I am a woman who thinks with her body. I spend a great deal of time attending to what makes a body (both mine and maybe yours) feel good, recognising pleasure’s capacity to awaken a drive for something more. This is sometimes an act of unlearning – we can know pleasure in far more complex ways than we are taught to imagine, and these extend far beyond ‘just’ fucking.
As any good chef will tell you, we taste with our eyes just as much as our other senses, so any meaningful commitment to the sensation of pleasure needs to include due consideration of aesthetics. My own experience of pleasure is fundamentally shaped by both looking and being looked at. I’ve written before about how much I enjoy the feeling of being hungrily consumed by a watchful eye, but increasingly I delight in being the one feasting too. As a woman, there is an emancipatory pleasure in an active gaze, disrupting the visual power dynamics articulated so memorably by John Berger as ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’. I oscillate between the pleasure of subject and object, laying another bare through my stare and watching them perform for me.
But sometimes the pleasure of looking at someone is less about exposure and more about suggestion: A glimpse of something unexpected or a moment of private desire in public; the tease of partial revelation and unexpected erotics when you least expect them. This mode of looking feels notable in its stark contrast to the unflinching revelations of hardcore porn, which Mark Fisher described as functioning as the cipher of a supposedly demystified, disillusioned ‘reality’. By making plain not just the outsides of our naked body, but through all that cum/sweat/piss/spit, our insides, hardcore trades on “a kind of earnest literalism” that makes sex into something hyperreal, flattening the symbolic, the fetishistic and the erotic.
Don’t get me wrong – I really like hardcore and its theatre of brazen excess. Plus the idea that anything – especially mainstream porn – exists outside the symbolic order is to patently misread the genre. But watching it is undeniably less seductive and pleasurable for me than a mode of looking that requires the viewer to work a little harder for a little less. As any of us who have caught ourselves, mid-meeting, staring at the almost indecent curve of a high arch in a stiletto, or felt a hot little throb at spotting the outline of another’s underwear (or lack thereof) through their clothes, know that these visual pleasures are potent precisely because of their symbolism. Ironically enough, the empirical certainty of pleasure (‘I know it when I feel it’), is often triggered by just enough visual ambiguity to propel our desire forward into the unknown.
One of the pleasures of looking can therefore be said to be the pleasure of having your gaze partially denied. It’s this that Roland Barthes alludes to in his belief that “striptease is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked”. Is the pleasure we feel catching a fleeting glimpse of what we want changed when we achieve it? How does an understanding of this change how we seduce each other?
These interplays between concealment and revelation, reality and fantasy, the sordid and the mundane are the site of various pleasures for me, and what inspired ‘Body of Work’, a new series of essays I’ll be sharing via my newsletter in the next few months. They’re a blend of memoir, art criticism, erotica and porn studies (and before you ask, yes, there will be the near-obligatory reading of VR porn). I hope they fire your sensory imaginations, and awaken us more to the erotic potential hiding in plain sight. Apologies in advance that you may have to wade through some Baudrilliard to get to the smut, but no doubt it’ll all be edifying in one way or another. Sign up here if you’d like to read more.