When I first saw Botticelli’s painting ‘Birth of Venus’ I thought: She looks a bit stiff, doesn’t she? The goddess of Venus embodies sex, love, beauty, enticement, seduction and persuasive female charm, but also female chastity – all of which are character traits that derive from a patriarchal idea of a woman. Fortunately, we are a great step further towards women’s empowerment than Homer and Botticelli could have imagined.
Yes, you got it right: This article is about women, sex and female orgasms – although I argue that three other aspects entailed by pleasure are far more important than those: well-being (including health), free choice which I understand as feeling comfortable with (making) one’s own decision, and the feeling of satisfaction. All of which can contribute to the empowerment of women.
And yes, don’t worry, this article is also about human rights, although not about the classical pattern of rights’ abuses and violations. If it were, I would have to talk about rape, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation and other forms of discrimination against women in patriarchal societies. These topics are crucial to be dealt with in the human rights discourse. However, they are limited to the negative aspects of the discourse about sex in relation to women’s rights and therefore leave aside any kind of positive notion related to women’s sexuality. I have to admit that I also find myself thinking about sexuality and human rights in those categories.
That is until the other day, when I strolled around in our university library and found a book published by Susie Jolly, Andrea Cornwall and Kate Hawkins with the promising title ‘Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure‘. The various authors that contributed to the book essentially argue that our negative approach towards sexuality of women leads to an oppression of the positive aspects of pleasure. It also discusses how we exclude certain groups of women from pleasure instead of having a discourse on how they can still enjoy their sexuality, such as disabled and HIV positive women. This book made me aware of the how we tend to approach women’s sexuality in the human rights discourse in a purely negative way. Shouldn’t we have a somewhat more holistic approach towards female sexuality and human rights, in other words, an approach that stresses the idea of pleasure?
One of the most striking examples for a holistic approach towards female sexuality is certainly Eve Ensler’s 1996 groundbreaking theatre piece ‘The Vagina Monologues’ which includes stories of negative and positive sexual experiences. The monologue of The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy for instance is held by a sex worker for women who describes her love of giving women pleasure. Another monologue in the play, Because He Liked to Look At It, describes how a woman was initially embarrassed by the way her vagina looks, but changed her perception towards a positive, satisfied and comfortable one when she met Bob who liked to spend hours looking at her vagina.
With regards to pleasure, we also have to keep in mind the physical structure of the female body. Broadly speaking, the nerve system around the female pelvic nerve is ‘wired’ in a very different, unique way. That means what arouses women also varies greatly per woman. More importantly, ‘bad stress’ which stems from a perceived lack of safety particularly affects the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). There is a relationship between safety and pleasure, or as journalist and spokeswoman of the third wave feminists Naomi Wolf puts it: “This biological, evolutionary connection for women of possible ecstasy to emotional security has implications that cannot be overstressed. [..] Just as being valued and relaxed can heighten female sexual response, ‘bad stress’ can dramatically interfere with all of women’s sexual processes.”
I wondered which human rights come closest to granting us, particularly us women, a right to pleasure?
Okay, okay, some of my thoughts were a bit far-fetched: Having sex is clearly not covered by the right to assembly (unless it is an orgy with a sort of political purpose, but I would rather not go into that). And although Tibetian Buddhist Tantra relates sexuality, parenthood and the Buddhist philosophy of “enlightenment”, it remains hard to argue that this makes all kinds of pleasurable intercourse a manifestation of religion, and most certainly does not apply to non-Buddhists.
I had a closer look at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and it is worth mentioning some provisions that point towards a more distinct (human rights advocates would call it disaggregated) idea of the role of women:
In relation to the idea of well-being and parenthood, Article 10 (h) provides for “access to specific educational information to help ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning.” However, the wording of this provision of the well-being of ‘families’ instead of the woman herself clearly lowers the idea of self-determined family planning – which would be a precondition for self-determined female sexual pleasure. There is also Article 12 (1), which is more empowering in that it grants equal access to health care services, including on family planning. However, it does not mention well-being and is therefore less related to the idea of pleasure.
With regards to marriage, Article 16 (1)(b) introduces the right to “freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent” reflecting the idea of consent of choosing a partner, which in most cases also entails the choice of the sexual partner. In addition we can find positive rights to pleasurable (by no means sexual) activities, such as the right to “participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life” (Article 13 (c)).
My personal favourite in the CEDAW is Article 5 (a) which provides for the states’ duty to take all appropriate measures to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”. This somewhat reflects the idea of equality in pleasure as well, although it stays behind the holistic approach we would really need to tackle the root causes rather than the consequences of discrimination.
Unfortunately but foreseeably, keeping in mind that most of those instruments are political compromises directed towards states, I must conclude that I could not find an actual right to pleasure in the universal human rights instruments. But as a starting point, some ideas found in CEDAW help us to understand female well-being and free consent as rights women are entitled to, also related to their sexuality. Free consent and well-being lead to deeper satisfaction with who we are, all of which are important aspects of pleasure. Therefore, pleasure might not be a legal, but certainly a moral right we should dare to claim from our partner as well as the society we live in.
Or, to have Naomi Wolf help me out again: “Female sexual pleasure, rightly understood, is not just about sexuality, or just about pleasure. It serves, also, as a medium of female self-knowledge and hopefulness; female creativity and courage; female focus and initiative; female bliss and transcendence; and as a medium of a sensibility that feels very much like freedom.” In a broader understanding of human rights as moral principles that we should adhere to, this reflects the idea of ‘freedom from fear’ and thereby a deep form of empowerment of women.
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