Finding the Pleasure Point in Internet Policy Spaces


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Image description: Illustration of 3 faces and other objects. Image source: Umaiamah Damakka


Someone called me a policy animal a few years back and I grudgingly agreed that indeed I’m one of those people who does get excited by the idea of influencing policy negotiations and policymaking. Grudgingly – because policy spaces, especially the grey corridors of the United Nations that I frequent for advocacy, are not fun places to be in. They are so far removed from ground realities, both geographically and empathetically. They are stiff, formal and hierarchical. Let alone getting our language and politics into policy documents, even getting our foot in the door as civil society is often considered a victory. They are tedious and often disempowering; the changes we manage to make are incremental and often invisible and human rights are traded away by states for overriding geopolitical interests with incredible ease. Especially the human rights of people who are already marginalised and disempowered. In spite of all of this, there is a thrill and geekery in trying to understand the dynamics between countries and country blocks, identifying allies and accomplices within state delegations and civil society, working with other feminists to raise our priority issues and find strategic ways to introduce progressive language to policy negotiations and outcomes.

Let alone getting our language and politics into policy documents, even getting our foot in the door as civil society is often considered a victory.

There is also an imperative to be present in policy spaces to hold the line on the gains we have made over the years, especially as rising conservatism and populism from states and certain groups within civil society threatens those gains more than ever. There is a lot of heartbreak in watching the issues closest to our hearts being excluded or watered down but the payoff can be equally satisfying and pleasurable, such as finally ensuring that gender equality is a standalone goal in the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development or watching the efforts of activists to secure a main session on gender at the global Internet Governance Forum.

The achievement and advancement of our human rights is a dynamic process that involves;

  • us having the agency to name our rights and their violations
  • the recognition of our rights both socially and legally, and
  • the freedom to claim and assert our rights through state and non-state mechanisms.

…and the policy space, whether at local, national, regional or global levels, is a key space in which this process unfolds.

There is pleasure in doing policy advocacy as a direct constituency or facilitating the advocacy of others (and I would not disagree if I’m called a masochist for finding this grueling process pleasurable), but pleasure seems to be largely missing from the substantive discussions and negotiations that happening in policy spaces and this is an attempt to explore why.

Where is pleasure within policy?

Pleasure, in all its forms, is so central to the human experience and yet is a rarely invoked term or idea in policy and decision-making spaces. On one hand, it seems unreasonable and unrealistic to expect laws and policies to have the imagination to capture the many forms and facets of pleasure. “There is an inherent pleasure in transgressing moral boundaries”, said Jac SM Kee at the recent ReConference organized by CREA. Pleasure can be incredibly private and subjective.

On the other hand, it is worrying that laws and policies which affect our health, education, bodies, environment, privacy, sexuality, freedom of expression, public spaces including the internet, and a multitude of other things that form our everyday existence, treat pleasure as an afterthought, if at all. Pleasure is not considered a necessity or a basic human need that we are all entitled to regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, class, income, etc. Pleasure is political but this is missed or willfully ignored not just by policymakers but also by us who are activists and policy advocates. Our responsibility to hold the line on gains we’ve made sometimes results in downplaying the importance of pleasure as a key outcome of the realization of our rights and fundamental freedoms, whether it is about access to contraception, decriminalisation of homosexuality or our rights over commons.

Pleasure is not considered a necessity or a basic human need that we are all entitled to regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, class, income, etc.

A cursory look at some of the key international and regional human rights instruments and policy documents that address women’s rights, LGBTIQ rights and gender equality such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Yogyakarta Principles, the Beijing Platform for Action, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, the Montevideo Consensus, the Maputo Protocol, etc. show no explicit mention of pleasure and only implicit through words and phrases such as well-being, prosperity, safe and full sex life, bodily and mental integrity, etc. It is worth considering whether in the future we continue to accept roundabout ways of implicitly including pleasure in policy language or whether we demand that pleasure be considered political and spelt out as a key outcome of the enjoyment of our rights.

Our understanding of pleasure is oftentimes narrowed down to sexual pleasure and while it is definitely a form of pleasure, such a narrow lens makes invisible the many other forms of pleasure. Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), a Global South alliance of younger feminists that I belong to, among other things, strives to strengthen meaningful participation of young feminists in policy spaces. This year we have been trying to challenge narrow connotations of pleasure through our #365DaysOfPleasure campaign where we have been celebrating all things big and small that bring us pleasure such as the pleasure of a shared silence, watching the sun rise and set, holding hands, marching for justice, the smell of soil after rain, waking up next to a loved one, a digital detox, sexting, a glass of wine, etc.

The series is an exploration of the tangible, intangible, commodified and uncommodified forms of pleasure, a nod to RESURJ’s “culture of activism that integrates pleasure and joy”, an acknowledgment of how much the same structures we are challenging are driving what gives us pleasure, and an attempt to broaden how we talk about pleasure, both within and outside of policy spaces. While also not forgetting that we are not alone in these attempts. The Pleasure Project focuses on “putting the sexy into safer sex”. Agents of Ishq say “we give sex a good name”. Hub of Loving Action in Africa (HOLAA!) “houses knowledge that goes into all realms of sex and sexuality as it pertains to all aspects of African sex and sexuality”. And many other such groups and initiatives.

Audre Lorde, through her exploration of The Uses of the Erotic, explains how we have arrived at such a narrow lens. “…….the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.”

In order to better understand why pleasure is missing in policy, we have to consider the structures and ideologies that form the context of policymaking as well as our lived realities – neoliberal ideology and economic policies, rising conservatism and extremisms, corporate power and capture, and deep-rooted patriarchy, to name some. These structures and ideologies, often overlapping and interconnected, operate on the basis of:

  • consolidating power among a few
  • constantly othering and marginalizing people on the basis of various identities and markers
  • focusing on the individual rather than community
  • prioritising profit over rights or people
  • privatisation of social protection and public goods and services
  • promoting nationalism in the guise of state sovereignty over multilateralism, and
  • creating a culture of impunity for those with the most power with little or no avenues for justice and accountability for others.

Lorde’s exploration of the erotic shows that pleasure and power are closely intertwined and that is exactly why policy responses that are purportedly for the betterment of our lives are for the most part in the interest of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” rather than in the interest of the most marginalised. While there are encouraging exceptions emerging such as the recently unveiled well-being budget of New Zealand, I’d argue that pleasure (or the restriction of which) remains one of the biggest points of convergence for neoliberalism, conservatism and patriarchy.

Pleasure and wellbeing have been commodified and industrialized and most forms of pleasure are often found in quantifiable and profitable manifestations. Pleasure is promoted as a privilege and is the proverbial carrot stick waved around in order to encourage upward mobility and class aspirations. For example, while food is a necessity, there is also inherent pleasure in the act and experience of eating. As Adrienne Maree Brown notes in Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, “Pleasure is the point. Feeling food is not frivolous, it is freedom.” However, depending on your income and class, you’re placed somewhere in the spectrum of starving or eating to survive or eating to experience something only a small percentage of the world can afford. The freedom to feel pleasure is linked to what you can afford and what you must aspire towards.

As with the oppression of women, LGBTIQ people and other marginalized groups of people, deep-rooted patriarchy and capitalism are willing bedfellows in the commodification of pleasure too. Patriarchy and rising conservatism eschew pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, on moral grounds and even when pleasure is recognized, it is only in relation to the needs of able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual men and hegemonic masculinity. And when the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” considers the pleasure of queer people, it is mostly through a heteronormative lens, in the interest of capturing an untapped portion of the market and for the purpose of pinkwashing grave violations of human rights as in the case of Israel.

Nidhi Goyal notes that “the idea of people with disabilities as asexual beings who have no need for love, sex or romantic relationships is ridiculous. However, it is one that has a stronghold in most people’s minds.” Let alone sexual pleasure, the thought of people with disabilities wanting to experience pleasure is not reflected in the kind of entertainment, public infrastructure and living conditions we see around us. Things like the parks for people with all abilities in cities in South India are indicative of what the world can look like if pleasure in its all forms and for the most marginalized in our societies is put front and centre in policy spaces so that the implementation of policies goes beyond neoliberal and patriarchal narratives of pleasure.


What about the internet?

Feminists have been actively trying to push the conversation about pleasure in policy spaces. This includes internet policy spaces. One would think it’s a no brainer for pleasure to be at the centre of any discussion about the internet, given that it has long been a space for play, expression, exploration, and building and finding communities including queer communities. However, if the internet is a continuum of the public space in which we live our political and social lives, then it is not surprising that the structural and ideological barriers discussed earlier are preventing us from using the internet in free, rights-based, affirmative and pleasurable ways. This along with increased state and corporate regulation of the internet has resulted in pleasure being pushed to the margins of conversations on internet governance and policy.

The internet is too dynamic to be regulated by negotiated outcomes in policy spaces or national laws and policies (although not for a lack of trying by our governments who keep introducing or applying blanket laws to regulate how we use the internet and internet intermediaries who keep trying to regulate how we access the internet). But internet governance spaces at national, regional and global levels are critical for all those who have a stake in the governance of the internet (which is all of us) to convene, share ideas, debate and dissent, and strategize on how we move forward. While there is a tendency to associate “internet governance” with names, numbers and protocols, in reality it’s much broader in scope and includes discussions on the geopolitics of internet governance, privacy and surveillance, freedom of expression, corporate accountability, etc.

One would think it’s a no brainer for pleasure to be at the center of any discussion about the internet given that it has long been a space for play, expression, exploration, and building and finding communities including queer communities.

One of the ways feminist and digital rights activists are bringing pleasure back to the conversation is through internet governance forums (IGFs). This has by no means been an easy feat and is the result of many years of persistence and perseverance by activists. In 2012 Flavia Fascendini reflected on the 7th IGF noting that “For the first time Human Rights was discussed openly, with many workshops being dedicated to aspects of human rights and the internet and even going so far as to mention Human Rights in the titles – something that could never have happened, even one year ago in Nairobi.”

The 7th IGF also saw more extensive discussions on gender as well as more representation of women and Fascendini reflects that this, while encouraging, is not enough. “Internet governance gender issues go beyond the role of women in society and extend to everyone in society who does not meet the gender role expectations of that society……..the internet is a critical component of the search for freedom of expression, freedom of association and the freedom to live one’s life with the honour and dignity that is due to all people.”

2014 was a critical year in the trajectory of efforts to bring pleasure into internet governance discourse. The 9th IGF was preceded by a meeting organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) on Sex, Rights, and Internet Governance. Dhyta Caturani notes the cross-movement building that was happening at this IGF by bringing together activists working on internet rights, women’s rights and sexual rights so that they could co-plot and co-create. The meeting also saw the introduction of the Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs) to the internet governance space (they were drafted a few months ago in the same year). FPIs are critical towards imagining and making a feminist internet that enables “more women and queer persons – in all our diversities – to fully enjoy our rights, engage in pleasure and play, and dismantle patriarchy”, and lays out different elements that need to come together to make this happen; from access to the internet to consent to freedom of expression to anonymity. Introducing the FPIs to internet governance was pivotal to how discussions on sex and pleasure became more visible and pronounced in internet governance spaces.

Nadine Moawad’s closing remarks about the internet in relation to sexual rights at the 10th IGF in 2015 are powerful. “The internet has a lot to do with sex. We all have sex online, we all use the internet to look up sex information, it’s a political act, particularly for people whose sex lives don’t make it into the mainstream…..We have to keep having these conversations about sex at the IGF, in internet governance spaces, because we have to unpack the complexities of the relationship of sexuality with technology.” The 2016 IGF saw, among others, My.Kali present a report on online opportunities and challenges for LGBT people in Jordan and one of the comments from an interviewee particularly resonates – “In the midst of all that is unsafe there is a haven…[the internet] allows us to connect and access literature, film, and news reflecting similar communities.”

“We all have sex online, we all use the internet to look up sex information, it’s a political act, particularly for people whose sex lives don’t make it into the mainstream…”

The increasingly closing (and in some cases, closed) space for civil society in our countries means the global policy spaces sometimes gives us more freedom to raise our issues and priorities. So even in a context of the breakdown of multilateralism, there remains a strong case to be made for global and regional policy spaces to be maintained but with a strong grounding in local and national realities. This is the case with the IGFs as well and the recent years have seen discussions about gender, sexuality and the internet become more prominent in regional and national IGFs. Some examples from my region include;

Last but not least

We see increasingly robust and dynamic discussions about pleasure, especially through a queer and sexual rights framework, in internet governance spaces. These discussions often don’t find their way to national policymaking on ICTs. One topical example can be found in TikTok. It is currently the fastest growing social media app for short-form mobile videos and is experiencing a surge of popularity worldwide. It is a platform that primarily focused on pleasure for the sake of pleasure (while of course making a profit for the parent company). And policymakers don’t know what to do with a platform like that, as shown by the recent ban on it in India, which was reversed almost immediately.

This disconnect is also evident in how policymakers are addressing technology-related violence against women, girls and LGBTIQ people. Violence is addressed through a lens of harm rather than consent and “rather than address the structural causes of violence, the possibility of violence is used as a reason to restrict women and girls’ access to the internet and censor their freedom of expression and right to bodily integrity”. As we at RESURJ noted in a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, in many of our countries we see laws that purportedly address cyber crime and technology-related violence are actually used to grant the State sweeping powers to restrict right to information, freedom of expression, sexuality, sexual rights, right to bodily integrity, etc.

What are some of the ways in which we can try to address this gap?

I want to end this piece by returning to Moawad’s words at the 2015 IGF. If we are to find and sustain the pleasure point in internet policy spaces, we must continue to “remember that moment where we first connected to the internet and that feeling of infinite possibility.”

About the Author:

Sachini Perera is a Sri Lankan queer feminist activist with a background in law, journalism and international relations. Her work is located at the intersection of the internet, popular culture, sexuality and gender, freedom of expression, and policymaking. She has worked in strategic communications and advocacy for feminist and women’s rights organizations for the past 9 years.