When your sex life is lacklustre, it’s easy to put the blame on boring positions, the wrong techniques or the size or shape of your body. But according to sex therapist Emily Morse, it’s very often psychological factors – not physical ones – that are getting in the way.
She calls them “pleasure thieves,” a term she coined in her new book Smart Sex.
“I cannot overemphasise how many sexual problems actually have nothing to do with sex itself and have everything to do with these three thieves,” she writes.
In an interview with HuffPost, Morse explained that pleasure thieves are “essentially the emotional blocks that are standing between you and the healthy sex life that you want, the sex life that you’re craving”.
These thieves keep you stuck in your head and disconnected from your body, which makes it difficult to be present and experience pleasure in all areas of your life — not just in the bedroom.
In the book, the author talks about how important it is to prioritise pleasure in a culture that views it like a reward we deserve only once we’ve checked off everything on our to-do list, or something that’s reserved for certain people or types of bodies.
“Pleasure is our birthright,” Morse told HuffPost. “Pleasure is productive. It’s actually going to enhance every area of our life. The more we allow more pleasure in, we’ll have more pleasure.”
Below are the three pleasure thieves, according to Morse, and advice on how to manage them in order to live a more pleasurable life.
Stress is an inevitable part of life. Short-term stress is normal and serves an adaptive purpose: to keep us alert and out of danger. But it’s chronic stress — the long-term, pervasive kind — that poses a pleasure problem (and can take a toll on your physical and mental health, too).
As Morse told HuffPost, “stress and pleasure do not mix.” When you’re in a prolonged fight-or-flight state, an increase in stress hormones like cortisol can make it harder to get in the mood for sex. On the other hand, when you’re in a safer, calmer “rest and digest” state, you feel more turned on and ready for sex, Morse said.
Many people reporting stress melting away after they have an orgasm, but Morse said that’s more of a temporary Band-Aid than a solution.
“We really have to get into the underlying causes of stress so that we can stabilise our hormones and then we’ll be able to experience more pleasure and more arousal,” she told HuffPost.
To alleviate chronic stress, Nazanin Moali, a Los Angeles sex therapist and host of the Sexology podcast, recommends mindfulness meditation. It involves being fully present and acknowledging thoughts, sensations and the environment without judging them, she said.
“Initiate this practice in non-sexual settings, like mindful eating or walking, and gradually introduce it to your intimate moments,” Moali told HuffPost. “This will not only redirect your attention from distractive thoughts but also intensify the subtle sensations, thereby enhancing your sexual experiences.”
“Pleasure is our birthright. Pleasure is productive. It’s actually going to enhance every area of our life.”
Engaging in physical activities that you actually enjoy can also combat stress, Moali said. If running feels like torture to you, then skip it in favor of a dance class or a stroll outside.
“Remember the goal isn’t just about burning calories, it’s about finding joy and relaxation in the process,” she said. “Be cautious to avoid over-exercising, as this can inadvertently induce stress.”
In addition to improving your mood and energy levels, exercise also helps with blood flow, which helps with arousal, Morse said. “We want to send blood flow to our genitals so we can have erections or become lubricated,” she told HuffPost.
Moali also suggests scheduling regular breaks throughout the day with pleasurable activities that lift your mood. Maybe that’s drinking your morning coffee outside, meeting a friend for lunch, reading a chapter of a book you’re enjoying or snuggling with your dog between meetings.
Trauma is an emotional response to a negative event that often leaves you feeling unsafe. It can be something commonly referred to as a “big T” trauma, like the sudden death of a loved one, a health crisis or a sexual assault. Or it can be a “little T” trauma, like infidelity or getting bullied.
Either way, when trauma is left unresolved, it can lead to a host of issues — sleep problems, digestive troubles, relationship struggles and mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD, just to name a few. It also limits your ability to experience pleasure. The trauma needn’t be sexual for it to affect you in the bedroom.
“If trauma lives in our body, it’s really hard to enjoy pleasure when our bodies are essentially trying to protect us,” Morse told HuffPost.
In her book, she also discusses how trauma prevents you from being “open and vulnerable.”
“To have a fulfilling sex life, you have to be able to drop your defences and be vulnerable,” Morse writes. “If you are constantly on high alert, even when you’re with someone you love, you won’t be able to have the sex life you deserve and desire.”
Working with a trauma-informed therapist can be beneficial if this is something you struggle with.
“Trauma, especially when unresolved, often manifests in physical and emotional disconnection,” Moali said. “Therapists with specific training in trauma can provide effective strategies for healing, which subsequently helps in restoring presence and enhancing sexual experiences.”
“Trauma, especially when unresolved, often manifests in physical and emotional disconnection.”
She also recommends yoga since it combines “physical activity, breathing exercises and mindfulness,” which “facilitates a holistic approach to mitigating trauma’s residual impacts in the body.”
You don’t need to fully heal your trauma in order to tap into pleasure either, Morse said. In fact, infusing more pleasure into her life and “focusing my awareness on that pleasure has helped me counterbalance the emotional effects of trauma,” she wrote in the book.
“When we familiarise our body with safety and delight, we give our nervous system the medicine it needs; Little by little, we’re dosing ourselves with joy, reminding our body that we are safe, and that we are living in a different story and reality now.”
Morse said she thinks that shame is “the No. 1 thing that is keeping people from really exploring their sexuality and fully and truly and deeply experiencing their pleasure,” calling it “the most detrimental pleasure thief”.
“I feel like a lot of us just walk around feeling like we’re sexual deviants and what we want to do sexually makes us shameful,” she told HuffPost.
“They feel like if they watch a lot of porn or they want to try something different in bedroom, they just want to know — is something wrong with me and am I normal? These questions are completely wrapped up in shame.”
In the book, Morse categorises shame into four types: rejection, exposure, self-blame and internalised judgment.
Rejection shame is the fear that we’re fundamentally unlovable, which often manifests in people-pleasing behaviours.
Think things like faking orgasms or “do[ing] things sexually to please a partner because we feel like we’re going to be rejected if we don’t,” Morse said, rather than doing them because we genuinely want to.
Exposure shame stems from the fear of being found out, that “someone’s going to discover something about me that’s horrible and wrong,” Morse said.
It often stems from a humiliating experience in your past. For example, maybe a former partner acted disgusted when you told them about a kink of yours. Or someone caught you masturbating when you were a teenager.
“There was a look of shock and horror on their face? Well, that’s going to carry us into adulthood,” Morse told HuffPost.
“Is something wrong with me and am I normal? These questions are completely wrapped up in shame.”
Self-blame shame is taking responsibility for others’ thoughts, emotions, behaviours and sexual satisfaction.
According to Morse, this might present as low self-esteem or a tendency toward co-dependent relationships. In your sex life, it might mean beating yourself up when your partner has erection issues or low libido because you assume it must be your fault.
The last type of shame is internalised judgment. It’s when we feel this deep need to be “normal” and fit in, which leaves us feeling ashamed when we don’t. Body shame is a big part of this, Morse said.
“For decades, we receive messaging that there’s only certain types of bodies or certain types of people that receive sexual pleasure,” she told HuffPost. “It’s mostly young, thin, white bodies. In mainstream porn and sexy scenes, that’s the kind of bodies that are glorified.”
If we don’t look like that, “then we automatically feel ashamed of the way we look and of our bodies,” she added.
To work through sex-related shame, Morse recommends digging a little deeper to find out where these damaging messages came from. Maybe it was what you heard at church or from your parents or pop culture.
“If we grew up in a place where sex was seen as shameful and then people around you were constantly reinforcing that message, you’re going to have these limiting beliefs and shame around sex,” Morse said. “The first thing is reframing it and understanding like, where does this message come from? Somebody else implanted this into my brain and it’s no longer what I believe.”
Start surrounding yourself with more sex-positive voices, Morse suggested — from the podcasts you listen to, to the accounts you follow on social media, to the people you spend time with. Opening up to someone you trust about your shame can also help defuse those negative, isolating feelings.
All of this takes time, so be patient with yourself as you reclaim pleasure from the pleasure thieves in your life. They’re aren’t quick fixes that you can implement and resolve overnight. But by slowly chipping away at them, you’ll move closer to the sex life you want.