7 Things I Learned From 'The Principles of Pleasure' as a Sexual Abuse and Endometriosis Survivor
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
I have written before about the ways in which my experience with sexual abuse and endometriosis have both impacted the ways in which I inhabit my body. Shame and a feeling of disembodiment accompany both and with that comes sexual dysfunction. Whether it’s emotional or medical, discomfort with intimacy and with pleasure become a pervasive aspect of one’s identity and a source of angst. That’s why I was intrigued by the new series “The Principles of Pleasure” on Netflix. And for as awkward and often uncomfortable as I felt watching it, it certainly taught me a lot about why pleasure is a human right and how exactly it works. Here are some key takeaways:
As a society, we have been taught that sex is something inherently dirty and that women’s bodies are inherently shameful, a source of disease, and problematic. This has created a culture in which sex education, including the basic knowledge of what makes up the female anatomy, has been virtually nonexistent at best or downright misleading at worst. Myths like a broken hymen equaling a loss of virginity, which was something my own mother told me was a thing, are not only false, they give the illusion that a woman’s sexuality doesn’t belong to herself but rather to the person to whom she “gives herself to.” And most of these myths are reinforced by systems of oppression rooted in white male heteronormative religious structures aimed at shaming those who don’t fit within those structures.
Masturbation and Interoception
One of the solutions to helping women figure out not only what their body parts are and how they make them feel is masturbation — something which has been a fraught subject for me personally because of my sexual abuse history. Masturbation, particularly for those who present as female, can help with the development of what is called “interoception” or the ability to know what’s happening within one’s own body. Because our sexual organs are not as visible or easily accessible, it takes some trial and error to figure out what feels good and what feels bad.
Additionally, there has been some research indicating that sexual stimulation has the potential to treat various disorders, including chronic illnesses like endometriosis, sleep disorders, and even depression. The hormones released during sexual stimulation can help alleviate pain by reducing cortisol, which has profound implications for the future of pharmaceutical use. Bonus: if you’d like an in-depth education on sex toys, there’s an extensive segment called “Tool Time with Dirty Lola” that might pique your interest.
As important as it is to have an understanding of human anatomy and what feels good or bad, an even more important component of pleasure is actually the mind-body connection. Pleasure is the brain’s way of rewarding us for adaptive behavior and is therefore evolutionarily useful. Billions of neurons in our brain are stimulated by sensation signals in our nervous systems, which are then sent into the emotion parts of our brain for processing. That’s where pleasure itself is determined. The interpretation of pleasure relies upon a host of different inputs coming into the body which can become disrupted by either trauma or a medical issue, rendering them inactive. The good news is, these neural networks can get rewired so that we can re-learn what is and is not pleasurable.
If our brains are like the operating system of a computer, then hormones are the software running that system. They determine everything within our bodies, including our experience of pleasure. Interestingly enough, hormones have often been given a bad rap, being associated with moodiness and behavioral changes in women specifically. But they aren’t as black and white as that. Testosterone in men tends to fluctuate wildly throughout the day, adjusting to things like sexual imagery, the presence of children and even watching a favorite sports team win a game.
For women, hormones are far more predictable and line up with menstrual cycles. During the first phase of this cycle, the Follicular phase, the body is flooded with estrogen, which has been associated with increased energy, clarity, heightened senses, better memory, better capacity to learn, and even the ability to dull pain. During the second phase, the Luteal phase, progesterone takes over, which is associated with increased fatigue, being more hungry, having a lowered libido, and generally just feeling blah.
This knowledge becomes invaluable in terms of how women choose to manage their reproductive health. The birth control pill has had profound implications on women’s ability to contribute to society and elevate themselves socially and culturally by enabling them to choose if and when to have children. However, birth control pills can negatively impact the ways one experiences the world. Senses, feelings, and even libido can become more muted, which may cause someone to revisit whether or not the pill is right for them. From my personal perspective as someone who was prescribed the pill as a teenager to treat my endometriosis, I wonder how much this actually influenced my ability to experience pleasure throughout my 20s and 30s.
Politics of Bodies and Medical Misogyny
Society has a very black and white view of gender identity that insists on putting individuals in boxes reinforced by certain stereotypes that define not only who deserves to get pleasure but what is safe in terms of being vulnerable. These coded stories afford free license on pleasure to white heterosexual males first and foremost, and then to white heterosexual women who give men pleasure and conform to aspirational culturally constructed beauty ideals. The farther away one is from that privilege, the harder it is to earn the right to experience pleasure.
As this pertains to the medical community, doctors are not attuned to individual history, nor are they educated thoroughly in mental health, women’s health in general, and trans/non-binary health in particular. Furthermore, they are not trained in considering women’s sexual health when suggesting treatment options, which can create a whole host of problems with obtaining pleasure. This creates a system in which women, trans, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals are less likely to seek out medical attention and more likely to go undiagnosed with all types of conditions, particularly those affecting reproductive organs, like endometriosis.
The most important aspect of desire is to understand that there is no such thing as “normal.” Everyone is unique and as long as two individuals consent with the knowledge that they can stop at any time, the sky’s the limit. Going deeper into the discussion of desire involves understanding some key terms. First is responsive desire vs. spontaneous desire. Put very simply, some individuals can get aroused instantly. Others, including a high percentage of women, require some nurturing attention within the right context and right frame of mind to get in the mood. Understanding this can help set the stage for pleasure.
Next is the concept of the dual control mechanism, which involves the fact that individuals have sexual brakes and sexual accelerators. Figuring out what causes someone to put on the brakes or push the accelerator is key. A third key point is that of sexual discordance — meaning that desire, genital response, and pleasure do not necessarily coincide. This is why so often when someone’s body responds to a sexual assault, there’s so much confusion. Your body reacting doesn’t mean you consented or enjoyed what happened. And if you dissociate during sex, this is called spectatoring, and it literally means a person is watching themselves and scrutinizing every aspect of their engagement in sex without being present within their body and feeling pleasure.
This leads to the discussion of trauma, which this series took on beautifully and expansively. As is acknowledged by sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski, somewhere between one in three and one in five women will experience sexual trauma during their lifetime — and that doesn’t take into account the number of individuals who agree to unwanted sexual encounters because they feel as though it’s their societal obligation.
Very few women escape without experiencing some form of sexual shaming, body image criticism, or the misogynist notion that they need to earn their right to pleasure. This means that communication about consent and what an individual likes and dislikes become that much more important. Understanding that consent is fluid and that a partner should clearly ask for consent and not just assume it is critical. The second part of rediscovering pleasure as a survivor of trauma is mindfulness, which in this case involves body scanning to be able to identify physical sensations and the protocol of sensate focus therapy which involves physical touch without the expectation of sex at the end.
The bottom line about pleasure is this — autonomy is necessary for pleasure and it is the foundation for reproductive justice. Pleasure and justice go hand in hand, and this series very deliberately includes a diverse cross-section of interviewees of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and abilities. Dr. Nagoski states it powerfully by calling pleasure a radical act that can “dismantle the entire white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchal rabidly exploitative latent capitalistic system through (having an orgasm).” If that’s not aspirational, I don’t know what is.
Image via YouTube.