Notes from ISSWSH, and America’s Fear of Pleasure

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I was in San Diego this weekend speaking at the annual conference of ISSWSH—the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health. There were over 300 people there, about half medical professionals and half mental health professionals. Nice folks.

I spoke on how professionals’ ambivalence about pleasure colludes with patients’ ambivalence about pleasure, and it was well-received.

I talked about how people express their discomfort with pleasure: for example,
• Assuming intercourse is the gold standard of sex;
• Believing desire is driven by 1) love and 2) the wish for intimacy;
• Dividing the body into sexual and non-sexual zones;
• Thinking that certain desires are embarrassing
• Concern that pleasure will get out of control

Then I talked about medical and mental health professionals’ discomfort with pleasure. You can see this, for example, in beliefs like intercourse is the gold standard of sex, and love drives sexual desire. You can also see it in professionals’ pathology-oriented categories and concerns, which often include:
· sex addiction
· porn addiction
· monogamy is the best kind of sexual relationship
· low desire for boring sex is a “dysfunction”

Of course, in a culture that isn’t comfortable with sex or pleasure, everyone is swimming in the same toxic, sex-negative river. Doctors and patients alike are exposed to fear-mongering, exaggerated claims of sexual danger, a religious climate that tries to steal people’s sexuality and give it to some “god.”

Adults’ sexual pleasure is supposedly dangerous because sooner or later, “the children” will pay for it. Somehow, adults’ healthy, consensual sexual pleasure WITH EACH OTHER (or alone) will create child molestation, teen pregnancy, sex trafficking, and unmarried “promiscuity.”

Just like censorship is more destructive than whatever material it represses, America’s fear of sexual pleasure is ultimately far more dangerous than anyone’s actual sexual behavior could possibly be.

How important should pleasure be? There’s no single answer that’s right for everyone. But a healthy society would allow—no, encourage—every individual to discover the meaning and importance of responsible sexual pleasure for himself or herself.

That would include the free flow of information, availability of sexual healthcare, the sexual training of professionals. In fact, it would mean that one of the qualifications for becoming a professional helper would be his or her comfort with pleasure.

Physical therapists should ask patients about masturbation. Oral surgeons should be asking patients about kissing. Psychologists should be asking patients about their sexual fantasies. And sex education should be about, well, sex—rather than abstaining from sex.

Anything less is simply not acceptable.

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