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Decolonizing pleasure:  Why do we need to talk about colonization and sexual pleasure?

Colonialism refers to the expansion and maintenance of the sovereignty of one group of people over another. Colonizers sought to extract material gain – raw materials and labour to build wealth in the colonizers country. Starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, colonial administrators and missionaries increasingly strove to transform the lives of colonial subjects in other countries to try and make them desire the moral and material goods of so called “civilization,” commodity consumption, and Christianity. Certainly, the various agents of the empire—traders, administrators, missionaries, and settlers, among others—held different, often conflicting, ambitions and ideological motives. Nevertheless, they operated with relatively similar frameworks of racial and cultural Otherness.

  The language of sexuality played a central ideological role in the making of empire. 

By deeming intimate desires and bodily pleasures of the colonized as below the standards of morality of “enlightened” colonizers.Colonial representations of so-called “native” sexualities used a wide variety of textual and graphic motifs to depict the carnal desires of the  colonized as devious, whether excessive or underdeveloped and banned Vedic texts for pleasure.

 It is important to make the connection that the oppressive structures which stem from Victorian moral values and colonial legacy laws  which disempower and endanger Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) worldwide today are not mutually exclusive from those that ban abortion, restrict sex education and contraception and deny LGBTQIA+ rights. If we look back, it was colonial ideas of gender binaries that wiped out pre-existing accepted  fluidity within gender presentation and sexual practices. 

The rich and complex history of human sexuality has been distorted by the perceived cultural necessity of heteronormativity which describes the ways in which heterosexuality is assumed as the default, and privileged, form of sexuality in society. It can be difficult to imagine alternatives, because western society’s predilection for a marriage structure has forced relationships to fall within two monolithic camps: state-sanctioned lifetime partnerships – then everything else. If we are to radically interrogate injustice, then decolonizing thought production is a start. Homosexuality is illegal in many African and Asian countries, in some cases punishable by life imprisonment or even death. But it wasn’t always that way – these laws only came about through colonial rule. Similarly, in India, the term “hijra” is recognized as a term that denotes the third gender, used for people who consider themselves neither completely male nor female. Hijras were a valued part of South Asian cultures for centuries before British colonial rule arrived. History has been distorted and forced assimilation has been confused with cultural superiority.

So what can we do about it? And How can we decolonize our minds and practice?

We can address our own presumptions about sexuality in former colonies – what do we assume about people’s sex lives and pleasure. Some statements we have heard that are important to consider and question the assumptions behind them:

  1. “Do poor people have time for sex or pleasure?”
  2. “Do women from Africa want sex that fulfills them?”
  3. “Cultures in Asia and Africa don’t accept pleasure.”

Unlearning means asking why wouldn’t they? And questioning a ‘pleasure privilege’ that normalises pleasure for some people and not for others – for example white heterosexual couples. We at The Pleasure Project have worked to consider these histories in establishing our Pleasure Principles of pleasure based sexual health which you can see here. They are a series of inspiration and practical steps and ideas to bring pleasure into your life and work. Our Pleasure Principles put a focus on ‘Think Universal’ when it comes to pleasure and asks us to look globally at the universal capacity to feel pleasure if we want to. Harmful practices are harmful to all – and don’t hurt less for people of colour. Do your bit to ‘Think Rights’ for all.

And there are great examples of pleasure based seuxal health that build on these histories of pleasure to celebrate how it has been a large part of culutral and personal narratives – such as the brilliant Agents of Ishq with their ‘Our Erotic Heritage’ work.

Read up about the rich histories and herstories of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and how pleasure is and has been celebrated throughout history. The pleasure project is currently conducting a study on pre colonial perspectives on pleasure.

 Pleasure Principle 5