Tlaleng Mofokeng is just the person you’d want to find at a large academic conference on sexual health and safety. The South African doctor and sexual-rights advocate doesn’t talk around potentially embarrassing situations, nor does she hide behind jargon. She tackles issues head on, starting with what she considers their root: sexual pleasure.
At the International Conference on Family Planning, a gathering of 4,000 people to discuss sexual health and rights , contraception, and family planning, Mofokeng is what’s missing. Known as Doctor T., she is that rare brand of expert who, amidst all the talk of the medical, clinical, and legal aspects of reproductive health, wants to talk about sex.
What we talk about when we talk about sexual health
“Everyone is focused on preventing diseases, without affirming that pleasure is what actually drives people to sex,” says Mofokeng, speaking to Quartz at this year’s family planning conference in Kigali, Rwanda recently. She thinks that a conversation about sexual health and rights can’t be successful unless it acknowledges what she refers to as the “triangle” for women of “health, rights… and pleasure.”
Acknowledging the importance of pleasure for women, Mofokeng explains, is a way to protect women’s sexual rights, as it reframes the conversation. Right now, she says, “women are expected to have sex when men want to, to be recipients of sex.” But when it is acknowledged and openly discussed that they, too, have the same appetite for pleasure as men, it becomes easier to talk about consent, and contraception.
“It’s important to frame the conversation around sex and safe sex positively and link it with pleasure,” agrees Lindsay van Clief, a communications specialist for Love Matters, a Netherland-based website that provides information about sexual health in five languages for developing countries.
This approach also, quite frankly, gets more clicks. Love Matters addresses contraceptive methods or consent in articles alongside sex tips (van Clief ensures they are far more reliable than the glossy magazine-style fare), and relationship advice tailored to different cultures. Compared with straightforward articles on their website discussing sexual health in more veiled terms, van Clief tells Quartz, these pages get 60% more traffic.
Pleasure is feminist
Mofokeng writes a weekly column for South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper which reaches roughly 1.7 million readers. In it, she’s pretty clear that a society that considers men to be the main agent of sexual activity can’t be truly respectful of women’s desires.
When women know what to ask for, Mofokeng explains, it changes the power dynamics around sex. A woman who’s empowered and comfortable wanting pleasure, is also likely to feel more comfortable making clear she does not wish to get pregnant, and take action accordingly.
As van Clief says: “Consent is important, but it’s complicated. It’s hard to say ‘no’ if you don’t know how to say ‘yes.'”
“Foreplay and romance need to be a focus,” Mofokeng says, “so does every day consent.” She believes that because our concept of pleasure is so male-centric, even the conversation about consent is too limited to intercourse, when it should be much wider. Negotiating permission for little things such as holding one’s hand, or kissing, becomes a lot easier when discussions about pleasure are more open. It can help make enthusiastic consent natural—for new and established couples alike.