What is sexual liberation? And is it safe?

Anne Philpott

We often forget that safer sex can feel good. Putting on a condom could be like squeezing into your favourite sexy boots or latex dress, ready for action. Telling your lover what you want and your desire to be safe could be foreplay. Sexual health campaigns could focus on the positives of good safe sex. Sex education could include creative masturbation techniques. After all, what’s safer than a good wank?

‘Pleasure is arguably, if not definitively, the single most powerful motivating factor for sexual behaviour.’ – World Association for Sexual Health, 2008

While it’s important to discuss distorting images of sex, consent, and abuse, society’s focus only on saying ‘no’ leaves little room to highlight how we can learn to say yes to good, safe sex. Sex that fulfils us, makes us happy, satisfies us and bonds us to others. Recognising that we can create new types of safe, pleasurable sex, in which multi-faceted desires are recognised, should give us confidence that other forms of liberation are possible.

However today models of development focus on saving victims of violence or negative consequences of sexual risk. Whilst models of sexual liberation emphasize narrow goals of individual pleasure, focusing on lithe, heterosexual, monogamous bodies galloping towards orgasm. The politics of broader sexual liberation or a broader definition of sexual health are rarely discussed.

We need a new model of safer sex promotion
Sexual pleasure remains a highly significant, if not primary, motivating factor for sexual behaviour. There is strong evidence that the pursuit of pleasure is one of the primary reasons people have sex, and that fear of disease is not a strong motivator for safer sex. In ignoring pleasure, the development community is ignoring one of its most potent tools in stopping the spread of disease. It is also stopping the broader discussion of sexuality rights, including the recognition of individual agency, especially when it comes to those most affected by HIV. Female pleasure taboo obviously plays a huge role in female genital mutilation (FGM) practices however this is rarely discussed in terms of pleasure promotion to ensure communities accept that young women have as much right to feel pleasure as young men. Instead campaigns tend to focus on ending a terrible human rights abuse, and rarely mention how women can still feel pleasure post FGM or that the key motivator for carrying out female genital cutting (FGC) is societal fear of women’s pleasure.

Safer sex campaigns have focused almost exclusively on fear-based messages to promote safer sex, to the extent that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is seen either as destructive or even as a major contributor to the spread of HIV. Pleasure can also be about power, and men and women are expected to behave in certain ways to fit in with societal expectations. In many cultures wanting sex makes you ‘too easy’ or ‘a slag’, if you are a woman. In many cultures being too lubricated is a sign of being promiscuous, resulting in a preference for dry sex, whereas for men experience is respected. Women are also burdened with needing to appear always passive or ignorant. We risk violence, death or ostracism if we ‘enjoy sex too much’ or are not virgins when we are meant to be.

So how do we transform ourselves, creating more meaningful, good, safer sex lives? Sexual liberation is not only about more sex for some people, or more orgasms, but should prioritise pleasure, consent, and respect for a wide range of sexualities, (dis)abilities and body types.

Explicit safer sex campaigns that eroticise good, safe sex have been shown to make people feel good and be safer (pdf) with their lovers. Studies comparing American and Dutch young people (pdf) showed that the Dutch sex education, which focused on mutually enjoyable, responsible sex, leads to lower rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

talk dirty postcard

One of the postcards from the Pleasure Project

We at The Pleasure Project work to try and ensure that there are examples of erotic materials that are safe and that sexual health and training materials include discussions of pleasure. To this end, we wrote The Global Mapping of Pleasure to collect together examples of community groups, sex bloggers, porn film makers who are doing just that.

We profiled the Sensuousness Action Research Project (pdf) in West Bengal in India: they train gay male masseurs and clients in safe, sensual, satisfying pleasure techniques, aiming to provide economic security and life stability for the sex workers. Another project, St James Infirmary, in San Francisco, is a sex worker health service where workers are asked about what they enjoy at work in order to expand discussions of good safe sex.

We also profiled erotic safer-sex tea towels for gay men in Australia, dildo-making contests for marriage counselling nuns in Mozambique, and ‘seduction’ training modules for couples in Nigeria. Many groups work to enhance the sexual repertoire of heterosexual monogamous relationships, encouraging a less traditional view of the kind of sex you have with your marriage or long term partner. One slogan read: ‘Many positions with one, not one position with many’.

Avoid negativity – focus on desire and pleasure
All our case studies avoid sex negativity, promoting safer sex with a focus on desire and pleasure, at the same time working to reduce the shame people feel in pleasure. Most of the community groups in the mapping recognise that a focus on pleasure and safety means liberation from traditional perceptions of their sexuality and lives.

Dorothy Aken’Ova, founder of the Nigerian International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights says:

‘People thought we were wasting time talking about sex and pleasure, when maternal mortality is so high … But I was convinced that if this delicate, taboo thing – sexual pleasure – could be negotiated by women, then almost anything can be negotiated (…and that idea gave me multiple orgasms!)’

Safer sex is promoted best through positive incentives and building communities of practise, learning from people who constantly negotiate safer sex, like sex workers, with people who are seen as the experts, like sex educators.

By opening up aspirations for safe pleasure in a wider range of relationships, or for people not traditionally expected to experience pleasure – women and people with disabilities, for example – we can unearth a much wider range of political freedoms.

Getting in touch with what we want from our sex lives might unearth much broader visions of liberation, the kind that moves beyond the individual to recognise collective visions of change.

Anne Philpott is the founder of The Pleasure Project, established in 2004 to challenge the public health approach to sexual health by highlighting the importance of pleasure and good safe sex through advocacy, training, research and general being the ‘guerrilla girls of HiV prevention’.The Pleasure  Project has a long standing partnership with the IDS Sexuality and Development programme that spans joint work on academic papers, some funding and providing joint long term advisory functions. Both the Global Mapping project and training resources were made possible with IDS funding 

This is an amended version of an article that first appeared on Open Democracy.

Read more recent blog articles about sexuality and development

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