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KOLKATA, Nov 30 2007 (IPS) - Sex workers in this eastern metropolis are being encouraged to put pleasure back into their services as one way of limiting the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Rajyashree Choudhuri, chief of the Institute of International Social Development (IISD), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), said the idea proceeded from formal surveys which showed that sex workers in Sonagachi, the largest red light area in the city, entertained more than five clients a day on average.
"Many of them were married or had regular relationships too. So we encouraged them to have fewer clients or maybe a fixed number of loyal clients,’’ she told IPS.
When the sex workers said they feared their earnings could drop, IISD workers advised them informally in group discussions to charge clients, but ‘’give them something extra through companionship and erotic pleasure without necessarily indulging in penetrative sex.’’
IISD fell back on techniques outlined in the ‘Kamasutra,’ India’s ancient treatise on sex, as well as the courtesan culture that flourished through the mediaeval period that made use of suggestive music and dance.
Choudhuri said IISD pilot surveys showed that the techniques actually worked in favour of fewer and more satisfied clients as well as better earnings. ‘’We found that many of them (sex workers) reported that the techniques helped them to reduce clientele and thereby the health risks from having multiple partners.
Other NGOs too have taken recourse to Kamasutra in promoting safer sex practices. I.S. Gilada, secretary of the People’s Health Organisation (PHO) that is based in the western metropolis of Mumbai, calls Kamasutra a ‘’prescription for HIV prevention.’’
"All over the world people only talk about condoms and about celibacy. Those who talk about monogamy are laughed away by others (because) say monogamy sounds like monotony! Sex is a pleasurable act in Indian culture but a sinful exercise in some other cultures."
Radhika Chandiramani, founder and executive director of Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), a New Delhi-based NGO, agrees. "When people work on sexuality issues, they often approach it from a disease or danger angle. However, it is very important to also work on the more positive aspects of sexuality, for the work to be meaningful and touch people's lives. After all, one of the reasons people have sex is for the pleasure it brings.
Indian NGOs working on HIV prevention draw inspiration from the ’Pleasure Project,’ a British organisation whose founder Anne Philpott says the overwhelming evidence that HIV gets transmitted through sexual contact has resulted in an aura of fear around sex, stripping it of the erotic pleasure which is basic to human social behaviour.
"What we advocate is safer sex without negating the pleasure element around having sex," she said at the ICAAP (International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific) at Colombo, in held August. Her ideas were elaborated further in a skill-building session called, ‘Where is the pleasure in safer sex?’, that focused on how to talk about desire and make sex education sexier.
The goal of the Pleasure Project, said Philpott who set it up three years ago, is to put "the sexy into safer sex". A promotional leaflet of the organisation says: "Most sexual health education programmes focus on every factor except the reality that people think safer sex is 'unsexy' and not pleasurable." It is the attitude, that sex is something clinical that the project wants to strip away.
The Pleasure Project emphasises that local sensibilities should be considered while planning programmes. For example, in 2004, it facilitated a ‘pleasure proficiency’ training for Cambodia’s sexual health educators and urged them to recognise the need to integrate the principles of pleasure into sexual and reproductive health training materials.
In its work the project draws on traditional knowledge around erotic art that has been in practice for centuries in many countries, but may have become submerged due to various reasons. "We have learnt much from the huge range of global pleasure advocates that we have met about local contexts in terms of the most effective way to market safer sex," Philpott said.
Pleasure Project has even carried out ‘global mapping’ of traditional knowledge to be experimented upon by NGOs working in the area of sexuality and safe sex.
‘’Sexuality is more than simply the act of sex – it also has to do with feelings, attitudes, desires and the cultural context,’’ said Chandiramani at TARSHI. ‘’We need to broaden our understanding of sexuality and integrate pleasure into it."
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