Male delegates hunched over a crudely drawn outline of the female body, attempting to reach consensus on a woman's "places of sexual pleasure". On the other side of the conference room, female delegates marked a sketch of the male body with liberal sprinklings of heart symbols to denote his hot spots.
This unfamiliar scene at a workshop this week at the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Colombo, Sri Lanka, billed as "a session that brings the discussion of pleasure and desire into safer sex dialogue", made it no surprise that there was standing room only.
Discussions about sex at AIDS conferences tend to be highly clinical or completely absent, but HIV is primarily spread through sexual contact, and one of the main reasons people have sex is because it feels good. Yet these two facts are rarely linked when talking about why HIV prevention campaigns have had such limited success.
"It's like HIV is an airborne disease," joked Anne Philpott, founder of the Pleasure Project and the workshop's facilitator. "I remember going to one session about microbicides [a promising prevention technology still in development] where the researcher was talking about the 'insertive probe' and the 'receptive cavity', and it took me a while to realise they were talking about the penis and the vagina."
Philpott set up the Pleasure Project three years ago with the goal of "putting the sexy into safer sex". "Most sexual health education programmes focus on every factor except the reality that people think safer sex is 'unsexy' and not pleasurable," says one of the Pleasure Project's promotional leaflets.
One of the aims of the exercise the delegates were doing was to demonstrate that sex doesn't have to be penetrative to be pleasurable. Inevitably, it also revealed that what one sex thinks the other enjoys often differs from reality.
"I think the male team was thinking about what would give them pleasure instead of what would give the women pleasure," one of the female delegates commented on the men's diagram. "I think the clitoris is missing," said another female participant to enthusiastic applause from her side of the room.
The Pleasure Project runs training workshops for sexual health educators working for non-governmental organisations. "We want them to understand what might restrict them from talking to other people about sex: all of those concerns that aren't normally addressed when you're just doing a condom demonstration," Philpot said.
She argued that associating condoms with fear of disease was a misguided strategy. "If you look at the marketing industry, they use sex to sell toothpaste, and we're not even using it to sell condoms," she told IRIN/PlusNews. The Pleasure Project's website also has a database of projects and organisations worldwide that incorporate pleasure into HIV prevention.
One example is a male condom introduced in Cambodia by Population Services International, a non-profit social marketing organisation, which is sold with a water-based lubricant sachet. The lubricant is marketed as making sex safer and more pleasurable, and sales have risen steadily since its launch in 2003.
According to Philpott, sex workers in Colombo charge clients extra for the arousing process of inserting the female condom into their vaginas. "We can learn from sex workers because they have to be very creative in negotiating safer sex," she told workshop participants.
Philpott also believes health educators and the producers of erotic films can learn a lot from each other. The Pleasure Project provided "condom consultancy" on the set of an erotic instructional video for heterosexual couples called "Modern Loving".
"I'd really like to see condoms being made mandatory in porn films," she said.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions