Let’s not forget pleasure

My job means I do a fair bit of thinking about sex. Most of that thinking is about bad sex:  sexual contact that lacks consent, involves violence and the misuse of power and results in harm, fear and pain. If I don’t keep my work-thinking about sex in its proper place, I can lose sight of the joys and pleasures of good sex.

The Australian TV series Aftertaste provided me with a boisterous reminder of happy sex thanks to the character Diana, a 19-year-old pastry chef living her life out loud in every way. Early on, we see her in the throes of ecstasy following her first sexual encounter. She is over-the-moon about the entire experience, clearly empowered by it, and ready for more – which she gets.

A few episodes later, she is tasked with preparing dessert for the opening of a new high-profile restaurant. The chef has told her to make crème brulee, but that does not fit with Diana’s commitment to expressing herself through her cooking.

Instead, she presents “pop my cherry ripe” to the room of equally shocked and delighted diners by saying:

“Tonight’s dessert is the story of my deflowering.”

Diana takes her life, including sex and pastry making, seriously, but that doesn’t mean she can’t also find pleasure and fun in them; both of which are easy to see in her luscious dessert of chocolate vaginas filled with crème brulee and surrounded by orgasmo popping candy.

What a treat to watch, compared to the misogynistic ways sex is so often portrayed in popular culture.

Consent and pleasure

Diana’s dessert reminded me of an article written by Ryerson University’s Farrah Khan, in which she explores the need for sex education to go beyond names of body parts and finger-pointing warnings about the bad things that can happen when people “have sex:”

“My sex education – and the sex ed that continues to be taught in schools today, nearly 30 years later – skipped over the wonder, curiosity and exploration about sex. This is especially true for the fear-based, heteronormative lessons taught to girls and young women, who are consistently told there is something inherently wrong, dirty and shameful about our bodies.”

Khan, a consent and pleasure educator, says she teaches students what she wishes she had learned growing up: that consent and pleasure go hand in hand and both are needed for positive sexual experiences.

It’s not just about consent

Much of feminist activism about sexual violence over the past several decades has focused on consent: without consent, explicitly given by someone with the capacity to give it, sex is a crime. We have moved from “no means no” to “only yes means yes,” as both slogans and  law. We have also conflated what is wrong with what is against the law, but that is a topic for another day.

There can be no doubt that consent is a critical element of understanding when sexual contact is okay and when it is not. But, in her recently published collection of essays, The Right to Sex, Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan challenges this notion, saying that by focusing narrowly on the matter of consent, “feminism may have lost its purchase on some other fundamental issues.”

She explores this idea in some detail in the context of sex between professors and their adult students, arguing that defining what is right and wrong based only on whether the student consented is too narrow an approach. Srinivasan acknowledges that when consent is given by the less powerful to the more powerful, it is not “consent worth the name,” but goes on to say:

“[T]here are also many women students who consent to sex with their professors out of genuine desire. . . But this is not to say that genuinely wanted teacher-student sex is unproblematic. . . Are we really prepared to say that there is nothing troubling here? [And] if there is something troubling, and the problem isn’t a lack of consent, then what is it?

“Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with his student, this professor should have been – teaching her?”

Making consent fun

As I wrote about in this space three years ago, some establishments work hard to make consent fun for their patrons. New York City’s House of Yes, with its costumed consenticorns and up-front rules about consent, is proof that people can have a really good – and sexy – time while also ensuring that no one is doing anything they don’t want to. There’s no finger pointing at the House of Yes, but the message is clear:

“Consent is simple: the safer we feel, the sexier we are. If you’re not down with consent, we kindly ask that you party elsewhere, or better yet . . . nowhere.”

Khan presents an exciting vision:

“What would our sex lives look like as adults if, from a young age, there were ongoing, honest conversations about pleasures, relationships, sex, and communication? What would it look like for your sex life if you were given the skills to explore what kinds of sexual activity give you pleasure? I believe these skills would also help us all to feel confident when communicating with our sexual partner(s) that a particular sexual activity doesn’t feel good. We all have the right to pleasure, and it’s not a scarce resource, despite what we often hear.”

Consent and pleasure, together, with time to nibble on a chocolate vagina. What’s wrong with that?

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