Hesperian Health Guides

Pleasure matters

Knowing you do not want to get an STI, and knowing how to make sure you do not, are important steps toward sexual health. But what about knowing what you do want and how to get it? When a woman accepts that she has a right to pleasure, it helps her think more clearly about her sexuality. All people can get great health benefits from sexuality and sexual pleasure. Sex releases stress, strengthens the immune system, and makes us happier. It can make us feel connected to others, feel fully human, and address our needs in a relationship. A woman who accepts and experiences her right to pleasure can feel empowered to achieve her rights in other areas of her health and life. She will see herself as someone who deserves to have her basic human needs met and who can take steps to protect herself, while at the same time experiencing more intimacy and pleasure.

3 women having a conversation.
People are dying from unsafe abortion and AIDS. I don’t see why it’s useful to bring up masturbation and orgasms at health talks!
I agree. What will people think? They will say I’m promoting sex between unmarried people.
I know why you feel this way. But if we can help people discuss sexual pleasure, they may also be willing to try new and safer ways of being sexual!

The activities in Inequality is bad for sexual health and Communicating for healthier relationships can help women and men discuss ways to make their sexual experiences safer, healthier and more satisfying. You can prepare for these discussions with the group activity, What is sex for a man? What is sex for a woman?.

Self-touch as a safe form of sex

Masturbation means touching oneself sexually. Normally, women and men masturbate from the time they start having sexual feelings in adolescence. But many people have been taught that masturbation is shameful, wrong, or unhealthy. This is unfortunate, because it is a very safe form of sex, and it does not harm health in any way.

Masturbation can also help couples have more satisfying relationships because it can help a woman learn what feels good to her sexually. It can also help a man learn to control his ejaculation. During sex with a partner, masturbation can help either person reach orgasm, a feeling of intense pleasure also called sexual climax.

ActivityWhere do we feel pleasure?

You can use a body mapping activity to discuss the different parts of women’s and men’s bodies that give sexual pleasure.

How to do body mapping:

  1. If it is a mixed group, divide into small groups of just women and just men. You can also do this activity with only men or only women.
  2. Ask each group to draw large outlines of a female body and a male body on the ground or on a large piece of paper.
  3. a group of women drawing the pleasure areas of a woman's body; 2 women speak.
    Maybe our skin is a sexual organ? Being touched gives pleasure.
    The clitoris is very sensitive. Stroking it can help us reach orgasm.

  4. Ask them to mark the areas on each body that make a man or woman feel sexy, hot, or aroused. Remind them that different people feel pleasure in different ways, so it is OK for each person to add any part of the body they think is a pleasure area.
  5. Bring the groups together for a discussion. Ask them to share what they learned about the differences between women’s and men’s bodies.

    If there was a group of men and a group of women, ask them to compare each other’s drawings. Did they leave out a place the other group marked? Ask what they learned about how to give and receive sexual pleasure.

Safer sex can increase pleasure for women and men

Practicing safer sex means having sex in ways that help protect against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Safer sex information emphasizes using condoms, because that is the best way to prevent STIs during intercourse or anal sex. But safer sex can also mean doing things to feel sexual pleasure that are less risky than intercourse or anal sex. These are some examples:

a woman speaking while holding a condom.
I have more fun when we use condoms because I relax more and worry less.
  • sharing fantasies and sexy talk
  • using our lips and tongues on sexual parts of the body (genitals)
  • kissing and touching other parts of the body
  • using our fingers and hands to touch genitals
  • using sex toys and vibrators (as long as they are clean before use)
  • touching our own bodies, or masturbation

Sexual violence, shame, and sadness can harm sexuality

There are many reasons why a woman might not want to participate in a discussion about pleasure or might feel that her experience is being ignored. Women need time to recover from rape and other sexual trauma. Women who have felt ashamed about sex may need time to accept that feeling pleasure is a good thing.

a woman speaking.
My mother punished me when she caught me touching myself. I felt so ashamed.
a woman speaking.
I was raped during the war. I cannot even think about sex.
a woman speaking.
My genitals were cut when I was girl. I cannot feel pleasure there, and having sex is almost always painful.
a woman speaking.
I want to have a child, but I have been married for 5 years with no pregnancy. Having sex just makes me sad now.

A support group can help women have more control over their sexual relationships while they heal.

Helping couples have healthier sexual relationships

INCRESE (International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights) is a community organization in Nigeria that has worked with couples on sexuality. They began this work after a community survey in a traditional area showed that people there were concerned about a lack of harmony between couples and about how many couples were divorcing. INCRESE was surprised to find how willing people were to discuss sexuality.

In their couples’ support center, they aimed to improve women’s sexual pleasure as well as satisfaction in couples. At first, it was difficult to persuade men to come to meetings, and women came alone. But over time, more and more couples came.

The training began with basic information about the parts of body, especially the sexual parts related to pleasure. Then they helped people say what felt good and what did not. Couples were given homework — for example, they were asked to practice touching each other and share what they liked or disliked. INCRESE also gave couples vibrators. When some community leaders feared that doing this would harm cultural values, INCRESE explained how this was simply modifying existing aspects of culture to respond to needs of the present day — after all, sex aids had been made locally for generations.

a woman speaking.
By working with couples, we were able to help women find their voices in relationships. Soon, some were able to have more equal relationships, not just in sex, but in other parts of their lives as well!

When INCRESE asked people how the training changed their relationship, some couples said that women were more able to say how they felt. Some said they were more likely to take action to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and some said there was less violence in their relationships. Overall, the couples that participated said they felt closer to their partners.

a man speaking.
At first I thought I didn’t need the training, but I actually learned a lot. Sex with my partner is better and we are closer than before. I never knew that women could feel so much pleasure too!