What’s the link between pleasure, safe sex and gender equality? It’s a question that fuels the work of “guerrilla girls activist collective” the Pleasure Project, a voluntary organization based in the U.K. One of the things the Pleasure Project does is to train public health professionals on how to use pleasure-based approaches in their sex education workshops. Their aim is to give sex education with the emphasis on “sex” – not “education.”
Anne Philpott founded the organization 10 years ago as a “thorn in the side of the HIV community. We’re the guerrilla girls who go around putting posters up at AIDS conferences, but it is very serious in that it’s a waste of resources to deliver sex education that isn’t meeting peoples’ needs.”
Concentrating on pleasure may seem frivolous compared to child marriage or violence against women, but Arushi Singh, who volunteers for the Pleasure Project, believes that teaching girls and women about pleasure empowers them to take control of their own sexuality.
Women and Girls Hub: Anne, how did you come up with the idea of the Pleasure Project?
Anne Philpott: I went to the AIDS conference in Barcelona as someone working in HIV/AIDS and I was at this session that was about a new gel that might prevent HIV, and they were discussing this, and the very serious scientist stood up and started talking about the “insertive probe” and the “receptive cavity.” I was sitting there for about half an hour before I realized he was talking about sex, and penis and vagina, and I thought, “This is ridiculous, we’re at an AIDS conference – this is not an airborne disease – this is happening because people are having sex and people are not talking honestly or truthfully.”
As much as people think pleasure’s a bit of a giggle or it’s frivolous, it’s actually really serious. A study this week just launched by the Lancet showed that unsafe sex is the highest risk factor for women’s death and disease, and part of that is because we’re not addressing the fact that sex education is poor quality, we’re not addressing young people’s needs. One of the key reasons people have sex is for pleasure, and we need to talk about that, otherwise we’re going to switch people off when we deliver our sex education, and we can’t afford for sex education to be ineffective.
Is there any evidence that linking pleasure with sexual health means people practice safer sex?
Philpott: There’s a small but growing body of evidence. We did an evidence review called “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Sex Pleasure and Health.” There are some small randomized controlled trials, but they tend to be done with gay men, where maybe there’s been more work done on this approach. They show that if you use resources that also have discussions of pleasure, people are more likely to use condoms. What a lot of the evidence shows is that if people are comfortable with their bodies, if they’re comfortable with their sexuality, if they’re able to discuss sex, then they have a better sexual self-esteem, and that means they know what they want and don’t want and are much more likely to practice safer sex. There’s very strong evidence that if you deliver comprehensive sex education, rates of unintended teenage pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections reduce.
Arushi Singh: There is, for example, a study that looked at Dutch teenagers versus American teenagers. It showed that Dutch teenagers were much more confident and in control of their bodies and willing and interested in having safer sex and using condoms as compared to American ones.
But many of the people at the Women Deliver conference are working in parts of the world where it’s difficult to talk about sex, even within the framework of sex education.
Singh: Absolutely. I’m South Asian. I live in India and I work across South Asia and I’m quite familiar with the conservative context that disallows explicit conversations around sex. You need to create that enabling environment. We’ve developed our training toolkit and we’ve tested it out in Cambodia and Vietnam and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and India, not just in the U.K. It works because once you create a safe space for people to talk about things explicitly, and if you, as a public health professional, are being explicit, honest and not ashamed of yourself, it allows people to open up. Because everyone’s interested in it, everyone really wants to talk about it, it’s just they don’t know how. If you’re enabling them to do that, then they get into it and they really want to know.
Hence the moniker “pleasure propagandist.”
Singh: A pleasure propagandist is somebody who urges public health professionals to use a pleasure-based approach and use sex-positive messaging. Because we believe that for far too long, the public health world, and the human-rights world even, has focused too much on fear and risk and disease, while the primary motivation for sex is the pursuit of pleasure. We’re not addressing that at all.
What should we be addressing? What should we be talking about?
Singh: Well, we should be talking about agency over our own bodies. We should be talking about masturbation. It’s the safest way to have sex and pleasure and a great way for somebody, for a rural girl, for example, in India to get to know her own self. Almost 50% of them are getting married before they’re 18 years old. If she’s going to get married, she’s going to be asexual until the day of her marriage, and then suddenly she’s expected to have sex without having had any conversations with anybody.
If our programs, whether they are rights programs or service delivery programs or sexuality education programs, can enable this girl to at least be in charge and in control of her own pleasure and sexuality and body, we’ve gotten somewhere. Perhaps enable her to delay that first pregnancy, or to ask for contraceptive use with her husband, or even say no to that marriage.
What are the biggest barriers you come up against in trying to push this pleasure message?
Singh: The biggest barriers we come up against are from public health professionals, from rights activists, from some feminists as well. They think that it’s very frivolous. They think it’s trivial. Yesterday on a panel [at the Women Deliver conference] that I was in, one of the panelists was a disability and sexuality rights activist. She said that people have said that for those with disabilities, sex and pleasure is probably number 10 on the list of things that they require. She said, “Who are you to decide that?”
Is there a sense that pleasure is a “first-world privilege” and the rest of the world has bigger problems to tackle?
Singh: We have faced those issues. Pleasure is not a luxury. Everyone has the right to a safe, satisfying sexual life or at least a safe, satisfying healthy sexuality, regardless of whether you’re a woman in a village in India or a Dutch woman.
If half the world knew their bodies better and were enjoying sex, what impact would that have on women?
Singh: It would be a giant leap for mankind. Because if you look at gender norms and sexuality norms, they are all about controlling you and not letting you be in control of yourselves, whether we are looking at gender transformative approaches, trying to challenge the norms around sexuality, or preventing child marriage.