Dr Tlaleng On Advocating For Sexual Rights


Doctor Tlaleng Mokokeng is an internationally renowned health activist, doctor and writer. In her latest book Dr T: Guide To Sexual Health and Pleasure, she writes about making sexual health and pleasure accessible to all. She also tackles the specifics of sexual anatomy and health as well as pleasure and sexual rights. In this extract, she writes about the importance of sexual rights in South Africa. 

It is so important, especially in the context of South Africa where so many people experience some form of harassment or trauma or rape, that we talk about the fact that sexual rights speak to the issues of violence, exploitation and abuse. As much as we are advocating for sexual pleasure, for some people the journey of attaining the highest possible level of pleasure does involve some form of trauma. Do we have systems and emergent care for people who have gone through such forms of abuse? Not accepting that sexual pleasure is a right that every individual has, might explain why we don’t provide services to victims of sexual abuse or violence. Services that are non-judgemental and affirming and where the content of programmes are respectful and take into account different cultures and religions and where personal beliefs are not forced onto the people asking for expert help and advice. We need to listen and be more attentive to what clients need and the issue of confidentiality is tantamount. Very often in the rural communities and local clinics there are questionnaires asking if young people are in need of youth services and the overwhelming response would be that it is but there is the element of trust involved in that. Going to a clinic labelled ‘youth friendly’ would mean that perhaps your information will be used in some way and not kept confidential. 

We often don’t think enough about what makes us decide to go to a certain doctor and not another. I have patients who tell me they have a family doctor but if it involves their sex life they would rather come to me. This makes me wonder what is it about our different needs that makes people refrain from seeking assistance or seeking assistance from someone in particular? People have a right to choose who they want to confide in and it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, there should be services that take into account your lived experiences and that can be provided in a dignified manner, so that we know the quality people receive is of a high standard. This brings to me to the question of where are young people getting their information on all of these concepts? Structured and comprehensive sexual education is desperately needed that will provide young people with an understanding of sexuality and emotional psychosocial factors. Often when we don’t understand something, we tend to get defensive. Parents who are not recipients of affirming approaches to sexuality often question what information their children are given in school. 

This brings an interesting element to how do we redress the gaps that we as parents or caregivers have that result in us not being able to transfer the knowledge in a positive manner? We cannot talk about sex without talking about respect. Respect and consideration for people, how they enjoy sex and how they want to experience pleasure. We operate in a society that has very strong ideas about culture and religion, where a lot of people live very scripted sexual lives to fit into a box and do not learn about their body or what feels good. When you don’t know how to listen to yourself or take a moment to re-energise yourself, how can you make your partner feel good? When people get it right in terms of sexuality and sexual expression, all of the benefits spill over into other areas of our lives. For many people when things go wrong, rights are violated related to their sexuality, reproductive and sexual health, some of those consequences are lifelong. How is it that as a society we still continue to underplay the importance of sexual rights, sexual health and sexual pleasure, knowing they are intertwined and that the triangle needs to be in balance? Depoliticising sexual rights has to be resisted precisely because all aspects of our lives, particularly sexual and reproductive health and the obsession with the fertility of women is political. 

Many years ago, I started watching video lectures and clips of both Professors Kimberlé Crenshaw and Loretta Ross, as they delivered various talks, lectures and commencement speeches. Both professors are African-American women and their work, lived experiences and scholarship have moved me deeply and influenced and shaped my work the most. Through their work, I started to engage with the principles of Reproductive Justice and Intersectionality. In June 1994, twelve women of colour, Professor Loretta Ross being one of them, working in the reproductive health and rights movement, birthed the concept of reproductive justice at a pro-choice conference on healthcare reform in Chicago. Drawing on black feminist and critical legal theory from 1989, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the legal framework of intersectionality, a term that speaks to the multiple social forces, social identities, and ideological instruments through which power and disadvantage are expressed and legitimised. 

All these years later, I find myself as a black woman in South Africa, finding sisterhood via the interweb with the women of colour in the United States, learning from their scholarship. I didn’t foresee how deeply rooted my work as a medical doctor would turn into advocacy and even on a clinical level, I could feel the gaps regarding where to locate my work and once I understood what Reproductive Justice was, I saw immediately how intersectionality was the bridge to justice. The universe conspired and I have since met both Professors Crenshaw and Ross and had the privilege of spending time with them and the way they received me, affirmed me and my work, was testament to the healing power of black love.

Tlaleng Mofokeng’s new book, Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure, is published by Pan MacMillan. This extract was republished with permission by Pan Macmillan. 

Featured image provided by Pan Macmillan