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Complicated Pleasures

We write a lot about pleasure here at Making Love Sustainable. We write about how to find more joy in your life, and we especially write about love and sex, which are two of the greatest sources of pleasure available to people.

At least to most people. What if you weren’t able to experience pleasure? You’d do something that’s supposed to feel good, and — nothing. It could turn a lot of your life choices upside down. This condition does exist; the medical term is anhedonia, and two of the most common kinds of anhedonia are social anhedonia, which is not getting pleasure from people (and therefore not getting pleasure from love?) and sexual anhedonia, which is not getting pleasure from sex.

We all know, in some abstract sense, that different people enjoy different things. I like cookies, my partner likes dark chocolate. But it’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t enjoy an orgasm — not just someone who is afraid of sex, or who shies away from commitment, but someone who actually gets no pleasure from the physical experience of orgasm. It’s hard to imagine, that is, unless you are one of those people; then I suppose it’s very easy to imagine. This particular condition is called “orgasmic anhedonia” or “pleasure dissociative orgasmic disorder (PDOD),” and there are some good starter resources on it at SX21, which even differentiates between orgasmic anhedonia in men and women. (They call it “orgasmic anhedonia” for women and just “anhedonia” for men, but I think this is just so the pages can have different URLs.) There is no magic explanation, unfortunately, and no miracle cure; it may be down to physical factors, psychological factors, or, more likely, a mix of the two.

From my perspective, as someone for whom the pleasure of orgasm is immediate and obvious, it’s tempting to think that these people who say they don’t enjoy orgasms are just doing it to be difficult. I don’t actually believe that, but it’s the first place my mind goes when I hear about anyone thinking differently than I do, feeling differently than I
do. The way I feel is the way to feel — it’s so obvious! Orgasm is pleasurable! Nobody could really feel differently, and if they say they do, well, they’re just fooling themselves. They’ll come around eventually.

Of course that’s rubbish. Pleasure is a fragile thing; if I ask myself why exactly I find the sensation of orgasm pleasurable, it’s hard to find a real answer. What about that sensation makes it a “good” sensation rather than a bad or indifferent sensation? And there are other forms of anhedonia that go even more to highlight how complicated a thing pleasure really is. For example, a small percentage of people get no pleasure from music. Any music. They can hear the notes and understand the beat, but it just doesn’t do anything for them. It doesn’t make them feel like moving, doesn’t make them feel any particular emotion, doesn’t make them want to share the song. There’s a 2013 study on music perception by a team of Spanish scientists that delves into musical anhedonia, and you can even take the music reward questionnaire that they used, if you want to put numbers on the ways you enjoy music. (I scored high on “Emotional Evocation” and “Music Seeking,” and low on “Sensori-motor” — I don’t like to dance.) If you think about it for a while, you’ll probably start to wonder — why do you enjoy those particular things about music? Where exactly is the pleasure coming from?

And we wrote recently about ASMR, a fairly mysterious kind of pleasure that some people feel and others just don’t. I do feel it, but it still seems strange to me, and I think many people who enjoy ASMR have the same experience — “This totally feels good, but … why? What’s going on?”

I don’t know. People are complicated; bodies are complicated; brains are complicated. But I’m trying to remember to feel gratitude, not only for all the pleasurable things out in the world, but for whatever it is in me that lets me enjoy them.