Pleasure with a capital P is a feeling. A feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment. And sometimes, we can’t wait to get some. But that’s on one hand. On the other hand, just the thought or the act of achieving pleasure consistently can be intimidating due to many reasons we can’t always put a finger on. Besides, it’s not just about sex; it’s much deeper than that.
Shadeen Francis, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Sex Therapist says, “Pleasure is anything that feels good.” During our talk, she elaborated on her definition of pleasure, the stigmas surrounding pleasure, and how to achieve pleasure behind trauma. Shadeen doesn’t lead with sex in her practice, instead, her work is organized around how to bring people closer to peace first, then pleasure. Her practice spans the domains of interpersonal relationships, emotional intelligence, social justice, and how relationships underscore most of where we find and make meaning in our lives. Lock-in!
How do you define pleasure?
It depends on the moment. At its simplest, pleasure is anything that feels good. I think folks have an idea of what they are supposed to want. We have this idea of these big picture, good things. We often miss the things that one, light us up, and two, the things that are small and subtle. When I think of things feeling good, I don’t necessarily mean a positive emotional relationship or a positive cognitive-disconnect relationship, but things that affirm my purpose in the world.
I like to talk about the seven planes of being:
1) Spiritual. The things that give us purpose and meaning or guidance in the world. 2) Intellectual. The things that we think or know. Wisdom, learning, knowledge. 3) Aesthetic. Appreciation of beauty. A positive connection to nature. 4) Emotion. Our actual emotional experiences. Not like, I feel judged or I feel accepted, but the actual experience of emotion. Happy, sad and scared, glad. The tangible emotional experiences and what you actually feel like, in addition to your sensory feelings: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. 5) Recreation. What do you like to do? Movement. 6) Play. What brings you pleasure and curiosity? 7) Then, of course–in my line of work–sex. What is erotic? Arousing? What lights you up? What feels sensual?
Why is there shame around experiencing pleasure?
When we talk about pleasure, I think there are a lot of assumptions about what we’re supposed to want and like. We know a lot of people are having sex that doesn’t actually feel good. Simplified, we live in overlapping cultures around the control of bodies.
If we give folks permission to pursue things that feel good, the ways we’ve organized the world won’t work anymore. If we gave people body sovereignty and bodily autonomy and permission to honor their embodied wisdom for what is right and not right for their bodies, we couldn’t have a capitalist structure. We couldn’t have values around productivity. A lot of corporations, companies, businesses, and services wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t have things that tell you not to be fat. Or laws that keep you from being Black. We wouldn’t have any space that is inaccessible to disabled bodies.
We have so many intersecting hierarchies around a limited frame of who we are allowed to be and it squeezes out so many possibilities for pleasure. If we were to think of who would get the least obstacles in a theoretical sense, from deciding that they are entitled to pleasure to telling me that they are deserving of pleasure, you couldn’t be a racialized person. You couldn’t be a disabled person. And you’d have to be a cisgender man. You couldn’t be anything other than heterosexual. You’d probably have to be Christian. You would have to be wealthy by lineage and by merit.
Why is it so hard for people to accept pleasure? Why are there so many people who do not see themselves as deserving of pleasure? Because we have a society that makes it so. Sex is a tool to sell who has the right body and who gets to feel good about the body and what your body feeling good is for, whether or not it actually matters if your body feels good.
How do we achieve pleasure?
It has to start with permission-giving. For many of us, we haven’t had permission. You wouldn’t be able to throw a rock into a crowd and hit someone who hasn’t been shamed for something they like, something they want, or something that feels good. We have been denied permission to experience ourselves. And I don’t know if we can wait for external permissions. You might be able to offer permissions to others if there are people around you whom you love and are connected to. Parents to children. Peers to one another. Friends and siblings. Generations above us and our elders.
Before permission-giving, it starts with an awareness of feelings. The permission to believe that how you feel matters, even if you don’t believe anyone cares. It’s about honoring that and advocating for that. Sometimes, it’s really small steps. But if you have permission to believe how you feel matters, you will start noticing what you feel in real-time. We get clear on what it is that we want, even if we don’t know how to get it.
The process of embodied wanting is transformational. Desire. Wanting something and feeling that. All the times where you say yes, that is pleasure. So it can be small. It can be a snack. Catching a single ray can be pleasure. Taking a deep breath can be pleasure. Having a deep conversation can be pleasure. Wearing a cozy sweatshirt can be pleasure. For those of us who are marginalized on lots of levels, there might not be lots of openings in your current space or community or routines–in the ways we’ve learned to survive–to get the big picture pleasures, even these smaller steps.
I give myself permission to feel, and how I feel matters. I give myself permission to have some of the things I want. So listen to the smallest of wants. I want another bite, or I want to stop now. I want to tell you how I feel, or I don’t want to share anymore. Even those little moments can be pleasure practices.
How do we not get greedy?
I have hard-valued judgments around exploitation. When my wants compromise the well-being of others, we’ve reached a hard line. Gemini, middle-child, millennial. I live in the practice of, I want a lot, and I don’t feel bad about it. Me wanting a lot doesn’t put any burden or responsibility on others. It is for me to navigate what do I, what can I, and what will I get in the world knowing that I’m entitled to want whatever it is I want. Also, wanting a lot means you have to get really good in your practice of navigating disappointment because I’m a believer that you can have anything you want, but not everything you want.
A lot of our propensity towards hoarding is because we’re trained into scarcity.
There is capital gained by having more. But if we could be honest about what we want, a lot of people would have less. If we were to do this around money, for example, in most First World nations, above $79,000 a year, your quality of life doesn’t increase. To be a multi-millionaire, sure you have more creature comforts and that’s good, but in terms of the actual rating of your quality of life, you start seeing diminishing returns.
I don’t think we are served by as much as what we get. A lot of times, we get it because we want something from it. I want to feel affirmed. Feel seen. I want to feel important. So I amass stuff. Sex is a transferrable skill. If we do sex well, we do a lot of other things well. If we learn to relate well, then we become better lovers.
Elaborate on the sex piece.
If we were to center this around sex, pleasure, and greed, it’s about paying attention to not just what I want. First and foremost, your responsibility is towards yourself and your needs, so I’m pro-selfishness. However, if I’m doing something with you, what you want is important too. If we’re doing this together, we both have to get enough of what we want. And what I want cannot come at the cost or expense of you and what you want.
If that were a practice, a lot of people would have better sex. I think conversations around consent would feel significantly less [than] whatever they are now. We would stay a lot closer to experiences of pleasure or know where pleasure isn’t possible. That if neither of us can get what we want or enough of what we want from this, and it is good and right for us to feel good and that matters, we would stay in a lot fewer situations that aren’t actually serving us because they don’t feel good.
What does “Everyone wants to know how to f*ck. Let me remind you how to feel.” mean?
That is a truth I encounter by nature of my professional title. I am a sex therapist. You say that in an uber or at a club or at a party and the tone of the whole conversation shifts. People’s conception of what a sex therapist is and what a sex therapist does is often representative of the gaps that exist in the culture, particularly around education. Folks have so few opportunities to engage in meaningful and integral conversations around sex that when sex comes up, we don’t really know where to go with it. And we’ve been harboring so many questions because we haven’t had a place to go.
Everyone forty-two and younger, if you had a sex question at any point in your life, you took it to the internet. You might’ve gone somewhere else. Maybe you had a friend who you thought was more experienced than you. Maybe you had an older sibling or an older cousin who happened to say something to you. But if you had a question, you were on your own and you had to hope that you would encounter the answer somewhere. In part, because we haven’t had any real relationship around the learning of sex other than trying it, seeing how it goes, hoping for the best, or watching a shit ton of porn and imagining that’s what you’re supposed to do.
It creates a process around sex that is disembodied, performative, internal, and isolated. It’s individualistic and colored by shame, silence, and secrecy.
For the vast majority of people, sex is an opportunity for sensory pleasure. It is an opportunity to feel good. There are tons of reasons to have sex. Lots of people have sex in ways and for reasons that don’t have to deal with sexual pleasure. Might be about relational connection or growth of a family or spiritual connection or practice. But if sex is an opportunity for pleasure and likely sensory pleasure, then we must have a relationship to feelings in order to have good sex. What does it matter if it doesn’t feel good? And what does it feel like for your partner?
My experience around what has been missing is human connection. Connection to your body as you try to connect to other people’s bodies. How fucking revolutionary is that as an idea? Sounds very pedestrian, except it’s nowhere in the conversation until you talk to folks whose work centers around pleasure.
If it matters how you feel, it will be impossible for you to not try and find ways to feel good. That starting place is about feelings which is why my work leans so much into emotional intelligence and somatic wisdom. Because what your body experiences in these moments–what is happening for you and your emotions–is real-time feedback in the world. You could learn to do sex really well but I don’t think that’s what people are asking for. I think people are desperately trying to find ways to connect to themselves and to connect with other people in ways that feel good.
We don’t have good sex to feel good. We get clear on what feels good, then we create the sex that allows for that.
Follow Shadeen, @shadeenfrancis on Instagram for the feels.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.