Why Talk About Pleasure?
People who work on gender and development talk a great deal about women as victims of sexual violence. Action is urgently needed to prevent sexual violence against women.
However, if we only talk about violence we reinforce stereotypes of women as passive and powerless. Bibi Bakare Yusuf, an academic from Lagos, described the effect as paralysing - especially for younger women just coming into sexual consciousness - at the Pleasure and Women's Empowerment workshop held at IDS on 14-16 December. Workshop participants concluded that we must also make space to explore pleasure, well-being and the positive sides of sexuality.
The importance of sexual well-being
Sexual well-being should be considered even in work on sexual violence, argued Chi-Chi Undie, from the Population Council, Kenya. Otherwise, survivors remain forever defined by their negative experiences, unable to move beyond these to enjoy sexual relationships again. And if perpetrators only hear stories of sexual violence then they are given the impression that sexual violence is normal, and that no alternative is possible.
But talking about pleasure will not in itself challenge the status quo, cautioned Jaya Sharma of Nirantar, India. Those working in development may not say much about pleasure, but women's magazines, advertising and pornography often focus on pleasure in ways that reinforce stereotypes and inequalities. We need a political perspective that challenges the structures and ideologies that generate guilt and shame and make pleasure more accessible to some groups than others.
Passive stereotypes make many women feel that they should not enjoy sex. Some married women in Nigeria reported to researchers from the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Rights (INCRESE) that if they expressed pleasure during sex, their husbands considered this to be like a prostitute and sometimes responded violently. In contrast other men mistakenly believed they were giving great pleasure to their wives and lovers, and had not discovered the truth due to lack of communication.
HIV positive people are often expected to retire from sex and having children, regardless of their own desires, explained Alice Welbourn of the Salamander Trust, UK. Criminalising HIV transmission obstructs happy relationships and makes it more difficult to support positive people in deciding whether to have children, and to make it possible to do so without passing on the virus.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT), people with disabilities, and people who don't fit with the stereotypes of who is attractive, may need to overcome societal pressure to dare to seek out and enjoy the relationships they desire.
But we may be surprised at who is finding pleasure. While most sex workers are motivated by income generation, many also describe enjoying their work, including having orgasms, as described by Jo Doezema, a Visiting Fellow at IDS. This is more likely to be the case where sex workers have safer work environments and more control over choosing clients, and if demand exceeds supply.
And while it may be more socially acceptable for men to seek pleasure than for women, stereotypes of masculinity and pressures around performance can mean men's pleasure is also inhibited.
How to work on pleasure?
Work is being done to expand possibilities for pleasure. INCRESE runs better sex and communication training for couples in Nigeria, which has led to greater equality in relationships as well as happier sex lives. Nirantar trains women's rights organisations in India on how to start work on sexuality from a positive perspective. Lorna Couldrick, Brighton University, UK, has developed a model for UK service providers on how to talk about sexuality with disabled people.
The International HIV/AIDS Alliance has committed to a positive approach to sexuality in prevention work. Pink Space organised an exchange between HIV positive women and lesbians in Beijing, which was welcomed by both as an opportunity to talk about the pleasures of sex and not just the miseries of disease and discrimination. The Pleasure Project promotes the pleasures of safer sex by working with the adult entertainment industry to encourage condom use in porn. And Ana Francis Mor from Las Reinas Chulas in Mexico, performed a cabaret to show how a politics of pleasure can be shared through laughter.
The workshop closed with concrete commitments on how to take work forward through a series of publications and online features, an online discussion network, and a funders meeting to bring together donors open to supporting work in this area.
The workshop was sponsored by the Sexuality and Development Programme and the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Programme Consortium, both funded by the UK Department for International Development.
Susie Jolly is Convenor of the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme.
Photo: Outsiders: www.outsiders.org
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