Tshegofatso Senne
Image via Hedone’s Instagram.

Fighting patriarchy and ableism through pleasure work. Defining what pleasure is. Compiling Online Gender Based Violence (OGBV) research. Being kinky, queer and vulnerable online. Interviewing sex workers, coaches writers, researchers and artists. Embracing queer identity in the face of online violence. Understanding the experiences of African women who had faced various consequences due to OGBV. Discussing how anonymity and depersonalization can be tools for safer sexual expression online. Monetising the male gaze as a sex worker. Raising awareness around digital self-care and understanding how to send nudes safely.

This (and more!) is what was achieved by Tshegofatso Senne in her first grant-funded project. She worked together with Michel’le Donelly,  Nkhensani Manabe, Rendani Nemakhavhani, and Deyo Adebiyi. The Hedone e-zine aimed to be a source of information and inspiration, touching on issues of privacy, online anonymity, sexual rights, freedom of expression and creating a feminist internet in which OGBV is addressed. It is a project that aimed to expand. What harm reduction work can look like when justice and liberation worked alongside a politics of healing and pleasure.

“This has been the most challenging, energising and exciting work I’ve ever done,” said Tshegofatso. “Every single one of the contributors had nothing but good things to say about working in community and being able to write freely about their experiences. This was my favourite piece of feedback: 'It was honestly an amazing process contributing to this zine. Tshego was very intentional about how we were treated with such respect. I just know this project is going to touch so many of you. It’s beautiful from the inside out.’ It fills me with gratitude that people felt so held by the work we did together.”

This work was done specifically for women and the queer community. It spoke to them directly and ensured that they knew that this was a space that was welcoming of them at every level of understanding OGBV. It was energised by the holistic nature of pleasure, how it can be infused into all we are and do, we educate, empower and hopefully make you eager to invest in your own journeys of pleasure. It was an exercise of harm-reduction because it discusses the violence that many of us face online when simply expressing our pleasure or creating spaces of erotic energy and asserting that we can take up space for these expressions.

The research done by the Hedone team gained 81 responses from individuals in South Africa, The Gambia, Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, The United States, Namibia, Taiwan and India. The team held online sessions to continue the conversation, intentionally encouraging a feeling of community for sexual minorities to push back against any violence they’ve experienced and instead share their stories in their own voices.

“We believe that storytelling is a form of challenging norms, values and power structures,” said Michel’le Donelly.

Many respondents to the survey shared experiences of harassment, discrimination, threats, malicious distribution of photos, hacking and stalking. When asked what actions they took in the face of these threats, a majority of the respondents said they either reported or blocked the account. Some ignored it, while others shared screenshots of the violence they faced. One individual changed their social media handles and went offline for months. Once discussing how their pleasure intersected with the violence they had experienced, only 8 individuals said that they felt safe to express their sexual pleasure online, with the majority saying they had definitely changed their behaviours to feel more safe.

The objective of this project was to create and offer a space in which we, as women and queer people, can honestly and openly learn and discuss what the effects of OGBV are on our lived experiences. This is most specific to the way we interact with pleasure. This is an exercise of addressing OGBV head-on, creating a safe space in which its effects are minimised. It is a project that seeks to understand and create a feminist internet that ensures a digital ecosystem that is healthy and non-violent towards us. We aim to positively contribute to change by creating a space that is defiant and loud about our right to express ourselves holistically.

“We compiled this project as an addition to a conversation that has been happening globally, highlighting the real violations that women, femmes and queer people face for simply being online,” Tshefofatso said. “We did it as a way to understand the intersectional impact of OGBV, questioning how many of these individuals face multiple forms of violence and have to resort to self-censorship and limiting their online mobility as a means to protect themselves. The majority of the e-zine contributors specifically said that they couldn’t imagine having been paid to do this sort of work that they enjoy, that allows them to introspect about their experiences and be held in care when doing so.”

While Tshegofatso had only intended to compile an e-zine, the project began to expand when she started sharing on the project’s Instagram and publishing a call for submissions to the e-zine. The final product included a mini documentary produced by Amanda Mimie Tayte-Tait, photography by Siphumeze Khundayi, Lindi Raseko and Lauren Brits, filters by kyle malanda and interviews from other Take Back the Tech! grantees.

Images from kyle malanda's "filters": mirror image of a side-view of a Black woman seated, hands extended touching her mirror opposite. QR code image with naked people
Image via kyle malanda’s filters, available in Hedone’s e-zine.

The very basis of this work is within a feminist praxis. It grounds itself in the work of Audre Lorde’s ‘Erotic as Power’, Adrienne Maree Brown’s ‘Pleasure Activism’, Patricia Hill Collin’s ‘Black Sexual Politics’ and the works of African feminists Stella Nyanzi, Zethu Matebeni, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Rebecca Magorokosho, Nkiru Nzegwu and Chimaraoke O. Izugbara, amongst others.

This work believes the victim first, it centres the experiences of women, femmes, queer people and sex workers first and it challenges the norms that have discriminated against us for centuries. It uses sex-positive and intersectional feminist praxis as a tool for activism,  awareness and change. It uses online feminist activism as a tool for empowerment, expression and social, economic and political change.

The community Tshegofatso worked with on this project includes women and queer people who have encountered OGBV. It aimed to bring together those who work within the realms of pleasure and those who do not have access to express it freely, especially online. It aimed to bring the marginalised to the centre of the conversations around OGBV, bridging the gap between those who are rarely afforded the opportunity to discuss their experiences of pleasure and how it was impacted by OGBV.

While this project was designed and implemented during COVID-19 and while South Africa and other countries were in various levels of lockdown, the long-term goal is to have more of this work exist offline. Tshegofatso hopes those this allow the Hedone audience to engage in person, learn and engage to raise awareness around issues of pleasure and share resources.

Tshegofatso shared her experience of developing this work:

This entire project was a learning process for me and the people I worked with on it. This was the first grant I have ever received as an individual and I’m honoured to have been able to use the funds to allow others to tell stories and share experiences they hadn’t had a chance to before. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve built a small community of our own, with over 400 followers on Twitter and Instagram, in just 5 weeks.

The best realisation was seeing how many people were craving work like this, work that allows us to think about pleasure outside of the strictly sexual but also be loud about struggling with spaces that are violent towards us when we’re looking for community. From receiving incredible submissions to insightful and honest zoom sessions and fabulous graphics and illustrations, the coordination and collation of content for this project was a wonderful experience.

I’m deeply grateful to everyone who was involved in this project, namely Nkhensani Manabe, Rendani Nemakhavhani, Michel’le Donelly, Joyline Maenzanise, Makgosi Letimile,  kyle malanda, Amanda Mimie Tayte-Tait, Astrid Radermacher, Khensani Mohlatlole, Deyo Adebiyi, Tiffany Mugo, Lindi Rasekoala, Indu Harikumar, Gorata Chengeta, Neema Iyer, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, Chido Muparutsa, Leah Jasmine Reed and Siphumeze Khundayi.

This blog is one of a series featuring the All Women Count - Take Back the Tech! grantees from 2020.