Last month, we hosted dinners on “Pleasure” in 10 cities around the world. From Tokyo to Miami, Nairobi to Mexico City, women gathered (many virtually) to share and listen to our experiences on this topic. Here is what we learned.
Such a wide range of factors came into play when talking about pleasure, they have since lingered in our psyches as we try to make sense of them. It’s like we have opened the lid off a box we have been carrying around for years, only to find the contents inside were not that familiar at all. Why is pleasure so polarized?
And now, our key takeaways…
Expectations and realities of pleasure can be two very different things
While many of us didn’t really know what to expect from this topic, the assumptions we did have, ended up being very different to the reality of the conversations. As we prepared for our dinners across the globe, we had to put in some extra effort in reminding ourselves what pleasure really meant. Some of our minds went straight to sexual freedom, highs and hedonism but as we tried to apply these ideas to the current reality of our lives, they felt much less tangible. As many of us realized our understanding of pleasure had become warped through the unrealistic ideals we have been sold through advertising, social media and porn, we found the literal definition to have more ‘innocent’ connotations centered around joy, contentment and happiness.
This element of intrigue played out in the dinners too. Those expecting talks on presence, and embracing space for doing nothing, were (pleasantly) surprised to hear poetry on masturbation and engage in a very sexual discussion. And those who went in feeling awkward about having to talk to strangers about their orgasms, were relieved to discuss the joy in the simple things in life such as freshly baked bread and walks in nature. It was even reflected upon that this seemed to resemble the ridiculous stereotype that women should be cooks in the kitchen and whores in the bedroom (or some other similarly offensive quote). This got us thinking about why pleasure feels a bit ‘either / or’ as opposed to ‘both, and’.
Pleasure on a spectrum
It appeared through our conversations that pleasure can be experienced on a ‘spectrum’, where ‘one’ are the small, simple pleasures like having a good cup of coffee in the morning and ‘ten’ are the big explosive pleasures, like a night with multiple orgasms or a life-changing trip with a friend. Most of us realized that in our day to day lives, we often stay within the “1–3” range, and many wondered, what life would look like if we spent more time in the “4–7” range. And for that, we need to get more intimate with what gives us pleasure.
One way to explore our pleasure is by understanding our pain. Going through a painful event (illness, breakup or burnout) or exploring what creates shame or guilt can allow us to get closer to what does bring us pleasure through stripping away everything we thought did, but perhaps didn’t. We heard that relying on external forces and instant gratification for pleasure often created toxic relationships and addictions, but reconstructing our identities and desires based on our core, raw needs makes way for more enriching and deepened relationships. This can be exposing. It can make us feel vulnerable and open to hurt and pain, but also strong and powerful in our authenticity.
The complexity and simplicity of what brings us pleasure is shocking to us. As was finding ourselves in positions where we couldn’t figure out where our passion and pleasure even came from! Being more in touch with our authentic self has created clarity about what we need and where our bodies and minds feel pleasure. We loved hearing women’s stories about finding joy in the small things in life and around pleasure being a practice rather than an act. By intentionally creating space for this practice, however small, pleasurable experiences are able to be tapped into more easily, and after all ‘what you pay attention to grows’ (adrienne maree brown).
Culture plays an important role on how our relationship to pleasure is shaped
As our hosts got together to discuss our themes from the dinners, we realized that culture plays a crucial, and sometimes painful role in determining how we feel about pleasure.
In Westernized cultures social norms and parental views on pleasure led to internalising feelings that later materialised as shame about sex, bodies and self-love, difficultly recognising and respecting boundaries and depending on others, or letting others depend on us, for pleasure. It was mentioned that parents unintentionally set this precedent from an early age with their kids ‘C’mon baby eat your vegetables and make Mummy happy’, right up to pressuring kids to perform well in education and work, breeding an unrealistic attachment between happiness and achievement and productivity.
Westernized cultures with a ‘go harder’ mentality reported a greater sense of women having to work extra hard to deserve pleasure, or, they deprive themselves of pleasure to have permission to then binge to excess. Similarly, not having the space to figure out what we love in our formative years can create longing for freedom and feeling alive, but paradoxically plays out as spending years keeping ourselves small and stuck through excess consumption and limiting self beliefs.
In Africa, there’s a sense that colonization and the dominant narratives from the western world, are playing an increasing role in dictating what pleasure should be. Many women want to challenge those notions and bring back what pleasure meant to their ancestors: dancing, gathering and connecting deeply to the earth and with nature.
In Asia, significant discussion revolved around how parents played a key role in forming their own concept of pleasure. There was also a discussion about a need to feel safe in order to receive pleasure, reminding us of the criticality of trust and boundaries in pleasure.
In Southern Europe and Latin America, a slower pace of life has allowed more time to enjoy organic pleasure, or take pleasure in the ‘in-between’ moments. Slowing down was deemed an essential part of being able to appreciate ‘what is’ and recognize what gives us pleasure, and being able to really feel it in our bodies and senses.
The dominant narratives of patriarchy and religion play a big role all across the globe. Women’s pleasure is rarely celebrated. Instead the expectation is that we play all our roles (the mother, the partner, the boss, the friend, the worker) with grace. A sentiment that we heard across our tables, particularly loud from voices that have been traditionally oppressed, is that embracing our pleasure, in a world that doesn’t want us to do that, is in itself an act of love and rebellion.
Presence is a precursor to pleasure, fulfilment and joy
While many of us know what is pleasurable, we can’t experience pleasure in our heads, we have to be present in our bodies. Pleasure is asking us to slow down, to experience touch, taste, smell, sight and sound with more intention. We can take a simple pleasure like taking a shower to a much more pleasurable sensorial experience if we don’t rush through the process. We all have the opportunity to expand our pleasure simply by paying attention to what we are doing. These are some ways to dial-up your pleasure: don’t just take a bath, but lower the lights, play some music, close your eyes and experience the smell, feel the water touching your body, smile.
What could happen if we teach our children to pay more attention to their sensorial experience? How would their lives be different from ours?
Reclaiming our pleasure
Many of us have absorbed this notion that pleasure is a performative act for another, or an external pursuit of something that’s actually quite intangible and not relative to our individual everyday lives. Despite pleasure being a highly personal thing, it has been packaged up for us, but not by us. Seeking pleasure on this depersonalized level ended in feelings of FOMO, dissatisfaction and chasing temporary, and empty, highs (that come with downs).
Reclaiming pleasure is a process of discovery. What is it to YOU?
Instead of giving too much of ourselves continuously, to feel like we deserve pleasure, how about taking pleasure in resting? Give yourself the guilt-free gift of being without doing.
Intentionally asking yourself questions such as ‘What has brought me joy today’? or ‘Where would I like to see more pleasure in my life?’ can articulate, and make real, some of the things that give YOU pleasure. And repeat. Everyday, until pleasure becomes an integral part of how you live.
1. What does it look like to dial-up notions of pleasure in our everyday life? How can the smaller moments of joy become more pleasurable? How can we make it a 5–7 rather than a 2–3, what would it take?
3. How can we challenge capitalist and patriarchal ideals of pleasure, to reclaim them as our own? What superficial trend can you not buy into? Is there something you desire but aren’t being honest about? Are there things you do for others that you don’t really like doing? Pleasure is also deciding what you don’t like, to make way for what you do.
4. Ask yourself daily, ‘what is bringing me pleasure today’?
Written by Alana in Lisbon, Roxanne in Edinburg, Veronica in Miami and Julie in Annecy in collaboration with Dinner Confidential hosts Caroline in Nairobi, Vanina and Mariasu in Buenos Aires, Onna in Seattle, Diana in Mexico City, Dee in Toronto and Rena in Tokyo.