Over ten years ago I had two eureka moments in very different places. First, I was in Sri Lanka showing sex workers how a new condom – the female condom – works. Giggles erupted as women inserted the HIV prevention tool and checked to see if they could still walk around. I handed some out and asked for feedback over the next few days.
When I met them again they showed me notes their clients had written commending the female condom for being “hot”, “smooth” and “wet”. These men wanted to thank me. It wasn’t me they needed to thank, but the sex workers, who had been creative in letting the men insert the condom, sexing it up and saying it got them “excited”; creativity from the people who have to practise safer sex for survival.
I looked at these notes and decided that us public health people had got it wrong. Condoms can be sex toys in the right hands.
In the second, I was sat at the back of a large conference hall at the International AIDS conference in Spain. I was trying to concentrate on a talk given by a medical scientist about testing a new type of gel that could prevent HIV. He spoke about “insertive probe and receptive cavity”. I thought he was talking about a type of cell testing until I realised he meant sex. We couldn’t even say penis and vagina at an AIDS conference, or discuss the fact that AIDS is in fact not airborne but transmitted by sexual intercourse between people.
The sex workers knew that behaviour change is about positive encouragement. The public health community, on the other hand, are concerned with promoting condoms through the threat of death and disease.
This is why I started The Pleasure Project: because sex education is rarely sexy and erotica rarely safe.
Safe and sexy
Safer sex feels good. Putting on a condom can be like squeezing into your favourite sexy boots or latex dress, ready for action. Telling your lover what you want could be foreplay and sex education. Sex education could include creative masturbation techniques.
Explicit safer sex campaigns that eroticise good, safe sex have been shown to make people feel good and be safer with their lovers. Studies comparing American and Dutch young people showed that sex education, which focuses on mutually enjoyable, responsible sex, leads to lower rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In ignoring the erotic, the sexual health community is missing out on a potent tool in stopping the spread of disease.
At The Pleasure Project, we work to ensure that there are examples of erotic materials that are safe and that sexual health and training materials include pleasure. We wrote The Global Mapping of Pleasure to collect examples of community groups, sex bloggers, porn film makers who are doing just that in parts of the world not traditionally seen as ‘sexually liberated’. These communities recognise that a focus on pleasure and safety means liberation from traditional perceptions of the erotic.
We need to build erotic knowledge across very diverse communities and disciplines: between people who constantly negotiate good safe sex, like sex workers, and people who are seen as the experts, like sex educators.