Do you ever feel there's something missing in debates about sexual health and sexual rights?
Open conversations about sex, particularly sexual pleasure, aren’t easy – especially not between clients and sexual and reproductive health service providers. In public health circles, when we do talk about sex, it’s nearly always about the negative consequences of sex: risks, diseases, illnesses, infections and death.
Within the risk-based approach, sexual pleasure is often the elephant in the room.
But it doesn’t make sense to talk about safer sex without discussing pleasure. If we leave pleasure out of the equation we may fail to get to the root of why people are making sexually risky decisions, such as failing to use condoms correctly and consistently.
Some studies suggest that denying the possibility of sexual pleasure, particularly for women and girls, has a negative impact on their negotiation of safer sex. If a young woman can tell her partner what she likes or dislikes, and negotiate the quality of sexual relationships, she’s more likely to be able to discuss contraception and condom use. The benefits of frank communication and an approach that avoids fear, shame and stigma are clear.
That’s why I enjoyed working with the Global Advisory Board for Sexual Health and Wellbeing on an exciting project: a training toolkit and online resources on Sexual pleasure: the forgotten link in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Written by Doortje Braeken and Antón Castellanos Usigli, and supported by Durex, these practical materials are aimed at training health professionals and medical students around the world in providing sex-positive counselling, information and support. My role was to strengthen and edit the toolkit and resources.
This global initiative seeks to reframe the way in which service providers look at sexual and reproductive health and rights by putting sexual pleasure at the centre. The toolkit increases understanding of the benefits of talking about sexual pleasure – within the framework of sexual health and sexual rights – for individual wellbeing and empowerment. This broad vision is fully in line with the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission's comprehensive definition of sexual and reproductive health and rights. The toolkit examines how pleasure is linked to the freedom and right to express one’s sexuality; and how values, norms, culture, religion and stigma all shape the ways in which people experience sexual pleasure. The complex relationships between gender, sexuality and pleasure, agency, autonomy and power are analysed.
Equipping health professionals with the skills and confidence to talk openly to their clients about sex, sexuality and sexual pleasure – and to encourage clients to follow suit in their own relationships – is so important. It can empower people to make informed decisions about their own sexual and reproductive health, and help all individuals, regardless of age, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, to enjoy a safe, fulfilling and pleasurable sex life.