer carefully as he or she sketches and will give the drawer instructions on how the drawer should draw the subject (e.g. “No, make my nose wider…” or “I think my eyes look too sleepy in the drawing” or “Yeah, that looks right!”).  The drawer will listen carefully to the instructions from the subject; he or she can ask the subject questions on how he or she wants the image to be drawn.  The observer simply observes and takes notes on the interaction between the drawer and subject.  After five minutes the students change roles. The observer will be become the subject, the drawer will become the observer and the subject will become the drawer.  The new drawer will now sketch the new subject and the observer will take notes on the interaction.  After five minutes the students will switch roles again.  Whichever role a student has not done will be their role in the last five minutes.  After the final five minute segment, the students will review and discuss their observations in their triad.  At the end of the exercise the students will come back into the large group to share their experiences.

Here are some questions for discussion:

When you were a subject…

  1. Did you have a hard time telling the drawer how to draw you?
  2. What did you notice about what you asked for and what you did not ask for?

When you were a drawer…

  1. Was it hard to understand what the subject was requesting?
  2. How did you feel taking directions from the subject?

When you were an observer…

  1. Did you notice any differences between when a girl was the subject and when a boy was the subject?
  2. How was your experience of being an observer different?

General Questions:

  1. In this exercise, was it your experience that boys or girls felt more entitled to express what they want?
  2. Who described their feelings more?

Relating this Exercise to pleasure:

  1. Do you think it’s hard to ask for and control the way you receive pleasure from another person?
  2. What about this communication exercise taught you something about expressing desires, feelings, and wants?
  3. Why is it that some people can ask for pleasure, and others feel entitled to ask?  Do you think boys feel more entitled?

Some may say it’s not a decision for boys, because they think with their penises.  What does this mean and to what extent do you think it’s true?  Can you give an example of what it means to “think with your penis”?  And if this is the case, why don’t we say that girls think with their clitorises?


Francoeur, R. T. (1991).  Becoming a sexual person.  New York, NY: MacMillan.

Lamb, S. (2002).  The secret lives of girls: What good girls really do—Sex play, aggression, and their guilt. New York, NY: Free Press.

Marshall, D. and R. Suggs, eds. Human Sexual Behavior.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Young, I. M. (2005).  On female body experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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