Strange bedfellows: bridging the worlds of academia, public health and the sex industry to improve sexual health outcomes

Abstract

The public health response to sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV, has been and continues to be overwhelmingly focused on risk, disease and negative outcomes of sex, while avoiding discussion of positive motivations for sex (e.g. pleasure, desire, love). Recent advocacy efforts have challenged this approach and organisations have promoted the eroticisation of safer sex, especially in the context of HIV prevention.

This paper is a case study of one of these organizations – The Pleasure Project. It gives a brief background on the public-health approach to sex and sexual health, and recommends an alternative approach which incorporates constructs of pleasure and desire into sexual health interventions. The Pleasure Project’s aims and unorthodox communications strategies are described, as are the response to and impact of its work, lessons learned and ongoing challenges to its approach.

The Pleasure Project combines evidence (rigorous and experimental as well as qualitative and anecdotal) with experiential knowledge from the sex industry and safer-sex promotion to communicate messages about eroticising safer sex to influence researchers, public health practitioners and policymakers, mainstream media and the porn world. There are significant barriers to this work, because it challenges common and entrenched norms and values related to sex and pleasure and their role in the public health sphere. Other barriers include: the limited range of existing rigorous intervention trials which incorporate pleasure constructs; the lack of effective indicators to measure pleasure constructs; limited funding and resources; discomfort among public health practitioners, researchers and donors with concepts of pleasure and sex; and rejection of erotic media as a potential tool for prevention.

Despite the backdrop of sex-negative public health practice, there is anecdotal evidence that safer sex, including condom use, can be eroticised and made pleasurable, based on qualitative research by The Pleasure Project and other like-minded organisations. Yet there is a need for more research on the effectiveness of pleasure components in sexual health interventions, particularly in high-risk contexts. This need has become urgent as practitioners look for new ways to promote sexual health and as new prevention technologies (including female condoms and microbicides) are introduced or disseminated.

Citation

Health Research Policy and Systems (2011) 9 (Suppl 1): S13 [doi:10.1186/1478-4505-9-S1-S13]

Strange bedfellows: bridging the worlds of academia, public health and the sex industry to improve sexual health outcomes

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