The Issue of Sexualizing Pleasure

It sounds silly, because even the word “pleasure” itself has taken on a sexual connotation.  Some might even contend that sexual gratification is its definition, or an inherent part of its definition, and I’d argue with that idea, but that’s beside the point.  Somehow, through popular usage of the word, sexual context has become its primary association.  That fact is both demonstrative of and a hindrance to what I want to discuss, which is the paradigm of verbally sexualizing our happiness and satisfaction in order to convey intensity.

I decided to write a post about this after Victrix left a comment on one of my posts, bringing up a valid complaint about how people describe whatever pleases them:

This post pretty much addresses one of the things, partcularly the last paragraph, with the constant use of the word sexy to describe things as being good or appealing. I’ve lost count over a two week period of university lecturers using it to describe phones, roads and even accounting concepts.

The overuse of the word “sexy” for things that are good, high-quality, and desirable but not necessarily sexually attractive is just one example of this pattern that’s come to my attention: the pattern of treating all pleasure as sexual pleasure.

I first noticed this when, on a friend’s blog, a set of photographs of beautiful libraries were referred to as “porn”.  The joke didn’t amuse me, presumably because my sense of humor is as dead as my cold, shriveled heart.

a cup of black teaThey were very nice photographs, and the joke is that looking at these images is so satisfying and pleasurable, it’s comparable (or even equivalent to) gazing at pornography.  The same joke has been applied to images of books, food, calligraphy, and various other things, all based (in jest) on the idea that the kind of joy and satisfaction that people receive from watching a smooth penstroke or the spreading of chocolate icing is essentially the same feeling that people get from watching graphic sexual content.

In order to work, the joke relies on the same idea in operation when people use the phrase “________ whore” to indicate someone’s enthusiasm for a subject, in place of something like admirer, devotee, hound, or fanatic. I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the word whore, but I’ll sideline that issue for now, because the relevant point at the moment is that it’s an undeniably sexual term being applied to a nonsexual context.

It’s part of a pattern that habituates us to thinking of all happiness in terms of sexual roots or parallels, as if pleasure is inherently sexual.  That, or we draw on sexual analogies as a means of indicating the strength of the feeling, even though the existence of all these usages and examples themselves prove that sexual pleasure is not the exclusive domain of positive intensity.  At some point I gained the impression that people aren’t even using the porn metaphor ironically anymore, with the term “food porn” gaining acceptance as nothing more than appropriate terminology for a particular category of images.

It’s not hard to understand why we do this.  We have insufficient vocabulary for conveying strong or unique forms of visceral satisfaction, so we make do with whatever seems closest.  You could also argue that it has something to do with the evolution of media and this particular point in technological history with the recent facilitation of rapid distribution of images, but that’s a discussion for another day.  Regardless, the English language has a deficiency in this area, and people are working to make it adapt to their needs and fill in the gaps.

So it’s the product of a real and valid problem.  Still, this solution has undesirable implications.  Using sexual labels such as (blank) porn and (blank) whore to indicate what subjects we fancy and what makes us happy is a practice that posits sex as central to human happiness.  For some people, perhaps sex is the pinnacle of achievable pleasure, but that’s not the only conceivable means of experiencing happiness.  Nor is it the best gauge of happiness, the purest form of happiness, or a universally desired/appreciated experience.  When we describe nonsexual satisfaction in terms of sex, we communicate that sexuality is the underlying basis for any kind of pleasure.

But there are ways for things to be good or enjoyable without being sexy.  There are nonsexual kinds of pleasure.  There are all manner of forms of happiness that don’t come from sex.  When you sexualize all human happiness, those are the statements you’re arguing against.

This is a relevant issue because of the way many people’s initial reactions to asexuality and celibacy* include assumptions that sex is necessary to happiness and that either of these, by nature, inhibits the capacity to lead a happy life.  In order to counter that idea, we have to affirm the existence of nonsexual forms of happiness.  Sexualizing all pleasure is an obstacle to that.

*These two are not the same thing.  Just a note in case you’re new here.  Go look into it.

We shouldn’t have to compare things to sex in order to say we like them, and I would like to see us to form a vocabulary that celebrates nonsexual forms of pleasure, so that we, people of all orientations, don’t have to mischaracterize our experiences and use terms that are less accurate in order to talk about them.

Presumably, allosexual people can be happy even when they’re not having sex (or looking at sexy people).  If that’s true, then that alone should be enough proof.  However, it’s people on the asexual spectrum who need to hear this the most.  There are many nonsexual pleasures in the world that are joyful, visceral, blissful, physical, and gut-level immediate.  Being nonsexual does not make them less so, and the power of those experiences shouldn’t have to be likened to sex in order to be made legitimate.

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