Interview: The Pleasure Project, Cambodia - Chi Socheat

Chi Socheat

Could you tell us a little about how the pleasure project got started?

In Cambodia, we don’t have a stand-alone, ‘real’ Pleasure Project, but we started by providing training to our trainers at CARE-Cambodia.  With support from CARE and the Pleasure Project in the U.K, we did some global mapping on sexual pleasure and we discovered various interventions, specifically in Cambodia.  We convened the first training on sexuality and pleasure in Cambodia in December 2004.

The purpose of the training was to sensitise our trainers who were already conducting workshops of our life skills curricula around issues of sexuality and pleasure. In the training, we explored the key elements of sexuality in relation to safer sex, sexual response, desire, and sexual pleasure. We also explored values, feelings, and comfort levels when talking about pleasure as well as attitudes people had in the training about sexuality and pleasure, as well as the practical communication skills that they could use to integrate these concepts into their work. The training brought up many new and interesting discussions: finding the right words to talk about pleasure, how to negotiate it, fulfilling your partner’s pleasure, conversations on gender, why people have sex, why they use condoms, etc. 

How did you approach integrating pleasure and sexuality into the trainings?

When we started thinking about incorporating sexuality and pleasure into our work, we had to first think about how to provide the information to people – it wasn’t going to be as simple as just integrating sexuality and pleasure concepts into the work we do without any thought as to how the Cambodian context had an effect on talking about those issues. When we began thinking about entry points into the curricula we use in our workshops, we first looked at the life skills curricula that we use with young rural women who come to the city to work in garment factories. Moreover, we also recognized that it would take supporting resources for those attending workshops and additional trainings on sexuality and pleasure for the CARE staff, partner organizations, and government supporters to move the work forward. So, in addition to developing specific trainings, we obtained IEC (intervention, education, communication) materials for young people to read, including translated versions of the Red and Blue books from TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues). It is important that we learn from the work already done by networks and organizations in other countries in this region and include it in our work.

What is the Cambodian context when talking about pleasure and sexuality?

Pleasure is a very new concept in Cambodia. The older generation in Cambodia is still very conservative; women are actually branded as ‘bad women’ if they talk about anything related to sexuality and pleasure. The concept of pleasure as a ‘right’ simply does not exist and even if it did the atmosphere is such that nobody would want to claim pleasure as a ‘right’ for themselves. Even the younger generation is too shy to talk about it. However, there have been some positive changes in this regard and people are beginning to talk more on these issues.

In the Cambodian context, you have said that to talk about sexual pleasure is taboo; given that, how easy/difficult was it to talk about sexual pleasure? Why do you think talking about sexual pleasure is so important?

It is extremely important to talk about sexuality and pleasure in Cambodia. It is important first for the women. We found this through our work with both single and married women. Very often, we find that married women will talk about marital violence and other things around that, but never about pleasure. Among the single women, most of whom are young people from rural areas that come to work in the city,  some of them are sexually active and  ask about things such as how to protect themselves.  However, they do not necessarily know that pleasure is part of their sexual rights. In the earlier curriculum, we talked about HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and sexual health, but there was nothing about sexual rights. We thought that it was time we integrated sexual rights and pleasure in our curriculum so that these women knew that it was a part of their rights.

The other reason why talking about pleasure is so important is that while we all know that pleasure is related to sexuality, it seems more comfortable for people here to talk about violence and unsafe sex. Yet, through pleasure, we can have safer sex and a wider range of sexual experiences that go beyond sexual intercourse. Plus, discussing pleasure openly might help in the reduction of violence and unsafe behavior. For example, there are women who do not experience pleasure and have to put up with many experiences in their sexual relation-ships, which they may not want to put up with. It is one of the reasons why I feel we need to explain concepts related to pleasure and how they can better negotiate for pleasure with their partners.

How did the implementation of the project progress? What kinds of challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

After our training with CARE, we formed a working group among the staff called the Sexuality Working Group and they were the ones who took a more in-depth look at our curriculum with the intention of trying to figure out the best way to integrate sexuality and pleasure. After the training, we received various kinds of feedback from the participants, both negative and positive. Most of the young people gave us positive feedback and shared that pleasure was important in their sexual life. However, there was a lot of resistance from our partner organizations; for example, when we integrated pleasure into the curriculum, some local partners and the Ministry of Social Welfare used culture as a reason for not being able to discuss pleasure. We continued to work with a group of four to five Ministry staff and planned regular meetings, follow-up sessions, and trainings for them. We constantly stressed the importance of sexuality and pleasure being a part of their work. 

For partner organizations, we conducted several trainings for their staff. One of our partners gave us negative feedback about how including sexual pleasure into the dialogue around sexuality, gender, and violence was inappropriate; but again, we had several follow-up meetings with their team and also provided additional training to help them understand the linkages in greater depth. We have had many difficulties, but continued to try and make our collaborative partners understand and accept sexuality and pleasure as a part of their life. They have now changed from being totally negative to a little bit positive, but of course, they still have their own ideas around how pleasure should be talked about. But, we did not give up. I think this is a key strategy in ensuring sexual pleasure is included in programs. 

Who is the target community of the project? Why have you chosen to focus on them?

The primary target group that the project works with is rural women that come to the city to work in garment factories. At the onset of the project, although we wanted to work with both men and women, we had to take the decision to start our work with women first. Our aim was to empower them to overcome their fears and discomfort around talking about sexuality and pleasure, and to be able to help them negotiate their sexuality in an affirmative manner. Eventually, we also integrated these concepts into the life skills curricula of the men’s group we work with as well.

With whom and what kind of changes have you observed? 

We have mainly observed changes related to behaviour when it comes to talking about sexuality and pleasure. When we first started our work with young people, they used to be really quiet. They would just not say anything. Some used to be thoughtful and pensive and reflect on what we had said. However, some of them had very negative reactions and would share with the group that it was inappropriate and improper to talk about sexuality and pleasure. Yet, after a few sessions, you could see that some of them had changed their minds and acknowledged that it might actually be okay to talk about sexuality and pleasure. Many young people likened the experience of attending a workshop on sexuality and pleasure to their first session on HIV/AIDS – the very first time when they spoke about HIV/AIDS and saw condom demonstrations they had felt very shy and unnerved. Initially, they did not even want to talk about condoms, much less touch one. But with a number of sessions and trainings they were able to overcome their inhibitions around talking about HIV/AIDS and condoms, so much so, that it has almost become ‘normal’ for them to talk about these issues.  Similarly, now that they had had a number of trainings on sexuality and pleasure and feel more confident with the kind of information that they have, they feel more confident to talk about it and relate it to their own lives.

We also talk about sexuality and the significance of negotiating pleasure in sexuality at our workplace with our own staff members. I remember that the first time that we talked about it, one of our staff members felt inhibited and nervous in the training sessions. However, later she decided that she had to deal with her own fears around the subject, and took it on as a challenge to talk about sexuality and pleasure in subsequent trainings that she facilitated.

We have made a lot of progress already. I think we just need more time to make it happen.

What do you think makes this program successful?

Firstly, it is the commitment from our staff members. We have a very committed staff in our country office. They really wanted to do the Pleasure Project in Cambodia. Our working group is also a very committed and dedicated group of people. Other supporters include the CARE Regional Office and other country offices. CARE has similar projects in other countries and we have benefited from learning how projects in other countries have handled similar challenges in integrating sexuality into their curricula. We also got reading material from the Pleasure Project in the United Kingdom. They have been extremely helpful in starting this project here.

What stage is the project in now? How do you envision the project, in say, two years time?

We hope to expand in the next two to three years to work with young men, sex workers, and married couples in rural communities. One of our projects focuses on promoting dialogue between couples in urban communities on reproductive health, family planning, and HIV/AIDS prevention. We would like the project to include talking about sexuality and pleasure. We want to be able to create many other entry points to talk about sexuality and pleasure into our current projects so that there are multiple ways of approaching the communities we work with. Right now, we work with specific target groups and the work is limited to the city. But it is our hope that we will reach out to more people in the coming years.

How do you think this project can make a larger impact in the South and Southeast Asian region?

I hope that more and more people will be sensitised to talking about sexuality and pleasure without feeling ashamed. Some countries already have some projects on pleasure, but we need to create more dialogue on sexuality and pleasure. What we are doing could be encouraging, as well as a great learning experience for other countries whose conservative poli-tical, social, and cultural context is similar to that of Cambodia. If Cambodia can initiate such a dialogue, so can other countries. We can learn from the examples and experiences of other countries in the region as well. We look forward to more collaborative efforts regionally on these issues. These specific experiences have shown us that attitude and behavior change is possible around issues of sexuality and pleasure, even in environments such as Cambodia.

Socheat Chi has been working with CARE International in Cambodia as Reproductive Health Program Coordinator since January 2003. She advocates for sexual and reproductive rights in Cambodia and works on women’s rights to live free from all kinds of abuse/harassment.