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Pleasure is the force that drives sexual behaviour. It is an essential element of overall wellbeing. Sexual pleasure improves your immune system, boosts your libido and energy levels, increases blood flow to genitals, exercises muscles involved in bladder and bowel control, burns calories, lowers blood pressure, and improves pain tolerance and sleep. Sexual pleasure releases hormones to make us feel good, boosting self-esteem and overall mood.

I once heard of a general medical practitioner in the US who wrote scripts for orgasms before scripts for antidepressant medications. Our bodies encourage us because sex is not just for procreation and pleasure but has another function. Humans have sex outside of fertile periods, and have anatomical structures designed only for pleasure, because sexual pleasure is our physical mechanism to reduce stress. Sex is just like other exercise, only much, much better. Yet in an increasingly stressed and depressed world, exercise is enthusiastically promoted as having health benefits but sex is not.

As stated by the World Association of Sexual Health (WAS) in 2021: ‘Sexual pleasure is a fundamental part of sexual rights as a matter of human rights’. The WAS statement defines sexual pleasure as physical and/or psychological satisfaction and enjoyment derived from shared or solitary erotic experiences, including thoughts, fantasies, dreams, emotions and feelings. This definition acknowledges pleasure is affected by self-determination, consent, safety, privacy, confidence, communication and the ability to negotiate sexual activity with potential partners. The statement and definition make it clear that even in a country like Australia, women’s sexual pleasure is a gender equality issue.

Women’s sexual pleasure is a gender equality issue.

The pursuit of sexual pleasure by women, offensively called nymphomania or promiscuity, has been historically viewed as a threat to ‘decent’ society. This threat began when women and children were considered men’s possessions. On the other hand, men’s pleasure is believed to be a natural and uncontrollable motivation for dangerous and predatory behaviour. Rape culture thrives in settings where sexual urges are considered uncontrollable, and men are given more power to initiate and dominate women sexually. Power, control and abuse are problems. Sex and sexual pleasure are not. Receiving pleasure is a reminder of something our bodies already tell us. Paid pleasure is no less good, valid or meaningful than its unpaid counterpart. Pleasure is good for you. And consent is sexy.

The sexual contract, formed by consent conversations and social norms, is sometimes supported by the hope and security of an ongoing relationship. Some people agree to have sex to enjoy emotional intimacy, a safe place to stay, a meal, a drink or for any other exchange. Or it could just be trading physical fun without an ongoing relationship.

The physical reasons people have sex include stress reduction, pleasure, physical desirability and experience seeking, as found by researchers Cindy Meston and Davis Buss. They also found reasons to have sex included goal attainment (including money and resources, social status, revenge and sympathy fucks), emotional factors (for self-expression, love and commitment) and insecurity factors (boosting self-esteem, duty and mate guarding). Many of these reasons to have sex are far from romantic notions of lustful love at first sight. So, who wants what in sexual experiences?

All sex is transactional. When I was married and a busy mother, I remember bartering with my husband—sex for a basket of ironing. Gender inequality in domestic situations is a problem. Bartering sexual services exists in western society. But some people may negotiate less obviously than I do. Can you remember any times you might have bartered sex?

Sex work advocate and educator Georgie Wolf says that a hook-up is not a romantic or a long-term commitment but one where sex can be used to reduce tension, create emotional bonds, to play and experiment, to feel sexy, to enjoy the chase and to brag about it afterwards. What’s in it for me might be different from what’s in it for you, and as long as everyone gets what they want, that’s great. The negotiation that is required to enjoy successful hook-ups lays bare the transactional nature of sex.

The negotiation that is required to enjoy successful hook-ups lays bare the transactional nature of sex.

All sex may be transactional, but many people are uncomfortable about the overt commodification of sex. ‘True love’ in the form of a relationship is the expected exchange for sex because women are expected to desire true love more than men. People tend to accept that casual sex happens and is generally not problematic, but commercial sex seems to be a step too far—as if it isn’t real sex if it isn’t given freely. Cold hard cash sounds harsh to some, yet to others it is simply being honest. The discomfort is in the contrast: money is considered to be the root of all evil, and sex to be a gift from God. This ‘sanctity’ of sex supports gendered inequity because sex is sacred only for women. Men have been known to, and at different times in history have been expected to, negotiate cash for sex. When women buy sexual services they disrupt the idea they are giving sex.

Jenna Love, a sex worker, podcaster and actor tells me: ‘A friend of mine recently shared a secret she had been hiding from me—that she had been charging her ex-partner and co-parent for sex. The reason she had avoided telling me was that she thought I would judge her for “pretending” to be a sex worker, but I felt the complete opposite. I told her, that regardless of whether she considered what she was doing to be sex work or not (it doesn’t really matter for these purposes), she had been engaging in sex as a transaction, and it really highlighted to me how transactional sex is everywhere, and always has been. Of course, every interaction we have with another human being has a transactional element—it’s one of the most important things you learn in drama school. It’s very rare that we even engage in a conversation with another person without the intention of getting something out of it. And I don’t mean that the intention has to be nefarious, I’d say usually it isn’t, but we have to have a purpose for everything that we do. And that applies to intimacy. The concept of transactional sex and intimacy isn’t as simple as one person paying cash to another in exchange for sexual labour.’

Alice had been feeling pretty low due to the stressors in life, and her friends had urged her to take a holiday. The first time she had a week to herself after her marriage break up, Alice booked a hotel in another state. She had been dating already and using hook-up sites, which are primarily for casual sex. So she knew she could score some hot sex relatively quickly if she changed her town in the dating apps, put up more provocative pics and stated that she wanted sex only and was ‘available now’. She was not disappointed. There were a few. After sex, Paul and Adam told her terrific stories about local sexual escapades, and later, Alice related some of them to a girlfriend over drinks. They laughed uproariously about their various shenanigans. Swapping these stories increased the emotional connection she enjoys with girlfriends. There are certainly no losers in this story, and all the actors had different motivations and outcomes.

Spending a great deal of time and energy on sexual exploits is something most women can relate to. Lily says that she has had phases in her life when she has spent hours a day on dating sites trying to meet people. She has also attended sex festivals, spending money and a week at a time to meet like-minded people and learn about sex. As a sexologist, I’ve spoken to hundreds of clients willing to invest in their sexual lives. The time and energy invested by my clients who engage me as a sex worker might not be as direct. In my mind, however, the investment is for the same thing, even though the services are very different.

The more overt exchange of cash is very often outside of women’s experiences. Well, sharing the stories of women buying sexual services is not common either.

This is an edited extract from Slutdom: Reclaiming shame-free sexuality by Dr Hilary Caldwell (UQP), available now at your local independent bookseller.