Antón Castellanos Usigli
RNW Media/Michiel Bles

Sexual pleasure: the voices of young people

Young people are not a homogeneous group; their concerns about sexual pleasure are very diverse. This I discovered when speaking to eight youth activists working on sexual and reproductive health and rights in all corners of the globe. The interviews were part of my research for a speech at the 2015 World Congress for Sexual Health in Singapore, which I attended as part of the RNW Media Love Matters delegation.

I learned that there is no single way to talk about pleasure with young people for the simple reason that they have different literacy levels and experiences. Yet, most people I talked to do face the same problems: lack of sex education at school, prejudice and taboos, negative reporting by the media, and no safe space for open, honest conversations about sex and relationships.

Young women in Poland, for example, are more preoccupied with contraception than with pleasure, as Katy Peichert told me. She is the founder of the “Let’s Talk about Sex Foundation” in Poznan. In Poland, contraception has to be prescribed by a doctor and this is a major hurdle for girls. Avoiding pregnancy is also a major headache for young female sex workers in Hong Kong, says Bowie Lam, who founded “Teen’s Key”, an organisation which serves the interests of young female prostitutes. “When these sex workers give in to pushy clients who refuse to wear a condom, they can no longer enjoy sex.”

Young gay men in Mexico have a different problem, says Hugo Bautista from “Cuenta Conmigo”, which supports the LGBT community in Mexico City. “Young gay men are anxious about fulfilling sexual stereotypes in bed.”

Lack of education
All eight activists lament the fact that pleasure hardly ever gets a mention in sex education in schools. In Japan, sex education is provided by the physical exercise instructor. It is part of a health care module that covers a range of other topics, such as smoking and traffic accidents, says Masayoshi Yanagida, who recently opened a sexual health drop-in centre for young people in Tokyo.

In Poland, sex education is called “preparation for married couples” and the message is be “good, Christian and heterosexual”. In Hong Kong, sexuality classes, if offered at all, focus only on the risks of sexual relationships by showing graphic pictures of sex organs infected by sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Media’s double messages
Meanwhile, mainstream media in many countries take a negative tack when it comes to young people and pleasure. Newspapers and TV in Japan never talk about sexual pleasure, and the tabloids are full of pornography. The Hong Kong media portray young people as both ignorant and reckless. The picture is more positive in Mexico, says Bautista. He sees more and more mainstream media bringing in experts who address the topic with less prejudice.

Peer education is key
Most young people agree that it is important to have the opportunity to talk about pleasure with trained educators around their own age in safe, private and confidential spaces. In Zambia, peer educators are the only ones talking openly about pleasure with young people, says Nana Zulu, youth advisor with reproductive health organisation IPAS. “But some Christian peer educators in Poland can be biased,” Katy points out.

And then there is the funding issue, says Rola Yasmine, founder of “The A Project” which promotes sexual autonomy and sexual health in Lebanon. “Funders are preoccupied with STI prevention and family planning. This has everything to do with the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). It is simply not an MDG for people to achieve pleasure”.

Prejudices, stereotypes and stigma
Prejudice about pleasure prevents young people from having fulfilling sex lives. “When a transperson is uncomfortable with his or her own body, they have less power to negotiate with their sex partners,” says Joe Wong, transgender activist and programme manager of the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network, based in Bangkok.

In Zambia, pleasure is principally the prerogative of men; women are taught to fulfill their husband’s desires. Gay Latin Americans who have many sexual partners experience often face stigma. “If a young gay man agrees to have a sexual encounter quickly, people will think he is a slut”, Hugo explains.

The biggest taboo
The sexual taboo does not end with marriage equality or with legal abortion. It ends when we truly learn to accept and respect everyone’s choices and lifestyles within a sexual rights framework, and when we learn to be comfortable with pleasure.

If we are comfortable with pleasure, we are prepared to talk about everything with comfort, to negotiate with our partners and to take better decisions, including access to health services and information. Sexual pleasure is therefore fundamental for youth empowerment.

This is a summary of the speech delivered by Mexican sexual rights activist Anton Castellanos Usigli at the 22nd Congress of the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) in Singapore in 2015.

Castellanos Usigli was part of the RNW Media Love Matters delegation, who emphasized the importance of using the language of sexual pleasure in effective communication of sexual health information.


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