In the words of Janet Jackson, circa 1986, “It’s the pleasure principle!” Yet, those of us working to advance the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescent girls often forget this and are reluctant to talk about pleasure.
In sexuality education, educators feel awkward and ill-equipped to broach the topic, and as a result, young people don’t get the information they need. Of course, personal boundaries are crucial. But teachers should be having these discussions, and responding constructively when students question them about it. This is especially important as women, girls, and transpeople are targeted the most by negative messages about their bodies and their sexuality by media.
Some brave organizations around the world are working to change this. IWHC’s grantee partners Creating Resources and Empowerment in Action (CREA) in India, Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) in Kenya, and International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE) in Nigeria are breaking new ground. Their empowerment programs promote sexual pleasure as an end in and of itself. In fact, they are unleashing pleasure waves that span the globe!
At recent international conferences — Women Deliver 2016 and the AWID Forum — CREA has explored the politics of pleasure, sexual autonomy, and bodily rights. In conversations and presentations at these conferences, they brought to light how our field had tended to associate sex with pain and distress. This is important as one in three women will be beaten, coerced into sex, or abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime. However, a disproportionate focus on violence ignores women’s sexual agency and choice.
CREA points out that our collective language reflects this bias: we have more vocabulary for sexual violence than for pleasure. By putting sexual freedom and enjoyment on the feminist agenda and using different language, we affirm that we want to live in a world where all women and girls can act with self-determination in the boardroom, and the bedroom–alone or with a partner. At the same time, we should recognize that pleasure is just one of the many possible motivators for and goals of sex.
During a Women Deliver panel, the Pleasure Project, a U.K.-based nonprofit, made a dramatic point by describing the internal (female) condom as a sex toy. This caused the audience to gasp. They eroticized safer sex! Youth Advocate Arushi Singh also discussed their “pleasure audits,” which include working with sexuality educators to review curricula and ensure they include pleasure in a meaningful way.
In Kenya, TICAH bravely and provocatively tackles issues of pleasure in an environment where girls are not supposed to be knowledgeable about sex. Jade Maina, Deputy Director, states that she hopes the long-term impact of their work will be girls and women who enjoy sex and sexual expression. “Sex is fun and should be a happy thing!” she said. However, her team does grapple with how to have conversations about masturbation that uproot patriarchal notions of female body exploration and pleasure as sinful and perverse.
Dorothy Aken’Ova, Founding Executive Director of INCRESE in northern Nigeria, has said, “Rights include the right to seek pleasure.” Dorothy, who has been on the frontlines of the national LGBTQ movement, recently returned home from a trip to the United States with a suitcase full of sex toys, including butt plugs, which can’t be found in Nigeria. She hopes to use pleasure as an entry point for broader discussions on consent and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
CREA, TICAH and INCRESE recognize women’s and girls’ rights to express their thoughts, opinions, needs and desires. They talk about pleasure in ways that challenge hetero-normativity, welcoming diversity in sexual identity, experience, and expression.
It’s clear that we need more investment in pleasure, a neglected area of sexual and reproductive health. However, it’s unlikely that donors will ever consider orgasms, or other aspects of pleasure, as deliverables they should support. But initiatives that promote pleasure have measurable and positive health outcomes. Research shows that when girls internalize the message that they shouldn’t be enjoying sex, they are less likely to negotiate the terms of sex, less likely to insist that their partners use condoms. In addition, the marketing of condoms as an erotic accessory has been proven to increase their use. Campaigns like Arushi Singh’s in Sri Lanka—which eroticized internal condoms—enabled sex workers to charge more money for sex with condoms than without. So positive social constructs of pleasure can motivate and incentivize safer sex.
Given our ability to transform social norms, promoting safe and consensual pleasure as “hot sex” should be a focal point for feminist and public health advocates alike. If we want to enhance informed sexual decision-making and promote equality, we can’t keep ignoring one of the main reasons that people engage in sex. If female and trans pleasure is an affront to patriarchy, let’s get busy people!