Secrets from With/out Pretend: Prioritizing Pleasure
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March 2019

Prioritizing Pleasure

"We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings."

— Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power

As a pre-teen I read voraciously, a mixed bag of teen smut and classic lit, books theoretically too mature for me in one way or another; It was as if I woke up from a coma called childhood with a hunger to use new words, learn about new things, experience new feelings.

Somewhere in one of these books I came across the principles of hedonism, and they appealed to me. I recall one specific conversation with my mother — I must have been 12 at most — I declared that I was a hedonist, at heart. I remember this moment twenty-some years later because of her incredulous reaction — if not horror then dismay — as if I had announced my lifelong goal to become a serial killer. I recall the eerily certain tone of her voice when she replied, “No. You’re not.”

I quickly felt embarrassed — because I was getting all the cues that I should be — but I was also intrigued. A hedonist is a person who believes that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important thing in life; a pleasure-seeker. Wasn’t pleasure a good thing? Wouldn’t the pursuit of feeling good, and surrounding yourself with people, things, and experiences that felt good, be a worthy occupation?

Apparently, there was something complicated about pleasure, the wanting of it or maybe the experiencing of it; It wasn’t immediately clear to me how these instincts could be harmful, inappropriate, or naive.

Many years later, I still feel immensely complicated about my hedonistic appetites. Wearing comfortable but threadbare clothing. Spending a Friday night in bed watching rom-coms. Eating until I am uncomfortably full. Flirting too hard, drinking too many, spending too much. Isn’t there something so pleasurable about excess? About doing the things we’re told not to do?

When we are children we seek life’s simple pleasures without shame, without the impulse to measure “too much of a good thing.” Pleasure is found in riding our bikes, eating sweets before dinner, or staying up past bedtime. Pleasure gets complicated as adults because the stakes change: our desire to feel good shares the same brain space as our instincts to be modest, care for others, and get shit done.

The Vault recently released a print collection that includes 14 perspectives On Pleasure: where we find it, who gets to access it, and what keeps us from asking for what we really want. We also held a storytelling event featuring 10 women and non-binary storytellers speaking from their hearts (and sex organs) about how pleasure shows up in their lives. Our line-up, curated by Ameema Saeed, featured four sex workers, including the incomparable Andrea Werhun (author of Modern Whore) and I’ll gladly admit I was starstruck. In an interview for She Does the City prior to our event, Andrea said this:

“I have always loved pleasure. Feeling good, chasing my dreams, indulging in my desires: as a rule, I prioritize my pleasure. What I’ve learned, however, is that sometimes in my pursuit of pleasure, I hurt the people I love. If I’m always prioritizing my pleasure, whose pleasure is being subjugated? Who bows down to my will? Who feels bad so I can feel good?

Pleasure is a privilege, one that wears rose-coloured glasses. Whose emotional labour do I take for granted in my quest for pleasure? Mutual pleasure must be the priority. I’ve been a 'giver' and I’ve been a 'taker' of pleasure. It’s a long road to meet the two.”

Of course, Andrea’s story is specific to her experience, but I really resonate with the push and pull she so beautifully illustrates. Since our March 13 event, I’ve been thinking about the complex notion of pleasure as a privilege, especially when there is so much suffering in our world. I wonder: are we defined by our suffering, or are we defined by our ability to experience joy, even in the worst of circumstances? Through pain, misfortune, grief, and devastation?

I have so much access to pleasurable things and experiences. I have the freedom to express my desires. And still, I have been taught I should be ashamed of this feeling of wanting, that I am to distrust the internal voices that want to make my pleasure a priority. I have been raised, as so many of us have been, to fear, and deny, my deepest cravings. We are told to control our urges, make our voices quiet and keep our bodies small, and this too, is a kind of suffering.

I wonder: when did we decide that the antidote to suffering was our collective despair?

I am starting to see how pleasure can be a powerful agent of hope. Pleasure is a privilege, but it’s one that we must not deny ourselves. Can you give yourself permission for an extra moment of joy today? You might find it in the bud on a tree, the beauty of the moon, the sweetness of a bite of cake. You might find it in places you never thought to look.   


Further Reading:

I’ve been pouring over Audre Lorde’s essay, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, in an attempt to re-wire the parts of me that were raised to fear my deepest cravings. Lorde says:

“The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.”

Read the full essay here.

Did you know our All Access membership gives you access to ALL digital stories in The Vault, INCLUDING our special collections? Not to mention, free gifts in the mail, and our undying love. So all said, a pretty good deal.
New this month:
On Pleasure
A collection from The Vault

When we are children, we seek pleasure without shame, without the impulse to measure “too much of a good thing.” It’s as if we instinctively understand the word as the dictionary defines it: a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment.

In this collection of poetry, creative prose, visual art, and honest conversation, 14 contributors talk about pleasure: where to find it, who gets to access it, and what keeps us from asking for what we truly desire. 

On Pleasure is now available as in digital and print editions
April 10 @ 7PM
Unresolved Feelings
A night of storytelling

Have you ever had the kind of feelings that got caught in the back of your throat? That left you restless, ecstatic, haunted, wondering? UNRESOLVED FEELINGS is a storytelling event featuring real stories about the ones who left us with feelings we can't quite shake. 

“I want more celebrated spaces for women to share messy feelings about love, lust, and heartbreak. These kinds of stories are not often taken seriously, but why not? Unresolved feelings are universal, no matter our orientation, our experience, or the shape of our desires. This is the kind of art that makes me feel seen.” 

— Erin Klassen, author of Portraits, the book that inspired this event

Jessica Kasiama recommends

Recently, I have been writing for Nuance, a digital publication that was "created in response to a lack of representation of (im)migrant voices in popular sex and sexual health media" and am finding solace in the space it intentionally creates for my identity as a Congolese woman. The stories and artwork published through this platform evoke feelings of solidarity, function as stepping stones for those interested in reading outside of their realities and ultimately, offer intimate portraits into the lives of those impacted by the silence around sexual health in Canada.
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