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.
There is a subtext to this focus on pleasure which appears to say ‘if you can’t exhibit it, then you’re repressed’. I understand that an element of the gay and lesbian movement feels strongly that exhibition is expression, but I think there is a difference between the two. I would say that my biggest critique of the overwhelming religiosity in Egypt now, for example, is that it’s all about exhibition and not expression. So exhibition is about how you wear something, or how you pray, or use flowery language to say perfectly normal things just to convey to someone that you are a Muslim, you are a believer, this is where you stand. It is alienating and quite distressing that it has become necessary to externalise the private as public this is a space there that has become over defined. I know a lot of gay people in Egypt who live their sexuality freely although they don’t feel they want to express it publicly but they’re not closeted in their sexuality. This drive towards publicising issues of intimate life is very much a Western thing. It may be because private spaces have been eroded to such an extent that it becomes normal to live your life in a kind of ‘big brother’ setting, so that there is no private space, it’s all public.
I’m aware that people from very right wing positions have questioned issues around the public and private and argued for instance that domestic violence is a private matter. I’m not saying that, but I do think that where issues such as pleasure have not been problematised, we should be wary of doing so. For me lack of pleasure is about basic freedom. I’m not sure what is the value added of looking at these issues through a sexual pleasure lens. I think the article identifies the deprivations and inequities that women (and men) who are in certain structural positions suffer from, and it says that sexual pleasure is important. I agree. However, for me these are issues about inequities in gender relations or discrimination towards people who do not conform to the ‘norm’.
In terms of liberating or dignifying the rights of people who don’t conform to norms in terms of expression of their sexuality, like transgendered or gay people or who have differing structural needs, like people with disabilities, we already have a well developed human rights framework which deals with issues of equity and I cannot derive from the essay how adding a sexual pleasure lens would further liberate or dignify the rights of people in these categories.
I feel that framing pleasure in solely sexual terms is problematic. I would feel more comfortable if this argument was broadened to talk about intimacy, personal entitlement to feel pleasure, and the right to express yourself in terms of mobility and your life choices whether in sexual and/or social terms. I think pleasure and leisure, privacy and personal space, the right not to be ridiculed, the right not to be dismissed, the right to wear what you like, or say what you like and so on, is as important. It doesn’t help to locate it in a certain part of our bodies or our relationships.
This focus on pleasure can be construed as a kind of reverse act of exclusion because you are excluding people who may not be sexual; may choose to abstain; may not be in a relationship; or may be in a sexually un fulfilling relationship; but who choose to express themselves in other ways. Why locate pleasure only within sexual experiences, or choices, what about other choices of self-expression? If it’s a benchmark for liberation then you have to this kind of relationship to find fulfillment and that puts an onus on people to express themselves sexually in a particular way. Is sexual expression more important than other forms of fulfilment or expression I don’t think it is.
Social Research Center, American University Cairo