I was sitting at dinner with my Oxfam colleagues on a Sunday night, just before a country strategy meeting. Over grilled fish and cokes, I mentioned an article I’d seen recently in the Guardian that spoke to the need to talk about all aspects of sexual health, beyond the non-controversial medical goals. I had been thinking about that piece, by Institute of Development Studies research fellow Pauline Oosterhoff, and its implications for our international development work. So I broached it with my co-workers: why don’t we talk about sexual satisfaction, intimacy and pleasure as core to our work at Oxfam, particularly in the context of gendered power inequality and sexual and reproductive health and rights?
This is nothing new. Feminists, activists and women’s rights organizations have been talking about sexual pleasure as a critical issue (and a right) for decades. It’s a universal concern that is relevant to everyone, not just in the communities where development work takes place. Students in the UK are campaigning for sex education that includes information about women’s sexual pleasure, based on the reasonable premise that “a greater understanding of female sexuality and a boost to the status of
female pleasure are key in shifting …degrading attitudes and behaviors towards young women.” The Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi hosts discussion groups in communities on a range of issues related to HIV/AIDS, and their work includes supporting couples to talk openly about their sexual wants and needs. Articles and reports have been written, like this one by Andrea Cornwall, Kate Hawkins and Tessa Lewin, on the link between sexuality and women’s empowerment; they argue that “not being able to exercise choice in their sexual relationships affects women’s well-being and ultimately undermines political, social and economic empowerment.”
The notion that sexual satisfaction and pleasure is a core aspect of people’s lives hasn’t gained traction amongst international development NGOs, nor in government agendas, donor agencies or in any international protocol. Sexual pleasure doesn’t make an appearance in Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. There’s no ‘pleasure indicator’ in any widely published index, no UN report on who’s enjoying sex and why. This despite a widespread understanding since the 1980s, building on the work of Amartya Sen, that development must go beyond relieving economic poverty and towards an approach that is centered on human well-being, in which freedom of choice and desire fulfillment are fundamental.
In international development, there is plenty of talk about gendered power relations; that is, how someone’s gender identity ensures or reduces their ability to make decisions, access resources, and take control of their lives. But discussions about gender that treat sex as entirely negative (focusing only on sexualized violence, HIV/AIDS, etc) contributes to perpetuating the notion that the bodies of women and LGBTQI people are just passive recipients of violence rather than active producers of joy and pleasure.
Our present reality is that women and LGBTQI people in almost every part of the world have less power, access and voice than heterosexual cisgender men. The ways in which the patriarchy has been manifest in sexual enjoyment and rights is readily apparent. Female genital mutilation is recognized by many as an abuse of women’s bodies and can be directly linked to the ability to experience sexual pleasure; it’s an area of work where women’s right to sexual pleasure is implicit in the discussions, though explicitly it’s largely spoken about as a woman’s right to bodily integrity. Discrimination and ‘corrective rape’ of lesbian women – who pose a threat to men by taking pleasure in each other’s bodies – show how sexual pleasure can play a political and subversive role in a patriarchal, misogynist society (and can put some women and LGBTQI people at risk).
We know from our feminist foremothers that the personal is political; how sex is negotiated, communicated and articulated between two (or more) people can both reflect and perpetuate power dynamics, and those power dynamics are often reflective of the way power is negotiated in other spheres of life. It’s empowering for people to know their own bodies and to be able to safely communicate with partner(s). If women aren’t able to negotiate with their partners for their sexual satisfaction, how can they negotiate for condom use, birth spacing or their reproductive choices? If sexuality isn’t celebrated and discussed openly, how will we end the patriarchal norms that suggest sexual pleasure is something a man should control? If certain sexual acts are cast as wrong despite the reality that people take pleasure in them, how can we truly overcome discrimination and homophobia?
Narrow assumptions about the enjoyment of sex have harmful effects on cisgender heterosexual men, too, who can be limited by a generalized norm in which a man’s sexual satisfaction is assumed to revolve around ejaculation. Although it’s not equally comparable to the experience of women and LGBTQI people, some men are bound by restrictive constructs of masculinity that prohibit knowing and expressing their sexual wants and needs.
A revised approach to sex within the international development community would make the link between sexual pleasure and power dynamics, choice, health, and rights. It would account for the realities of people’s holistic (and sometimes pleasurable) sexual lives, and further, move beyond the gender binary of women and men. We must acknowledge that our sexual selves, experiences and choices do not exist in a vacuum and are linked to issues of class, race, norms, caste, sexual and gender identity and expression, and other forms of privilege and exclusion.
Perhaps inspired by the aforementioned dinner conversation, the issue of sexual satisfaction (even the right to an orgasm) came up over the next days of the country strategy process. Not surprisingly, it provoked a critical debate and even challenges as to whether we should talk about such an issue at all in our Oxfam meeting.
There was no clear resolution, but at least there was conversation about what sexual and reproductive health and rights really mean – and what we can talk about in spaces where we bring together many people from diverse cultural backgrounds around the shared cause of improving people’s lives. Feminists and women’s rights activists and their organizations have been talking about and working on this issue for ages, and it’s time to take the conversation up in other spaces too.
Ignoring that people have – and enjoy – sex diminishes the full reality of people’s experiences and relationships. If the development and donor communities, could shift their conversations around sexual and reproductive health and rights, empowerment, and gender to include the people’s whole sexual lives, we’d all be better off.