pleasure as empowerment

Here’s a thing from a description of an adult sex education program:

We do talk about what turns people on, not by way of giving a list of turn-ons, but we talk about the fact that different people are turned on by different things, and different parts of the body excite people differently. We let them appreciate the fact that it wouldn’t help to compare their spouses to previous sexual partners and assume that a particular type of foreplay or touch or part of the body which turned on a previous lover will necessarily have a similar or the same effect on the spouse. There is a need to understand the uniqueness and individuality of everyone and take time to understand each other’s body and what gives pleasure

Holy crap. Don’t you want to attend that class? Don’t you want to hear what they have to say?

Well, you have to go to Nigeria to hear it.

It’s from the Community Life Project, a “Participatory, community-based, demand-driven approach to provide reproductive health and HIV/AIDs education and promote family and community development.”

The idea here is that sexual pleasure is empowering. It’s an issue that Contestations took up recently. Here’s a synopsis, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

Sylvia Tamale writes that the discourse of pleasure, of “erotic is power,” helps African women to reclaim sexual autonomy from the forces of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.

In different ways, both Sonia Correa and Petra Boyton warn that pleasure can be just as oppressive a narrative as those that underscore violence.

Li Yinhe very simply says that the cultural tradition of China is that women should be utterly non-sexual, and that tradition is unfair. “Women have a right to sex, and should be able to enjoy the happiness of sex, not just serve men sexually, or have sex for reproduction.”

As Pinar Ilkkaracan says:

women from all socio-economic levels perceive the autonomy over their bodies and sexuality to be an indispensable part of their human rights and one of the most significant pre-conditions of their empowerment.

Me, I say that when you teach about safer sex from the point of view of pleasure, you get better results. If you don’t acknowledge that people have sex because it feels good and they like it, they won’t pay attention to you. Why should they? What do you understand about why they have sex? From a pragmatic viewpoint, acknowledging the importance of pleasure, when to teach Americans about sex at least, is crucial to effective education.

But even more, the acknowledgement that women have a right to pleasure implies, necessarily, that they have a right to control their own bodies. There are plenty of cultures left in the world where women’s bodies are considered to be in the public domain, accessible to whatever man decide to avail himself. Too, the perception of “nice, clean” middle class women as non-sexual results in the sexual exploitation of poor women.

It’s an argument that I find self-evident, but lots of people struggle with it. “Why is pleasure important when there’s, like, AIDS and fistulas and stuff?” Well. Women are sexual; they have desires and arousal and orgasms; they have bodies that can touch and be touched. Women get to be in control of their bodies, as men get to be in control of theirs. Women get to control their reproduction and when they have sex. Women’s sexual pleasure is a right. Recognizing this when we teach about sex makes sex education more effective and builds a culture of sexual agency for women, gives women power.

Pleasure as empowerment. See?

For more examples, have a look at Global Mapping of Pleasure, which identifies sex positive harm reduction interventions around the world.