Sexual Pleasure Empowers Women!: Response to Susie Jolly (5)

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.

Adopting any approach to pleasure uncritically may result in replicating hierarchical/patriarchal power systems. See for example the recent case of sex positive practitioners supporting Clitoraid’s controversial ‘adopt a clitoris’ scheme in Burkina Faso (Kamau-Rutenberg 2010).

Before pleasure, there is vital work required to enhance and support practitioners’ skills in reflective practice, collaborative working, and embedding ventures within a critical and substantive review of the literature. This applies equally to Western practitioners as it does to colleagues and communities in the Global South.

To solve the victimhood problem we need to focus far more critically on the work that we do around pleasure. Pleasure is powerful, but it can still be an oppressor.

Petra Boynton
Social Psychologist and Lecturer in International Health Care Research
Department of Medical Education, University College London

Boynton, P. M. (2001) ‘Why Perfect Sex is Bad for us’, New Scientist 2304

Kamau-Rutenberg, W. (2010) ‘Betty Dodson and Audre Lorde: Can I Possibly use the Master’s Tools to Demolish her House?’,Can? We? Save? Africa? Blog,

Moynihan, R. (2003) ‘The Making of a Disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction’, British Medical Journal, 326: 45–47

Sanders, A. S., Hill, B. J., Yarber, W. L., Graham, C. A., Crosby, R. A. and Milhausen, R. R. (2010) ‘Misclassification Bias: Diversity in Conceptualisations about having ‘had sex’, Sexual Health, 7.1: 31 34

Silverberg, Cory (2010) ‘When Helping isn’t Helping’, Sexuality

Tiefer, L. (2006) ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Case Study of Disease Mongering and Activist Resistance’, Public Library of Science Medicine

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