What’s the Point of Pleasure?

It may seem a little odd to pose a question about what the purpose of pleasure is, what it’s “good for”.  To some, pleasure is one of those things in life that “just is”— it doesn’t have, or need, a purpose.  To others, pleasure is a reward for leading a wholesome life.

Biologically, pleasure orients us to pursue behaviors that are, in fact, in some way rewarding to us— physically, mentally or emotionally.  We’re “hard-wired” to assess certain experiences as pleasurable, and others as painful or aversive.  It’s easy to see the power of evolution (or, for some, the hand of god) behind the development of a sense of pleasure.

From a sexual perspective, pleasure obviously has a key role in incentivizing reproductive behaviors.  Sex is fun!  In many Western societies, procreation is the need that legitimizes sex, which is otherwise seen as dirty, debasing or dangerous.  It’s OK to enjoy the pleasures of sex, especially if you’re a guy (thanks to the strong patriarchal heritage of our society).  But what about sexual pleasure outside procreation?

Enjoying sex for pleasure doesn’t get nearly the same level of respect as does pleasure in the course of conception.  In fact, many Judeo-Christian religions have a deep distrust of sexual pleasure, seeing it as something “beneath” people’s basically pure spiritual nature— something that can steer people off-course, causing harm to individuals and to society.

To sexologists such as myself, such a stance just makes no sense.  Sex and its associated pleasure serve no “higher purpose”; as noted earlier, we’re simply “wired” to enjoy sex.  In recognizing that reality, though, it’s good to also note that sexual and other forms of pleasure can offer many clear-cut benefits.  Beyond the obvious “feel-good” attributes of good sexual experiences, mutually-satisfying and imaginative sexual experiences can reinforce the emotional connection between partners.  It’s hard to see why increased personal satisfaction and strengthened interpersonal relationships should be viewed as something in need of control or repression…

In our society, many forces link arms to actively discourage or repress sexual behaviors and sexual pleasure: churches, schools, government agencies, some businesses (e.g. insurance companies), and even the medical and psychiatric professions,  (For a real eye-opener, read “Sex, Sexual Pleasure, and Reproduction: Health Insurers Don’t Want You to Do Those Nasty Things“, by Hazel Glenn Beh, in the 1998 Volume 13 issue of the Wisconsin Women’a Law Journal.)  It’s interesting to think about why such forces should care about sex.  It seems unlikely that organizations would take the trouble to try to regulate sex, unless there was an agenda being served.

We all need to realize that healthy, consensual sex and pleasure are our birthright, and that it’s not OK for others to obstruct or undermine our rights.  Beyond the use of overt suppression, through legal or other means, emotions such as guilt and shame can also be used as tools to channel our behavior in directions deemed “acceptable” by others.  Awareness of these forces and their agenda is the first step toward our continued right to exercise our freedoms. Let’s embrace responsible pleasure, not fear or reject it!