Written by Written by the team from SIAAP, India
SIAAP is a non-governmental organisation born out of an advocacy intervention in 1990 that challenged the illegal detention of female sex workers. The case led to the development of a rights-based national policy centered on HIV prevention and care, and to SIAAP’s lasting commitment to a rights- and agency-based approach to sexual and reproductive health and mental health for key populations, including young people and voluntary sex workers to realise their right to safety, sexuality, consent and mental health.
We understand the pleasure-positive approach to be a key component in shifting the framework of sexual and reproductive health and rights – one that moves away from fear towards better agency, ownership and autonomy. Centering pleasure in these conversations allows for better safety and self-determination by enhancing confidence to communicate and negotiate sexual relations safely. Crucially, we anticipate that the approach will enable more imaginative ways of conceptualising health and safety, dis-ease and wellness and consent and privacy in sexual health.
Sexual health campaigns have realized the value of an expansive definition of sexual health that includes pleasure, joy, autonomy and well-being and we believe that it is crucial that advocacy for a rights-based approach in relation to sex work also include these components. We reviewed evidence that SRHR interventions incorporating pleasure can have positive effects on a variety of behavioral and information outcomes. Lastly, we were starkly aware of the violent and distressing realities of the community we worked with and anticipated value in bringing more creative, joyous and refreshing perspectives to an SRHR framework that has driven its activities through fear.
We conducted focus group discussions with CBOs focused on what pleasure meant to sex workers, how it was experienced by them, their partners and clients, how they negotiated pleasure and discomfort, what inhibits pleasure, and the relationship between pleasure and safer sex. We learnt that FSWs do experience and enjoy pleasure even if sex work is performed primarily for an income, are able to describe fluently how pleasure feels in their bodies and can clearly articulate what clients find pleasurable.
The agenda left our team enthused and refreshed. The pleasure positive discussions increased bonding between staff, created a positive atmosphere at work and allowed staff a deeper exploration of their own relationship with pleasure. This has also motivated some staff to intensify their engagement with sex workers. Academically, it allowed us to take a step back and review both current practices in SRHR as well as our history and approach to the same in light of emerging findings on pleasure.
Discussions on pleasure have strengthened bonding in most CBOs, with women participating freely and enthusiastically. We structured our training programs to centre pleasure and this not only improved participation of women in other areas of work, but revitalized meetings and strengthened grassroots collectivization efforts. The insights gained from the experience have been used to ideate pleasure-oriented programs amongst other key populations that we work with viz. adolescents and have paved way for us to better understand determinants of health seeking behaviour.
In a context fraught with fear and violence, it has been difficult persuasively communicating the pleasure agenda amongst our stakeholders. Our participants also tended easily to get dejected, sometimes asserting that they experienced no joy or pleasure in their lives. It has been challenging ideating solutions to better negotiate pleasurable and safer sex with partners/clients. It is at times, disillusioning to witness the limited agency the women have in governing decisions around their bodies and lives and the constraints they operate within. It has been challenging reaching clients and partners of sex workers, interventions with whom are as critical to promoting the pleasure approach.
While the agenda is to incorporate a pleasure centered approach to SRHR, it may not be the priority for the community. Integrating this agenda with what already matters to the community will allow for easier acceptance with stakeholders. For example, in our work with sex workers, we emphasised that incorporating pleasure into their practice will not only build confidence while seeking health support, but also, critically, enhance earnings. This will also serve to disrupt existing notions of its triviality.
Leeza is India’s foremost pleasure-positive content creator. Given how shrouded in stigma sex remains in India, she established her platforms on YouTube and Instagram in 2017, with the intention to normalize conversations around sexuality, sexual health, gender, and the body–with a particular focus on women and pleasure.
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Our team comprises development professionals with unique qualifications and expertise. While Kavya and Sharmi have specialised backgrounds in neuroscience and human rights respectively, Swaminathan and Shyamala have more than 20 years of experience in the sector with doctorates in population studies and bioethics respectively. Crucially, they have dedicated a significant part of their life’s work towards the empowerment of sex workers and key populations, tackling strategic areas in sexual and mental health, education and safety using a rights-based approach.