In graduate school, my classes were teeming with women—about 10 female counseling students for every male, and yet, as far as I can remember, there was just one course that centered on women’s issues. It was an elective called The Psychology of Women: A Sociopsychological Approach.
Notably none of the males in our graduating cohort had signed up for the course. The professor, an Asian American in her mid-30s, strode into the room in a floral shirt and combat boots, holding a laptop piled high with papers. She pulled a screen down from a ring dangling above the blackboard, connected her computer to a projector, and told us we’d be watching a movie. I leaned back in my chair. The room went dark. Then, the movie began. It was Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.
At first, we seemed to be watching a documentary. The camera zoomed in on shots of different women—African American and white, Indian and Asian, Native American and Latin American, Muslim and Jewish, short and tall, old and young. These women flinched, laughed, grew tearful, and said things like, “No one’s ever asked me about this before,” with one or two of them covering their faces in embarrassment. Then the scene changed and a female actor with a page-boy haircut performed a series of fictionalized monologues—adaptations from her interviews with 200 women about their vaginas.
In the one I remember most vividly, the actor speaks in the voice of an elderly woman from Long Island, who, as a teenager, was invited out for a drive by an attractive young man. When he’d kissed her, she’d swooned and gotten aroused. Vaginal fluids had soaked through her dress and stained the passenger seat. Disgusted, the man had insulted her, driven her home, and never spoken to her again. Ultimately, as the narrator tells it, she never let herself experience arousal again.
When the film was over, the professor switched on the lights and asked, “So, what do you think?”
“That was powerful,” a former nurse I recognized from one of my required courses said. “It’s easy to forget what we go through as women. There’s so much shame about our bodies.”
A murmur of agreement rippled through the room. I stayed silent.
“I’m always monitoring myself,” a woman in a Nirvana T-shirt said. “I wonder if I’m living up to people’s expectations, if I look okay, if people like me. I always feel self-conscious.”
“That’s cause you’re not Black,” a woman in the front row said with a sad laugh. “When you’re Black and a woman, it’s a double whammy. You don’t have the luxury of worrying about people liking you.”
The conversation continued in this vein till the end of class, with about half the students in the class talking, agreeing and disagreeing, and sometimes getting emotional, while the other half—like me—remained silent. The conversation unsettled me, but it got me thinking. Having grown up with an older brother, I’d sensed society held a different blueprint for my life trajectory as a female than it did for his. My body was encouraged to eat less and stay small. My body was things—nice or not nice, pretty or ugly, fat or thin. My brother’s body, on the other hand, received encouragement to eat more and get bigger, to do things: mow lawns, chop wood, and hunt deer with my father.
His destiny was to take. Mine was to give.
The elderly woman’s monologue didn’t move me. A life without swooning or arousal didn’t seem like that big a loss. Although I’d never have admitted it to my outspoken classmates, I viewed women soaking dresses and staining car seats as highly problematic, and I could relate to the man’s reaction. Disgust was a response I applied to myself, frequently and liberally. Where had I learned this?
Growing up, I’d never had a single conversation about my body with my mother. My two living grandmothers, on different sides of the globe, had only ever referred to it indirectly, saying things like, “You will not go out in public dressed like that!” and “You’re asking for trouble.” I’d only seen my great-grandmothers in photographs: a severe-looking Welsh matron scowling in a garden and a long-suffering Andalusian widow next to a tombstone. As I gathered up my notebook and filed out of the classroom with the other students, I wondered what their vagina monologues would have sounded like.
After grad school, I was a client in my own treatment at the same time as I ran groups and did individual therapy at Bellevue Hospital and with couples in private practice. Sometimes, I drank too much to take the edge off the discomfort I was experiencing navigating the world. I felt chronically anxious, unsafe, and unworthy. I considered going back to graduate school to get a doctorate but taking even more required courses with names like Research and Evaluation Methods in Theory and Practice didn’t seem like the answer. I was pretty sure those courses wouldn’t help me feel better about myself or teach me how to work with other women’s issues more effectively.
One day, sitting across from my husband in couples therapy, our therapist broached the subject of our sex lives, and we began speaking—in fits and starts—about pleasure and desire.
“I want you to want sex,” my husband said. “I always initiate.”
This was a painful topic we usually avoided. He wanted me to want sex, but I didn’t know how to want what I didn’t want. I wanted him to be satisfied with the fact that I was open to it, once or twice a week, even though I never seemed as interested as he was.
“Can you tell him what he might do to give you more pleasure?” our therapist asked.
The question made me queasy.
At first glance, our issue looked like yet another classic mismatch of desire levels that fell along stereotypical gender lines in a heterosexual partnership. But I sensed something bigger at play. Grief washed through me.
“You know what?” I said, raising my voice. “Fuck pleasure! I don’t even like the word! I don’t need it. I’m being completely honest. That’s what we’re here for, right?” I covered my face in my hands and started sobbing.
My husband shifted forward, reached out, and placed his hand on my knee. I could sense his empathy. Through my tears, I glimpsed my therapist’s kind face. I hated them both.
I felt anger and sadness. As I let myself sob, I felt some relief.
The issue wasn’t that I didn’t want sex, or that I needed my husband to do anything differently. It was that pleasure didn’t give me any pleasure. With so many other important things vying for my attention, it seemed both pointless and frivolous. I was too busy proving myself, making sure people liked me, and trying to dodge my own self-judgements to pay attention to what I enjoyed or wanted. I was pleasure intolerant in the same way that some people are lactose intolerant.
Pleasure as Fuel
Megan Fleming—a New York City-based sex therapist—has noticed a trend in her practice dating back decades, to even before I took that memorable Psychology of Women course as an elective in grad school.
“Women have a hard time taking pleasure,” Fleming says.
In her view, pleasure taking isn’t just something women need to be able to do within a sexual context to feel fulfilled and satisfied: it needs to be woven through every aspect of their lives. It connects them to their bodies, roots them in the present, and fosters resilience.
What could be blocking today’s women from such a seemingly basic part of life? According to Fleming, several elements are at work. For one, whether they’re aware of it or not, people are often influenced by our culture’s long-standing beliefs, some of which stem from puritanical religious traditions, that female bodies should be shrouded in shame and secrecy, or considered dangerous, dirty, or sinful. Living in a society that revolves around work while marginalizing play may be another obstacle to taking pleasure, although this is a cultural norm that affects all genders.
Fleming thinks some of the strides women have made in equal rights have had unwanted side effects. If you’re bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, doing laundry, and running emotional interference between family members, you probably don’t have extra time to waste on so-called selfish pursuits like inviting pleasure into your life. Women have gained the right to assume a wider array of responsibilities that once belonged exclusively to men, but they’re overextended in their attempts to live up to an outdated, internalized ideal of themselves as self-sacrificing caregivers.
“The official story is we’ve moved out of traditional gender roles,” Fleming says, “but the reality is we’re doing significantly more than men, particularly in the home. It’s like we’re constantly pushing a car uphill. My job as a therapist is to get women to stop and look for gas. Pleasure is fuel. If women can learn to regularly do things that feel good in their everyday lives—even in small ways—they can stop pushing the car. When you enjoy life more, pleasure acts as a buffer. You end up having more to give.”
In her clinical sessions and workshops, Fleming invites women to take a nine-day pleasure challenge. Using a technique called mental rehearsal, clients imagine tastes, sounds, smells, sensations, and images related to a peak pleasureful experience from their pasts. Because the mind can respond to reimagined memories as if they were real, this process strengthens neural pathways and increases the likelihood of someone gravitating toward similar experiences more often.
Finding someone to help you remain accountable—a therapist or a pleasure-partner—makes it easier to commit to daily prompts. When did I last feel pleasure that took my breath away? you might ask yourself, and then relive that memory through detailed recollections of what you saw, smelled, heard, tasted, felt, and thought. Or you might identify a favorite food—like oysters or chocolate—and then purchase and arrange different varieties of it on a plate. With a blindfold on, can you taste, feel, smell, and savor differences between salted milk chocolate and salted semi-sweet chocolate? Between East Coast oysters and West Coast oysters?
Even when you don’t follow through on a prompt, it can be an opportunity to look at what gets in the way of exploring something that might make you feel good, and to cultivate self-compassion.
The Pleasure Dare
“For a few years after I got licensed, I was in talk therapy,” a colleague of mine, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist, tells me. “I felt tense and constricted a lot. Then, I joined an experiential therapy group, and the therapist guided us to feel our emotions, not just think or talk about them. For the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to be part of a healthy group system.”
In my colleague’s view, when therapists guide clients to connect with their emotions in the form of present-moment sensations, rather than as thoughts or ideas, they’re doing more than helping them work through emotional material: they’re building clients’ capacity for pleasure. This might mean tracking bodily signals, noticing sighs, attending to a shaking foot, picking up on shifts in someone’s tone of voice, or even asking, “Can you notice what you’re experiencing in your body right now?” The depth of the pleasure we can take in our lives, she insists, directly correlates with how much we allow ourselves to feel our own pain.
When I ask about her most transformative personal experience taking pleasure, she shares a story about going to Paris with a small group of women aged 40 to 70 as part of a women’s consciousness-raising workshop. They were all on a quest to infuse their lives with more joy.
“Throughout the week,” she said, “we experimented with different practices. I remember pairing up with another participant to give each other ‘pleasure dares,’ meant to take us out of our comfort zone. One time, my partner said, ‘I dare you to flirt tonight.’ I thought, I’m a wife, a mom, I’m 59-years old, I can’t flirt! I couldn’t even remember the last time I flirted. But at a nightclub later that evening I saw this attractive French guy—probably 15 years younger than me—and I made eye-contact and smiled. I let myself have fun flirting. I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
As she shares her story with me, I try to remember the last time I flirted with someone I found attractive—including my husband—just for the fun of it. Sadly, I can’t.
“The young Frenchman came over to us and asked me to dance,” my colleague continues, “and the women in my group coached me, saying, ‘Move your hips! You’ve got this!’ We all danced so much that night—on the dancefloor, on tables. Everyone wanted to dance with us. What made it so incredible wasn’t being in a nightclub or even being in Paris. It was our energy. We took pleasure in ourselves. That experience transformed me. It showed me anything is possible.”
Taking pleasure can be revolutionary because it's an act of resistance, of claiming your sovereignty.
Expanding her own capacity to have fun outside of her roles as wife, mom, and therapist influenced her decision to run therapy groups for women. She believes the bonding that takes place between clients who feel safe enough to connect to their bodies and emotions—and to express themselves in relational ways—is an essential form of pleasure in and of itself.
Superwomen and Legacy Burdens
Taking pleasure is more than the experience of enjoyable sensations, whether of firm chocolate yielding under your teeth, a hug, a bubble bath, listening to music, or having an orgasm alone or with a partner. Implicit in your relationship with pleasure is your history, your sense of who you are, and how supported or unsupported you feel in being who you are in the world you inhabit. Pleasure implies you have a sense of yourself and your value. You know you’re entitled to take, allow, and receive. Pleasureful experiences generate a positive feedback loop. They communicate, “You deserve joy. You deserve laughter. You deserve rest. You deserve ecstasy. You deserve comfort. You deserve love.”
But pleasure doesn’t happen—or fail to happen—in a social vacuum. Bethany Letiecq, associate professor of family science in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, believes conversations about women and pleasure—and interventions designed to help them—need to happen within the larger context of the laws and policies that condition and constrain women’s lives. When generations of partners have been systematically incarcerated or deported, or you can’t access healthcare due to your legal status, it adds layers of stress to your life that interfere with your ability to prioritize pleasure.
“Of course, taking pleasure is important for all women,” she says. “And it can be revolutionary because it’s an act of resistance, of claiming your sovereignty. But there’s a much higher risk to doing this if you’re a woman of color or an undocumented immigrant. Practitioners need to be aware of unequal social contexts as they support women’s health.”
Carmen Jimenez-Pride, a psychotherapist and supervisor in Augusta, Georgia, believes it’s hard to talk about pleasure without talking about self-care first. “A lot of women I see—and I see a lot of African American therapists in my practice—have what I call a superwoman complex. They’re juggling many different roles—wife, mother, daughter, therapist, entrepreneur. I do Internal Family Systems work, and in IFS we talk about legacy burdens, which are ways of being that go back to our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. Black women have a heavy legacy burden.”
Jimenez-Pride connects this to slavery. “When Black women had babies, they were back in the fields the very same day. They had to override their body’s needs and push through hardships. I still see this in many African American female clients today. They push themselves to keep going, to do more, to take care of everyone, to work harder, to forgo sleep—even when they get sick. If you’re carrying all that, and you can’t rest, it’s hard to even think about what might give you pleasure.”
Jimenez-Pride helps superwomen, of all races and ethnicities, recognize their different internalized roles as parts of themselves, separate from the consciousness or higher wisdom known as Self in the IFS approach. She invites them to reconnect with who they were before assuming different roles and looks at what gets in the way of asking for and receiving help.
“I’ll often see a visible shift in a client’s body when she remembers what gave her pleasure before motherhood, becoming a CEO, working as a therapist. If she loved bike riding, we’ll explore why. Was it the fresh air, the sense of freedom, the power she felt in her muscles, the adrenaline rush? We’ll find ways to bring that joy back into her life.”
The Greatest Pleasure in the World
I’m sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in a large, empty room with six other women, but we’re not doing yoga. We’re positioned in a semicircle around our teacher, sitting on her own mat. A woman in her early 50s wearing pink spandex shorts tells us her mom was pregnant with her when she left El Salvador. She says she’s tired of judging herself for her weight and wants to love her body as it is. Across the room from her, a 22-year-old with a Russian accent says she’s finally ended an abusive relationship and is ready to start trusting herself, again.
A rail-thin woman in a sequined T-shirt clears her throat and declares, “I’m 75 years old, and I’ve always been uptight and prudish. I want to feel feminine and sexy in this body, just for me, before it’s too late.”
“I’m here to learn to enjoy a lot of different things in my life more than I do,” I say.
The room is industrial-looking, with broad-planked wooden floorboards and metal pipes crisscrossing the ceiling. It has no mirrors. A big, cushiony chair fills one corner. Red velvet hangs across floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Let your mind go,” our teacher says. Her dreadlocks cascade across her shoulder as she leans forward, extends her arm, and drags an index finger across the floor as though tracing an arc in the sand. “Let the music take you on a journey. Listen to your body.”
Some of the movements in the sequence are foreign to me, but I do them anyway. They feel vulnerable and provocative. I’ve never gyrated my pelvis or swung my hips around while my upper body moved in the opposite direction. I’ve never lain on the ground, with my neck and back arched, my knees bent, and my legs spread, except when I was in labor, and even then, it wasn’t like this—with music enveloping me and someone encouraging me to allow myself to enjoy even the smallest sensations, like a strand of hair catching in my eyelashes, or the warmth of my own breath against my forearm.
“Move slowly, as slowly as you can,” the teacher purrs.
The sequence she’s guiding us through is called Fluid Feminine Movement. It was created by Sheila Kelly, an actor who started leading classes in her living room after her first child was born. Kelly believed it was essential for women to have a safe, supportive place where they could undo—through movement and play—their habit of judging, overriding, and fearing their bodies.
The teacher’s voice mixes with the melancholy notes of a piano. Then, the song shifts into a call-and-response duet between a baritone and a soprano.
“Notice your body’s reaction to their voices. Notice the emotions the music evokes. Feel yourself from the inside out. What’s it like to sense the coolness of the floor on your skin, the pressure of the mat? If your calves shake, don’t fight it. Enjoy it. If your arms tremble, allow it.”
It’s liberating to move this way. It feels a little dangerous.
I remind myself no one’s watching. I’m safe.
When the class ends, the woman in the pink shorts flashes a radiant smile in my direction and picks up her mat. She swings her ample hips unapologetically, looking supremely comfortable in her body. Two hours have gone by in what has felt like 15 minutes. I haven’t pleased or displeased anyone, second-guessed myself, or gotten lost in a fog of worry. My body and I have been in sync, and I’ve glimpsed a new possibility.
As I approach the locker room to change into my street clothes, I notice an undulating, elegant silhouette moving down the hallway ahead of me. It’s the rail-thin 75-year-old woman in the sequined T-shirt. She presses the heels, arches, balls, and toepads of her bare feet against the floor as if every movement were a thing to be savored—as if being alive inside her female body was the greatest pleasure in the world.
A Required Course
Pleasure, as it turns out, is a required course for women, not an elective.
At its core, taking pleasure means remembering yourself.
Learning to experience my own female body from the inside out, and to move in new ways, is one of the paths I’ve taken to remembering myself. It’s taught me what it’s like to live in sync with my different identities, making more room for pleasure in big and small ways, while challenging the social conditioning that inhibits me. I don’t do Fluid Feminine Movement sequences with clients, but I do tune into the ways my clients talk over, distrust, override, disregard, and disconnect from their bodies. “Can you let yourself experience that instead of discounting it?” I might ask. “What if you didn’t shut down that impulse you’re judging as greedy?” “You’re laughing even though you’re angry, and using the word bitch to describe yourself? Can’t you be enraged and still be a woman who isn’t a bitch?”
With so many women conditioned to forget themselves and put others first, helping our clients rethink pleasure as a nonnegotiable component of mental health isn’t a frivolous goal. When you get irritable with your partner or kids, forget to eat lunch, compare yourself unfavorably to others, can’t forgive a mistake you made, stay inside all day hunched over a screen, don’t get enough sleep, don’t flirt, don’t play, don’t rage, don’t laugh, don’t dance, don’t cultivate friendships, it’s time to pause and take stock. Something crucial has gotten lost in the mix.
Being a superwoman—endlessly managing the home front, the work front, the kids, the finances, the physical and emotional health of those around you—contributes to illness and burnout. Carmen Jimenez-Pride asks her clients, “How much of this is yours and how much of this belongs to your great-great-grandmother?”
Pleasure alone can’t change systemic racism or alter Supreme Court decisions on women’s reproductive rights, but introducing more ecstasy, joy, delight, comfort, and exhilaration into our lives can fuel us as we confront new challenges and open to the human reality of a complex gender mosaic. Taking pleasure can sync us up to our bodies as we sense what we need to feel alive, replenished, and whole.
PHOTO © ISTOCK/PEOPLEIMAGES
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