Religion, medicine, and capitalism tell us what pleasures we can and can’t have. And I, personally, have had enough. It is time to resist–with pleasure.
At my May doctor’s appointment, I mentioned to my GP that I wanted to lose weight but couldn’t do it alone. I do not dare pull out my scale as I am suspecting that I have crossed the 200-pound threshold (a personal one) and rather fear seeing the numbers black on white. From the height of my 5’1″, even though people have told me that I “wear it well”, 200 pounds is a lot.
It’s not that I’m unhappy with my body. It supports that “razor sharp brain of mine”, as E. tells me constantly. It carries me around and gives me lots of pleasure. My body is beautiful and enables me to exist and work in the world.
A friend of mine recently had her appointment at the same clinic I have been referred to to help me lose weight. She showed me their meal plan: basically a plant-based vegan diet that I have looked into in the past via Eat to Live.
I wondered, out loud: “where is the pleasure in this food? This is a sad rabbit diet that will make me sad. There is no joy in it.” She nodded.
She then said something about the doctor mentioning “good” food vs. “bad” food, a vocabulary that is not far from “clean” and “dirty” food. Moralizing is not a great way to change people’s habits, by the way. But that’s another story.
And yet, we do moralize food. And all kinds of other pleasures, too, pleasures that are ours by the simple fact of having bodies. In Western culture, there are a number of invisible systems that attempt to control and moralize our pleasures to get us to conform to their vision of what the right way to live is.
Reclaiming pleasure against these systems is what I want to write about today. Religion, medicine and capitalism all have prohibitions around pleasure because these prohibitions maintain their power. These systems have intersecting discourses that reinforce each other and that influence the kinds of pleasures we allow ourselves to have, and how we seek them.
Religion: “Thou shalt not have fun”
Even though I come from a Catholic background, where fun and parties are more common than in the more Puritan versions elsewhere in North America, living here means living in a culture that is deeply influenced by Christianity.
A core belief of Christianity is that if you have been good in life, when you die, you go to Heaven. Heaven is where you live a life free from worries, stress, or need.
The contrast between “this life” and “Heaven” tells you a lot about what kind of life you should lead. Since you’ll get pleasure once you go to Heaven, you should avoid it in this life. In fact, denial of pleasure in Christianity is fundamental: Lent, for example. More extreme Christians have used self-flagellation and other methods to not only avoid pleasure but cause pain to make themselves more worthy of Heaven.
Cardinal sins include gluttony, lust, and sloth. Or you could call them “good food, good sex, and lots of napping.” Imagine if people realized that they could enjoy delicious food, awesome sex, and plenty of sleep without guilt. They wouldn’t even consider Heaven as a goal, since Heaven is already here on earth.
Of course, here I’m thinking particularly of sex. With their prohibition on anything but procreative, married, heterosexual sex in the missionary position, Christian religions basically limit the range of sexual pleasures we can have. As a bisexual kinkster, I can tell you that there is a whole world beyond missionary PiV sex.
What is the purpose of limiting our sexual repertoire to only a single type of sex? If we don’t have too much fun in this life, we will do anything to access an actually pleasurable one after we die… and give our money to the Church, of course.
From the religious point of view, we can’t have fun because it takes us away from God. But if God made our bodies capable of feeling a wide range of pleasures, why tell us to ignore them?
Medicine: “Have healthy fun”
Even though I am heading towards a career in public health, I try to remain conscious that medicine is not neutral. Medicine, as it rose in the 19th century, replaced dogma with science. However, medicine did not free us from religious moralization. It simply took the place of religious moralization.
The way people talked about sex workers, for example, moved from moral corruption agents to disease vectors. Moral degeneration became illness. Interventions against sex workers did not end; they simply changed their form. Reform became treatment.
Take masturbation. The religious discourse around self-pleasure was about, for men, not “wasting his seed”. The medical discourse did not do away with masturbation as immoral: it simply called it “unhealthy”. Men who masturbated were represented as having soft bodies, weak minds, and a distinct lack of masculinity.
Freud and the early sexologists did a lot of damage speaking about masturbation as a primitive, uncivilized kind of pleasure that fully developed adults would naturally stop doing once engaged in “proper” heterosexual, conception-minded PiV sex.
Only in the second half of the 20th century did masturbation escape the clutches of “wrongness”, after work by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, among others, showed the prevalence of masturbation and its physiological mechanisms, which were exactly the same as coupled sex. What’s more, when the AIDS crisis hit in the 80s, masturbation rose in moral standing, being a “safe” and “healthy” kind of pleasure that wouldn’t transmit the virus.
Obviously, science does not guarantee a neutral approach to pleasure. Medicine is just as biased as religion when it comes to judging the types of pleasures humans may or may not experience. Eat food, but don’t be fat; have sex, but don’t spread disease; take drugs, but only the ones we approve of: it forces limits, a strict framework outside which pleasures are “forbidden”.
Another example, happening right now: just as kink is finally being depathologized in the DSM, and reframed as part of normal sexuality, or a healing practice, or even a harmless hobby, some researchers in Israel are trying to demonstrate that masochistic pain is addictive. “If we can’t find any psychological reasons to make BDSM bad”, the story seems to go, “then we’ll find physiological reasons.” Out of the frying pan, into the fire…
Capitalism: “Have expensive fun”
Today, masturbation with just your hand and your imagination is actually a pretty rare phenomenon. For the ultimate pleasure, we hear, we need heating lube and vibrating contraptions. We need the latest VR pornography and realistic sex dolls.
Capitalism is a bit different from the above two because it’s actually not against pleasure at all. It encourages it, it enables it. But it does so on its own terms: terms and conditions, that is.
To capitalism, acceptable pleasures are pleasures that involve consumption. Buy something, rent something, spend money on yourself, you deserve it! Whether it’s a $10,000 sex bot or a $15 Tenga egg, pleasure that doesn’t involve something bought or sold is not worth it. Kink is a great example of how capitalism has integrated this deviant pleasure into its normative frame: the measure of a top is more and more often in the size of their toy bag, and less and less often in their reputation. Would Christian Grey still be hot if he didn’t have his Red Room of Pain?
Radical pleasure, the kind that comes from deep and intimate connection with others and ourselves, the kind that involves nothing but naked bodies and open minds, is invisible to capitalism. Anything that cannot be quantified, weighted or measured, anything that cannot be translated into a price tag, cannot exist in a world that see everything as either debit or credit entries on a spreadsheet.
Of course, these three modes of evaluating pleasure interact and inform each other. A proscription on homosexual acts empowers medical authorities to charge money for conversion therapy. The appearance of AIDS emboldens religious authorities to strengthen their anti-LGBT stance and gives pharmaceutical companies incentives to develop expensive medicine that we will have no choice but to buy if we want to stay alive.
Pleasure is a central mechanism by which dominant systems attempt to control us and profit from us. Something so essential to our ability to learn, so natural to human bodies, is dangerous. Pleasure proves that Heaven is here and now; it bubbles and spills outside of the “healthy”; and the most satisfying pleasures of an orgasm or a wonderful story heard from a friend are free.
Resist with pleasure. Defy your pastor with queer love. Thumb your nose at your doctor with chocolate cake for breakfast. Tell capitalism to fuck off by using your hand to spank your lover.
Pleasure is radical. Pleasure is our birthright. Don’t let priests, doctors and CEOs tell you what you can and can’t enjoy. Discover pleasure for yourself, outside and beyond the “acceptable”.
Be queer. Be fat. Be stingy.