Ms. Philpott has a theory. “People who work in sexual health often come from a biomedical background, and they focus on death, danger and disease,” she said. “They’re not encouraged to think of themselves as sexual beings.”
The fact that most sexual and reproductive health programs are delivered by big aid agencies doesn’t help, she added. “There’s an international development narrative that historically comes from a very sex-negative place or a Christian colonial perspective aimed at saving the ‘poor unfortunates.’”
Sonali Silva, who until recently did advocacy work for the Pleasure Project in Sri Lanka, told me that during the years she worked on sexual health-related issues, including abortion rights and H.I.V., with big international organizations such as the W.H.O., she kept running into the same phenomenon.
“The big elephant in the room that nobody wants to make eye contact with is why people have sex in the first place,” she said. “We’re all just going to act like it’s only for reproduction. As long as people have been alive, they’ve been having sex for pleasure, but the world of international development is not having that conversation.”
The prudish resistance may be a colonial import, she said, but it’s entrenched. She encounters the same reluctance from Sri Lankans. When she pushed for the seventh-grade health curriculum in Sri Lanka to say more about masturbation than that it is not a mental illness, she was called to appear before a parliamentary committee.
“I really saw how forceful the resistance is,” she said, to the idea that people have a “right to pleasure.”
Mahmoud Garga, who leads strategic communications in the Africa office of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, recently launched a social media campaign called “Treasure Your Pleasure,” which I love. It was designed for East Africa, but he and his colleagues have been asked to expand it to Southeast Asia.