Pleasure and the need for safety

Melanie Robson
Oct 14, 2020 · 4 min read

The best sex truly involves letting down your guard

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Human pleasure is a paradox. Simple and yet strangely complicated, pleasure requires both the brain and body to effectively work in unison to really blow your mind. Or more accurately, give you mind-blowing orgasms. Even in that phrase we see evidence of the brain and body working together to create the ultimate expression of pleasure.

Experiences of pleasure vary wildly, particularly between the sexes. I know as a cisgendered hetero female, I can have frustratingly disappointing orgasms or no orgasm at all; even when I want one. Most people experience orgasm-frustration at some time of their lives. Whether they come too quickly, not at all, half-heartedly, with by-product of pain, take ‘too long’, or need to be hanging upside down balancing a snooker ball on their toes, pleasure can be an confusing and difficult road sometimes.

However, a common theme — in fact a common need — for most people in order to experience pleasure, is that of safety. Fundamentally humans need to feel safe before they can let down their guard and let someone in.

Sex needs to feel safe

For women, a sense of safety is even more important; for we are the ones who literally and metaphorically let some penetrate us. (That is, if you are engaging in penetrative sexual experiences, regardless of the object is that is being used to penetrate).

Safety is wired into us as humans. Think of the fight or flight or freeze response that is part of the sympathetic nervous system. Designed to help us when we feel under threat, this system helps us fight off the threat, run from it or feign death in the hope we will be left alone.

The fight-or-flight system is a nifty inbuilt evolutionary by-product that still exists within us. Whilst it has been pivotal in keeping our species alive, oftentimes in the modern world it gets in the way especially when there is no actual physical threat. However, as a mechanism it serves an important purpose still, particularly in relation to sexual experiences, and especially if you’re female.

The tag-team of the brain and the body

Research by Georgiadis et al. (2006), on the brain during sexual excitation in women, found that when clitorally-induced orgasm occurs, parts of her brain effectively shut-down and go completely quiet (if this isn’t a good argument for female orgasm if you want peace and quiet I don’t know what is).

The brain can’t go quiet if it is under threat. Even a perceived threat is enough to keep the brain wired.

If you’re wired, you can’t relax. Relaxation requires safety. See the picture here?

In the body, polyvagal theory (Porges, 2018) suggests that foreplay and intimacy can only occur when our defences are let down. In addition to the fight-or-flight response and the opposing (and re-balancing) calming rest-and-digest response, the vagus nerve is now thought to also encompass a social engagement system. We must engaging socially — safely — to have (consenual) sex.

Our bodies (starting from the brain) go into defence mode when it is triggered by a threat. For good sex and orgasm to occur, the body must effectively be immolbilized without fully shutting down. Polyvagal theory tells us that immobilization is a vulnerable state involving the dorsal vagal circuit and the social engagement system working together.

In essence, the body and brain need to recognize the other as safe, at a deep primal level. That is, the brain and body need to welcome in (literally) the other, instead of triggering a defensive reaction.

If your defences are up you certainly can’t relax and ‘play’ can you?

Sex as play

Sex is one of the ways adults play. Children can’t play (or learn for that matter) unless they feel safe, so why is that any different for adults?

Even in activities such as BDSM where there may be inflictions of pain, highly arousing experiences can be experienced. Given the sense of safety that must occur for play/foreplay/intimacy/sex, BDSM can work exceptionally well given how sessions are explicitly set up. Rules are set, safe words are discussed, trust and boundaries are established. So even when you’re (say) tied up and whipped, the predetermined structure around you has created such a sense of safety you can let go.

It’s a paradox but it makes sense. And if this can be achieved in something as limit-pushing as BDSM, it can certainly be achieved in plain old vanilla sex.

We are hard-wired for connection, but connection can’t occur if you don’t feel safe. And for women, this goes even deeper. We must feel truly at ease to experience brain-quietening, body-opening sex. Penetrating her starts with the mind: it goes from the outside in.

It is only once the need for safety has been respected (and believe me, you’ll know when that has happened) that true pleasure can be experienced.

Pleasure Advocate

Pleasure is a choice. Welcome it.

Melanie Robson

Written by

Australian writer, sexologist, & therapist. I sometimes write about sex & pleasure. I sometimes write about weird shit, my interests & being human.

Pleasure Advocate

Fill your brain with pleasure because words are sexy.

Melanie Robson

Written by

Australian writer, sexologist, & therapist. I sometimes write about sex & pleasure. I sometimes write about weird shit, my interests & being human.

Pleasure Advocate

Fill your brain with pleasure because words are sexy.

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