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Think Universal

Everyone has the ability to experience pleasure.
Recognise individual differences and identities, and ensure everyone is included in pleasure-based sexual health.

Every human has the capacity to experience sexual pleasure if they wish. A pleasure-inclusive world supports people in safely having and expressing sexual pleasure while recognizing that sexual pleasure is different for everyone. 

Sexual pleasure can include a range of feelings and emotions from the excitement of orgasm to the heightened self-awareness from sexual experiences. Sexual pleasure can be associated with eroticism, fantasies, and emotions of love, emotional intimacy, and romance. We believe that whoever you are or wherever you are, you can define your sexual pleasure. You decide what sexual pleasure means for you. People may not want to experience sexual pleasure at all. Your intentions might change over time, depending on your age and situation. Still, every experience counts. 

There is growing evidence that sexual pleasure is critical to the human experience and individuals’ health and well-being. The WAS Declaration on Sexual Pleasure defines sexual pleasure as “the physical and/or psychological satisfaction and enjoyment derived from shared or solitary erotic experiences, including thoughts, fantasies, dreams, emotions, and feelings”. 

We wish for everyone to be able to experience sexual pleasure if they want to. This includes those who are traditionally not expected or allowed to experience sexual pleasure. Think, for example, of how unmarried women, people with disabilities, LGBTQI people, or people living with HIV are judged for having pleasure or assumed not to have the ability to have pleasure. We sometimes think of this discrimination as a hierarchy of pleasure, building on Gayle Rubin’s work on the ‘Charmed Circle’ of sexuality. According to Rubin, sex negativity considers sex that is not heterosexual, not monogamous, and not for reproductive purposes as outside the Charmed Circle and thus, deviant, or perverse. This is why sex positivity and pleasure based sexual health is important, it includes a wider range of people into this ‘charmed circle’ and able to access their sexual rights. 

We at The Pleasure Project believe that the diversity of sexual pleasure should be recognised, valued, and celebrated as a unique and self-determined experience. 

Communicating sexual preferences to partners and experiencing sexual pleasure may lead to greater self-confidence and self-esteem, which may, in turn, reinforce the ability to make empowered decisions about safer sex and equitable relationships.

How can we Think Universal in our work?

  • Be positive and supportive in your conversations about people’s own experience of sexual pleasure [within the frame of consensual and fulfilling relationships]. Recognise that pleasure is based on their own life experiences and learning throughout their life. 
  • Reflect on your own values on sexuality and pleasure. Think about what our culture taught us and share the fact that human and sexual rights are universal, pleasure is a human experience available to us all, and (sexual) self-expression is a basic human right. (See also Pleasure Principle #Be Flexible) 
  • Understand that sexual pleasure can mean different things to different people. For example, pleasure can be experienced individually or with others. 
  • Reflect and try to reduce the stigma regarding sex and pleasure and the additional barriers (at all levels, such as attitudinal, environmental, institutional, and procedural barriers) historically marginalized groups must navigate to be able to express and enjoy their sexual health. Enable expressions and identities to be recognized and valued for safer and more pleasurable sexual health.
  • Remember that sexual pleasure is a possibility for all, but not necessarily wanted by all. Some people prefer non-sexual relationships or no relationships, or non-monogamous relationships [for example asexuality, polyamory]. These are all valid sexual expressions. 
  • Remember that we need to try to be culturally appropriate, but this does not mean dismissing or downplaying the evidence about sexuality and sex. Many times, we have been told that culture or tradition is the reason behind comments like, “We cannot discuss sexual pleasure here” or “Women don’t have sex for pleasure here”, and culture is used as a justification. When we hear comments like this, it would be good to ask, or reflect on, whose culture are we referring to? And who is deciding what that culture is? Is it the morality of a few powerful people, or the religious/political leaders, that decide who should have safe, pleasurable sex? See the Principle #BeFlexible. 
  • Train colleagues and friends and those with the authority to make decisions in your organization (Sr Management, Board Members etc) on stigma-free attitudes. Conduct values clarification and attitude transformation exercises 
  • Provide visibility to different marginalized groups in key policies, programmes and initiatives (from services to marketing etc). Ensure different marginalized and underserved groups (such as women, individuals with disabilities, adolescents, and people of diverse SOGIESC) are involved in designing policies, programmes and explicitly mentioned to ensure no one is left behind.
  • Find out what people mean by ‘sex’ and ‘pleasure’. Highlight that it doesn’t only mean penetrative sex, but can be a much wider range of sexual activities that give pleasure like masturbation, talking dirty, massaging, fantasies or role play. 

Tips and Actions

  • Think about the context you are working or living in and the assumptions you might make as an outsider. It is also important to consider if we are adapting to the wishes and morals of people who prescribe sexual behaviour and what kind of consensual pleasure based sexual health we should have and enjoy. In such situations, we have found using a warm-up exercise is really useful to ensure we understand what participants believe is acceptable. We at The Pleasure Project have found the ‘Comfort Continuum’ or ‘Talking about Fears’ warm up exercises in our training pack can really get an open conversation going. 
  • These topics and questions can help start a discussion and exchange of ideas and emotions with colleagues /friends /clients/learners. We are sure you have other ideas you can share too. Do let us know !
    • Do you think everyone enjoys sex the same or feels pleasure in the same way? 
    • What do you think is the right time to start having sexual relationships? Is that the same for everyone?
    • Do you hear other people talking about enjoying sex? What kinds of things do you hear? 
    • What were you told about sexual pleasure when you were younger / before you had your first sexual experience? What do you wish you were told?
    • Do you think that people need to have sex for a relationship to work? 
    • How does someone / a couple go about having a good sex life? What does this involve? 
    • What kinds of touch do you enjoy? Are there any intimate/sexual activities that you’d like to do more of/try out with your partner(s)?
    • What is your idea of what “good” or “bad” sex?
  • Focusing on pleasurable, positive sexual experiences can help open discussions about safer sexual behaviours and stronger negotiation skills. A great example of this is how St. John’s Infirmary asks sex workers about the sex they enjoy, to have a conversation about safer sex. (See page 68 of the Global Mapping of Pleasure.) We at The Pleasure Project asked people to think about their most pleasurable experience and this really got conversations started about what people enjoyed and wanted to try again. 
  • To unwrap the meaning of sex and pleasure, we at The Pleasure Project have used body maps where small groups draw on an outline of a body and mark where they might feel pleasure. It has got some really lively – and sexy – conversations started, especially when one gender makes assumptions about another gender group. It also shows us that many other parts of the body are important for pleasure, not only the genitals but also the brain, the neck, arms and so many body parts. Our Global Mapping of Pleasure has some great ideas that you can use or adapt to your work or local context. Page 60 of The Global Mapping of Pleasure shows some photos of our work using body maps, and a ‘Sexual Pleasure Wheel’ brainstorm here. Page 46 onwards of the Global Mapping of Pleasure shows lots of other great examples on how different organizations have run workshops and trainings that focus on pleasure. 

Further resources you might find useful

Barker, M-J. (2018), Rewriting the Rules, Routledge 

Barker M-J & Hancock, J. (2017) Enjoy Sex, Routledge 

Cornwall, A (2013) Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure

Sex, Gender and Empowerment , Bloomsbury

Easton, D., & Hardy, J. (2017) The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities 

El Feki, S. (2013), Sex in the Citadel. Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, 

Hall, K, (2012) The Cultural Context of Sexual Pleasure and Problems. Routledge 

Halpern, C. T. (2010). Reframing research on adolescent sexuality: Healthy sexual development as part of the life course. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 42(1), 6-7.

Harden, K. P. (2014). A sex-positive framework for research on adolescent sexuality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 455-469

Institute of Development Studies (2015), Streams of Influence: Understanding our Influence on Gender, Power and Sexuality

Knerr, W., & Philpott (2008), The Global Mapping of Pleasure, The Pleasure Map: Download here & 

McKee et al. (2010). Healthy Sexual Development: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Research, International Journal of Sexual Health, 22:1, 14-19, DOI: 10.1080/19317610903393043

Nasserzadeh, S. & Azarmina, P., (2017) Sexuality education: The wheel of context 

Nasserzadeh, S. & Ribner, D. S. (2016) Guest Editorial: The Challenge of Culture, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 31:3, 257-258, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2016.1206348

Scott-Sheldon, L. & Johnson, B. T. (2006) ‘Eroticizing Creates Safer Sex: A research synthesis’, Journal of Primary Prevention 27.6: 619-40

Singh, A., Philpott, A. (2019) Pleasure as a measure of agency and empowerment. Medicus Mundi Schweiz, Bulletin # 151

Sladden, T., Philpott, A., Braeken, D., Castellanos-Usigli, A., Yadav, V., Christie, E., Gonsalves, L. & Mofokeng, T. (2021) Sexual Health and Wellbeing through the Life Course: Ensuring Sexual Health, Rights and Pleasure for All, International Journal of Sexual Health, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2021.1991071