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Does pleasure count?

By Neha Patel

Sexuality is today an integral part of discussions on reproductive health, gender, HIV/AIDS, sexual health, adolescents, queer rights, violence against women, and much more. But where does sexual pleasure fit in? We seem to have grasped the language around sexual violence, but are uncomfortable with the language of sexual pleasure. We need a creative and affirmative language of pleasure to formulate a dialogue on sexual pleasure, sexuality, and sexual rights

In South and Southeast Asia, principles of sexuality are included in many discourses -- reproductive health, gender, HIV/AIDS, sexual health, adolescents, LGBTIQ rights, violence against women, class, religion, sexual rights and many more. These diverse frameworks constantly engage each other when we develop programmes, policies and guidelines around sexuality. Yet, it isn’t enough. We are still looking for the language and space to learn more and articulate the diverse realities we see around issues of sexuality.  Sexuality has enabled us to expand debates further in terms of critiquing rights, wellbeing and health. 

Pleasure is a recent addition to the discussion; one that has previously been viewed as “peripheral” or “elitist”.  However, with the growing interest medicine, the media, private sector, academics and activists are taking in how sexual pleasure plays a role in sexuality, there is a need to delve deeper into the conceptual basis of the nature of pleasure. And examine the connections to choices people make, individual and public health, and wellbeing.

So what’s the big deal?

Is sexual pleasure an act?  A thought?  A feeling?  An anticipation?  Is it experienced by individuals or a collective? Can it always be claimed by one group and society in general as the same kind of right? Is it something we experience naturally or is it constructed?  Modified by ourselves or external influences? Fluid or fixed? Contextual or biological? 

There is no one constant about sexual pleasure -- because there is no one way to think, talk, analyse, construct, express, experience, view, or ensure it.  And when you do, whether it is for yourself or someone else, it is not static -- what is defined as sexual pleasure in one context today, may not be defined as such the next day. The diversity and subjectivity surrounding sexual pleasure are further compounded by people’s inability to address sexual pleasure in public and private spaces. Further, since sexual pleasure is thought of as something you “indulge” in, its relationship with health, wellbeing and rights remains unclear, if not inconsequential. It took us long enough to start talking about sexuality, so how does sexual pleasure fit into the picture?

How we talk about sexual pleasure sets the tone for how sexual pleasure is communicated, understood, and judged -- individually and at a larger societal level. What kinds of terms are used to talk about sexual pleasure?  Is it necessary that we all use the same kind of language? It also stands to reason that if we have one standard language for talking about sexual pleasure, we inevitably dismiss all the ideas and concepts that don’t have a label, category, or term, rendering them “outside” the language norm. We seemed to have grasped the language around sexual violence much more clearly; why is it that we are uncomfortable with making language around pleasure more mainstream? In addition, our language limits the scope of sexualities that exist (and those that don’t exist yet!). We have to move beyond the assumptions of the gender binary framework and include diversities that don’t have labels.  Adequate ways to communicate the diversities of pleasure in a more affirmative manner are critical in formulating a dialogue on sexual pleasure, sexuality, and rights.

Sexual pleasure is measured by “how much is too much?” without addressing the assumption that “too much” is “wrong”. Who decides those acceptable limits, when the activity or thought becomes a transgression of the rights of others? For some spheres, it is the state: where in many countries in South and Southeast Asia, same-sex behaviour is criminal, where public displays of affection warrant fines, where sex work is associated with “obscenity” and “lasciviousness”, and where pornography is always associated with “depravity of character”. In other cases, it is society that sets limits: where sexual relationships are accepted only within the context of marriage, pleasure-seeking behaviour in women is thought to be a sign of too much aggressiveness and “loose” morality; where adolescents are bombarded with fear-based messages to elicit “behaviour change”. 

And still in most cases, it is we who do much of the regulation of sexual pleasure, whether it be self-censoring our fantasies, acts, desires and behaviour, or censoring those who are in our immediate sphere.  How we set limits or give ourselves the freedom to express and experience sexual pleasure sets the stage for the kind of role it plays in our lives -- internally and externally. It is what helps us negotiate what we want, what we don’t want, and what we are curious about. But how can we talk about creating spaces for talking about pleasure when we do not create the space for ourselves? Even though we might talk mainly about how society and norms regulate our sexual pleasure, we must also examine how we censor ourselves -- in our thoughts, actions, beliefs. This will provide a more nuanced perspective on how what happens in the privacy of our minds, homes and relationships becomes the topic of debate, discussion and censorship in public domains. The larger debate we need to have is on whether these same institutions that regulate pleasure can also affirm it.

How we articulate our claim to sexual rights influences how those rights are recognised, protected and fulfilled by society and the state. Claiming rights by an identity is not always constant; the identity by which we claim a right changes over time and context.  Claiming a sexual right to pleasure raises serious issues about the state’s role in ensuring that right.  Should the state even be in a position to ensure sexual pleasure? When groups of people articulate a claim to this right, should we then make a case for extending the right to sexual pleasure to everyone? How different would those rights be for adolescents, sex workers, disabled people, or the elderly? Issues such as age of consent, the price sex workers can charge based on client desire, assisted sex, or social security for pleasure, respectively, would all become part of the public debate on sexual pleasure as a right. Can rights be divided between different groups of people when public health is also at stake? Some group rights are ensured only when they are attacked for being a threat to the public. Then that becomes the only legitimate reason to ensure their rights. And if that is the case, how does that infringe on the civil liberties of people in that group? It becomes important to examine some of the contentions of combining the public health framework and the human rights approach, and discussing some common ground.

In addition to excitement, curiosity and anticipation, the topic of sexual pleasure elicits feelings of shame and guilt. It is a topic that generates a sense of discomfort even among those who work with sexuality and related issues. Although other issues, such as HIV/AIDS, have legitimised the discussion around pleasure to a certain extent, it is only connected to safety and risk, as opposed to an issue in and of itself. Sexual pleasure is often talked about as an afterthought -- as something we can indulge ourselves in only after we have removed all pain and abuse. As if when we remove all the violence, what will remain is a sexuality we can automatically enjoy! Or else, sexual pleasure is something we may or may not experience as a result of sex (which, according to society, almost always has to be sanctioned by marriage between a man and a woman). Pleasure has emerged as a smaller part of the entire picture. A luxury. One of the most controversial topics to debate within sexuality. We have then to ask ourselves: How does pleasure matter? 

What kind of space do we want anyway?

In an effort to provide a more constructive space to talk about issues of sexual pleasure, the South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality designed an e-forum discussion on ‘Sexual Pleasure, Sexuality and Rights’ where those interested in debating concepts and ideas could further critique and analyse the discourses around sexual pleasure, sexuality, and rights. The e-forum is designed for activists, practitioners, academics, students, researchers, and anyone who is interested in issues around sexuality, to dialogue with each other, express their opinions, contribute ideas, and share experiences of working on issues of sexuality. There are a few limitations to utilising an e-forum space, as many people in South and Southeast Asia do not have access to email, and the forum caters to those who write in English. Often, when we talk about the need for a language of pleasure, many terms related to sexuality do not translate into local meanings, which doesn’t necessarily mean that those concepts don’t exist in those communities, just that local meanings for sexuality and related terms don’t always translate literally. However, using the e-forum as a starting point for discussion will provide a platform for translation of the discussions into various languages in the region, and a more expanded dissemination strategy which includes electronic and print resources.
The e-discussion forums are structured, moderated spaces that address a particular topic every two months. In those two months, the topic is broken into four sub-topics, each addressing a different aspect of the debate and linking the concepts together. 
We asked colleagues to think about sexual pleasure in terms of all the things they were curious about and wanted to discuss with others; the topics they thought were relevant for discussion, but were never part of the discourses in sexuality. An exciting list emerged -- with ideas ranging from sexual practices, behaviours, norms, concepts, theories, entire frameworks turned upside-down, and challenges to the status quo. Next, we researched topics so as to include some of the major debates and contentions among the suggested topics.  Categories emerged from the list and we tried to define what some of the questions around the categories would look like. What did we know? What were we more confused about? What were some of the debates that had no clear answer?  

The language of pleasure

The question that we needed to address was clear: What is the language we use to talk about pleasure, and what is the need for this language? In the first sub-topic, we felt it would be critical to understand how we communicate about pleasure. What are our assumptions and ideas around it? Why do we construct pleasure in the ways we do? Where does that come from?   

Depending on the framework one uses, there is a certain language used to describe and talk about sexual pleasure, whether it is from a medical perspective, an academic one, or a media-related approach. They have each carved out a space for themselves in owning the discussion around sexual pleasure. The medical community commonly leads the discussion on medicines and implants that enhance pleasure; the media has sanctioned the space that allows them to create ads that have bold sexual pleasure-seeking messages and images; the ‘pleasure industry’ largely markets and develops toys and pleasure supplements without addressing issues of taboo and discomfort. But what about the activist space? Our engagement with issues of sexual pleasure has been mixed -- uncomfortable, contentious, and with varying degrees of importance given to the topic, depending on the context of the “primary problem”. There is also no clear understanding on how sexual pleasure is linked to sexuality and wellbeing in South and Southeast Asia. And although there are a number of frameworks that address sexuality and incorporate certain principles of sexuality, there is no uniform framework from which to operate when talking about sexuality and sexual pleasure. But then again, do we want a uniform framework anyway? Forum members commented on how it would be difficult to devise a framework around sexuality, since the fact that devising boundaries and parameters to discuss something that was so subjective and diverse would in itself be problematic. So, there are fragmented spaces to talk about sexual pleasure, but what did those discourses look like?

Several participants shared what they had experienced in the form of safe spaces, and offered suggestions as to what those spaces would need to include in order to facilitate an open dialogue about sexual pleasure.  Online fora, discussion groups, trying to expand the understanding of terms such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘gender’, etc, creating a dictionary of terms to give us a larger vocabulary to talk about sexual pleasure, and creating environments that made it okay for people to accept that they could define pleasure for themselves, were a few of the suggestions put forward on the forum. These discussions led to a much more complex question: Where do we get our ideas about sexual pleasure?  Culture, society, history, peers, government, traditional norms were all highlighted as influences on the way we construct and think about sexual pleasure.  

The regulation and freedom of pleasure

When talking about sexual pleasure, we often hear about the space to say ‘No’ as opposed to the space to say ‘Yes’. Why is sexual pleasure censored? Is there any space where there are no regulations on pleasure? The discussion started out with fantasies as a possible space for total freedom of pleasure. Is it even possible to set boundaries on individual fantasies? It is almost humorous to think about how that would be policed! A further exploration into what we fear about unrestricted fantasies, and what drives self-censorship of these fantasies, might yield a deeper understanding as to what drives the need for censorship in the public sphere as well.   

Participants also highlighted the limitations of using the health framework when discussing ‘healthy’ pleasure, because it implies that there is an equal and opposite ‘unhealthy’. A participant responded to this issue by stating that if the health framework could be used without the ‘moral’ strings attached, then it solved the problem of unintentionally defining a moral version of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’.

There was also a discussion on pleasure and power: Was power more a regulated or a negotiated exchange? Using examples from power exchanges within the S&M scene in the UK, one participant highlighted the explicit power discussions and negotiated consent that do not take place in other kinds of non-S&M spaces. S&M relationships and interactions include shifting power among those who are engaging in it. For those who have consensual and negotiated interactions in private, it is no business of anyone else’s to regulate and censor. 

Sexual pleasure and rights

‘Sexual rights’ is a contentious term that is misunderstood by most people, whether they refuse to use it, or insist on it. It is important to be clear when using the term ‘sexual right’: Is it the freedom to decide your sexual partner, irrespective of their sex or gender? Is it the freedom to choose to express pleasure in whichever form pleases you? What if that expression is harmful to another? There are lines that might be definitive concerning ‘harm’, but what about those grey areas that are not free and clear ‘harm’ to all people? Is it the right to mainstream non-traditional views of sexuality into society? When we talk about the concept of ‘sexual pleasure’ as a right it becomes complicated. 

As a forum participant pointed out, it has traditionally been easier to talk about sexual rights in terms of what’s being restricted, as opposed to what’s free. This is obviously due to the discomfort associated with the topic and because sexual pleasure has never been a given part of the public debate on sexuality. Claiming sexual rights highlights a host of issues -– some conflicting. As one forum participant noted, conceptually, rights can’t be wrong. But, could they be if the state started defining appropriate and acceptable forms and ‘levels’ of sexual pleasure? One participant asked if we wanted the government in our bedroom, deciding acceptable levels and forms of pleasure. Does that mean that government-funded programmes on sexuality would have to include indicators of acceptable levels of pleasure that the state has the responsibility to ensure were experienced as a result of the programme in question? This gets blurred with the concept that the right to sexual pleasure might just be the choice of one’s partner, or partners, without the state encroaching on personal liberties that they are entitled to as a result of being a citizen. So, it becomes even more critical to make sure we are always specific about what we mean when we say ‘sexual rights’, and create a more critical dialogue on the freedoms and regulations we have to be ready to talk about when we ask for the ‘right to sexual pleasure’.

What do we do now?

The e-discussion forum has enabled us to frame different kinds of questions. It has also shown us more of what we aren’t discussing. It has thrown up questions that have not been asked. The forum has also been able to shed some light on what we already know.  There is a need for a more creative and affirmative language around pleasure; there is a need for us to explore the self-censorship that translates into public censorship; there is a need to highlight the debate between the ‘public good’ and individual rights. And the discourse only begins there. We have a long way to go. Understanding how pleasure is debated and discussed in the region might help in understanding sexuality and pleasure, and how it might bring about a broader realisation of a person’s rights and wellbeing, consequently breaking barriers that exist so that discussions, debates and further analyses on pleasure move towards legitimacy.

We need to begin sharing more of what it means to include affirming principles of sexual pleasure with each other, in an effort to bring together resources, ideas and research from different groups and institutions. This can be taken to the next level and translated into effective and more holistic programming, policy, activism, and advocacy efforts around sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, and human rights.

In the coming weeks, we will discuss specific examples of how language, regulation and freedom, and rights of sexual pleasure are implemented practically. Join us as we debate, analyse, criticise, ponder, wonder, and share about sexual pleasure -- after all, isn’t the point to have a little bit of fun too?

(Note: The e-forum is an ongoing initiative. This work is a work in progress for an upcoming publication on the e-forum initiative. To learn more about the Centre and the forum initiative, sign up for e-forum discussions and read past messages from the forum. Please visit us on the Resource Centre’s website at www.asiasrc.org)

InfoChange News & Features February 2006