Why We Resist Sexual Pleasure

I'm in a big comfortable bed with a beautiful man -- the man I would eventually marry. We're in love and just beginning to live together. Sunshine is streaming through the slatted blinds, the French doors in front of us open on a small Spanish-style balcony with a view down the canyon of chaparral and trees. This sunny Sunday morning has a special quality of sweetness. We've made breakfast together -- French toast, fruit, and coffee -- and brought it back into bed with us. We've eaten side by side propped up on pillows and under the comforter, reading the Sunday papers, and hearing great music.

Later, with our breakfast dishes cleared from the bed, we lay in each other's arms listening to Beethoven's Choral Symphony. At a particularly lyrical coda, my lover turns toward me with a soft smile, looks deeply into my eyes, and kisses me with a gentleness that rocks me to my core. I swoon. My entire body spasms in waves of pleasure that ripple through every part of me.

Yet, instead of surrendering and letting myself be swept away, I feel a jolt of fear. I sit up and gasp for breath. He watches with concern as I recover myself. Then, when I have myself in tow, I swiftly cover it over and pull him back down to me with a veiling giggle and a kiss. He apparently thinks nothing more of it, and we resume lovemaking. But for me that jolt led to a startling revelation. It showed me that -- to that intensity of feeling -- I was afraid to let go. And as much as I liked to think of myself as a sexually liberated woman, I was not as free as I thought.

It doesn't have to be as obvious as a clutch back from the brink of nirvana to show you that you're afraid to surrender to sex. Perhaps just as you're getting really turned on, you suddenly flash on something you don't like about him or her, and you can't quite let go of that negative thought. Or maybe it isn't your mind that snaps you out of it but your body -- a leg cramp, a stomach ache, or a heart flutter that worries you. Or out of the blue, you suddenly feel ticklish, and wherever your lover touches you, you act skittish and silly.

It can be as seemingly insignificant as that and still be significant. Anything that distracts you from your sexual focus and pulls your attention elsewhere is a sign of the number one limitation in enjoying sexual pleasure: pleasure-anxiety in sex. Sexual pleasure-anxiety is very likely nearly universal in our culture because, to some extent, we've all been trained in childhood to fear our sexual urges.

Why We Resist Sexual Pleasure

Much as we'd like to think otherwise, we're not that far removed from the nineteenth-century Victorian era -- a time particularly characterized by its austere view of sex. Victorians believed in a strict code of behavior that actually aimed at limiting sexual pleasure. Virtuous women were expected to derive little pleasure from sex, while men were regarded as having an inordinate appetite that had to be tamed. Men were advised by their doctors to satisfy their needs with their wives in as short a time as possible to avoid draining their nervous system and to spare the good woman any drawn out unpleasantness.

Our grandparents and great grandparents were likely to have been raised in a Victorian atmosphere, and they in turn had a strong impact on the sexual attitudes of the mothers and fathers who raised us. A single man in his late thirties once told me that when his father was a little boy his mother locked him in a closet for several hours after catching him masturbating. Tom felt that he could trace his own sexual hang-ups to that particular sexual trauma endured by his father. Every time a situation with a woman started to get sexual, Tom would get anxious and awkward, especially when he very much desired the woman. That's how powerfully these multi- generational patterns are locked into our bodies. Tom's father was punished and shamed as a child for sex and he, in turn, punished and shamed his son, making him sexually insecure.

Among the many concerns that people typically have about their sexuality -- whether it's about a lack of sexual interest, performance fears, inability to have orgasms, or sexual addiction -- almost all of it can be traced to pleasure-anxiety. It can be found in their inability to just be at any level, not just in sex. It shows up in their patterns of thought, which keep them stuck in their head or defended in their heart. But most specifically, pleasure-anxiety translates into a fundamental, largely unconscious, fear of being overwhelmed by sexual excitement.


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Unfortunately, we all have some sexual inhibition by virtue of having been raised in a society where sex is considered "dirty". However, most of the time we may not be in touch with our pleasure barriers because, generally, we don't go anywhere near the intensity of pleasure that would test our limits. Instead, whenever there is any possibility of intense sexual arousal, we may automatically hold sexual feelings down with a physical reflex that grips the muscles of the torso and pelvis, holding in the ribs and shortening the breath. In effect, we allow ourselves only the degree of excitement we know we can tolerate.

When a situation does become very sexually exciting, however, pleasure-anxiety too can become more intense. As Tom started to observe in himself, it was when he was most turned on to a woman that he was also most mentally obsessed, physically stressed, and unable to act on his desire. He didn't trust himself to relax and give up control.

If you meet up with pleasure-anxiety at your own upper limits of excitement, it can feel like a panic attack -- your heart beats wildly, you feel faint, and you think you're dying. When your entire body hits that level of excitement, letting go of control and being swept away is, short of real death, the ultimate surrender. In fact, in French, orgasm is sometimes referred to as " the little death". For many of us raised to hold sexual feelings back, the more you feel yourself melt into someone's arms, the more it can bring up feelings of mortality and the fear of death.

We all have personal stories of how we learned to inhibit ourselves sexually. We may have been shamed as young children for any display of sexual interest, or were punished when caught experimenting. Women and men molested as children are likely to feel some fear during sex and often have learned to cut themselves off from the sensations in their bodies and put their minds elsewhere. But early traumas or not, even for those of us who do enjoy sex, there are still plenty of ways we may inhibit ourselves sexually.

One major way people hold themselves back is to be performance-driven rather than experience-drawn. Both women and men can be more focused on how they appear to their partner than how good it feels to be with him or her. For example, you may feel tense because you don't like your body and feel embarrassed rather than excited at being seen nude, even by your own husband or wife. You may have set images about how sex is supposed to be and concerned that aspects of your sexual desires or fantasies may not be considered normal. You may tell yourself you won't be able to please your partner. In each case, you're focusing on the other person's experience rather than your own. Being more concerned about your sexual performance than your sexual experience is often an unconscious way to keep a lid on uncomfortably expansive sexual feelings.

Sexually Liberated and Still Not Free

Sheila was a tall, attractive, single woman in her early thirties who had achieved quite a bit of success as a stockbroker. Everything was going well for her, and she had just started to see a man to whom she felt very attracted, physically as well as emotionally. She yearned for this relationship with Eddie to work out, but when they started to be sexually active, Sheila felt very disappointed. Though she prided herself on being "a sexual woman" and enjoyed dressing in sexy lace teddies, frilly garter belts, and stockings, Sheila regretfully admitted that she didn't get very turned on with Eddie, and as usual, she couldn't have an orgasm.

When Sheila and I talked about her family background she revealed that her father had left her mother when she was only two. Though her mother dated occasionally, she never remarried and had very little good to say about men. Sheila knew that she had bought into her mother's distrust of men, and that, even though she claimed to like them, she still thought of men as insensitive brutes. Nevertheless, as shallow as she felt most men were, she still felt she had to prove herself worthy of them.

In one session, as I watched Sheila's mannerisms while she talked, her gestures seemed overly feminine, almost as though she was striking poses. She sat with her chest thrust forward and her back slightly arched, punctuating her words with shoulder gestures that reminded me of old Betty Boop cartoons. I asked her to pay attention to her body language, and, though she protested at first, she began to catch herself playing the vamp. She realized she had picked up this ultra feminine way of acting from the movies, hardly ever seeing real men and women interact who genuinely cared about one another.

Sheila was aware that she rarely just relaxed with Eddie, feeling like she had to be "on" with him, to entertain him, to keep him interested. So just as I had asked her to observe her poses in my office, I asked her to pay attention to how she kept herself on edge when she was around Eddie. I suggested that she pay particular attention to her breathing and to look for how she may be tensing her body while she and Eddie made love.

The next time I saw her, Sheila told me that she did, in fact, notice that she often posed during sex, held her breath, and kept her buttocks and thighs tight. She admitted that she also tended to hold in her stomach because she felt a bit heavier than she'd like to be. I suggested that she might also be afraid of letting go, and that holding her belly tight was part of a whole pattern of muscle control she had been unaware of that was keeping her from getting fully aroused sexually.

The more Sheila paid attention to her mannerisms, especially during sex, the more she saw how her self-conscious body language projected a tacit message that proclaimed, "I don't trust you enough to relax and enjoy myself with you. Looking good is more important to me than feeling good." As Sheila examined her programmed feelings toward men, she decided to risk being her "own true self with Eddie -- whatever that is." When she did, she discovered that without all that body stiffness she was indeed the authentically sexy woman she always knew she could be.

Sexual Potential: Focus on Experience

Like Sheila, most of us at one time or another have been concerned about our sexual performance, not just in terms of how our partner will judge us, but also for how we rate ourselves as a sexually adequate male or female. Men want to be able to have strong erections and to postpone their ejaculation so that they won't disappoint their partner. Women want to be sexually responsive and to enjoy orgasm, not just for their own pleasure, but often because it would please their partners.

Sex therapy, too, has emphasized performance in offering to help people achieve "sexual adequacy" and only recently have sexologists begun to move away from the narrow emphasis on defining and treating performance difficulties and moved into the vast world of human sexual potential. To Dr. David Schnarch, a leading figure in this new development in sexology, great sex is not, as it's usually defined, about having intense orgasms. Rather, it's about increasing the capacity for intimacy and eroticism within the context of a committed relationship.

Schnarch suggests that when people put up with sex that is not great but "good enough," they do so because they are unwilling to go through the personal development and growth within a relationship that can enable them to tolerate more intense sexual feeling. Just as children grow by mastering appropriate developmental tasks such as learning to walk or being able to play with others at certain stages of their young lives, the ability to enjoy deeply fulfilling sex with someone you love, to Schnarch, is one of the most important developmental tasks of adult life.

Wilhelm Reich, probably the original pioneer in the field of sexual potential, was concerned mostly with what he called "orgastic potency" -- the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy without any inhibition. Reich observed that when sex partners allow their excitement to build gradually, energy flows from the genitals into all areas of the body and results in a melting kind of sensation, which he called "streamings". When these "oceanic" or wavelike streamings are allowed to flow through the entire body, not just in the pelvis, the capacity to surrender is complete and results in what he called "total orgasm", involuntary pleasurable spasms of the musculature that envelop the entire body. Reich emphasized the importance of strong orgasms to mental and physical well-being. But he also believed this kind of orgasm could happen only between people who loved each other and who could express genuine feelings to one another.

In fact, there's now evidence to suggest that the lack of loving sensations during sex can affect the health of the heart as well as prevent fulfilling sexual experience. In his investigations, Dr. Alexander Lowen has collected research showing that the inability to experience emotional satisfaction during sex can have a negative impact on the heart. In several studies on coronary patients, about 66 percent of men and women hospitalized for heart attacks admitted to being sexually dissatisfied in the weeks or months just prior to their attack compared to 24 percent in the control group.

While it is possible to reach a physical climax without feeling any emotional satisfaction, Lowen suggests that the inability to surrender emotionally during sex prevents the fullness of discharge in the coronary muscle that would release tensions in the heart. On the other hand, when the chest muscles and heart are relaxed, and love is felt as a genuine sensation, orgasm releases energy from both the heart and genitals at the same time. The result is an extraordinarily loving experience of fulfillment through sex.

Sex therapist and researcher, Dr. Jack Morin, takes a somewhat different approach to investigating sexual potential. Morin is one of the key figures today working at expanding the scope of modern sex therapy by investigating, not problem sex, but peak sexual experiences. Morin developed a survey questionnaire that enabled him to ask anonymous respondents to disclose intimate details of their most memorable sexual encounters and to say what they thought made these events so exciting.

When Morin analyzed the data, he found that the answers most often included several basic ingredients. Their peak sexual experiences were likely to be intensely physically arousing -- they talked about how hot they got and how much desire they felt for their partners. Their experience often involved strong emotion -- the lovemaking had some special significance for them; often it was particularly loving or intimate, but sometimes there was an element of anger or fear present that charged the air and turned up the intensity several notches. It was very erotic -- with some kind of sexy drama or adventure about it or even a degree of risk that intensified their sexual longing. Frequently, they had explosive orgasms. And sometimes they said the experience transcended ordinary reality -- describing it as something magical, mystical, spiritual, or as an altered state of consciousness.

Obviously, reaching your pleasure-potential in sex involves becoming more expansive on many different levels. When you and your partner are ready to be more experimental with one another, however, you need to start by looking at a very key issue: how you define sex.

The Penetration Imperative

Most of the time when we make love, it's not to bring a new life into the world but to bring new life into ourselves. We're not looking to make babies but to enjoy the physical replenishment and emotional connectedness that good lovemaking nurtures. But the way we typically make love more closely supports the objectives of a procreative rather than a re-creative sexuality.

When a couple starts to play sexually, there's a consistently held belief that the activity should proceed toward penetration. Yet, nothing interferes more with enjoying the emotional and physical pleasures of re-creative sex than compulsive intercourse, what I think of as the "penetration imperative".

For couples, the sex-equals-intercourse equation means that unless they're willing to go the whole nine yards they won't go an inch. They won't be sexually playful unless they're available for intercourse because they don't want to lead their partner on. But then, this attitude places a greater burden on them when they are available. At that point, they have to build up their arousal from zero to whatever heights they can reach in an encounter that may last, from initial kiss to afterglow, all of ten to twenty minutes long.

All-or-none sex can't help but lead to sexual stagnation because doing the same old routine can be as exciting as watching grass grow. It reminds me of a story a young comedian told. He asked his father if he had been following the recent news on same-sex marriages. His father grimly responded, "I know all about it. Your mother and I have been having the same sex for years."

Many sexually vital singles also inhibit their sexual pleasure with all-or-none thinking. If they're not willing to go all the way, they may deny themselves the thrill of the turn-on, of kissing and holding someone they like but may not love. Or just the opposite, they may end up in premature intercourse when what they really wanted was affectionate human connection.

How much more spontaneous it can be when a couple is playful in sexually arousing ways without immediately moving into intercourse and orgasm. When energy is allowed to build over several days or even longer, they can reach a level of genuine intensity that makes intercourse infinitely more exciting. However, this does mean that they need to be willing to end a sexual encounter while still turned on, and for a lot of people, this won't be easy.

Why are we so afraid to stay turned on? Is it the Victorian in us that demands we get rid of the excitement once it's there? Or else what? . . . that we won't be able to think or work? . . . that we'll turn into a sex fiend? . . . that we'll grab a stranger off the street to have sex with?

On the contrary, sexual energy is the life force made manifest. It is the ultimate creative drive that inspires and animates us. Arousal is not something we have to shake. What we have to shake is old-concept sex.

Published by Conari Press, ©1997.


The Pleasure Zone by Dr. Stella Resnick This article is excerpted with permission from the book:

The Pleasure Zone
by Dr. Stella Resnick.

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About The Author

Dr. Stella Resnick's work centers on the connection between pleasurable experiences and positive states of mind and how this enhances health and longevity. She is a prominent speaker and workshop leader and has presented her work throughout the United States, and in Canada, England, Scotland, Greece, Israel, Australia, and Japan. Dr. Resnick's work has been cited in Reader's Digest, Women's World, Cosmopolitan, Self, Redbook, Glamour, Los Angeles Times, and much more. She has been a guest on Oprah, Montel Williams, O'Reilly Report, and on CNN.

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