Where did you first learn about pleasure? I don’t mean sex, I mean pleasure. What comes up for you when you read the word on the page? Hear it spoken with your own tongue? What images come to mind? Feelings? Sounds? We all know what the word “pleasure” is, but can you remember a time when you were taught about what exactly it means?
Netflix’s Principles of Pleasure attempts to answer this question, and also explains maybe why no one (other than straight cis men) knows about sex, sexual health and orgasms. Split across three hour-long episodes, this docuseries covers the big three when it comes to pleasure: our bodies, our minds and our relationships. Narrated by the fun and perky Michelle Buteau, she takes us through all of the miseducation about vulva’s, squirting, sex toys, masturbation, arousal, attraction and really everything under the sheets. We hear from experts such as Dr. Emily Ngoski, Erika Hart, Dr. Lori Brotto, Dirty Lola, Dr. Niccole Prause, Dr. Emily Jacobs and Dr. Sarah E. Hill as they walk us through the details of anatomy, psychology and relationship dynamics.
Many of the questions posed to participants revolve around their first recollections of sex and pleasure, only to demonstrate that we collectively know absolutely nothing about our bodies and that sex is intimately tied to shame. For example, did you know that the first true map of the clit wasn’t created until 2005? Yeah! Grey’s Anatomy omitted the clit because Freud thought clitoral orgasms were “immature.” Beyond anatomy, Principles of Pleasure clarified the difference between genital response and pleasure. Because our minds are the center of pleasure, our experience of it is totally independent of what is happening in or to our bodies. Our genitals may not know all the warning, stop and go signals happening in the brain, which is more of a reason to understand and adhere to enthusiastic consent. Just because my vulva is wet doesn’t mean my brain is ready to go. None of this surprises me, but I guess I can’t point to a particular time and place where I explicitly learned this.
Before I started dating my first girlfriend, I could’ve seriously benefited from Principles of Pleasure. I admit, before I met her, I thought my whole package was called a vagina and that masturbation was only for dudes (I was 23!). Over the course of our relationship, she offered me all of the sex education I wish I had. Something so beautiful about the queer dating community (for millennials and older) is that we’ve passed education through friends and partners since how-to books, Netflix series and TikTok weren’t really at our disposal. This ex taught me the basics of lesbian sex, how to appropriately consent, where to watch feminist porn and even about Autostraddle! As I was watching the orgasm gap infographics flash along the screen
(95% of straight men have had an orgasm, 86% of lesbians, 66% of straight women), I was suddenly extremely grateful that this was merely a reminder for me. As folks of different identities, sexualities, races, ethnicities, and body sizes spoke about their first memories (or lack thereof) of sex education and pleasure, it sparked a question in me: What is my pleasure origin story?
I traced a map of my initial responses, only to realize that most of these are inherently sexual or about sex.
1. Sitting on a bicycle
2. Care and Keeping of You (you know, that American Girl book)
3. Looking at lingerie for the first time
5. My “LGBTQ+ Literature and Culture” professor
6. Naked bodies and The L Word
7. My first girlfriend
8. Girl Sex 101
9. The evolution of Lizzo
10. Adrienne Maree Brown’s Pleasure Activism
Sitting on my purple couch, eating popcorn and googling the Come As You Are podcast, I thought about what this origin story means for me. I think I would join the other folks in the docuseries to say I don’t really know what pleasure is; my origin story is mostly about discovering what sex is. Pleasure can be sexual, but it also doesn’t have to be. I think I could have a healthier relationship with sex and my body by defining what pleasure means for me, without the influence of sex and attraction.
When I think of non-sexual pleasure, I instantly think of that scene in Eat. Pray. Love. where Julia Roberts is slowly eating spaghetti and drinking red wine whilst watching young Italians make out under a fountain, all while Mozart’s “Arie der Königin der Nacht” sets the mood. I’m aware that Eat. Pray. Love. is surely a romcom about a white lady with privilege gallivanting around the world, but I also hold space for what it taught me about pleasure. As a lost and young 20-year-old yet to really come out, the pages of this book taught me about what pleasure can taste like, sound like, feel like in a completely divine non-sexual way. Liz Gilbert created a journey to find pleasure for herself after her divorce, and she describes her life in Italy as a pleasure scape for the senses. Since reading that book, I’ve spent almost a decade trying to grasp the concept of pleasure in the simple spaces I’ve created for myself.
So, here’s a second stab at answering my own question: what’s my pleasure origin story?
1. Sitting in a warm bath, naked
2. Cold, soft sheets on freshly washed, shaved, and lotioned legs
3. Back scratches
5. Eat. Pray. Love.
6. Eating a delicate, boujee cream-based dessert
7. Skinny dipping
8. Smelling old books
9. When a wine is perfectly paired with the food I’m eating
10. The smell of amusement park water
What’s your pleasure origin story? IF you’re feeling like you don’t know if you’ve had an orgasm or you’re totally lost when it comes to sex, watch Principles of Pleasure. Then, come back and answer my question. You’ll thank me later.