Saturday, 6 January 2007

MDG9: A new millennium challenge

There’s a cheeky little email entitled ‘bedtime reading’ which is doing the rounds in francophone West Africa, passed on by women in the non-governmental (NGO) sector, about how sexism in the real world is reflected in the French language use of grammatical gender (le and la).

Like all the best spoofs, the email contains more than a grain of truth and I’ve used it to good effect to provoke discussion in gender training here with mixed groups of NGO workers. To give you a flavour, though English doesn’t have the same grammatical system, I’ve freely translated some of the text below by highlighting the French masculine words in blue and feminine words in red.

(A man is speaking). Why is it, when there’s a problem, it’s immediately feminine?
Rain, snow, hail, storm, that’s all for you women! For us, it’s sunshine, good weather, springtime and paradise!

You don’t have a chance: washing-up, cooking, food, dust, dirt and cleaning. For us, it’s coffee in the armchair with the newspaper watching the rugby and that would be real happiness, if you didn’t come and sow discord and strife.

To get some peace, I think we should let gender decide. You can watch the TV but we choose the channel. Even if the remote belongs to you, we have the control.

But don’t go looking for any sexism there, oh no! Besides, I need to point out that the word sex has no feminine form. We don’t say sex but the sex of a woman. Of course, by definition, pleasure is for men.

For, if the preliminaries are too quick, it’s because they are only a preliminary. Any more than that and it’s a waste of time. After having achieved orgasm, the man turns his back to get some sleep, while the woman experiences frustration.

This is where I’m going to stop translating since, when I’ve shared the email with individual women in Mali (not the first country to go looking for female outspokenness) this is where they stop and tell me: ‘That is so true.’

This is nothing specific to West Africa – though maybe something about French-speaking men. Because over the summer I read a stereotype-confounding survey report in Le Monde, that 33% of married Frenchwomen had never experienced orgasm. One explanation for this was the social pressure on them to look (but obviously not to feel) good. And in the same paper, an article about how single Frenchwomen are so desperate for the possibility of a good lay that they no longer insist on their casual sex partner using a condom (in case he just leaves).

It’s good to talk

Of course I don’t really think it’s anything to do with the French language.

There are a number of reasons why women don’t enjoy sex. In Africa one of them is female circumcision. According to Ann Birch, making a documentary about Plan International’s work to combat FGM in Mali, a number of men she spoke to admitted they would prefer their wives not to have been circumcised ‘because it puts them off sex.’ It would help a great deal if they said that loudly in public.

But thanks to the miraculously misunderstood mysteries of the female anatomy, even women who have been circumcised can enjoy orgasm. This is because the clitoris is not a tiny hard-to-find switch but the entire female genital muscle, which has 6 times as many nerve endings as the male sex organ.

That’s a little-known fact I learned when I took part in a bilingual community production of the Vagina Monologues in 2003 in north Wales - like Mali, not the first place you’d go looking for open debate about sex. Most of the women in the group had never spoken the word ‘vagina’ out loud in private, let alone on a public stage.

Those women found the experience incredibly empowering. And among the audience in the community hall in the wild Welsh heartland of Porthmadog (we didn’t know if anyone would actually turn up) were old ladies who had come all the way from Angelesy to hear said what they had never been able to say.

Anyone who has seen the Vagina Monologues might remember that around the world there are one hundred and one cute words women are taught to use instead. And one of the main points of the show is that so many women – because of social conditioning, psychological or physical abuse - have a negative relationship with their own sexuality. Basically, ‘down there’ is ugly and dirty (and smelly) and doesn’t really belong to them at all.

The impact of that perception was indicated in a survey around the same time of young men in the UK who said they didn’t go down on their girlfriends because they were afraid of ‘offending’ them. (In other words, men might not think it’s ugly and dirty but they know their girlfriends certainly do.)

But what ‘s going on here? We’re in the third millennium. Towards the end of the last one, a visualisation technique called Body Mapping was developed and used to good effect with women in different parts of the world, to help give them a vocabulary with which to talk about themselves, their sexuality and their (often negative) experiences with men.

Thanks to the bilingual production I learned that the Welsh word cont was widely used by both men and women in Welsh erotic poetry of the Middle Ages. But nowadays, the more sex is talked about in public, the less men and women seem to have an understanding of eroticism, or a shared vocabulary to discuss it in private.

Safe sex

Once while working in Nigeria I innocently suggested to my team of Muslim men that the practice of polygamy (which I don’t agree with) could be seen as positive, if it stopped men visiting prostitutes and thus spreading HIV/AIDS. But I am reliably informed by both men and women across West Africa, that this is not the case. So, we have a scenario where a man is not able to share pleasure any of his four wives and then visits a prostitute for the chance of a little (fabricated) pleasure. Because the prostitute is not able to insist on condom use, the man brings back infection (which was passed on to the prostitute in the first place by another respectably married man) to all of his wives. If he then dies of HIV/AIDS, his wives are parcelled out among his brothers and so the infection continues. In fact, polygamy makes the situation worse.

The other obvious point about the prostitute is that her own pleasure in the transaction is never the issue, because this is a commercial, not an erotic, relationship. In Mali there’s been a big increase in prostitution as an income-generating activity among young women, including university students, who sell their favours to older, richer African or European men. After all (I suppose the reasoning goes) if you don’t enjoy sex, you might as well cash it in. Young men are now complaining that they can’t get a nice girlfriend because they ‘don’t have enough money.’

While not making much of an attempt to crack down on prostitution, the Malian authorities have become concerned at the increase in masturbation among young people - which is stopping them from getting married at all and thus threatening the whole ‘fabric of society’. They have finally found that, although they can’t please each other, they can please themselves.

The result of all this seems to be that everyone is at it like knives in West Africa - but nobody is actually making anyone else happy.

Of course, it’s not just an African problem. In France, adultery is an accepted practice (an attempt to get elsewhere what you’re not able to give at home). In Germany - which has the largest percentage of single people and the lowest birth-rate in Europe - prostitution is fully institutionalised. The Minister for Social Welfare publicly endorsed the mega-brothel that was established outside the Berlin stadium for this year’s World Cup. For this event, young girls were trafficked from Eastern Europe, West Africa and Brazil.

So, despite (quite nice) African men jumping up and down in excitement, shouting ‘gender balance! gender balance!’ when they see two female professionals among a group of twenty people in an NGO meeting, my perception is that all over the world things are regressing. The domestic economy of each country I visit seems to be founded on the beautiful but joyless bodies of young women. I don’t see how this can be good for development.

New targets

Why do we continue to abuse our most precious resources and cynically accept the encroaching desertification of human relationships? Whoever we are, however little we own, whatever the limitations on our future, good sex is the one chance on earth we all have – for everyone and their partner, just for a short time, which may seem like a lifetime - to dance together above the stars.

Bill and Melinda Gates, please take note. If you want to contribute to Millennium Development Goal 6 (Combat HIV/AIDS) you need to work towards the eradication of prostitution. This would require substantial resources to enable existing and potential prostitutes to become successful and independent businesswomen, international tour operators and sports science specialists (possibly with the help of Cuba) as well as to establish legal citizenship for all those girls who have been trafficked across national borders. Of course, that’s only looking at the supply side.

For the solution is even more radical than that, so I’d like to propose an additional goal - MDG 9: Achieve universal female orgasm by the year 2015.

I’m not recommending that we allow the World Bank to provide one of its top-down quick fixes. Nor do I think the Negroponte One Laptop Per Child project is going to help boys and girls transform the future here. This is actually something we could all take personal responsibility for.

It may sound provocative, but it’s certainly much less outrageous than what is happening in the world at the moment. Of course, there are still major obstacles, like the politics of culture, and of the market-place, but think of the gains: no more war, maybe even some help in the kitchen.

In the end, maybe it’s just a corny sixties suggestion. But, like the spoof email, my intention is serious. For peace, equality and sustainable development, why not concentrate on the art of making love.

November 2006

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