Updated: Feb 20
Pleasure is a signal. A signal that the body is experiencing something it welcomes and might want more of. When the something is familiar, the pleasure might even begin before we encounter it directly - anticipating, seeking out, moving towards a pleasurable thing triggers the reward. We are all endowed with powerful pleasure compasses. Whether we are in a trusting relationship with them is another story.
Pleasure is embodied. Our relationship with pleasure is tells us a lot about our relationship with our bodies and with what we are allowed to experience and express with them. From childhood we are conditioned to restrict the ways in which we are allowed to explore pleasure. With varying degrees of punitiveness, caregivers teach us what the familial and cultural setting deems permissible - don't do that, not here, not so loudly, not with other people around. As adults, this conditioning is the water we swim in.
What I am finding really interesting is how our experience of pleasure relates to restricted access, to getting to experience to something we couldn't or successfully denying ourselves access to something we shouldn't. This moral dimension of pleasure dictates much of how we live. It is so fundamentally tied to what motivates us to get up in the morning - fucking, feeding, frolicking and faffing about. That the forbidden has extra appeal is no secret. It is also closely tied to shame, our sense of personal acceptability and belonging. What I'm curious about is how we can play with this and avoid harm.
When I was a child I was a secret eater. I have strong sensory memories of sneaking into the kitchen before the rest of my family had got up to create sweet sticky creamy concoctions out of all the things I wasn't meant to eat that I would then consume greedily while standing at the fridge/ pantry/ bench, ears pricked for sound so I didn't get caught. It wasn’t healthy - my body betrayed me by becoming bigger than was acceptable to my peers. I felt on display, physically uncomfortable, wrong and sought to hide or change myself. These episodes of secret eating (which I would try to compensate for with restriction) were serving some purpose. There was something in the dance between wanting, seeking, getting, regretting and how it functioned in my life and body that made it impossible to escape.
I still dip into this every now and then. The episodes are preceded by ecstatically singleminded anticipation. Within it I am conscious of the tension between want and shouldn't, the agony of justifying and bargaining, the strange dissonance. The act itself is dual minded - part of me is engrossed in enjoyment, another almost snarling in disgust.
It is this conflict over pleasure that I'm working with as a practice. Training in somatic sexology has taught me to notice and name how experiences show up in my body. I am more and more aware of the process as it plays out. There is an intimacy in it. Staying with these experiences, however much they feel at odds with how I think I ought to be, has allowed me to join the dots between the dynamics at play in my relationship food and in other spheres of my life. The same themes of secrecy, total abandon and self judgement have appeared in my relationship with self pleasure and sex since I can remember. Secret masturbation in long hot showers, letting boyfriends touch me in private places in public, getting off to abhorrent erotic content (I'm looking at you Marquis de Sade).
Again and again, working on my relationship with pleasure leads me to complicate and explore my experiences of shame. Sometimes I give myself permission to go there and it's exhilarating. Sometimes I deny myself, end up there anyway and it's hot, but like flames on my heels rather than coals in a fireplace. I notice the difference in where my awareness is - in my body versus slightly out of it. How fully I can breathe, whether I feel free to make sound and move fluidly, whether my own touch feels welcome and unhurried or fervent, needy and intense.
I try to get curious about how my pleasure compass changes with time, as novelty wears off and new experiences come in. There is always opportunity to explore this tension - always new shoulds and shouldn'ts. The closer and cuddlier I get with my own shame, the better I feel I am able to meet it in my clients. The more I can connect the dots within myself, the better I can connect with their experiences of conflict, hiding, regret, dissonance between the person they feel they should be and what they should do, and what they seek out to feel good (which is, often, being with me).
I love the work that I do - lending presence to people's exploration of pleasure, to support their encounters with shame, to play with anticipation and wanting, savouring and basking in the afterglow of getting. A part of me loves that I am often a well kept secret, while also wishing for a world in which connection and pleasure are liberated and abundant. It's complicated.
If you're interested in doing some homework around this kind of idea, the book Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliot