By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 2, 2009
NEW DELHI -- A recent youth festival aimed at raising awareness about health issues and HIV in India did something unique to draw visitors. Amid all the sobering talk of at-risk communities, safe sex and health care, the festival invited bashful attendees to talk about pleasure.
At one booth, visitors were urged to leave tips in a drop box under a sign that asked, "Can safe sex be sexy?" In another booth nearby, the use of the female condom was demonstrated to curious onlookers.
But talking about sex can be an uphill task in India's traditional and patriarchal society. Even though India gave the world the "Kama Sutra," the ancient Sanskrit text about sexual behavior, open conversations about sex remain taboo in the country.
"The whole debate about safe sex has been conducted around fear, danger, disease and death. It is negative. We forgot the pursuit of pleasure. We have to put the sexy back into safer sex," said Anne Philpott, the British founder of the Pleasure Project, an international educational program that promotes safe sex that "feels good."
The program was born out of Philpott's experience promoting female condoms in India, Sri Lanka, Senegal and Zimbabwe as an "erotic accessory." In the past four years, she has pushed the pleasure principle at AIDS conferences in Bangkok, Sri Lanka and Mexico, and she is teaming up with Indian health groups to re-spin the safe-sex message.
"Health workers often address the issue of safe sex in a clinical manner or like a teacher wagging their finger. It is more effective when they find creative ways to incorporate pleasure and desire into the sexual-health dialogue," she said.
About 2.5 million Indians were living with HIV in 2006, according to a report by the United Nations, and one-third of them were ages 15 to 24. Fifteen years after India began a national anti-AIDS program, the government is still confronting the basic challenge of getting people to even utter the word "condom." An advertisement campaign called "Condom Bindaas Bol" or "Say Condom Freely" urges people to say the word without fear of stigma.
"In our culture, there are so many wedding songs that are full of playful sexual connotations. Women sing it, but when you ask them to talk, they go shy," said Rituparna Borah, project associate for Nirantar, a group that works on rural women's health issues in northern India. "But once they begin to speak, the walls come down."
One area in which Philpott's pleasure principle is being implemented successfully in India is the promotion of the female condom.
At the youth festival, held last month and dubbed Project 19, the volunteers led a game in which they asked amused visitors to describe their first impression of the female condom.
"We tell the sex workers to have fun with the female condom. We tell them, 'You spend money on makeup, jewelry, jasmine flowers for your hair. This female condom is another ornament for you,' " said Kavita Potturi, national program manager with Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust, a division of a company that sells the female condom.
Two years after a limited introduction, India will scale up the distribution of female condoms among 200,000 sex workers. According to a study by the governmental National Aids Control Organization, sex workers said they often persuaded their clients to use protection by citing enhanced pleasure from it. The number of nongovernmental groups using the pleasure rationale to promote safe sex is slowly growing in India.
"When we begin to talk about HIV and AIDS, people run away. They think we are preaching celibacy," said G. Krishna, a gay health worker with a group called Suraksha Society in the southern city of Hyderabad. "I have now begun conducting rapport-building exercises by asking people how and what they enjoy."
At the festival, a giggly group of college students who stopped at Philpott's stall excitedly wrote down tips, drew sketches and asked questions.
"We can totally relate to this. We are tired of moral lecturing about safe sex all the time," said Swedha Singh, 18, a mathematics undergraduate at Delhi University.
Health workers said they faced barriers in communicating with young people.
"Talking about disease and fear haven't worked very well. People believe they are in a safe relationship and that disease does not apply to them," said Arushi Singh, a resource officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which trains health educators in South Asia.
"But pleasure," she said, "applies to everybody."