In many cultures today, men’s sexual needs are placed above those of women. It is not uncommon for a woman to take little initiative in her own sexual experiences when her culture does not acknowledge or teach female sexuality.
Yet male domination in the bedroom is slowly becoming history as women are confronting it around the globe. Organizations and activists around the world are finding that educating women and men about female sexuality is not only empowering, but it helps to decrease gender violence, teen pregnancy and HIV transmission, and is leading to healthier sexual relationships and new perspectives on female genital mutilation.
This article explores the societal impact of educating women and men about female sexual pleasure and how it is being taught in different parts of the world.
Improving gender relations and equality in the bedroom
Guanajuato, a landlocked state in central Mexico, is one of the most conservative places in the country. It is deeply influenced by the Catholic Church, and six women are currently imprisoned there for terminating their pregnancies. Of all Mexican states, it has the highest rate of female suicide. According to the Observatorio de Violencia Social y de Género of Guanajuato, 59 percent of women age 15 and older have sustained violence by a partner, in the community, at work or in school.
There, it is a widely accepted belief that men have the right to sexual pleasure but that their wives do not. If women express pleasure during sex, they are considered to be a whore or a prostitute. Las Libres (The Free Women) works to advance and defend sexual and reproductive rights of women and youth in Guanajuato. They teach small groups of women around the state that female sexual pleasure exists and that they can experience it. This message, for many women, is a novel idea.
“To know that sexual pleasure exists is very liberating,” said Verónica Cruz Sánchez, director of Las Libres. But it’s not just women who are being liberated. The news that women have an active role to play in receiving and giving sexual pleasure has been good news to even the most traditional men. “It has been a release that men are not the only [pleasure] providers and that women have initiative,” Sánchez said.
After 10 years of teaching about mutual pleasure and female sexual initiative, Las Libres is finally seeing widespread and uniform social change in communities around Guanajuato. Sánchez said that relationships are becoming more equal and less violent, and that the group has seen with youth that the education workshops prevent pregnancy since they learn alternatives to intercourse.
Doria El Kerdany, an Egyptian Arabic professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, believes that educating women about sexual pleasure will fight a male-dominated sex culture in the Arab world.
Her colleague, Farida Badr, also Egyptian, explained that in Egyptian culture, women “should be sexually shy with the husband.” If the woman initiates sex, then it is assumed that she is unfaithful, cannot control herself and will find another partner if her husband is away temporarily.
El Kerdany explained that this expectation of female sexual passivity is especially relevant for Egyptian middle class women. If a woman is rich, “of course she expresses herself and she says ‘I didn’t have enough’ or ‘I have enough’ or ‘I like it this way,’” she said.
Among poor, village populations who live in close quarters and easily observe relationship dynamics and learn about sex at a young age, it’s more acceptable for a woman to communicate her sexual needs.
“Of course she can ask for it and it’s okay,” El Kerdany said.
But in the middle class, which is known to avoid the topic of sex, women generally do not initiate sexual activity.
“I don’t think . . . that [the man] should be responsible for the whole thing . . . like how it was conveyed to us in our culture, that a woman has to be completely passive, receiving, and the man is the only [one] responsible to take care of her pleasure and his pleasure,” El Kerdany said.
El Kerdany said she believes the expectation that a woman must be sexually passive is a cultural issue and that Islam does not mandate it.
“Islam [talks] specifically about the relationship between men and women in a very nice and positive way,” she said, explaining that the Quran talks abstractly about women’s right to sexual pleasure. Yet in other Islamic references, like the words of the prophet Muhammad, there are more details about what men should do for women and how women should express their sexual desires, said El Kerdany.
However, it is not typical for mosques to offer pre-marital sexual counseling.
“The preacher and the shir and her mother and her family would talk to her religiously about obeying the husband. But they don’t tell her that you have to ask him for your pleasure and that sex is a pleasurable thing,” El Kerdany said. It is not until a sexual problem surfaces that a woman will go and speak with her priest about it.
Although sex is a pervasive theme in media in the United States, the abundance of messages from various people and groups can become overwhelming for some people.
Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action and the Media, tries to alleviate some of this confusion by engaging people in their own thoughts on the topic. Friedman publishes, tweets and talks about sex with anyone who wants to discuss it.
“We just don’t have a lot of language for [sex]. We don’t have a chance to talk about how to figure that out for yourself,” she said.
In the last few years, Friedman heard so many comments from young women expressing confusion regarding what kind of sexual activity they want to say “yes” to or what kind of sexual relationships they want to have. She said she believes the lack of language and mixed messages about sex contribute to the confusion and intimidation that women feel about it.
“What we do have is church and media and schools and all these institutions screaming at us what we should think and feel and want, all the time–and often times in contradictory ways. And so it can be very hard to hear our own voice in all of that, about what actually is sexual pleasure for us,” Friedman said.
Her book “What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety,” which will publish in November, helps women address hard, personal questions on sexuality, such as what kind of person they want to sleep with and what type of sexual relationship they are looking for.
Juliana Neiman, a marriage and family therapist in New York City, regularly helps married couples confront confusing and conflicting ideas about sex. She said that although many Americans have progressive ideas, those ideas often don’t translate when talking about sex.
Juliana said she has encountered the same negativity, messages and inhibitions when discussing sex in the United States as she saw while working 15 years ago in Chile, a less socially progressive country.
“Parents don’t talk to their kids about sex. The kids read that sex is bad,” Nieman said.
In her office, she works to erase the negative messages that many Americans have about sex.
“I bring a list of myths people used to think that really have no bearing or reality,” Neiman said. In her office, debunking myths about sex has been key to begin to reconstruct a healthy attitude and understanding about it.
When Friedman speaks with young women about their sexual experiences, many tell her that “it just happened.”
“They don’t think of themselves as actors on their own behalf when it comes to sexuality,” she said. To Friedman, this explanation signifies an alienation from a woman’s ability to affect her own sexual experience.
“Women are alienated from their sexual pleasure in many ways, and the result of that is we are easily manipulated,” Friedman said. “We can be sold products, you know, and movies, and all kinds of things because we feel inadequate sexually.”
Friedman also draws the distinction that if a woman doesn’t know what feels good, then she is likely unsure of what feels bad. When this happens, she may end up having a sexual experience that she does not want, but does not know how to turn down. This can snowball into consenting to sexual activity just because someone requests it rather than because the woman enjoys it.
“So the reality is, if we are alienated from our own sexual pleasure, we don’t have control over it and that means other people can control us,” Friedman said.
In Egypt and the surrounding region, women’s lack of knowledge, and thus alienation from their sexual pleasure, is a factor that has allowed the cultural practice of female genital circumcision — or mutilation — to persist for centuries. Dr. Amer, another Egyptian professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, explains the connection between the two.
“If women are not taught that they deserve pleasure, then they [will] continue, unfortunately, to get into the cycle of this female genital mutilation, which is a huge abuse of female human rights,”Amer said.
Female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in northeast Africa and southeast Asia using different techniques. In Egypt, it is typical to remove the clitoris and labia minora, and in some cases, parts of the labia majora, according to research done by epidemiologist Mohamed Badawi.
“They do it to make it more beautiful,” El Kerdany said. She also explained that people believe that circumcision will prevent women from desiring too much sex. In El Kerdany’s family, the practice was stopped before her mother was circumcised.
El Kerdany’s own circumcised friends have told her that it takes a lot longer to be pleasured than it does for a woman who is not circumcised. El Kerdany said that it takes a very patient and attentive partner for a circumcised woman to orgasm during sex.
The extra effort necessary to orgasm is discouraging for many circumcised women.
A circumcised friend told Badr that she will not marry because it would just end in divorce without sexual pleasure.
“I tell her sex is not everything,” she said, which did little to console her friend.
Badr believes that society must focus on directly preventing circumcision and reducing poverty before people can effectively address the topic of sexual pleasure.
“We still have many years to get rid of those things which prevent people from speaking about pleasure and sex,” Badr said. For now, she said women are more focused on making sure their children are fed than taking interest in these issues. She said she hopes that poverty and genital mutilation will be addressed with the introduction of a new government that takes better care of the Egyptian people, thus opening the door for a conversation about sexual pleasure.
“Egyptians like it if you tell them something that is academic,” Badr said. This helps explain why Dr. Heba Kotb, Egypt’s first licensed sex therapist, has had such high success rates with her academic TV show about sex.
In her show “Kalam Keeber” (Big Talk), she discusses taboo sex topics and addresses anonymous call-in questions. Her perspective as a Muslim doctor easily commands respect for her and her show.
“People are astonished by her program,” said Badr. However, the show is a huge hit and people regularly call in to ask questions. “People like to call and speak privately,” Badr said.
There are also other hotlines available across the country, with topics ranging from legal to medical and family issues, where customers pay for the amount of time they spend on the phone. People take advantage of these lines to ask questions about sex.
Small discussion groups are a hit in Guanajuato, Mexico’s most conservative state. Las Libres (The Free Women) arranges these informal, intimate gatherings among groups of women in both rural and urban regions. It is a safe haven where women can go to learn about and discuss eroticism and pleasure.
“It is very important to call the things by their names,” said Verónica Cruz Sánchez, director of Las Libres. “It is a discovery for many women, something they have never heard of in their lives.” Sánchez explained that in Mexico, sex workers learn from experience, youth learn because it’s in style, and married women never learn about their sexual pleasure.
Las Libres also works to capacitate youth so they can discuss sexual pleasure and safe sex among their peers.
“It is much easier that these same youth talk among each other,” Sánchez said. This has proven to be the best way to extend the reach and capacity of their organization. As this educational method has become widespread, teenage pregnancies have begun to decrease as teens learn alternatives to intercourse and begin to use protection.
Condonería Parchis, a condom and sex toy store in downtown Guanajuato, has also been a key actor in teaching people about sexual pleasure. It is known for selling fun, playful condoms, but its purpose is to use that market as a door to sex education, which is not addressed in Mexican schools. The store offers free sex counseling services to its customers, primarily targeting youth.
India: The Pleasure Project
The Pleasure Project, a global organization dedicated to eroticizing sex education, hosts activities, workshops and training in many countries. It launched in 2004 at the Bangkok AIDS conference, where sex and pleasure was previously not discussed, said Anne Philpott, a volunteer with The Pleasure Project.
Philpott, who works in New Delhi as a health advisor with the British government, is heavily involved with this new, erotic organization.
“[We are] getting the public health world to talk about pleasure, to talk dirty, talk in a way that chimes with people,” said Philpott.
Last Saturday, The Pleasure Project hosted a fantasy open mic at the Yodakin Bookstore in New Delhi. “It was a fantastic night to build up the collective wisdom of fantasies,” Philpott commented on their blog.
Mozambique: Empowerment Concepts
The Vida Positiva (Positive Living) program in Mozambique, sponsored by Empowerment Concepts, focused on teaching couples to be better lovers. According to The Global Mapping of Pleasure (2008), a research publication from The Pleasure Project, men in Mozambique cited boredom in their sex lives as the primary reason for having extramarital sex. Women generally felt like their husbands were not attentive to their sexual needs. Women also cited feeling like sex workers when their husbands requested to diversify their sexual positions. These issues led mean to pay for sex outside of the home.
The program advocated for local churches “to teach couples better sex by getting both partners to talk openly about what they like and don’t like about sex,” according to The Global Mapping of Pleasure.
The publication quotes Vida Positiva saying, “Make sex amazing within the relationship, and men will not stray as much.” The group says this reduces the number of sexual partners people have and lowers HIV transmission.
Philpott, who helped write The Global Mapping of Pleasure, likes the idea of “church groups who use early counseling of people about to get married to talk about how they would keep each other happy long term.”
Philpott said she views this open communication for couples as a good opportunity to talk about “what might quickly become boring sex,” referring to the marriages in Mozambique where only the missionary position is practiced.
Brittany Peterson, a senior from Raleigh, N.C., is a multimedia journalist for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.