Developing greater capacity for pleasure through somatic sex education
I have noticed in my practice over time that there is one common thread that runs through many of the stories I hear. This thread is pleasure limitation. Whether it’s a person who experiences their vagina as numb, or a person who ejaculates earlier than they would like to, or a person who struggles to stay present during sex, the subject of pleasure limitation – and in some cases, pleasure aversion – feels frankly epidemic. This piece speaks to that phenomenon and what can be done somatically to support people to develop greater capacity for pleasure.
What is pleasure?
Let’s first get clear on what pleasure is. It isn’t just about sex – and pleasure limitation in sex often signals pleasure limitation in other areas of life, so we need to look at it widely. While it’s experienced in many different ways, pleasure can be defined by its broadly agreed characteristics:
- Pleasure is often associated with the satisfying of basic biological drives, like hunger, sexual desire, and social belonging.
- Pleasure can be found in appreciation of the arts, in music and dancing, and in religious and/or spiritual fervour.
- Pleasure’s heights are often fleeting, and we can distinguish them because they surpass ‘ordinary’ experience.
From a somatic perspective, I would add that:
- Pleasure fundamentally involves the body. Even the pleasure of an intellectually stimulating conversation can be felt in the body as well as the mind.
- Pleasure is about connection – with others, with ourselves, or with a sense of something greater than us. Though the experience of pleasure is highly individual, it is rarely in isolation.
- Though pleasure’s heights may be fleeting, we can learn to expand our frequency and experience of pleasure so that it becomes an easily accessed presence in our lives.
- Deeply embodied pleasure is synonymous with wellbeing.
Sounds wonderful! So, what’s the problem with pleasure?
Those whose cultures are Western may recognise the poles of denial and indulgence. We have a guilty relationship with pleasure. Even dictionary definitions use terms like “recreation or amusement”, “diversion” and “worldly or frivolous enjoyment”. The impression given is one of an experience that is irresponsible or selfish, one that we should grow out of or learn to control if we are to be productive members of society. Yet, we see excesses and dishonesty where pleasure is held back, compartmentalised, or denied. We also see meanness, self-loathing and depression as people battle against their desires for pleasure and connection.
Adding to the confusion, there are mixed messages. Some pleasures are marketed or wryly tolerated in our cultures, such as the experience of being a consumer with a ‘lifestyle’, indulging excessively in food or alcohol or drugs, engaging in sexual activity that breaks relationship agreements, i.e. doing things we’re ‘not supposed to’. These stories are luridly reported in the media, and fed back to us as a vicarious sort of pleasure. In many countries, sex education is inadequate at best and scare-mongering at worst, and the content may differ depending on what sex you are. Shame underpins most of the messages we receive about pleasure, and conscious choosing and embodiment are rarely modelled. Is it any wonder so many people are conflicted when it comes to sex and pleasure?
Pleasure limitation presents in the session room in many different ways – as numbness, oversensitivity, compulsion, and avoidance. The internalised messages vary: A person may feel that they can’t ask for what they really want for fear of being judged. There may be strong socialisation that others’ needs are more important or that pleasure isn’t deserved. A lack of information may mean that the body’s pleasure capability is not well-understood. There may be disabilities or issues with identity that can complicate experiences of pleasure. There may be a trauma history, which has caused the body to be experienced as an unsafe place.
Plenty of people struggle to digest pleasure, to generate it reliably, and to feel good about feeling it. Many do not know how to cultivate it within themselves, instead looking almost exclusively to external sources for arousal.
It is this disconnect that I work with as a Certified Sexological Bodyworker: supporting people to really notice their bodies, to be able to inhabit them more consciously in incremental steps, to begin to feel more, to work with feelings of shame and unworthiness when they emerge, to experience pleasure and ‘stay with it’, and to learn to prolong pleasure states.
Towards the welcoming of pleasure
Learning to be in pleasure is a process, a skill to be practised. This takes time, and the shape of the work will depend on the barriers that people face. It does seem to me, though, that the body is persistent, and it will find its way, as a plant grows towards the sun. I believe our bodies long to be heartily lived in, to be witnessed, to be gloried in, to heal. In my work, I have the privilege of working in flow with these natural tendencies.