Why I Haven’t Stopped Talking about The Principles of Pleasure
By Dennise Mena | May 10, 2022, 7:58 p.m.
Like many other people on the internet, I cannot stop talking about the new Netflix show, The Principles of Pleasure. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s a three episode docu-series that explores the sexual enjoyment and health of people with vulvas. Let me tell you, it is the most educational and sex-positive show on TV right now. The things I learned in the first episode have forever changed how I understand the ways our society contextualizes pleasure and the science that studies it. But, in some ways, it’s where the show falls short - particularly in terms of the intersectionality of the BIPOC and non-binary experience - that we can find empowerment and education in the discussions around pleasure.
The three episode docu-series, directed by Niharika Desai and narrated by Michelle Buteau, explores the myths and truths of enjoying sex, the role the mind plays in attraction and pleasure, and how people can explore sex within their relationships. Each episode explores the topics of myths, pleasure, and sex by interviewing a panel of mostly women-identifying individuals, a couple of gender non-conforming people, and sex educators including Ericka Hart, Dirty Lola, and Emily Nagoski (all of which you should follow on Instagram @ihartericka, @dirtylola, and @enagoski immediately) who talk about their own experiences with pleasure.
With a number of mind bending turns, the first episode was by far my favorite one in the series. As a person who spent many years learning about pleasure and sex and then educating students on college campuses, I was stunned by the amount of information I didn’t know and by the lack of research that exists on sexual pleasure and the anatomy of the vulva. Let. Me. Tell. You. I spiraled for a week after learning that the clitoris wasn’t even fully mapped out in anatomy books until 2005 by the amazing Dr. Helen O’Connel.
What does this mean in terms of what we understand pleasures people with vulvas? What does this mean in terms of understanding my own pleasure? And how much more do we still have to learn about pleasure?
While I believe that viewers will learn some keen insights for themselves or their partners, I do think there are some things the show could have could have taken a more intersectional lens around, pushing the conversation beyond the binary. As a gender queer person (she/they), there were moments where I no longer felt like certain discussions included me. While trans and gender non-conforming voices were included in the series, their experiences were often diminished when the narrator preceded their remarks by referring to the topic of the conversation as “women” or using she/her pronouns. This made for a discussion centered around cis women and blanketed their experiences as universal for all people with vulvas, which just isn’t true especially if you’re trans or gender non-conforming.
Additionally, the show lacked nuanced conversations around race and the experiences of BIPOC people, especially Black people. Historians have consistently erased Black peoples’ contributions and experiences for the sake of a storyline and, unfortunately, this series did not give credit to Black peoples’ history in sex education. I want to credit most of the next thoughts in this paragraph to Ericka Hart (@ihartericka) who explained her feelings on the show and its lack of BIPOC intersectionality in her pinned stories on her Instagram page. She explained that sex education curricula usually likes to point to the discovery of hysteria, a false sex-selective disorder diagnosed in women starting around 1880, as the beginning of sex education history. While this history is important, the majority of women diagnosed with and treated for hysteria were white women. As Ericka points out, sex education history started well before this and can be traced back to when enslaved Black women were forcibly experimented on by the founder of gynecology. She further explains that by pinpointing the start of sex education to hysteria, we are centering white history and erasing the contribution of Black people in science once again.
While it’s important to acknowledge the docu-series’ shortcomings, I still wholeheartedly encourage everyone to watch this show. I watched the first episode three times for this blog piece and I walked away with new information and a sense of empowerment each time. It’s a great show not only for people trying to understand sexual enjoyment but also for anyone, like myself, who wishes to dismantle their hetero-normative, cis-centered, and patriarchal understanding of pleasure and sex. Below I have put together some discussion questions with PPMW’s educators for those who want to hold space by themselves or with others to continue discussions around pleasure.
- What are some of the misconceptions about sex and pleasure that you had before watching this docu-series?
- Follow up: What misconceptions were you taught that have gotten in the way of you experiencing pleasure?
- What are some of the nuances of pleasure and sex that were not discussed in this docu-series or in sex education?
- What steps can you take to better understand your own pleasure and dismantle previous misconceptions?
- What are some of the nuances of pleasure and sex for trans men and gender non-conforming people not discussed in this documentary or in sex education?
- Why do you think these misconceptions around pleasure and sex were taught to men and women?
- What topics around men’s pleasure and sex do you wish more men would discuss?
Want to learn more about pleasure and safe, healthy sex? Contact our PPMW educators to learn more!