Laura Ramos Tomás shares how TabuTabu provides pleasure-positive sexuality education in Brazil. Read along as she shared which challenges COVID-19 has brought and how putting communities at the heart of their work has led to new opportunities!
My name is Laura, and I am a European sexuality educator working with underserved communities in Latin America to address their most pressing SRHR concerns. I started this work shortly before COVID-19 was being mentioned on the news as an occurrence on the other side of the world. Four months later it officially reached Brazil, and, like for many, it was a case of adapting and finding ways to continue the work. One of the main realizations I have had during this pandemic is that the experience of being human is far more universal than most people think… And here’s how I came to understand that:
I had been living and working in Latin America for three years when I started TabuTabu with the objective of tackling some of the darkest sides of gender- and class-based inequalities I was witnessing. At TabuTabu, we work with the communities living in poverty to co-create sexuality education programs that are relevant to their realities. Most locals are BIPOC, a large majority have not completed highschool, and many are not fully literate. Our programs address issues like menstrual hygiene, unintended (adolescent) pregnancies and gender-based violence through initiatives tailor-made with and for them.
Contextualizing myself in all of this: I am white, I am able-bodied, I am university-level educated, I am a cisgender and heterosexual woman. I have never not had access to food, shelter, and sexual health care such as contraception and period products, and I have benefitted from (unearned) privilege my whole life. The distance between my reality and those of the underserved communities TabuTabu works in does not escape me.
COVID-19 highlighted such contrasting realities across the world. While some people were working from home and ordering their groceries online, others were still taking public transportation to fill up the supermarket shelves. And whilst some people were stocking up on toilet paper, soap, and hand sanitizer, others – including some of TabuTabu’s learners – did not have access to running water to drink or wash their dishes and clothes, let alone wash their hands regularly to avoid spreading the virus. So why, in the midst of a public health crisis, and especially in the midst of a public health crisis in communities living in poverty, was it and is it important to talk about sexuality?
Here are some of the reasons I consider most important:
- COVID-19 indirectly affected people’s sexual health and rights: On policy level, funding was pulled, or at the very least, attention was deviated towards the coronavirus and away from issues such as access to contraception and abortion rights, menstrual health care, gender based violence, etc. On a more tangible level, supply chain issues made accessing certain health and hygiene products more difficult, and confinement/quarantine measures led to a surge in gender-based violence cases. Creating spaces to discuss SRHR topics (even throughout the pandemic, abiding to the COVID-19 operating procedures wherever possible) on a grassroots level was, and remains, a key way in which we tackle these issues on the ground.
- Sexuality is not a switch that gets turned off in the face of adversity – people’s struggles, questions, explorations and doubts about themselves and their relationships continue to exist. Living through a global pandemic does not erase this aspect of the human experience. Nor does living in poverty.
- In an attempt to control the virus, many governments, communities, and families imposed restrictions on themselves and each other. In situations where key aspects of our freedom are limited, it can be a relief to safekeep aspects of our bodily autonomy and our lives that others will (or should) never be able to control (without our consent). Sexuality education fosters awareness and agency over one’s decisions regarding bodily autonomy in ways that can begin to counteract the externally-imposed restrictions we were/are feeling as a result of the pandemic.
- Sexuality education services for low-income contexts across the globe have tended to focus on the unintended pregnancy, STI and HIV infection, and violence prevention narratives, disregarding any sex-positive pleasure talk. But, contrary to the widely-held assumption that the less you benefit from the dominant systems of capitalism and patriarchy, the further you are from the experience of pleasure, living in conditions of poverty does not erase the desire for —or the right to— pleasure. The right to pleasure is universal.
TabuTabu has been preparing the trial of a pleasure-based sexuality education initiative for adults in Favelinha, a low-income favela (shanty town) community in the urban-periphery of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Local adult vulva-owners will be able to ask questions and access information relating to sexual health, sexual rights, and sexual pleasure through WhatsApp, and be referred to relevant local public healthcare providers where necessary. The trial is one of the 12 initiatives that emerged from The Pleasure Project’s first Pleasure Fellowship, and a collaborative effort between TabuTabu’s Brazil-based team, a network of Brazilian sexual health practitioners, advocates, and educators, and —most importantly— women living in Favelinha.
Developing our projects in a way that puts the communities at the forefront of the process is key: it prevents less relevant lenses (like mine!) from interfering with the success and uptake of the initiative in the community. Some context: Whilst Rio’s official minimum wage is R$ 1.100,00 (approximately US$ 220), the average local family in Favelinha is estimated to live off of a monthly income of R$ 597,57 (approximately US$ 108), according to an informal census run by a local NGO Há Esperança. When poverty is a part of people’s realities, it affects every aspect of their lives, including their sexuality… but only they truly know how. This is why working with a group of local women was key in preparing the pleasure-positive messaging-based service.
The focus group of women were integral in defining the concept, the format and the scope of the service. They defined that the format for the adult sexuality education initiative would be most effective through one-on-one communications such as on WhatsApp (which is offered with unlimited data usage, even in pay as you go modalities, by most Brazilian network providers), and their insights provided the outline of topics that will be addressed in the service. They also gave “Ana Autoestima” her identity and name, based on the name they felt is most suitable to save the WhatsApp contact under, reminding themselves that “the sex-positive and pleasure-positive information [they] receive is not about how others feel about [them], but about how [they] perceive [them]selves, and how [they] feel about [them]selves.” (Evelyn, resident and community leader in Favelinha).
The initiative was developed with, by, and for women living in poverty during COVID-19. And it was developed for the sole purpose of spreading empowerment and self-esteem through knowledge about sexual health, sexual rights, and sexual pleasure. Because even through poverty and pandemic, the right to feel pleasure remains universal.
About the Author: Laura Ramos Tomás (she/her) is a sexuality educator and instructional designer who applies her background in design and her experience in non-formal education to encourage people of all walks of life to break the taboos around human sexuality.
Her work in SRHR evolved as she worked in NGOs in Latin America with survivors of trafficking, sex workers, youth and young mothers living in social vulnerability, repeatedly witnessing the intersection of poverty, lack of access to quality education, gender-based violence, and sexual abuse. In parallel, Laura completed the University of Michigan’s Sexual Health Certificate Program.
These experiences led Laura to start TabuTabu, an organization working to co-create sexuality education programs with communities living in poverty in Honduras and Brazil, to tackle their most pressing SRHR concerns.