Pleasure Advocacy: A Sexual Wellness Model

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Research has shown that sexual well-being is a critical factor in overall health and quality of life (Giami 2002; Higgins et al., 2006; McCabe et al., 2010; Southern & Cade, 2011). According to the World Health Organization (2006) sexual health includes not only physical and biological health related functions but also sexual pleasure and satisfaction. The World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) at the World Congress of Sexual Health in Mexico City in 2019 established the “WAS Declaration on Sexual Pleasure.” This indicated a shift toward recognizing that sexual pleasure was necessary for sexual health and a central factor to overall wellbeing. (WAS, 2019). However, it is not possible to discuss sexual pleasure without also acknowledging the political and cultural influences which often restrict and interfere with access to sexual pleasure and recognition of sexual pleasure as a basic human right.

Historically, the attention on sexual health has been on alleviating suffering and pain. Mental health professionals focus on pathology and dysfunction rather than the absence of disease. Sexual education, when it is provided, stresses disease, death, and all of the potential risks of becoming sexually active. According to the author Adrienne Maree Brown, who wrote the book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019), pleasure activism is defined as “the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts of delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.” (p.13). She challenges pleasure activists to cultivate recognition of the restorative richness of pleasure that is available to everyone, in spite of having been socialized to believe that sexual pleasure is only acceptable when experienced by white males. Or that sexual pleasure is in limited supply reserved for those who are young, healthy, and meet society’s definition sexually attractive.

Mental health professionals have an ethical obligation to promote sexual health as an essential aspect of the human experience. This includes acknowledging sexual pleasure as central to sexual wellbeing. Competent clinicians need to obtain education and training in order to work effectively with their client to address sexual issues. This means being able to recognize the complex cultural aspects of sexuality and sexual pleasure which includes race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender and gender expression, values and beliefs, SES, physical abilities as well as current social/political events which work to oppress minoritized groups. The access to and ability to freely engage in “pleasurable and safe sexual experiences free of discrimination, coercion, and violence” as a fundamental human right unfortunately is not available to all people.

This workshop will review the political and societal influences which impact sexual pleasure for oppressed groups in the U.S. Sexual pleasure will be redefined in a way that is more expansive and inclusive. Different tools that have been developed to measure sexual pleasure and satisfaction and their limitations will be examined. The presenters will discuss the WAS Declaration of Sexual Pleasure and the importance of pleasure advocacy as mental health professionals.

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