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Let’s Talk About Sex: why sexual satisfaction & pleasure should be on the international development agenda

October 22, 2014
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This guest post is by Chloe Safier (@chloelenas), Regional Gender Lead for Oxfam in Southern Africa, with thoughtful contributions from Marc WegerifChloePhoto

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

Women Sexuality and Pleasure cover

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 radical pleasureand 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.

great sexThere 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.

20 comments

  1. Dear chloelenas, This is a great article that expand the myths and taboos of sex in relation to HIV.I agree with you that UN has not published any report/article on pleasure index. Then can couple negotiate on sex, condom use, child spacing…..good work….keep it up

  2. Great article Chloe, a useful topic to reflect on for our SRHR programme in DRC–in effect a lot of discussion around the medicalization of HIV has created a lot of barriers promoting preventative condom use. Not talking about pleasure could inadvertently set up a future barrier. If Oxfam can see happiness as a right this could indeed open up space to work on pleasure as you point out as well as mental health…thanks for the article:)

  3. Wow! Put that issue in the agenda of Oxfam Brazil and it will become the fastest-growing affiliate in the confederation. I was missing your blog for its fresh ideas and unorthodox approaches. Just read your piece for UNDP. It’s been translated and published in Portuguese as well. I agree with you and think several new Brazilian branches of established INGOs could benefit from the points you make.

    Best
    Athayde (formerly from Oxfam GB in Recife)

  4. Nice article.

    I only wish people had being paying attention to the work that was being doing the HIV response in the early 2000’s when organisations like the Gender AIDS forum, Project Empower, Targetted AIDS Interventions, the Durban Gay and Lesbian Health Centre and many others (these just a sample of one provincial group Oxfam worked with in their Joint HIV and AIDS Prevention Program) worked with the issues of ‘sex, sexuality and identity’ in very conscious way.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Allan. Very much agree that we have a lot to learn from the HIV response. Interesting that in my experience, the topic of sexual pleasure has been far easier to raise (and better received) in Southern Africa than in other contexts in which I’ve worked (UK and US, for example), I think in part due to the work of the organizations you mention and the consciousness of their work on sex and sexuality. I don’t think it’s too late to pay attention to that work!

  5. Thanks for raising this issue in such a clear piece. One thing to add is that there is a basis in international norms for promoting sexual pleasure. Specifically, paragraph 7.2 of the ICPD programme of action states that “Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life …”. Given the signature of so many countries of this document, and its place in international norm-defining processes – one year after Vienna and one year before Beijing which took up and quoted exactly this paragraph – this provides important validation for the concept.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Mike- very useful to know about the ICPD programme of action (I had not come across that!). In my discussions with colleagues on this topic, one issue that was raised was whether sexual pleasure could- or should- be considered a right (in the legal sense) in and of itself, or whether we should be thinking about sexual pleasure as a component of existing work on other rights (such as a right to reproductive choice). I’d be curious to hear thoughts on this!

      1. In addition to the ICPD PoA shout-out, I’ll add that the ICPD Beyond 2014 Global report is important reading for how it connects (& provides evidence for) many of the issues you’ve raised to the larger development discussions/frameworks. I think the ICPD is too often overlooked, to the detriment of development programmes overall.

        Another useful document (though CSO/activist led) is the Yogyakarta Principles- especially around work on SOGI.

        re: pleasure, within SRHR we often talk about pleasure as a core component of sexual rights- that includes/links to things like comprehensive sexuality education, consent, disability rights, non-heterosexual/binary frameworks, sex work, constructions of ‘family’, discussions on pornography, privacy…& the list goes on. It intersects with so many different things (education, labour, civil liberties…) that it’s short-sighted to not understand its many intersections and overlaps.

    2. Hi,
      The ICPD PoA is a really important consensus position when it comes to gender, sexuality and health. It is also worth noting that the WHO working definition of sexual health is:
      “…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (WHO, 2006a)
      http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/sexual_health/sh_definitions/en/

  6. HELL YES ! I just made an indie feature film about this VERY TOPIC I cannot agree MORE !!!!!!!! My film will be out this coming year and i hope it will reach as many Women and LGBTQ Individuals as possible : We are a TEAM and we will not stand-by for these injustices :

    eVe n’god™this female is not yet rated™#Lesbians #LGBT #LoveIsLove Story #BlackTwitter #Movie… http://tmblr.co/ZpPpSv1TtrdpE

  7. As one of the authors that you linked to I just wanted to say how delighted I am that you are having these types of conversations (and such an eloquent and well written blog – congrats). I agree with Allan that there is a lot we can learn from work on HIV. The Pleasure Project have done fantastic work on documenting safe sex interventions and providing exercises that people can use to get the conversation going http://thepleasureproject.org/. But you can approach it in other ways too. Nirantar in India have worked with rural women using conversations on gender and violence as a starting point http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/bringing-together-pleasure-and-politics-sexuality-workshops-in-rural-india. This report is also available in Chinese. Look forward to more sharing.

    1. Kate, thanks for your comment and really glad you liked the post! Your work very much inspired what is written here. Thanks also for the links to the Pleasure Project and Nirantar… I’ll certainly be continuing these conversations at Oxfam (and whatever other spaces I can), so great to collect resources and identify who is already doing work on the topic. Absolutely hope we can continue to share and be in touch. Many thanks again!

  8. Dear Cloe,
    Thank you for this wonderful article. I fully agree with your views on the rights to pleasure of women and girls and men and boys. Positive views on sexuality of HIV positive women and girls have in my experience also been great entry points and catalysts in operational programs to talk about relations and empowerment of everyone. When I and my colleages in Vietnam for example, organized trainings on SRHR which explicitly dealt with sexuality for HIV positive women and girls counterparts and colleagues from other programs asked why we did not do this for them. They felt excluded and disempowered as they never had the opportunity to learn about sexuality and pleasure. Many women and men, including senior government staff told me that everyone, no matter how senior or important, would benefit personally and professionally from a more open and positive attitude towards sexuality. How could they be expected to support empowerment of HIV positive women and girls when they did not know how to deal with the S of SRHR in their own lives?

    1. Dear Pauline,
      Thank you so much for your comment! As I noted in the post, your article was part of the inspiration for the discussion we’ve been having at Oxfam on the topic of sexual pleasure, so thank you for that as well. I agree with you (and others that have commented similarly) that HIV/AIDS has been a meaningful entry point to talk about sexuality in a more holistic way. And I also agree that this conversation is truly for everyone- as the ‘implementers’ of programs on SRHR, we can’t ignore the political realities of our own (sexual) lives. It’s a tricky discussion, particularly when working in culturally diverse settings, but one we can’t shy away from.

  9. Chloe, thanks for the discussion going on around this subject.. Like may thoughts coming out from the posts, lets keep the discussion going..

  10. Thanks for this interesting blog. As someone covering SRHR issues globally, but with a background delivering sex education in the UK I have seen first hand how much more engaged young people are if we include discussion of emotions, sexuality, pleasure, and diverse relationships in the conversations we have with them. Unfortunately many educators feel constrained by anxious schools, party politics, the threat of hysterical tabloid headlines and funding parameters to deliver a purely biological model of sex education which only addresses physical risk (pregnancy, HIV, STIs). Worse still risk itself is often framed in a very conservative way with young women assumed to be reluctant participants in sex, providing resistance to the inevitable uncontrolled lust of adolescent men, and holding all responsibility for avoiding or mitigating harm. Any idea that women could/should actively desire sex (for the sake of sex), or gain pleasure from it, is eliminated.

    Those with a bolder agenda do their best to make spaces to facilitate broader conversations, but there is no question that the current, largely heteronormative education delivered is eons behind some of the early safer sex messages developed by the HIV prevention community.

  11. Great blog and great series of comments – we at The Pleasure Project have been promoting good safe sex for ten years, and working to link the pleausure industry with the public health world. Both have lots to learn from each other.

    We launched a literature review at the Washingron AIDS conference that highlights the evidence for including pleasure in sex education.

    thepleasureproject.org/wordpress/wp…/07/TPP-20-Questions_v6.pdf

    We also brought together a directory of people and projects who have delivered innovative pleasure focused sexual health and edcuation programmes all over the world.
    We woudl love to hear of other people who have done this work as we hope one date to update this.

    http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/Output/177336/

    Finally check us out on facebook, twitter and our blog !

    http://www.thepleasureproject.org/wordpress
    @thepleasureproj

  12. An inspiring blog

    But what I argue, why we push donor to shift interest, why don’t we shift focus on eliminating inequities so people can have the chance to reach to the meaning of empowerment , rather than sending strategies that cannot be comprehended by the poor in a village in a certain country ….

    From development prespective , and as Robert chamber puts it, whose reality counts , and until when we want to bring our understanding to the world ?

    Imagine the UN is dominated by a religious group and they have a new startegy to promote stopping drinking alcohol , would not be this imposing rather than letting the people act on their own agency

    Just some thoughts 😉

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