Photo: Sheikh Rajibul Islam
Images of women as victims are rampant in gender and development. This is particularly the case in discussions of sexuality, where the world is portrayed as so fraught with danger, it seems almost impossible to imagine women enjoying themselves. This focus on the negative can be paralyzing – both in terms of ease with one’s own body, and in terms of mobilizing around women’s wants and desires. And such narratives dovetail with religious right agendas to protect women’s chastity. In this article, I argue that promoting pleasure is one part of how to get beyond victimhood, and can even help in addressing sexual violence.
In each of our ‘Contestations’ we ask the lead author of the previous issue to verbally comment on their response to the current issue. Below is an informal conversation with Hania Sholkamy about her thoughts on Susie Jolly’s piece on sexual pleasure as empowerment.
In Africa the negative and/or “victim” discourse in relation to sexuality is largely an alien import. Without suggesting that Africa is a homogeneous continent or that sexual violence against women did not exist before the arrival of foreigners, I believe that the common history that we share (e.g. colonialism, slavery, globalization) profoundly affected the way that Africans perceive and ‘do’ sex. Hypocrisy, silences and reticence threatened and even replaced the relative sexual openness, comfort with nudity, even flirty dispositions that Africans traditionally enjoyed. The traditional sexual morality codes were radically transformed through the force of imported religions, education, laws and policies.
Pleasure can be the oppressor! I fear well intentioned but uncritical approaches to incorporating ‘pleasure’ may be equally reductionist, stifling and silencing (Silverberg 2010). In particular borrowing Western models of ‘sex’ to underpin pleasure-based work internationally brings with it the associated problems of a limited view of ‘sex’ as penis/vagina intercourse (Sanders et al. 2010). Here ‘sex’ is heteronormative, something to achieve and perfect, goal oriented towards orgasm, and formed by a consumerist and aspirational culture (Boynton 2001). Drug company involvement repackages a lack of sexual desire or orgasmic difficulties as a clinical condition requiring a medical solution (Moynihan 2003; Tiefer 2006). The media, meanwhile, promises ‘great sex’ with the purchase of sex toys, lingerie or other products offering to enhance and improve intimacy.
I agree with the essay’s argument that women have been seen as victims in relation to sexuality. This is the case in China. Women are considered vulnerable like children, and the words ‘women and children’ are often casually linked together, for example the state organisation, ‘The Commission for Protection of Women and Children’. Women and their sexuality are often seen as in need of protection. Women’s sexual desires are overlooked, while issues such as sexual harassment generate broad interest.
What assumptions are being made in Susie’s piece about why and how pleasure can empower? What is the theoretical basis? I detect a hint of the ‘repressive hypothesis’. This derives from the Freudian theory of sexual repression, which in a very simplified version says that in all cultures sexual instinct is repressed so as to ensure civilized forms of social relations. Otherwise societies would be in a perennial ‘war of all against all because of sex’. In Freud’s view, this war turns on the sexual control of females and sexual repression grounds extreme forms of social coercion.
Susie is right! Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways (WWHR), which I co-founded, has been implementing a Human Rights Education Program for Women in the most marginalized and poor areas of Turkey for 15 years, aiming to empower individuals and organisations at the grassroots. This participatory training runs once a week for four months, and includes two sessions on women’s sexuality. The training was originally developed through a pilot project with women living in a shanty town area of Istanbul (Umraniye), back in March 1995. They raised the issue of sexual pleasure, and through discussion arrived at the idea of sexual pleasure being a woman’s human right, long before sexuality and sexual rights became an issue of such fierce debate at the global level.
Susie’s argument is dangerous! I don’t believe that we can talk about women and sexual pleasure in isolation. Many of women’s sexual interactions involve men. You cannot divorce sexual pleasure from both (or more) partners in the sexual process.