Treating Pain With Sexual Pleasure

This article is part of the December MAMFT newsletter, in which presenters for the 2017 Couples Conference, Tangled Truths, provide thoughts on sex therapy and trauma.

When I teach young people sex education workshops, the first thing we talk about is porn. As a “pleasure-positive and consent-focused” sex educator, talking about porn is a must as it’s where the majority of American young people are learning about sex.

Research in the U.S. has shown that by age 18, over 90% of boys and over 60% of girls have watched internet porn, typically with the intent of learning how to have sex including which positions to use, how to pleasure their partners, and how to talk about sex. In the middle of the sex educational desert the United States’ educational system has created, this is where young people go to seek water.

Only 22 of our states require sex education, and of those, only 13 of them require their facts be medically accurate. Over half the U.S. states require abstinence be stressed. And this is how, in my workshops, we come to talk about porn. Because the first thing I actually ask these groups is “What have you learned in your sex education classes about sexual pleasure and consent?” And time after time, school after school, my workshop participants answer me with a resounding “Nothing.”

When I ask them where they have learned about pleasure and consent, the answer is similarly unanimous: “Porn!” Mainstream porn — where the sex is staged, consent practices are rare, safer-sex is spotty, and the gender roles of women being passive and men being in charge are firmly in place.

In a nation morally terrified of talking about sexual pleasure, porn has become our new sex educator, and consent education has been reduced to a tired “Ask first” with the similar ineffectiveness of the failed D.A.R.E. “Just say no.”

Sex education that denies that our teens are inherently sexual beings highlights fears rather than facts and instills the message that silence around sex is preferred over speaking about what we do and don’t want, creates a dangerous vacuum where sex is seen as inherently harmful. When we create this narrative about sex for young people, we are teaching that sex that feels dangerous, harmful, scary, or boundary-violating is excusable, accurate, and to be expected.

And for our clients who have survived sexual trauma, this narrative has been confirmed by lived experience. As therapists helping these clients heal, this faulty sex educational system is the shaky scaffolding we have to build on. If we continue to uphold this void of conversations about consensual sexual pleasure by not speaking of it, we are reinforcing this harmful narrative rather than helping our sexual trauma-surviving clients tear it down and rebuild.

We know that we cannot help our clients heal from sexual trauma without talking about pain. But equally so, we cannot help our clients heal from sexual trauma without talking about pleasure. How have we learned about it? Where have we felt it? How do we experience it now? What do we want to feel? How can we get there with our partners?

Whether working with couples or individuals healing from sexual trauma, we are working against a nationally-imposed deficit in the skills it takes to recreate a healthy sex life that prioritizes consent — namely, the ability to speak openly about sexual pleasure, our desires, our boundaries, and how to verbally negotiate with our partners about what feels best.

Consent, simplistically defined as the presence of an enthusiastic “Yes!”, separates a sexually pleasurable experience from a sexually traumatizing one. Crucially, consent requires talking about sexual pleasure.

By bringing sexual pleasure into the healing conversation, we help our clients develop the sexual agency that they’ve been denied as survivors of sexual trauma. A sense of sexual agency empowers us to clearly state our desires, discover our enthusiastic “Yes!”es, and most importantly, gives us the internal permission to make decisions for ourselves about sex, pleasure, and intimacy — the surest way to reclaim the sexual self after trauma.

As therapists, we may be the first people to speak openly to our clients about sex in a way that prioritizes communication, pleasure, and sexual agency in a safe space. So, in our therapy practices with sexually traumatized clients, let’s not forget to invite our clients to not only “Tell me about your pain” but also “Tell me about your pleasure.”

Yana Tallon-Hicks is a consent, sex and sexuality writer and educator living in Northampton, MA. Yana’s workshops about sexual pleasure, communication and consent are taught at colleges, high schools, and sex toy shops all over New England. She currently practices Couples Therapy as an MFT Graduate Student Therapist at the Couples Center of the Pioneer Valley in Northampton on her path to becoming a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Read more about Yana & her work here, where you can also read her sex advice column and watch her TEDxTalk: Is the Porn Brain Our New Sex Educator?

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