Pleasure Barriers: Obstacles to Erotic Empowerment

Why is it so hard to feel good?

Posted May 29, 2020

Photo by Cris Trung on Unsplash.
Source: Photo by Cris Trung on Unsplash.

A few years ago, I signed up for a tantra workshop. I was in Goa, India for a yoga training that met in a large wooden hut, just paces away from the beach. Next door, a tantra training was taking place, and we’d pause in our asanas at the sounds of orgasmic breathwork.

“What is going on in there?” we wondered, laughing. But we were intrigued. So when the trainers offered a two-hour tantra workshop, a few of us signed up. 

Cut to: me across from a wildly undulating male partner, dancing “from our genitals” and maintaining intense eye contact the entire time. I held back laughter, feeling both awkward and admiring of my partner’s audacious moves. In another exercise, we “worshipped” each other’s body parts. “This is the hand of the goddess,” another partner intoned, gently cradling my palm. There was something thrilling about his solemnity and respect. I suddenly regretted that I’d never even thought to treat my body with this type of reverence. 

The ancient Tantric traditions of India and Tibet teach that the world is filled with divine energy that we can tap into. Writer and yoga teacher Sally Kempton notes that Tantra offers tools we can use “to make our worldly lives more beautiful, abundance, and skillful.”

In Goa, Tantra workshops were trendy, and I took my experiences back with me as an amusing anecdote. But in the midst of writing this second piece in a series on female sexuality (here's the first, if you missed it), I found myself returning to this focus on presence and energy. 

In her brilliant book Pleasure Activism, writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown defines pleasure as “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment.” I would add that pleasure is often a sensory (or sensual) experience. It can be overtly sexual, or not. It is also infused with the erotic, which sexual educator Sheri Winston defines as “the energy that infuses the web of life from the vastness of the universe down to the tiniest microcosm.”

These terms all describe different facets of the same thing: a life-force energy that makes us feel pleasure and aliveness. It must take place in the present moment and in the body. Herbalist and green witch Robin Rose Brown states: “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”

Unfortunately, there are barriers in place that keep us from tapping into this energy—particularly for those who self-identify as women. Lockdown-during-COVID may be a particularly useful time to explore and overcome these barriers, if you are privileged enough to be able to meet your basic needs. (Many are not, especially those in low-income communities, who are being disproportionately impacted.)

Author Jenny Odell, in her book How to Do Nothing, explains how a “period of ‘removal’” can help dramatically change one’s outlook. She notes: “Sometimes that’s occasioned by something terrible, like illness or loss, and sometimes it’s voluntary, but regardless, that pause in time is often the only thing that can precipitate change on a certain scale.”

So for those who have the time and space to consider: What are these pleasure barriers, and why do they exist? 

Productivity, Caregiving, and Burnout. It's impossible to separate these concepts, as they're deeply interwoven into the fabric of our society and with each other. Gallup polls suggest that two-thirds of people feel burnout at work. Given that the US is a country that highly prizes productivity (or "workism"), it's not surprising that people have a difficult time switching out of the productivity mode. 

Experts Emily and Amelia Nagoski note that burnout is even worse for those who identify as women because of human giver syndrome: “Human givers...must never be ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to their own needs. Givers are not supposed to need anything. If they dare to ask for, or, God forbid, demand anything, that’s a violation of their role as a giver and they may be punished...If we had set out to design a system to induce burnout in half the population, we could not have constructed anything more efficient.” Feeling pressured to constantly work or take care of others, and the resulting burnout, makes it nearly impossible to have the energy to cultivate and tap into pleasure and aliveness. 

Internalized sexism and misogyny. Adrienne Maree Brown begins Pleasure Activism with Audre Lorde's essay "Uses of the Erotic." Lorde stated: “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.”

Whether conscious or unconscious, the idea of women confidently tapping into their own power feels threatening to those in power. After all, women who are able to access a wellspring of energy and vitality might not stand for certain societal issues, such as a lack of affordable childcare, or the medical research gap.

Psychologist Harriet Lerner states this even more bluntly: “If we [women] are guilty, depressed, or self-doubting, we stay in place. We do not take action except against our own selves and we are unlikely to be agents of personal and societal change.” 

Consumerism. When we are cut off from our ability to feel pleasure, we turn to outside resources to make us feel better. The irony—and the good news for corporations—is that these things can't fully fulfill us, so we keep buying. 

Brown says it this way: “Part of the reason so few of us have a healthy relationship with pleasure is because a small minority of our species hoards the excess of resources, creating a false scarcity and then trying to sell us joy, sell us back to ourselves.”

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with buying things we enjoy. But relying on the external (items, alcohol, dating apps) is like trying to cool oneself with a glass of water when there's an ocean just a few steps away. 

The good news is that beginning to reconnect with our bodies and life-energy can begin immediately. Next time, I will share more information about this process, as well as special considerations for those who might feel unsafe connecting with their bodies. 

In the meantime, take the time to explore the barriers keeping you from your connection to your body, your erotic energy, and your sense of pleasure. It’s necessary to deeply see and understand these barriers so that we don’t immediately turn to self-blame on the road to healing and recovery. 

What are your thoughts about pleasure and pleasure barriers? What are the barriers you face the most? What barriers have I missed? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Book List

  • Robin Rose Bennett's Healing Magic
  • Adrienne Maree Brown's Pleasure Activism
  • Sally Kempton's Awakening Shakti
  • Harriet Lerner's The Dance of Anger 
  • Emily and Amelia Nagoski's Burnout
  • Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing
  • Sheri Winston's Women's Anatomy of Arousal