Thanks to her unique research on the subjective meanings of sex, sexuality, and sexual pleasure, Kylie Marais has earned an international Pleasure Fellowship – making her one of only 16 scholars from around the world to receive this prestigious fellowship this year.
Marais is a PhD candidate in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Anthropology. Her doctoral research focuses on the sexual subjectivities of several contemporary, self-identified coloured women from Cape Town. As part of her study, she conducted intimate interviews with 15 women on their individual meanings of sex, sexuality, and sexual pleasure. This work has paved the way for this fellowship opportunity.
“The topic of sexual pleasure is gaining momentum globally.”
“The topic of sexual pleasure is gaining momentum globally. As an example, the World Health Organization acknowledges that pleasure is a central aspect of being human and can assist with addressing various challenges in our sexual lives,” Marais said. “And that’s not all, the World Association for Sexual Health recently established a Declaration on Sexual Pleasure that recognises pleasure as a fundamental part of sexual rights, sexual health, and sexual well-being. The fact that the topic has now entered the global stage is testament to its importance.”
UCT News caught up with her for more on this fellowship, an overview of her work in the field of sexual pleasure, and her long-term research plans.
Niémah Davids (ND): Congratulations on receiving the Pleasure Fellowship. Tell us a bit about what this opportunity entails.
Kylie Marais (KM): Thank you! The fellowship was launched in 2021 and brings together a group of people who are passionate about promoting sexual pleasure and pleasure-inclusive health in their own communities and work.
“The fellowship also seeks to build a community of pleasure activists to encourage engagement and networking opportunities.”
As Pleasure Fellows, we’ll participate in a series of online training sessions over a period of several months; these sessions are facilitated by the internal Pleasure Project team, as well as external experts. During these gatherings, we’ll cover a variety of topics to prepare us as we develop our individual projects on pleasure. The fellowship also seeks to build a community of pleasure activists to encourage engagement and networking opportunities.
ND: How were you selected for this opportunity?
KM: In May, I submitted an online Pleasure Fellowship application that involved answering a set of questions about my research interests on sexual pleasure. I was also asked to propose a personal project related to pleasure that I plan to develop over time, which I then provided. I was overjoyed when I heard that I was successful. The Pleasure Project received more than 500 applications from pleasure activists all over the world, but they could only select 16 candidates for the 2023 cohort. This year, the fellows represent diverse sex-related industries. I’m also the first selected South African fellow, which makes me incredibly proud.
ND: Is it too premature to provide some insight on the personal project you’ve proposed and plan to develop?
KM: Not at all. My proposed project is titled Pleasur-ed: An A–Z guide to sexual pleasure. My plan is to develop an online database of sex-positive concepts and resources linked to sexual pleasure. Pleasur-ed will aim to bridge the gap between our current lack of sex-positive information and sexual experiences. I believe that everyone deserves pleasure and having access to knowledge about pleasure can lead to greater pleasure experiences for everyone.
“What I found was that sexual pleasure rarely formed part of participants’ early sexual socialisation, which instead emphasised shame, silence, and violence.”
This work builds on my doctoral research in feminist anthropology, which critically explores what sex, sexuality, and sexual pleasure means to a group of women in Cape Town. Based on their feedback, I compiled individual “pleasure narratives” to understand how women develop into sexual beings over time and what influences their sexual beliefs and behaviour. What I found was that sexual pleasure rarely formed part of participants’ early sexual socialisation, which instead emphasised shame, silence, and violence.
ND: Tell us more about other findings that emerged from your research that has helped to inform Pleasur-ed.
KM: My research found that sex-positive discourses were also not taught in schools, which meant young women needed to figure out sexual pleasure on their own, either using magazines, erotic literature or pornographic material. These sources were often contradictory and only partially helpful.
And while a few women explored sexual pleasure through self-pleasure practices, some struggled with embodied shame and discomfort. Others only explored sexual pleasure after entering into partnered sexual relationships, but even these sexual experiences came with their own complex challenges.
“My research found that women lacked shame-free, safe spaces to explore, express, and speak about their lived sexual experiences.”
Ultimately, my research found that women lacked shame-free, safe spaces to explore, express, and speak about their lived sexual experiences. They also lacked access to reliable, comprehensive, sex-positive and pleasure-based information to help them navigate their sexualities beyond their limited narratives of sex. This is where I’m hoping Pleasur-ed will assist those who are interested in learning more about sexual pleasure.
ND: Who or what is the driving force that gave your research impetus?
KM: I’ve always been interested in gender and sexuality research and have been a pleasure activist for several years now. I chose female sexual pleasure as my doctoral research topic partly because it is an underrepresented area and partly because of my own upbringing, which was void of sex-positive messages and filled with sexual shame. I wanted to change that for others out there who share this experience.
Once I started my research, I was especially motivated by the works of other African feminists like Stella Nyanzi, Sylvia Tamale, and Patricia McFadden who propose that we use sexual pleasure as an analytical lens to reimagine and reframe African sexualities. They also suggest that focusing on pleasure could help “unsilence” female sexual experiences and empower women, with which I agree.
ND: What makes this work unique, and why is it important?
KM: It’s unique because it’s a largely untapped research area, compared to other fields – especially in anthropology. And it’s so important because while people engage in sexual activity for a wide range of reasons, sexual pleasure is one of the main motivators. Yet, pleasure remains a largely taboo topic. Instead, our teachings on sex often instil fear because it emphasises danger, damage, and disease. This means we know more about the risks associated with sex than we do about our own sexual bodies and sexual pleasure.
In South Africa, sexual pleasure also takes a backseat to other pertinent sexual health issues and is not recognised for its value and the contribution it makes to an individual’s sexual health and well-being. It’s also barely included in our comprehensive sexuality education. So, where then are we expected to learn discourses on sexual pleasure?
ND: In the end, what impact are you hoping your research will have?
KM: I must acknowledge that while the topic of sexual pleasure is slowly gaining momentum in South Africa, especially in the media, it remains absent in our educational system, as well as in sexual health research more broadly.
Sadly, because we have such high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, and sexual health is one of our biggest challenges, it has resulted in mostly sex-negative messages. So, topics on sex are framed mainly around fear and risk rather than pleasure.
“I believe that everyone has the right to sexual pleasure and that pleasure can empower people to claim ownership over their own sexual bodies.”
I believe that everyone has the right to sexual pleasure and that pleasure can empower people to claim ownership over their own sexual bodies. I hope that through my doctoral research and the Pleasur-ed project I can help others see the wider personal and social value of sexual pleasure and promote pleasure education for all – regardless of gender, race, age, sexuality or disability.
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