Sexual Pleasure Empowers Women!

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.

Victim Narratives Disempower Women

Mohanty’s critique of victim representations of third world women, although written in 1991, is sadly still relevant. In her now renowned piece ‘Under Western Eyes’ she considers a series of writings by ‘first world’ feminists on women in development. The texts she considers homogenize third world women as objects of what is done to them, and as victims of either ‘male violence’, ‘the colonial process’, the ‘Arab familial system’, ‘the economic development process’ or ‘the Islamic code’ (Mohanty 1991: 73).

This discourse continues today, perpetuated by feminists in the south as well as the north. In China for example, feminists have largely been either silent on sexuality or focussed on ‘subordination and oppression of women’s bodies’ (Huang et al. 2009: 284). This focus has come about because women’s sexuality is considered a sensitive subject, and it is ‘only in the context of …topics such as rape, domestic violence, and prostitution that women’s voices could legitimately be heard’ (Pei et al. 2007).

A powerful current version of the victim narrative is about women’s absolute vulnerability to HIV/AIDS due to male violence and economic coercion. Images are given of cheating husbands transmitting the virus to faithful wives who have no possibility to say no to sex or suggest using a condom.

It is true that many women are pressured into unsafe sex by violence and economic dependency, and efforts to tackle these are hugely important. However, the emphasis on gender inequality as the cause of unsafe sex gives only half the picture. There’s an underlying idea here that men have total power in sex while women just lie back and think of England – an old English saying, attributed to Queen Victoria as advice for women reluctant to endure their marital duties – or some other appropriate patriotic love object. Do women really have no desire, agency or room for manoeuvre? Do women have no pleasure or hope of pleasure in sex?

This focus on the negative subsumes women’s sexuality under violence and fear in a way that crushes any space to explore their own desires. This emphasis can be disempowering, both on the level of individual relationships and ease with one’s own body, and on an organizational level of mobilizing around what women want. In a recent workshop at IDS, organized by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, Bibi Bakare Yusuf, a Nigerian academic, described the effect as paralyzing – especially for younger women just coming into sexual consciousness.

These victim discourses are not just disempowering, they also lead to wrong solutions such as the current wave of criminalization of transmission of HIV/AIDS, aimed in part at penalising men who cheat on and deceive their wives, even though these measures in reality hurt women as much as men. And dangerous conversions also take place between certain feminist positions aiming to protect women from sexual violence, and conservative forces concerned with women’s chastity. This has already been observed in several instances: feminist anti-pornography activists making alliances with right-wing groups in the US in the 1980s; some Indian feminists’ images of Indian women as chaste and vulnerable to sexual exploitation echoing the Hindu rights’ portrayal of virtuous Indian womanhood; and the ‘unholy alliance’ between some feminist groups and the Bush administration’s mobilisation against prostitution and trafficking. Such discourses around protecting women from exploitation – sexual and otherwise – have also been drawn upon by US neo-conservatives to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (Petchesky 2005).

Pleasure is Part of the Solution

Calls have been made for the women’s movement to move beyond tackling injustice to develop a vision of what we want to move towards – a vision which must include sexual pleasure. Debates between Patricia McFadden, Charmaine Pereira and others in the journal, Feminist Africa, have looked at if and how sexual pleasure as a feminist choice can be part of reclaiming women’s agency. In China, Huang calls for an exploration of Chinese terms and sayings that suggest women’s sexual strength and agency such as, ‘women in their 30s are wolves, in their 40s are tigers, and in their 50s could even absorb the dust’ (Huang 2007: 4).

Pleasure can even help addressing sexual violence. Chi-Chi Undie argued at the IDS workshop that sexual wellbeing should be considered even in work on sexual violence. Otherwise, survivors remain forever defined by their negative experiences, unable to move beyond these to enjoy sexual relationships again. And if perpetrators only hear stories of sexual violence then they are given the impression that sexual violence is normal, and that no alternative is possible.

Several organisations worldwide have been taking a pleasure filled approach to sexuality to empower women and others. The International Centre for Reproductive Health and Rights (INCRESE) runs better sex and communication training for couples in Nigeria. Some married women in Nigeria reported to INCRESE researchers that if they expressed pleasure during sex, their husbands considered this to be like a prostitute and sometimes responded violently. In contrast, non-married women were expected to enjoy sex with their boyfriends. Some men mistakenly believed they were giving great pleasure to their lovers, and had not discovered the truth due to lack of communication. INCRESE developed trainings to address these findings. In some cases, couples taking the trainings have broken up as they realise they cannot give each other what they want, in bed or in life. However, in many cases the trainings have led to greater equality in relationships as well as happier sex lives, and challenged ideas around men’s performance and women’s pleasures.

HIV positive people are often expected to retire from sex and having children, regardless of their own desires. A wave of new laws criminalising HIV transmission obstruct happy relationships and makes it more difficult to support HIV positive people in deciding whether to have children, and to make it possible to do so without passing on the virus. Efforts are being made to contest these laws, and to affirm the sexual and reproductive desires of people living with HIV/AIDS. The Salamander Trust has recorded testimonies by women living with HIV/AIDS about their desires around whether or not to have children. The International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) has produced a recent guide for young people living with HIV/AIDS: ‘Happy, Healthy and Hot’ (2010) to give information on how to increase sexual pleasure, take care of health, practice safer sex, have children (if they so choose), develop strong intimate relationships and access support.

Pink Space NGO, China, organizes exchanges to build solidarity between people marginalized for their sexuality: HIV positive women, lesbians, bisexual women, female sex workers, transgender men, and women married to gay men. One exchange brought together lesbians and women living with HIV/AIDS. One positive woman explained that some men will not even consider sleeping with or having a relationship with her if they know her status. Another positive woman asked how lesbians have sex, as she could not imagine how lesbians made it happen! One lesbian generously explained some possibilities. The positive woman replied that it did not sound so different from heterosexual sex, and asked if the lesbian would consider having a relationship with a woman with HIV. The lesbian replied ‘only if she wants to have lesbian sex’. These discussions have been welcomed as an opportunity to laugh and talk about the pleasures of sex, and not just the miseries of disease and discrimination.

Victims No More!

The Refugee Law Project in Uganda, which supports survivors of sexual violence, printed T-shirts with the slogan ‘Victims No More!’ We should heed their call!

Susie Jolly
Sexuality and Development Programme Convenor
Institute of Development Studies


  1. Huang Yingying (2007) ‘Perspective Matters: Moving Towards Affirmative Thinking on ‘Xing’ in Contemporary China’, Why Affirm Sexuality?, ARROWs For Change Bulletin 13.2, Asian Pacific Research and Resource Centre for Women (ARROW) (this issue is also available in Mandarin, Thai and Vietnamese from the ARROWs for Change website)
  2. Huang Yingying, Pan Suiming, Peng Tao and Gao Yanning (2009) ‘Teaching Sexualities at Chinese Universities: Context, Experience, and Challenges’, International Journal of Sexual Health, 21.4: 282-295
  3. International Planned Parenthood Foundation (2010) ‘Healthy, Happy and Hot: A Young Person’s Guide to their Rights, Sexuality, and Living with HIV’
  4. McFadden, Patricia (2003) ‘Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice’, Feminist Africa, 2
  5. Mohanty, Chandra (1991) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse’, in C. Mohanty, A. Russo and L. Torres (eds), Third World Women and The Politics of Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  6. Pei Yuxin, Sik-ying Ho Petula, Ng Man Lun (2007) ‘Studies on Women’s Sexuality in China since 1980: A Critical Review’, Journal of Sex Research, May
  7. Pereira, Charmaine (2003) ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread?” Some Thoughts on Patricia McFadden’s “Sexual Pleasure as Feminist Choice’, Feminist Africa, 2
  8. Petchesky, Ros (2005) ‘Rights of the Body and Perversions of War: Sexual Rights and Wrongs Ten Years Past Beijing’, UNESCO’s International Science Journal, Special Issue on Beijing Plus Ten, 57

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