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!

 

An undervalued trait: courage

Over the last several months, my life has been made “interesting” by a number of people whose personal agenda conflicts with mine.  While I’m not stranger to that sort of conflict, the “anything goes” approach taken by these folks has given me something new to contemplate.

Conflict is an inevitable part of being human.  If it’s managed with mutual respect, it can actually make the world a better place, by pushing boundaries and questioning assumptions.  My recent ruminations have been about what to do when things get disrespectful and ugly.

My personal conclusion has been that it’s important to not let personal attacks undermine one’s sense of justice, rightness and fair-play.  We all steer by our own compass, and people can and do often disagree as to how to proceed in a given situation.  What I have concluded is really important, though, is to stay on the “high road” (as we conceive of that).  To let others drive us off that path under duress is to compromise who we are.

It takes courage to stay the course.  It’s tempting to give in, to do whatever it takes to make the pain and distraction go away.  I’ve seen many around me succumb to that temptation— but while the temptation is understandable, I see a high price-tag associated with surrender: compromising one’s integrity.

Of course, there’s a difference between being staunch, and being blind or pig-headed.  We live in a world of gray, not convenient black-and-white.  Growth and improvement depend on our receptiveness to, and recognition of, relevant new ideas and new ways of being.  The challenge, of course, is to discern when something new and important has come to light, potentially calling on us to adapt.  Short of such circumstances, though, conviction and steadfastness are crucially important.

All of these thoughts may seem a little out of place in a sexologist’s blog, but that’s not the case.  Sex is a topic that often incites strong reactions in people, especially in those who have received strong “programming” as to what’s right or wrong, sexually.  That’s true of many in our society, reflecting the strong (and sometimes very inappropriate) influence of many of our religious and governmental organizations.  As a sexologist, I’m often the “lightning-rod” that draws out such people’s reactions.  Without the courage to stand by the facts and to remain open-minded and receptive to others’ reality, I can’t do my job.  While I’m not into pain— no, not even of that kind!— I’m willing to tolerate it as the “price of admission” to working with something as central to people’s nature as is our sexuality.  My recent experiences have underscored the importance of my remaining courageous.  I wouldn’t have it any other way!

 

What Do You Mean, “Sexology”???

You may have heard the term “sexology” or “sexologist”, and wondered what these mean— and whether they’re legit!  Well, they are indeed.  Sexology is the scientific study of human sexuality, in all of its breadth and complexity.  It is an interdisciplinary field that taps knowledge gleaned through medicine, the life sciences, social sciences such as sociology and anthropology, psychology, and numerous other disciplines.

Why would anyone put all that thought and effort into a subject that’s so hush-hush and “unspeakable” in social circles?  Well, for starters, because sex is fundamental to our existence as human beings; it is, in effect, our “life-energy”.  It’s good to seek understanding of any force that exerts that kind of influence in our life.

In any society, sex, procreation and pleasure are topics that are the focus of much attention.  Because these are centrally important themes, governments, churches and other organizations seek to control and channel these forces by establishing “mores” that reflect the moral views of that society.  In our Western Judeo-Christian dominated societies, sexuality is viewed with suspicion, and as a powerful and inherently negative force that must be kept in check by reason.  Sex is undeniably powerful— but it certainly need not be presumed to be negative, and thus in need of repression.  Letting fear guide our attitudes toward sexuality can lead us to “throw the baby out with the bath-water”, damping the joy and good that healthy sexuality can bring into our life.

Sexologists see sex as a natural facet of humanity that must be accepted as such.  Sexologists avoid making moral judgments about sex; like any other human activity, sex can be a source of either good or bad, depending on how it is exercised and experienced.  By helping people understand that their sexuality is an inherent part of who they are, and in helping them to understand how sex affects their body, mind and emotions, sexologists give people a powerful tool for responsibly managing their life.  Personal knowledge is personal power— and we’re all better off, if we have what it takes to make informed personal choices!

Professional sexologists can help their clients in several different ways:

  • Sex therapists are typically psychologists or psychiatrists who also have sexological training.  Such therapists work with their clients to diagnose sexual dysfunctions, and they do so by pursuing a deep understanding of the client’s past, as the basis for prescribing corrective actions or behavior changes.  Sex therapists are licensed professionals.
  • Social workers who have sexological training can focus on delivering sexual education, or on helping a client address sexual dysfunction, or both.  Social workers come from diverse disciplines, and utilize differing approaches; however, they share the common goal of seeking to improve the quality of life for individuals, couples and larger groups.  Social workers are licensed professionals.
  • Sex coaches come from diverse backgrounds, but they share a deep knowledge of sexology with the use of coaching techniques as their method of engagement with a client.  Sex coaches address not only sexual dysfunction, but also a client’s desire for enhancement of their sex life and intimate relationships.  Sex coaching is an emerging profession, and the training of such coaches can vary widely.  Reputable sex coaches have certification from an established and properly accredited training institution.

These three kinds of sexological workers engage with their clients in rather different ways:

  • Therapists work as experts who assess a client and offer prescriptions; they observe and diagnose the client’s possible issues from “outside”, gathering information from the client but not engaging with the client as a peer.
  • Social workers also work as expert assessors of and consultants to a client.  Like therapists, social workers do not link with the client in a peer-to-peer relationship; they observe the client and his/her interactions from “outside”, and then recommend behavior and attitude changes that can enhance the  client’s life.
  • In contrast with these first two categories of sexological workers, sex coaches rely on establishing a peer-to-peer connection with a client, in order to act as an expert advisor and an objective “mirror” for the client.  In a sex coaching relationship, the coach provides tools and powerful guiding questions, but it is the client who sets the course of the coaching work, and who also does the work necessary for advancement.  A sex coach is not in any sense “above” or “apart from” the client.

Now that you know what sexologists are, think about how they might fit into your own life.  Would you like a more sensual, sexually fulfilling and intimate life?  Would you like to better understand yourself, so that you can make better personal decisions for yourself?  Would you benefit from having a caring and knowledgeable partner to help you make responsible relationship decisions that can enhance your pleasure and satisfaction in life, without inappropriate guilt or shame?  If so, consider reaching out to a qualified sexologist for help.  You might find that to be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made!

Baby Steps

Not surprisingly, launching a new coaching practice in an area that involves the “third-rail” topic of sexuality is challenging.  One of the big challenges is to figure out how best to connect with people who are receptive to thinking and talking about sensuality, sexuality and intimacy.  Where do those “fish swim”?  On some level, these are almost universal concerns— but in spite of their interest, many people are carrying too much “baggage” to be able to directly and productively engage their sexual side.

There’s a large sex-positive community in Portland (OR)— people who embrace their sexuality, many of whom are quite open-minded and experimental.  That is likely to be fertile terrain.  Delivering free talks in such a forum seems like a promising avenue to pursue, so I’m doing that.  Participating in the many sub-groups of that community is also promising…  both in person, and through online dialog.  As a step toward building community, I’ve also started a meeting group (the Loving Softly group on Meetup.com). Still looking for a private, comfortable and affordable meeting location for that group; it’s probably not the best for hosting at the local public library!

I’m greatly looking forward to getting past these tottering initial baby-steps, and on to interaction with a vigorous community.  It’ll be great to enjoy the company of fellow explorers, and to have regular opportunities to contribute my professional expertise!

What’s “Normal”?

One of the more frequent questions that sex coaches and other sexologists encounter from clients is “Am I normal?”   As it turns out, there’s more to this question than meets the eye.

In our society, most people receive detailed and rigid guidance as to how people should view their sexuality, and how they should practice it.  Children get this guidance from parents, from church organizations, from educators, and to some extent from their peers.  Kids are expected to “color” within these “lines”, and they incur strong correction from those in authority, if they choose to deviate from these prescriptions.

Perhaps more insidiously, these same authorities exert great influence in instilling specific attitudes about sex into children.  To compound the situation, outright gross misinformation about sex abounds; some such misinformation is the product of ignorance and lack of knowledge, while some is undoubtedly used as a “tool” to reinforce the sexual morals and beliefs preferred by the authorities.  All of these guiding influences effectively tell a child what they should consider “normal” sexuality.

This mental and emotional formation happens before a child is really able to exercise significant self-assessment and personal choice.  The sexual experimentation that children naturally indulge in provides some personally-acquired information about sex, but all too often that knowledge is freighted with a sense of wrongness that can promote feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection.  Those “sex-negative” feelings then color all subsequent sexual and intimate interactions that an adult experiences.  Social messages (e.g. in the media) add to the confusion, with more misinformation and with artificially-created “ideals” of what a mature sexual life is like.

The reality is that individuals differ in their sexual orientation and in their preferences. Just as some people love cilantro while others are repelled by it, there is no one-size-fits-all set of sexual practices or perspectives that everyone should subscribe to.

One of the more difficult challenges for a sex coach is to help shed light on the sexual “programming” that a particular client has assimilated— so that the client can then make free and informed choices as to what is natural and “normal” for them.  In making those choices, though, the client can gain a sense of freedom, comfort and self-acceptance that they may never before have experienced.

There are, of course, some constraints on any form of legitimate sexual behavior:  it must be truly consensual, and it should not result in serious intentional harm to a partner, or to oneself.  Beyond that, the available sexual terrain is wide and varied.  It is perfectly “normal” to have curiosity about, say, BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), such as that popularized in the 50 Shades of Gray trilogy of novels.  Those with a gay or lesbian sexual orientation have no less valid or meaningful relationships than do mainstream heterosexuals. Those who fail to credit and respect the sexual reality of others are likely acting out of captivity to their own rigid “programming”.  One may not feel the same desires and inclinations as another, but mutual respect is essential.

The more important question that we can ask ourselves is not “Am I normal?”, but rather “Do I know and accept my sexual self?”.  This is a question for which a good sex coach can provide invaluable help to a client.  As a sex coach, it brings me much personal satisfaction to accompany a client on this voyage of self-discovery and self-liberation.  I consider it a true privilege to be part of such important, life-changing work!