In Conversation: South Africa's Favorite Sex Doctor Launches a Pleasure Revolution
Dr T's new book 'A Guide to Sexual Health & Pleasure' is bringing real talk about sex and intimacy to women all over the world.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, or "Dr T" as many South Africans refer to her, is a strong Black woman on a mission to change how people talk about sexual health. She's taking what she's dubbed "the pleasure revolution" all over the country and more recently, New York City, with her new book, Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health & Pleasure.
For close to a decade, this sex expert has written numerous columns and done numerous media interviews speaking on what everyone wants to talk about but doesn't know how. Recently elected as a Commissioner on South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), Dr T is unafraid to take up space and speak up on topics she feels are important.
Overwhelmingly popular on social media, she's become a beacon of light in a country dealing with an unceasing war on women. In the midst of a femicide crisis and an alarming culture of gender-based violence, Dr T has been among the many women, Black women especially, throwing a huge middle finger to the dominant patriarchal system. The pleasure revolution, according to her, is not only about tackling the issue of pervasive violence but also reclaiming our power as women. "We can't let them steal all our joy," she says simply.
We caught up with her to talk about her new book, what she hopes the pleasure revolution will achieve and her important work in advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Would you say that women are more willing to have constructive conversations about sex compared to men?
I think women are more judged for talking about sex. I think the problem is not so much that women don't know how to speak about it, we do. We do enjoy sex, we do know our bodies, we do enjoy them, but the problem is that we get shamed for speaking on the truth. It's not that women are less empowered, or anything, it's just that society in general shames us for being honest about our sexuality.
Do you think in light of what continues to happen in South Africa to women, is a matter of not understanding what consent is, fundamentally?
No. People understand consent, especially when the power dynamic is changed, and suddenly they [men] are the ones with less power, or less autonomy in that situation—suddenly they understand what rights are about, or what consent is about. It's not a lack of understanding really because consent is not just about sex which is what I stress in the book. It's about talking, and understanding consent for everything, including sex.
People do understand consent, and this is why when you talk about sexual violence, or harassment, we always stress the point that it's about power and people generally do things they know they can get away with. It's something that we need to continue to tell children and our women especially because even if we look at romantic movies, if you look at a lot of content around sex, and romance, you really never see consent being actively sought. So even the content that's being created and normalized, is missing a lot of key points around consent.
Dr. T on her book "A guide to sexual health and pleasure" www.youtube.com
Gender-based violence is widespread. What do you think contributes to South Africa's particular brand of gender-based violence and alarming rape statistics?
I think it's because there aren't any consequences. You live in a country where there aren't any consequences for any crime. Literally, anybody can get away with anything, and that speaks to a general problem of policing, of the justice system, and the fact that there isn't enough preventive measures.
Everyone is good at diagnosing the problem, everyone reacts to the statistics, but nobody is willing to put their money on prevention. Prevention encompasses comprehensive sex education in schools which is, however, being opposed by Christian political parties. This is despite research that shows that comprehensive sex education is actually a good life skill to have. You also live in a society where the default setting to solve anything, is violence. Equally, language is important. I always say if you're talking about rape, you must talk about rape. There's no "underage sex", there's nothing like that. It's rape. If you still use the word "sex" to describe rape, that's part of the problem.
Do you think that the government is really tackling this issue as aggressively as they should?
Nah, not if you look at the levels of rape, violence and everything that's happening in the country. It doesn't make sense how we are still carrying on as if life is normal. This is not the first we've had crime stats that suggest that rape is out of control. It's been decade after decade, year after year, month after month and day after day. There is no urgency at all.
"It's almost like someone needs to shake someone awake because there aren't even enough words left to explain the depth of the trauma that all of us have to live with every day."
We're just trying to get to work, get home, get to school, and get back home but you could be a victim at all of these places. Can you imagine the psychology of trying to be a person in South Africa, who could potentially be raped every single day regardless of where you are? The 1 billion Rand set aside by government is for this financial year. The financial year is coming to an end in March, and then what's going to happen?
What is your message to the men in South Africa?
They must just stop raping. That's what they must do. I think all of us are just exhausted from this whole thing, but I think at the end of the day, we also can't let them steal all our joy. Which I think for me is important about the book. We are going to have to re-normalize, and center women's pleasure, and show the power that women have over their own body again. Otherwise, the trap that we end up falling into is that we are going to speak about the violence as if that's the only experience that we've ever had. That's why again, I suppose it's a part of the pleasure revolution to say that, even in this crisis, even with all of that's going on, we do know what is good for our bodies. We do know what sexual expression is, we do know what healthy consensual relationships are. It's precisely because we know those things, that we are demanding better.
There's a section on sexual rights at the end of your book and I know you're a huge advocate in terms of sex work, and getting sex work decriminalized in South Africa. What's the best way to have society get around the idea?
We don't care how they get around it. We want human rights for sex workers. We don't have to understand every single aspect of a person's life for us to then be like, "Oh, now because we understand it, you can have human rights". Human rights don't work that way.
Decriminalization is about removing the penalty in the law. It's not about making sure that children don't get into sex work. It's not about making sure that women are not exploited. It's not about making sure that people are not having sex in the street. That's not sex work because even sex workers are against all of that. Sex workers are against exploitation, sex workers are against trafficking, sex workers are against drugs because that is not sex work.
Would you say there's still a sort of conservatism around speaking about sex in general?
Yeah there is. I think one of the things is that people who are more comfortable to talk about sex, talk about sex. For some reason, people tend to comment more about how outspoken you are as a person, just because you're talking about sex. People think it's inherently taboo, or it's inherently embarrassing, or it's inherently difficult. And I think that is telling, just in terms of the power dynamics around pleasure, for example. When it's women's pleasure that's being discussed, suddenly we have all these "morals" we want to be considered.
"But when it's the pleasure of men, suddenly it's all about freedom and power, in the fact that they must be sexual."
I think the topic of sex, and pleasure, and expression is one that demands that people really introspect in what they believe for themselves, but also what their responsibilities are, once they interact with other people.