This past December, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK convened a meeting of leading erotic justice activists and service providers for a deliberation on “Sexual Pleasure and Women’s Empowerment.”
Presenters at the event advocated for understanding the female sexual universe as having to do with more than just disease, violence, exploitation, and procreation. The forum was also critical of the medicalisation of women’s bodies, desires, and pleasure.
All presentations were clear in their assessment of sexual pleasure as a strategy for empowering women. One presenter, Bibi Bakare, for example, presented theories that were inspired by the work of Carole Vance, editor of the ground-breaking early 1990s anthology Pleasure and Danger. Another presenter, Lorna Couldrick, presented her work to empower people with disabilities to have and enjoy the kind pleasure they want. Jo Doezema’s “Pleasure and Performance in Sex Work” and Agata Zumaeta’s theatrical approaches also reinforced this notion. All presenters pointed to the fact that focusing on female sexual pleasure —and the embodied agency that it gives to women— has a greater potential of deconstructing the hetero-patriarcal logic and scripts that women are passive objects of hetero-masculine activities.
Presentations also emphasized the idea that the sexual pleasure approach to women’s empowerment, as tested by various projects around the world, was undeniably the right response to resolving female subjectivity and subjugation. Examples of such intervention strategies were drawn from projects on gender-based violence in Africa, projects for people living with HIV, the transgender/transsexual projects, and sexuality education strategies such as the ones designed by Gill Gordon.
I was proud to be able to discuss the International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE) pleasure project as a part of this new and exciting development in women’s health and empowerment. INCRESE began intervention on erotic justice with a simple research on attitudes and perception towards sexual pleasure in women. It sought to check out how these traditional perceptions were influencing programming on sexual reproductive health and rights. In disseminating our findings, we are recognizing a great need to challenge the position of hetero-patriarchal notions of female sexuality.
Amazingly, the audiences at the various dissemination fora sought for more information and asked for solutions to the negative attitude that was reported in the research findings. These quests resulted in regular education fora that soon became couple support meetings as partners brought their spouses to the meetings.
After working with over 125 couples, INCRESE conducted an evaluation and discovered that domestic violence among couples that were attending the meetings had decreased; that there was better communication among partners; that women felt they hadmore room to address issues pertaining to the sexual conduct of their husbands; that men felt they had more room to discuss the challenges of polygamy; and that issues concerning use of contraceptives, STIs, HIV/AIDS, sexual pleasure and orgasms could be discussed by the couples much more freely. Women became empowered to discuss their desires, their pleasures and beyond that began to have a say on how the family resources were managed. It was a rewarding experience.
Because of the excellent results I experienced working with INCRESE on sexual pleasure and women’s empowerment, I am particularly thrilled to see organizations, universities, and movements looking for cutting edge women’s empowerment approaches for this decade and beyond! My experience at the University of Sussex conference indicates that the feminist think tank is working on the offensive, and not on the defensive, as it continues to work on sexual pleasure with couples and individuals across the country.
Dorothy Aken’Ova works with the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, the leading Nigerian NGO working for a favorable environment and expanding access to sexual health and rights information and services. (INCRESE) in Nigeria.