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Pope Francis, Sex, and Pleasure

Is the pope sex-positive now? What else will 2020 bring?

Well well well. 2020 just keeps throwing us all curveballs, doesn’t it? Last week, Pope Francis said the following about sex and sexual pleasure:

“Pleasure arrives directly from God. It is neither Catholic nor Christian nor anything else; it is simply divine,” Francis reportedly explained. “The pleasure of eating and sexual pleasure come from God.”

Now I know that the Catholic church is not without criticism when it comes to their harmful doctrines about human sexuality. And I also know that the pope’s comment may not be relevant to many of you. But I want to give it a little air, so bear with me.

So first, I am impressed he used the actual word “pleasure” because it seems like so many of my clients (and Americans in general) do not/cannot say that word. I notice that my clients use phrases like “It felt good” or “I enjoyed it” … but not the word “pleasure.” It’s either not in their vocabulary or there is a tee-hee factor to contend with. I make a point to use the word in sessions with my clients to normalize, validate, and increase comfort with the word and experience.

Second, he points out that pleasure is available in daily life. This is revolutionary in our capitalistic, money-driven society! Because for so many people, pleasure is a reward or expensive luxury or even a sin. “It’s Saturday morning, I’ll do all my chores and errands today, and then tonight I can sit down with a glass of wine.” “Life is a daily grind full of obligations and responsibilities. Once I go on vacation, I can really enjoy myself and do all the things I want to do.” “I was told by my religion and/or my family that too much pleasure is dangerous or bad.” I believe pleasure is a form of resistance against grind culture. It connects us to our deeper vitality and power within. All of those examples are unfortunately common and maladaptive ways of relating to pleasure.

Why? Because the fact is, our bodies are built for pleasure. For example, the head of the clitoris has approximately 8,000 nerve endings in it (twice as many as the glans of a penis) and its sole purpose is pleasure. But pleasure is not localized to just those body parts. There are sensitive nerve endings all over our bodies regardless of the body you were born into. Pleasure also activates our parasympathetic nervous system, aka “rest and digest,” the autonomic nervous system’s calm and relaxed state that is the counterpoint to the sympathetic nervous system aka “fight or flight." Pleasure is not some morally questionable endeavor—it is actually good for your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health! So ask yourself this question: What stops me from prioritizing pleasure in my life?

And finally, Pope Francis is getting at something us sexuality professionals know yet sometimes struggle to discuss for various reasons: Sex has a spiritual quality to it. That transcendence is possible during sex. You don't have to believe in God to have a mystical experience. And so I really think of this as related to the state of flow.

Whether it’s from playing a musical instrument or running or dancing or having sex, humans are capable of experiencing flow. The state of flow is being totally in the moment or “in the zone” where time slows down or disappears, we are not distracted but rather fully immersed and fully present. We have an energized focus. Flow is fueled by dopamine (which is connected to testosterone, the hormone associated with libido). When we are in flow our inner critic is silenced, our sense of self vanishes in a way that is positively experienced, and we are not goal-oriented but rather enjoying the process. I hope you have experienced the state of flow at least once in your life in some way. I have; it is powerful and memorable and so so pleasurable. And dare I say divine.

© 2020 Diane Gleim