COPENHAGEN, Denmark – You would think that a sexual reproductive health conference would be like a big sex education class where words like pleasure, orgasms – all things sexual and sensual – would be openly discussed.
The reality is that when public health experts talk about sex, it is mostly from the perspective of disease prevention. Discussions are filled with polite euphemisms and scientific jargon and are generally, very antiseptic.
Anne Philpott still remembers an HIV and AIDS conference she went to, years ago, where a speaker talked about “an insertive probe entering the receptive cavity.” It took her awhile to realize that the speaker was referring to sexual intercourse.
“I think the fact that sex can feel good is something that we should all be told and should be talked about in an open way. The primary reason most people in the world have sex is for pleasure and the public health world has really missed pleasure out, it’s a huge gap,” said Philpott in an interview with the UK’s Guardian.
It was this pleasure gap that pushed Philpott and Arushi Singh to set up The Pleasure Project in 2004.
“Our mission is to ensure that people include pleasure in sex education messages. We want to bridge the pleasure world and the world of public health,” said Philpott.
“Sex is used to market practically everything from your next holiday to ice cream. Why can’t it be used to market and promote safer sex and quality sex education?” she added.
Currently, there are an estimated 1.8 million adolescents around the world. The largest generation of young people in history are about to enter their reproductive years, and many of them are unprepared to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
The need for comprehensive sex education that is accessible and appealing to young people is a public health imperative.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that young people between the ages of 15-24 are having more sex than ever before, but have limited access to adequate sex education and contraceptive services. In some countries, minors and unmarried individuals are prohibited from getting contraceptives and HIV testing/STI treatment without parental consent.
The Lancet released a report identifying unsafe sex as the “fastest-growing risk factor for ill-health” in young people aged 10-24 years. Maternal disorders were the leading cause of death in young women in 2013, killing an estimated 11.5% in girls aged 15-19. In Africa, AIDS-related complications is a major cause of death among adolescent girls.
Studies indicate that young people exposed to sex education that includes abstinence and contraception as options are more likely to delay their first sexual encounter and to consistently use condoms.
Closing the pleasure gap
Philpott and Arushi have been relentless in their effort to marry pleasure and sex education in public health conferences all over the world.
When the two self-proclaimed pleasure propagandists started The Pleasure Project in 2004, “we were almost considered frivolous,” said Singh.
They used guerrilla girl activism, splattering posters about pleasurable safe sex in conference venues, and whenever possible, put together panel discussions on how to build safe sex conversations around pleasure.
“Since then there are many more organizations and individuals talking about sexy safe sex!” said Singh.
The growing number of pleasure advocates is plotted out in The Pleasure Project’s Global Mapping of Pleasure, a global heat map of different organizations around the world who are incorporating pleasure into the discussion of sexual health.
At the Women Deliver conference last month, the Pleasure Project launched the expanded pleasure map.
The Pleasure Project had various panels at the maternal health conference where, together with public health experts, they expanded the scope of the sexual health discussion to cover politics, human rights and always with pleasure as a cornerstone.
In one session, Singh set the Twitter verse on fire with her provocative female condom demo. [Watch the session, “The Politics of Pleasure, Sexuality, and Human Rights” here.]
I had the privilege of being part of a Pleasure Project sponsored panel on “Sex and Sustainable Development Goals: Using Pleasure to Promote Protection” at the WD2016 conference. We were all pleasantly surprised to see that the session encouraged the audience to share their personal experiences.
“I was a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was 18. After having children, I had my first orgasm when I was 21-years old. There is life and pleasure after FGM!” said one woman who flew in from Africa to attend the conference.
Another woman who went from having sex with only men to having sex with women shared her realizations about the empowerment that comes from championing your sexual pleasure.
It seemed like the start of open, candid, authentic, and deeply personal discussions about sex and pleasure, and the “good sex ed” the Pleasure Project had always envisioned.
“We are aiming to make our website truly the pleasure portal for the world – so anyone who wants to marry pleasure and safer sex comes to our website and connects with the pleasure community,” said Philpott.
“Our job will be done when it’s automatic to talk pleasure in sex ed and sexy safer sex in porn and erotica,” she concluded. – Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos, Rappler’s sex and gender columnist, attended the Women Deliver 2016 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark as a media scholar. Women Deliver is the largest gathering of health experts and advocates working to advance the sexual reproductive health rights of women and girls.
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