International AIDS Conference, Mexico City

The role of pleasure in encouraging safer sex

With over 20,000 participants and a plethora of formal abstract driven sessions and cultural events the International AIDS Conference, currently taking place in Mexico City, offers a bamboozling array of learning from the response to the epidemic.

The first day opened with a range of satellite sessions one of which was hosted by the IDS ally the Pleasure Project. The session marked the launch of The Global Mapping of Pleasure a review of safer sex programmes that take a pleasure approach. The Global Mapping was sponsored by Realising Rights a DFID financed Research Programme Consortium.

Speakers at the session described their successes in improving the uptake of HIV prevention and safer sex messages by concentrating on the positive aspects of sexuality rather than using negative messages. As Craig Darden, condom social marketer for DKT, put it, ‘Condoms are generally associated with diseases, unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, barriers, failure and slippage.’ DKT have taken a positive approach to their condom advertising in Asia, Latin America and Africa by using positive images and product positioning.

Speakers talked of the reluctance of many AIDS actors to use a pleasure approach as it sometimes throws up challenging situations or challenging narratives. Melissa Gera, of the St James Infirmary in San Francisco, talked about their work with sex workers which incorporates spaces to talk about pleasure. One study that they undertook on HIV, sexual health and stigma and discrimination found that 42% of the women sampled said that they enjoyed sex with their clients 50% or more of the time. Their enjoyment came from sexual pleasure but also the independence that sex work gave them – particularly in negotiating the terms of the exchange of sex and in being self employed. The sex workers had been reluctant to mention the pleasure that their work gave them to healthcare workers in the past as they believed it would lead to discrimination. They felt that the only way that they could gain access to services was to deny that they wanted to sell sex. The problem with this is it means that many sex workers may not be getting appropriate sex education as a result and passing this knowledge on to their clients.

Challenging assumptions about what gives pleasure was a theme that also emerged in Kavitha Potturi, of the Hinduastan Latex Family Planning Trust’s, presentation. Their online surveys into what gave women pleasure found that talking, watching a steamy film, making up after a fight, getting away from it all for the weekend and kissing and cuddling all came top. Sexual intercourse didn’t come into it at all . Talking openly about what we like and allowing men and women to share their thoughts can provide a useful starting point for discussions around integrating safer sex into ones sexual repertoire.

The Conference programme points to a number of upcoming sessions at which issues of pleasure and sexuality will be addressed. Whether this will be reflected in the formal plenary sessions remains to be seen.