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Build pleasure in different ways

A nonlinear model of desire and arousal

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fem/masc

Anna Schnell

We can only know the ways of being as they are presented to us. And often, the story of how things should be actually determines how things are. Sexual encounters are no exception. The “way of doing it” when it comes to heterosexual sex is pretty much variations of the following structure: desire builds to a point of arousal; mutual arousal leads to mutual stimulation which aims to build up to peak pleasure signaled by orgasm(s) and more often than not, the male orgasm. After reaching this peak of explosive pleasure, the outward expression is then turned inward and withdrawn. You might cuddle for a bit, but the actual experience of the sexual encounter existed within a goal-oriented pleasure paradigm, and when it’s all you know, it’s hard to see any other way. 

Last year, I set out to understand the complexities of the orgasm gap and found out that the orgasm gap is representative of many gender inequalities. After wrestling with what contributes to the current pleasure paradigm that manifests today in sexual encounters, I am not wondering where the potential is to restructure sex around something other than orgasms altogether. We all want connection, intimacy, and pleasure, but there has to be another way to access these without just playing out the scripts we’ve all been taught.

One contributing factor to this goal-oriented structure might be the way that consumer culture has led to a normalized desire for instant gratification. The model for linear, goal-oriented sex looks a lot like the messages a cultural of consumerism presents to us. In short, these messages tell us that all of our needs can be satisfied by material increase and consequently, the underlying belief becomes that we are what we possess.

In her book “All About Love: New Visions,” cultural critic and theorist bell hooks argues that relationships today are mediated by materialism rather than love.

“Materialism creates a world of narcissism in which the focus of life is solely on acquisition and consumption. A culture of narcissism is not a place where love can flourish,” hooks writes. “Left alone in the ‘me’ culture, we consume and consume with no thought of others. Greed and exploitation become the norm when an ethic of domination prevails.”

This culture of narcissism that she speaks of can be one place to point to when it comes to goal-oriented and, as a result, disconnected sex. To center a sexual encounter around the intended orgasm has the potential to imply, maybe unintentionally, the use and consumption of a sexual partner’s body.

American culture has, however, made some important strides in starting a broad conversation about sexual experiences. The #MeToo movement’s wake has provided a new openness for understanding sexual experiences across gender lines. But when we make moves to deconstruct sexual encounters as the movement has done, it’s important that we replace it with some other way of engaging in relationship with one another.

I sat down with local sex and intimacy coach Grace Bryant to talk about how we ought to make love in a culture where sexuality has become a product of materialism, internet pornography, and misunderstandings. She emphasized that sexual energy is powerful whether it is attended to or not.

“And not only is [sexual energy] accessible, it’s powerful, and we all know that. That’s why there’s this desire to suppress and repress it,” Bryant told me. “So it’s so powerful and if you can tap into it, when you can own it in [your] body, then you get to make conscious choices about it. When you disown it and pretend it’s not there or have all the wonderful shame around it, it carries this energy of shame and darkness.”

The closed sexual energy she speaks of refers to an often contracted and docile area of one’s self that when left unexamined, can implicitly impact one’s experience with self and others. Bryant suggests that we’re all misunderstanding our own sexuality, and it is impacting our lives. This effect can be further compounded if you’ve experienced trauma, but the issue resonates with everyone conditioned by American culture.

However, reframing the way that sex is approached can be a helpful step in increasing pleasure and disregarding the operational scripts that we’ve become so comfortable with.

To Bryant and hooks, relationships, no matter if they last for a night or a lifetime, need to be centered on something other than what you can get from the other person. This applies to how we are approaching and operating within sexual contexts. What determines the encounter doesn’t have to be the perceived end. Instead, exploring nonlinear models of sex can provide another way of operating as a sexual being in the world.

By a nonlinear structure, I mean changing the script that we so often follow. Instead of a steady build up to individual orgasm, exploring the spontaneity of what is present in every moment during sex can offer a whole new understanding of pleasure. When you really drop into how your body is interacting with your partner, it is clear that even the smallest touch can be orgasmic.

Easier said than done, and the first step (unsurprisingly) is recognizing one’s own disconnect with their sexuality. Actively examining one’s own relationship with their body and how it operates during sexual encounters can be a good first step in moving away from structured sexual experiences.

Bryant, who has studied sexual practices across the world, refers to Tantric understandings of sexuality as an ancient nonlinear model for sex. Within the Tantric practice, there is a crucial distinction between explosive and implosive orgasms that speaks to perhaps the highest level of evolved sexual encounters.

Explosive orgasms are what we think of when we think of an orgasm: male ejaculation or female orgasm resulting from clitoris stimulation. Explosive orgasms essentially imply the release of vital life-force energy and signal a point-of-no-return. Further, they emphasize separation and duality in sexual encounters. 

Implosive orgasm, on the other hand, involves the sexual energy being retaken into the body for a full-body experience. They require breath and awareness of every sensation in the body, an awareness that conveniently releases the expectations that come along with sex. According to Bryant, the act takes surrender and commitment to sensations present in interaction with one’s partner. In male bodies, the implosive orgasm is an intentional separation between ejaculation and orgasm. 

“Not only is there the goallessness of being in this moment as it is, there is also the goallessness that there isn’t a need to get [to a certain point],” Bryant said. “It’s actually building pleasure in a very different way.”

Recent studies have shown that practicing mindfulness during sex can increase the potential for orgasm all together and is especially necessary for the potential for full-body orgasm. Shifting focus to building pleasure moment to moment through mindfulness can open up areas and sensations that you didn’t even know were there.

When all we’ve known is explosive orgasms as the focal point of sex, opening up to this new, abstract idea of orgasm might be difficult. It takes practice to be able to move sexual energy in this way, but even if this isn’t an immediate possibility, this idea of approaching sexual pleasure as a practice of reciprocity and sensation rather than self-centered exchange has the potential for new things to open up regardless.

As for this question of how we can restructure sexual encounters: Well, it seems to me that focusing on connection and sensation is a great place to start. Sex is one of the best things we experience as human beings, yet just going through the motions can leave us feeling disconnected and unexpressed.  

Reach Managing Editor Mira Ann at specials@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @mirap

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