If it’s not the salted caramel ice cream pooling at the bottom of a thawing tub, it’s the warm bubble bath slowing turning cold, the meeting that could have been an email, the rushed after-work chat with a pal, or the scheduled sex with no climax.
We need to talk about pleasure.
Ice cream: delicious. Bubble baths: relaxing. Sex: yes please. So why can these simple pleasures feel so unsatisfactory, even when you’ve spent all day looking forward to them?
The Problem with Pleasure
Female pleasure is complicated. It shouldn’t be, but years of social conditioning and stepping to the side mean modern women are confused, stressed out, and simply tired of having to think about, plan, and then actively experience pleasure. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is one more and more women are waking up to, particularly as it overwhelms every aspect of life: work, relationships, motherhood and, perhaps most importantly, sex.
Your right to pleasure involves more than snatched moments here and there after you’ve put everyone else ahead of you. This whole dumpster fire that 2020 has been has brought the concept of women’s pleasure kicking and screaming to the forefront (again). Remember that viral article about emotional labor and the mental load forced upon women from a few years back: You Should’ve Asked? In the days of home working and homeschooling, one task turns into another and another and another because it’s expected of us, and because that’s just “women’s work” so if we don’t do it, who will?
To make matters worse, mental health care is shocking. One in five US adults experience mental ill health every year, and suicide is the second-largest cause of death in people aged 10-34. Despite this, care is often limited – sometimes totally unobtainable. Insurers have been proven in court to deny access to mental health care that patients should be entitled to and, according to nonprofit foundation Mental Health in America’s latest findings, 57.2 percent of adults receive no mental health treatment: more than 26 million people slipping through the cracks.
Let’s talk about anhedonia.
a common symptom of poor mental health: the inability to feel joy, pleasure or comfort from things that once brought happiness
There’s social anhedonia, where you don’t want to spend time with other people, and physical anhedonia, where you don’t enjoy physical sensations. A hug leaves you feeling cold; sex makes you feel empty. Strongly linked with depression, anhedonia can make relationships incredibly difficult, to the point where asking for help from anyone – friends, family or a mental health professional – seems pointless. Good mental health is imperative if we want to experience pleasure, and being in the right mindset is one of the hardest things to achieve.
When Self Help Doesn’t Help
To compensate for this dangerous lack of mental health help, we’re instead having to navigate a million-dollar self care industry. Nowadays, we’re supposed to find time to thrive as goal-getting career women, be the picture-perfect best friend to all, raise our children to be model citizens, be a chef in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom, AND find time in the short 24 hours afforded to us to ‘treat yourself, babe.’ A motivational poster hung lopsidedly above your bed. Meditation apps interrupting your zen with adverts. A ‘This Too Shall Pass’ temporary tattoo. Performative pleasure that helps no one.
Self help for the sake of it can often be another form of avoidance, replacing one ‘bad’ part of your life with something ‘good’, without taking the necessary steps to understand how or what it’s supposed to be helping. When you’re not in the moment, truly listening to your needs and trying to dissect what they mean, you’re not solving the root problem. Instead you’re simply plastering over it in hopes it will go away on its own.
‘Mindfulness’ is a buzzword that has lost much of its meaning, but, practised properly, it does a lot of good. In this moment – without distraction or anxiety – what are you doing? What would you prefer to be doing? How can you make that happen? This is an example of systematic desensitization.
systematic desensitization |noun|
(often used in therapy)
understanding the problem → realizing the pleasure you’re denying yourself → getting used to stepping into this uncomfortable zone to allow yourself pleasure → dealing with the anxiety this brings → accepting the joy of wasting time as a regular habit.
Finding Your Pleasure Tribe
Though pleasure comes in many forms, allowing yourself sexual pleasure might be the most difficult obstacle, yet one of the more important, to overcome. Since time immemorial, when a women is comfortable in her sexuality and practises regular, consensual, safe sex, she’s called a slut. Society loves to pretend that women are simplistic beings who must be Madonna or whore, yet punishes them for choosing either of these sides. As well as this, female sexual pleasure is undervalued, over-ignored, and mostly deleted in male-facing mainstream media and sex education. Is it any wonder as many as 50% of women can’t achieve orgasm during sex?
The truth is: you deserve pleasure. An unspoken mantra pervading tiny digital communities, whispered from hidden corners of the internet, beckoning uncertain women towards the light.
Women Who Inspire Pleasure Power
Instagram is a hotbed for women eager to explode the myths, awkwardness and confusion surrounding women’s sexual pleasure – and there are plenty of guides. Worlds apart from mass-manufactured self-help books and mindfulness apps, these are flawed, genuine and enthusiastic women – real and right there on your screen – who want to help. Africa Brooke is a great first follow: a sex educator with a no-bullshit approach who preaches prioritizing unabashed pleasure and ‘death to faking it’. Slutty Girl Problems is another; Lorrae’s account educates about sexual pleasure and body positivity, as well as having an encyclopedic knowledge of the best vibrator for your needs.
Your Right to Pleasure
The path to overcoming a fear of pleasure needn’t be as difficult as it seems. When we take everything down to the bare bones, and without wanting to be too over-simplistic, we need to chill the fuck out.
Listen to yourself, keep on top of your work-life balance, look after your mental health, explore your body in all its imperfect, messy and raw glory. It only takes a couple of months for a new habit to become routine: think of all the joy you can experience in 60 days.
We know this can be frustrating, difficult and seemingly unattainable. But pleasure is out there.
And if what’s stopping you from giving into it is a sign, some approval, a lightning bolt out of the blue: here it is. You have our permission to experience pleasure.
Meet the author...
Despite being a writer, Kirstyn Smith still isn’t very good at amusing bios. She works freelance as an editor + writer, and she’s also founder of Marbles – an independent magazine that explores mental illness with irreverence, rawness and humour. In her free time, she likes to nap, eat chips, run and consume all things spooky. But mainly the chips thing.