Talking about sex is fun. We may shy away from doing it sometimes and judge those who bring back war stories from the frontlines even though we hang onto their every word. But more people, especially women, need to talk openly about sexual pleasure. Just recently, Adventures From the Bedrooms of African Women and HOLAA! held a Twitter discussion on the subject of #SexingWhilstFeminist. Although many people participated in the conversation (it had a reach of 882,008 impressions and reached 222, 451 people), from what I observed, women were less likely to talk about pleasure than they were to speak about other issues pertaining to the rights of women.
Speaking to a few of the women offline I asked why they did not contribute to the thread, and the response that came back often was that they were daunted by the personal nature of the subject matter.
This is understandable, I do have an attack of the conservatives myself sometimes. There are times when I type (or do) something sexual and am like ‘oh my, oh my’. But this chat and others got me thinking: why are we as activists so quick to speak about politics and women, or how women entrepreneurs should be financed, but we draw the line when it comes to sexual agency. We’re less inclined to speak about it. Why is that? Is it because sex and pleasure is considered not serious enough to have real mobilization around? Is there a Maslows hierarchy of needs when it comes to the rights of women with some equalities that are more equal than others?
I am beginning to believe so.
Those of us with platforms can be extremely vocal about certain issues, economic justice, for example, or even education. One will be hard pressed to find a gender rights activist who will not speak out against child marriage, intimate partner violence, the low number of women MPs or even how women are represented in the media. However, many women will often shy away from speaking on issues of sex and pleasure. Although sex is very intimate, you cannot bypass the fact that the dynamics of sexual relations in terms of pleasure play into gender and power dynamics.
Recognition of these power dynamics formed the basis of the conversation that happened on twitter that night. It was all about who has the right to have that toe curling good sex and who doesn’t. Reading the tweets from #SexingWhilstFeminist, a theme that continuously emerged was that of agency, women having enough understanding and strength to take charge in the bedroom. It was not so much about having all the incredible sex (even though this was an important part) but the ability as a woman to make decisions about how things go when you get naked.
The reaction by those who did not like the conversation was to start calling the women tweeting under the hashtag, ‘hoes, who are trying to disguise their hoeism as feminism.’ This sort of thinking underlines how issues of sex and pleasure are linked to broader ideas of consent and sexual assault because it all comes down to ownership and agency. Women cannot love and openly speak about sex because it is not theirs to own. These sorts of statements highlight some of the problematic ways we speak about sex, about what is and is not OK for women to do.
When large sections of society believe that women do not own their bodies and by extension, their pleasure, it only serves to keep the status quo in place when we remain silent about sex and sexual pleasure. To continue to be silent is to continue to entrench destructive ideas about sex. Pleasure and sexual agency cannot be removed from conversations about consent, vulnerability, and violence when it comes to the female body. Our struggle is intersectional. There are a whole set of interlocking issues one must come to terms with and this is but one facet of an important conversation. One that cannot be relegated to glasses of chardonnay and whispered giggles in bars.
Refusing to engage in the language of pleasure is limiting the discourse of Sexual Reproductive Health Rights. There are many women who, because of ideas of physical ownership of the female body, believe that it is not their place to make sure their sex is safe. There are women who do not believe marital rape exists. There are women who believe not sleeping with their men is ground for him to step out on her.
As women we need to challenge the idea that there is a hierarchy of rights. The necessity of having discussions like #SexingwhilstFeminist, even if one is not a feminist, is that they help us to see the broader picture – that sex cannot be removed from other ideas pertaining to sexual agency. Speaking more openly about pleasure is pertinent if we are to break these entrenched destructive ideas about sex and the rights of the female body.