1.3 Sexual Pleasure
“Pleasure” refers to various phenomena: (a) physical sensations, with specific bodily locations (e.g., scratching an itch); (b) enjoyment, as when one takes pleasure in solving a jigsaw puzzle or lying under the sun (enjoyment does not have a specific bodily location, though the same phenomenon can be experienced as sensation and as enjoyment (e.g., lying under the sun); a “pure” feeling that is felt all over but has no specific bodily location, and that need not be focused on a particular activity, such as being elated (Goldman 2016: 88); and (d) an attitude, to be “pleased at something”; the belief that what one is pleased at is good (Goldman 2016: 83–90).
We thus have four types of pleasure: pleasure-as-sensation, pleasure-as-enjoyment, pleasure-as-feeling, and pleasure-as-pro-attitude. All four concepts can be relevant to sex, but it is the first two that are important, because each can be a type of sexual pleasure, whereas the third is typically consequent to sexual activity and the fourth is about sex. (a) The pleasure of orgasm is an obvious example of the first, and (b) enjoying sexual activity is a usual experience that people undergo. (c) One can experience elation because of having had great sex, and (d) one can feel pleased at that.
Moreover, one or more parties to the act might experience pleasure-as-sensation, yet not enjoy the activity itself. g., at being anally penetrated), one can endure a sexual act (not enjoy it), and one can feel nausea at what one has done sexually.
We can thus see how each pleasure has its opposite: one can feel painful sensations during a sexual act (e
Although orgasm does not exhaust the pleasures of sex, there is something to the idea that the pleasure of orgasm is unique. As a sensation, it is unique in the way it feels and in its intensity, though this feeling might differ between men and women, especially since women seem to experience various types of orgasm (Komisaruk et al. 2006: ch. 7; Meston et al. 2004: 174–176; but see Wallen and Lloyd 2011: 780–783). Moreover, it contrasts with other sensation-pleasures in its physiological aspects and ability to be produced through genital stimulation. For example, the sensation of having one’s ear licked is not as such a pleasure and depends on who one thinks is licking it. But the sensation of orgasm is not like this, which makes orgasm a pleasure that cuts across social layers, a bodily sensation unmediated by social meanings or concepts; “the trait of female orgasm [is] a physiological trait or reflex, not a social trait” (Lloyd 2005: 48). Of course its frequency, significance, and meaning vary socially, culturally, and contextually (Blair et al. 2017; ). This feature of orgasm might explain how we can speak of sexual desire across times and cultures as a unified phenomenon, even though sexual desires and bodily sensations are socially and linguistically mediated.
If the pleasure of orgasm is unique, why do people usually prefer sex with someone else to masturbating, given that masturbating produces orgasms, often more intense than partnered sex? This shows that orgasm is not the only pleasure sought in sexual activity, not that its pleasure is not unique. Touching, smelling, kissing, and licking, for example, are other goals of sexual desire (Soble 1996: 85–86). We can even claim that people prefer the pleasure of orgasm through these other goals.
Sexual activity can … be defined as activity that tends to fulfill sexual desire, while sexual desire is sufficiently defined as the desire for certain bodily pleasures, period. (Primoratz 1999: 46)