When we talk about sex and pleasure, why do we always draw attention to sexual organs? How do we talk about sex and pleasure without thinking about sexual organs?

When I first wondered about this – prompted by a conversation with a transgendered friend – I realised how much we emphasised the sexual organs when it comes to pleasure. It is not completely wrong, but it is definitely incomplete. We often regard them, and position them, as the be-all and end-all of pleasure.

In this cis-gendered and heteronormative world we are taught a lot of things about pleasure and sex. Sex is between a man and a woman. Sex includes a penis and vagina. To have sex or experience pleasure, penis must go into vagina. Sex happens to a woman. Sex is over when someone comes, usually the man. Heterosexual sex is the only ‘natural’ sex because this is how we are intended to reproduce. Let’s all pretend we have sex only to make babies, not because we enjoy the pleasure.

People who are not cis-gendered or heterosexual are quick to say they do not uphold these sentiments, but often we adopt our own variations thereof. You often do not realise how much conditioning you have inherited until you are made to introspect and interrogate where your ideas, opinions and values actually stem from, and how much of that you have simply adapted.

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With the various ways in which queer people are able to identify and express their gender, we seem to have created our own homonormativity, with boxes and checklists to validate and invalidate people and their experiences of love, attraction, sex and pleasure. I remember how empowered I felt at age 15 when I could finally look myself in the mirror and say “I am a lesbian womxn” without wanting to burst into tears because I thought something was wrong with me. As I grew up and continued to explore my sexuality, I realised that while I found comfort in the identity, it also became suffocating because I could not comfortably express any idea or thought that wasn’t in the ‘acceptable’ lesbian behaviour checklist. I allowed myself to forgo experiences I know I would have enjoyed because I did not want to jeopardise my ‘membership’ of the community where I had found belonging. It took me far too long to actually say ‘fuck it’ and live my life on my own terms.

Muses: Tshegofatso, Lerato, Abigail, Johannesburg, February 2016 Photographer: Siphumeze Khundayi

Unfortunately, these checklists and standards influence how we think about and experience pleasure. We bring this conditioning and learned behaviour into our queer spaces and into our relationships. My experience of BDSM and kink has helped me unlearn some of this conditioning, especially around intimacy and how the body experiences pleasure.

When we come together as play partners in kink (pun intended), often the focus is removed from the traditional heterosexual penetrative sex we are taught is the centre of all pleasure. In BDSM you start to see almost every part of your body as a potential pleasure point. You end up revering your breasts or thighs or shoulder blades as much as you do your sexual organs. We could play for hours and pass out from orgasms without touching the sexual organs. I like how we use the words “play dates” instead of “fuck dates”, because it really does encapsulate open-minded, sometimes curious and eager bodies who want to explore and discover thrilling adventures with the human anatomy beyond the sexual organs and conventional sex. Once you have opened your mind to the many possibilities, you realise that you actually cannot afford to walk into a relationship or space with preconceived ideas. You are forced to communicate and ask questions if there is any hope of the two, or three or four, of you having a mutually fulfilling experience. If we reduced pleasure to our cis-gendered bodies and sexual organs, or if we boxed each other in because of our gender expressions or how we choose to identify, we would only be depriving ourselves of the myriad ways in which we could experience and celebrate one another as sexual partners.

I think these are principles one can apply whether or not you are cis-gendered, heterosexual, non-binary, transgendered or queer. The way we have been taught to think about sex and pleasure, even as queer people, leaves very little room to explore other alternatives. Not only does this limit our own experiences, but clinging to this, often subconsciously, will have us othering anyone else who does not fit into this mould. Consider the reasons why people ‘other’ homosexual people, transgendered people, gender non-conforming people, queer people, or asexual people. Isn’t it weird that the disdain often stems from how that person views themselves as a sexual being? Homophobic and transphobic people always seem to have an irrational obsession with other people’s sex lives and sexual organs.

Sex and pleasure are not in conversation with one another. Photo: This is Africa

Queer people become abusive towards each other in the same way. We, too, reduce our experiences to our sex lives and sexual organs. Too often we are unable to talk about our preferences without saying something harmful about someone who may be the complete opposite of us. While you may not always understand someone’s preferences, remember that pleasure is a very intimate, personal thing, and no one will understand it better than the person experiencing and wanting it. I will go so far as to say that it is not for anyone else to understand – unless you are trying to be intimate with the person and want to know how best to pleasure them.

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So, do yourself a favour, look in the mirror and strip away the boundaries in your mind about how you see your body. Explore it beyond what the Life Orientation textbook taught you about your anatomy and what it should do or how it should feel. Write your own manual on how to work this extraordinary vessel that houses a creative mind and expansive spirit. Then, when next you meet somebody you like, appreciate them for their gender expression and how they choose to identify, but be careful not to limit them to that. If your intention is to become intimate, be deliberate about wanting to truly understand how they perceive their own body and their own pleasure. Do not assume what they like. Allow them to take you through their body manual and listen patiently and gently – and don’t hesitate to reciprocate. Don’t dismiss their preferences because they might differ from yours or what you were initially conditioned to think. Appreciate the differences and find middle ground, or create your own.

Sex and pleasure are often so much more than what cis-heteronormativity and even homonormativity teaches. Be good enough to yourself to want to understand it beyond those boundaries. It will also help you to be more empathetic towards other bodies, no matter how different they might be from yours.

I think it is very interesting how studying the lived experiences of marginalised people will often leave you with something to learn about the human experience and the many things, often nonsensical things, we have been taught. In my opinion, queer relationships have expanded the ways in which many people think about love, relationships and companionship. Listening to gender non-conforming people will make you look at and interrogate your own relationship’s gender dynamics, and how you might be upholding ideas that are in fact contrary to some of your values. My conversations with my transgendered friend make me look at bodies and pleasure through a different lens. But do you know what the really cool thing is? When you listen without being defensive, you realise that these are principles that can be applied by anyone and everyone, no matter who they are or how they identify.

The article is part of a series of articles under This is Africa’s collection titled, Flame, Fever and Fantasy – A collection of African desire and pleasure.