Respectability in Sex Education
In an ideal world, we would all have easy access to accurate sexual information that extends far past fallopian tubes and abstinence-only. However, many of us live in sex-negative societies that are strongly rooted in Puritan and “Christian” morals, so a truly comprehensive sex education is not widely available. In fact, sex is currently taught so poorly in American schools that people frequently have to seek outside resources. Consequently, an entire section within the business of sex is dedicated to filling this gap, which includes countless companies, educational courses, clubs, sex therapists and more, all devoted to serving those who are eager to learn more about how to have safe and enjoyable sex.
The problem is that not all of these entities are treated the same. All individuals who provide educational information related to sex operate within the business of sex. However, instead of recognizing each educator as making a legitimate contribution to the field, some are more stigmatized than others, depending on the type of information they provide. This stigmatization leads to unequal treatment in the process of doing business. Currently, the line of respectability that determines which educators are accepted and which educators are not is centered on the presentation of sex—those who aim to make it pleasurable are often forced to navigate numerous hurdles that those who focus on health and safety are not. This essay looks at two of these more stigmatized educators and details some of the challenges that they face. Ultimately, I argue that the discrimination those who focus on pleasure currently experience is holding us back from living our best and most sexually fulfilled lives.
Planned Parenthood asserts, “Sex education helps people gain the information, skills and motivation to make healthy decisions about sex and sexuality.” However, this is only part of what sex education can do. It can also teach people how to have good and fun sex. Hence, the full field of sex education also includes conversations about kink/BDSM, ethical non-monogamy, consent, tips on how to deal with erectile dysfunction, which lubes are best for different types of sex, and so on. Yet, this second type of sex education, which focuses less around health, reproduction, and STI prevention, and more on how to have pleasurable sex, is currently demonized in many societies, especially when it comes to trying to market, sell, or get paid for sexual education services. As a consequence, these pleasure-focused sex ed companies constantly struggle to stay afloat and aren’t given equal opportunities to expand.
The experiences of New Society For Wellness (NSFW), which describes itself as an agency and private members club dedicated to sex and cannabis, is one clear example of how this focus on pleasure has resulted in challenges to conducting business. Though they also host play parties, they specialize in sexual education, and hold several educational events such as ConsentCon, where they discuss the best and sexiest ways to ask for consent. They also have introductory courses to BDSM, vaginal squirting workshops, Shibari rope bondage classes, and panels for members wishing to learn more about having healthy, ethically non-monogamous relationships.
In response to this educational focus on pleasure, NSFW has been routinely blocked by various companies when it comes to processing payments. “[NSFW] is deemed ‘high risk’ by many payment processors and banks, and we’ve had our accounts frozen and had our revenue pipeline completely cut off,” explains the founder and CEO of NSFW Daniel Saynt. “We’ve been on the brink of shutting down when this happens. We have employees to pay [and] people who rely on us, [but] these companies play with our money like we're criminals.” According to Saynt, the two worst payment processors when it comes to discriminating against sex-based companies are Paypal and Stripe. Unfortunately, the two monoliths also happen to be the most common, and since they’re integrated into so many other service providers, NSFW is often left with little choice but to use them.
In addition to having access to their money via these payment services blocked or restricted, Saynt reported other issues. For example, payment services frequently charge NSFW additional premiums on transactions. “So, as a sexual health business,” explained Saynt, “you’re forced to pay more to operate in an industry which benefits everyone.” Then there is also the issue of promoting events on social media. According to Saynt, it is nearly impossible to avoid having accounts shut down for being “too suggestive.” In fact, NSFW has already had three accounts shut down for this exact reason, once for simply promoting a class on female orgasms.
Outside the fundamental questions of "How do I collect money?" and “Is my social media account going be shut down for this post?” there are marketing dilemmas that many pleasure-based sex education companies face as well. Companies in the business of sex that focus specifically on explicit adult content (i.e. pornography) have long been banned from platforms like Google Adwords and Facebook ads, but this rule now applies to companies in the sexual wellness category, including sex educators and female sexual wellness products. Notably, some products that could be placed within this category are largely exempt from these new restrictions, such as erectile dysfunction services like Hims and Roman, which can seemingly be advertised everywhere.
Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of the world's first and only social sex video sharing content platform, MakeLoveNotPorn (MLNP), also struggles against these differences in treatment. “It’s incredibly frustrating seeing this double standard at play.” According to Gallop, MLNP has tried every traditional and non-traditional method of advertising out there, and no one will consider it, even when she explains that MLNP is a sexual education platform.
Part of the issue is that companies don’t view these pleasure-focused sex services as a form of education, even though that’s exactly what they provide. For example, a few months after launching MLNP in 2013, Professor Mary Koss of the University of Arizona, asked Gallop if she could show MLNP #realworldsex videos in her classroom to her students. The two Skyped. Afterwards, “[Koss] crystallized the realization that MakeLoveNotPorn is a unique form of sex education, and a complementary resource for sex educators and therapists everywhere – especially today.”
To illustrate this point, Gallop gave the example of consent, which everyone is now more openly discussing in the era of #MeToo. She explained that while everyone’s writing about consent and there are numerous nuanced and insightful think pieces about consent, there is a big problem: nobody knows what consent actually looks like in bed:
“Nothing educates people about what is great, consensual, communicative sex, good sexual values and good sexual behavior, like watching people actually having that kind of sex—and MakeLoveNotPorn is the only place on the internet where you can do that. We are education through demonstration.”
Still, despite her many attempts, “MLNP can’t get funded, banked, process payments, use many tech services, nor advertise [or] promote our platform, when it would benefit so many more people. Our members already tell us that we save marriages, improve relationships, help them heal from erectile dysfunction and sexual assault, and learn how to better educate their children on sex.”
Health- and safety-focused sex education services like Planned Parenthood, however, can use these tech services, process payments, and advertise more freely. While their circumstances are a little different under the current administration, the reason for its recent hurdles are not rooted in the sex education services it provides, but rather, that they provide abortions. This is certainly an important issue that should be addressed; however, it is separate from the challenges that are posed to some sex educators because of their focus on pleasure.
Plan Parenthood's focus on safe sex is also the reason they haven’t been blocked from using payment processors the same way NSFW or MLNP have. The same is true for other state- or city-run sexual health services like New York Health’s Sexual Health Clinic in Crown Heights, where I routinely get tested, and if necessary, treated for STIs free of charge. Since the Health Clinic focuses on STI prevention and treatment, but not pleasure, they are also able to do everything any non-Business of Sex entity can do.
At the end of the day, we need sex, not just to reproduce, but to connect with ourselves and our loved ones. That is why a comprehensive sex education is so important. We should all be encouraged not only to use condoms and get regular STI screenings, but also to explore our sexuality and learn how to have the kind of sex that is consensual, safe and fulfilling. So, we need all forms of sex education. Companies like NSFW and MLNP shouldn’t be discriminated against for providing these pleasure-focused services; instead, they should be recognized as a legitimate part of sex education within the business of sex, and celebrated for their contributions.