LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

The Privilege of Pleasure

sexual health

By Hida Viloria, author and activist

Today is Valentine’s Day, devoted to the celebration of romance and sexual pleasure, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think about it in an intersex context is how much our ability to experience these things has been compromised by prejudiced practices. It helps to realise that we are not alone: humans in power have attempted to limit others’ pleasure for centuries. 

As revealed by the many health benefits it produces, sexual pleasure is empowering, and what better way to exert power over others than by limiting their access to this feeling? In patriarchal societies, all but the most economically elite males have been subjected to sexual constraint. Women and LGBTQIA+ people have faced countless practices and laws aimed at limiting our sexual expression and pleasure, and continue to in many nations. 

Personally, I began thinking about this strange relationship between humans and sexual pleasure as a child. Raised as a girl, my Catholic education deemed virginity - the very lack of sexuality - as sacred in women, while simultaneously positioning us as innately inferior to men, created as their companions from one of their ribs (from the biblical book of Genesis). Men, conversely, were positioned as superior, and not nearly as pressured to remain sexually abstinent.

As I entered adolescence I encountered another form of sexual regulation: the positioning of homosexuality as sinful, defective, or simply undesirable. Abstinence, apparently, was the socially sanctioned mode of sexual expression not just for women but for gays and lesbians too. The regulatory power of homophobia was effective, preventing me from experiencing my greatest sexual pleasure, with women, for years. 

At twenty-eight, I learned that medically unnecessary genital surgeries on intersex babies and children were (and sadly still are), routine in most first world nations. The practice is known as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) due to its similarities with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and hearing about it made me realise that I was blessed that this hadn’t been one of the many difficulties I lived through as a child. Like FGM, IGM is extremely harmful, often resulting in anorgasmia and numerous other harms.

I oppose nonconsensual cosmetic genital cutting of all sexes, but while male circumcision rates have dropped dramatically and FGM is widely contested and banned in many nations, the same is not true of IGM. Some have asked why there hasn’t been the same outrage about it rendering intersex people anorgasmic as there has been about FGM rendering females so, or circumcision potentially harming male sexuality. To me the answer is obvious. 

Heteronormativity is the belief, central to Western culture, that humans are divided into two distinct and complementary sexes, male or female, with natural roles in life. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that IGM makes the biggest threat to heteronormativity—intersex traits that demonstrate that sex is not solely male or female - disappear. Since our society has yet to completely reject heteronormativity, surgeries aimed at rendering all humans male or female continue, despite all the evidence of the serious harms that result, like anorgasmia. 

Ah, the irony that my musings on sexual pleasure should focus so prominently on anorgasmia, when my own experience as an intersex person has been just the opposite. I’m intersex, I love sex, and I’ve had a great sex life. That feels like a bit of an overshare, particularly because I was raised female in a sexist, slut-shaming society. But it’s actually very necessary to share given how many times I’ve seen people claim, as a justification for IGM, that the experience is impossible.

My positive relationship between sexual pleasure and being intersex is due precisely to the fact that I wasn’t subjected to IGM, and appears unique only because of how many of us have been. 

Loaded as they are with sensitive nerve endings, genitals are one of our primary sources of sexual pleasure, and having mine left intact has allowed me to be not just typically orgasmic, but multi-orgasmic. It’s fantastically enjoyable, but it wasn’t easy getting to this place as someone who grew up as a girl, and an incest survivor, living in a rape culture. I’ve found the ability and the experience deeply empowering.

As a result, I’ve pursued sexual pleasure with the same fervor and freedom typically reserved for heterosexual males. Unlike predictions that practitioners of IGM typically espouse, my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Given this and my body’s traits, in the past I’ve even gone so far as to call myself a “well-hung woman” (depending on my gender at the time as I’m gender-fluid), knowing that doing so is a proud affront to patriarchy. 

My sexual exploits slowed down as I got older, and since it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll share that these days I live happily with my partner and stepson. I know this is more respected than being happily single in our sexist culture, and that frustrates me. But I find it important to share because I’ve seen so much rhetoric which supports cutting intersex babies’ genitals by claiming that, without IGM, they’ll never be able to live this kind of life.

I’m well aware that sexually empowered women and LGBTQIA+ people, particularly intersex people, aren’t meant to exist in a patriarchal, heteronormative society, but we do. Despite sexual joy and pleasure being reserved for males, specifically straight ones, in mainstream society, I, a queer, intersex, gender-fluid woman and non-binary herm (more concisely, a hermaphrodyke)—have managed to experience them. Often. Don’t slut shame.

Resistance to sexual empowerment is sad and wrong, but sexual pleasure is good, and good tends to prevail. I firmly believe that one day all of us will be enabled and encouraged to enjoy sexual pleasure in the unfettered way that only heterosexual males are today; and hope to live to see it. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pursue sexual pleasure as much as possible, knowing that every consensual orgasm I achieve as a queer, intact intersex person is basically an act of resistance. A moment of equality attained in our currently unequal world. 

Hida Viloria is the founding director of the Intersex Campaign for Equality and author of Born Both: An Intersex Life (Hachette Books). The memoir has been praised by Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and many more, and will be available in German with Zaglossus Books in summer 2018. Follow Hida online at or on social media at: @hidaviloria.  

Disclaimer: The ILGA-Europe Blog is a place for views, ideas and debate. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily reflect the policy of ILGA-Europe, or the views of its board members or staff.