When Pleasure Doesn’t Always Come

After decades of advocating for my physical and mental health, I realized I also needed to advocate for my pleasure.

**This essay was written by Anne, a client of Darshana’s, and first appeared as a guest post on The Braid, a substack by Rebecca Woolf**

“This is where your g-spot is,” she told me as she pressed her fingers against the spongy part near the entrance to my vaginal canal. I was 41 when a somatic sex and intimacy coach used her gloved fingers to show me where my g-spot was. 

I was 40 years old when I learned from my therapist the orgasm I had at 17 was a fear-based response to a sexual assault I could barely even name out loud.

I was 33 when I was diagnosed with a hormone-secreting tumor that made me depressed, sick and exhausted. While I was told it would give me a low sex drive, I hadn’t had one in so long I didn’t even know what a normal sex drive was supposed to feel like. 

I was 39 when my sex drive finally came back. Suddenly, I started to understand what other people have felt all along. I was horny. all. the. time.

This could easily be an essay about how shitty the medical system is for those of us bearing (or who have born) a uterus. How a woman’s sexual health is focused entirely on her fertility and her ability to have babies, not on her pleasure. This is not that kind of essay. This is an essay about finding my pleasure. 

The hard parts are still hard to write but they are necessary. 

I was a 17-year-old who was deeply attracted to my 30-year-old coworker. We flirted. We made out. One morning it started to go farther than I wanted it to. 

I said stop. 

He said don’t worry.

I worried.

I wanted our bodies together but not like this. Not in this moment. He was older and I thought he knew me better than I knew myself. He went from sweet to aggressive. I got scared. He came. We went back to work. I was afraid of him and yet I still liked him. I still wanted him to like me. 

I went to college. I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t attracted to anyone. I didn’t feel safe around men. There were very few people I trusted. I felt if I didn’t have sex with someone I would end up closing my body off forever. I chose someone safe. There wasn’t a lot of sex. I never let him see me completely naked. After him, I closed my body off. No sexual attraction. No sexual arousal. No desire for intimacy. Eventually, I didn’t feel anything at all. 

This went on for ten years while my body grew and then shrunk in size. I met a man I became friends with. I loved his brain, his humor and his sexy smile. I took down my wall a little bit to see what would happen. We started dating. When we made out, when we had sex, I felt nothing. The only pleasure I derived from our physical intimacy was from his happiness. I braced myself a lot when he touched me. I sometimes had panic attacks during sex. He tried by asking me what I liked, what I wanted. I never knew how to answer him. We broke up. He never saw me completely naked either.

I thought I was pregnant. I had stopped getting my period. My breasts hurt. I was rapidly gaining weight. I went to my gynecologist. She gave me a pregnancy test that came back negative. I saw a specialist who discovered a hormone-secreting tumor and gave me medication that would prevent the tumor from growing. The medication made me feel worse. My breasts hurt so much I could barely wear a seatbelt. I was deeply depressed. I had anxiety and panic attacks that lasted for hours. I felt like a zombie. After two years I stopped taking the medication. I had surgery to remove the tumor. While my body recovered, my mind took much longer. Two years after surgery I started to feel things. My breasts no longer hurt. I began to notice men’s hands and how much I wanted them all over my body. How I wanted to caress their thighs, and grab their asses while they fucked me. My body was flooded with technicolor feelings and old fears. I didn’t know how to move my life forward while fear was still holding me back. I knew I needed help.

“You’re like a coconut,” my therapist said to me a few months into our sessions. “You’re hard to crack, but once you do it’s liquid.” I made her work for it and she made me do the same. We talked about my first sexual experience. Or, as I called it, “pressure sex.” She called it sexual assault. Rape. “But I had an orgasm,” I insisted. She gently pushed back. She told me an orgasm doesn’t only happen in times of pleasure, it can also be a fear response. I hadn’t known this. As she talked about it more, my body felt as if every organ, artery, muscle and bone had been removed. I couldn’t make my brain follow a lot of what she was saying. It felt like it was going too fast for me to grasp. When it did hit me, it hit me hard. Sex shouldn’t have that much fear involved. When I told him to stop, that meant something. The cruel things he said about my bigger body, they were not meant for me, they were meant to get him off. My orgasm didn’t have the meaning I had pinned onto it. I had known most of these things somewhere in me, but there was also a job I had worked hard to get and I didn’t want to give that up no matter what had happened. So I pushed everything down and stuffed it into a box. I kept that box closed for 23 years. Now that I had opened it, I couldn’t get anything to go back in again. I had spent two decades after my assault keeping my body safe during all of its sizes. Keeping most forms of intimacy at bay. But now I was understanding the damage I had inflicted on myself because of that. I was also grieving the damage the hormone condition had inflicted upon me. We talked through it all until I started to feel safe. Until I started to understand that my path back to sex and intimacy wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to take a lot of work. 

A year later, when I finally opened up to a friend about all of this, she excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, I know what can help. A somatic sex and intimacy coach!” She texted me a link to the website of Darshana Avila, a sex and intimacy coach. Then, she told me Darshana was on Goop’s new series called Sex, Love and Goop. Once I heard that, I immediately shut it down. “Absolutely not,” I told my friend as visions of vagina candles and 24k gold dildos floated into my head. She told me to get over myself and at least sign up for a virtual event on Darshana’s site to feel it out. After the event I understood why my friend recognized this as something for me. Darshana seemed kind and warm. Her practice was trauma-informed. She conveyed information clearly. She believed pleasure was everyone’s birthright. I had spent years spending money on my health, but I had never spent money on my sexual wellness, on my pleasure. It felt extravagant. But the more I read, the more I began to understand that sexual wellness is health. Pleasure is health. And I deserved that health, too.

Darshana and I worked together virtually for months. We did breathing exercises; trust exercises; we danced it out; we talked about consent and how to make it sexy; she encouraged me to use different objects and textures for body sensory experiences during solo sex. She suggested new sex toys when I said I felt like I’d outgrown what I had. We talked a little about my assault and my tumor. How I hadn’t been heard the first time when I said stop, and how similar feelings came up years later when I knew something was very wrong with my body. A turning point in our work came when she advised going on a sense walk. I was housesitting at the time. The property had peach trees, the perfect place for a walk to engage all five senses. It was a hot and lazy summer day. I picked a peach off a tree, smelled it, and gently rubbed its fur against my neck. Then I bit into it. The burst of sweet, sticky liquid started to run down my chin. A warm breeze kicked up. I felt it tickle my legs. I was suddenly overcome with the desire to take off all of my clothes and continue my walk naked. I wanted to feel everything everywhere. I listened to this other part of me that was reacting with an urgency I didn’t recognize. I quickly stripped down before my brain thought about it too much. I walked naked among the trees. My senses already heightened, I started to get aroused. I stopped and laid my dress on the grass; under the peach trees I treated myself to the best solo sex I ever had. I continued to do pleasure walks the rest of that week. I did one in the rain and a naked one in a lake. I found pleasure and desire in nature. Under the shade of trees, in the hot sun, and the cool water I reclaimed my body for myself. 

I was feeling my sexual self emerging. As my virtual time with Darshana was ending, I realized I was operating with a sexual roadmap for a 17-year-old, not a 41-year-old. The entirety of my sexual experiences had been based around pleasing men because I felt nothing. Now I felt and wanted everything but didn’t know what I liked outside of what I could now do for myself. I was anxious and fearful about exploring this with another person who would have their own wants and desires. I was also afraid of having panic attacks in the middle of sex again. I confessed this to Darshana, who validated my feelings. There was another type of session we could do, one that would require being in person.

As a certified sexological bodyworker Darshana offers bodywork sessions at her studio in Oakland, California. By this point I had seen a little bit of a bodywork session having finally watched Sex, Love and Goop. In the episode Darshana laid her (gloved) hands on her client’s vulva to explore what kinds of touch and penetration felt good to the woman. The scene ended with the woman releasing her fears and having an earth-moving orgasm (I hate to admit this, but the series was beautifully done. I wish everyone could watch it to understand the importance of the work these practitioners do). I knew bodywork sessions were a different experience for everyone, depending on what their focus is and what they desire to get out of the sessions. When I watched this part of the series I thought, damn, I could never do that. But now here I was, thinking about actually doing it. I gave myself a push and booked sessions with Darshana. I wondered if I wasn’t a little crazy for doing this. My therapist told me to stop overthinking. She was glad I was choosing to do something for myself. 

At our first in-person session, Darshana greeted me warmly. It felt like meeting a new friend. We did some breathing exercises; we bounced on the balls of our feet shaking out all of the nervous energy. We talked about how I was feeling; we reiterated my goal for the sessions: I wanted to find out what 41-year-old me liked and how to tell my next partner what I wanted. Darshana talked about the Wheel of Consent, which was developed by Betty Martin. We went over the kinds of consent that would be present in this container we’ve created for me. How the touch was one directional (she would remain clothed and use gloves when touching my genitals). Then Darshana told me how the next day would play out. “First, I want to start with something called a Bossy Massage. That gives you all of the control.” She knew I loved and needed control, so this immediately calmed some of my nerves. She asked if she could use my arm to demonstrate the touch options, I held it out as she went through them: Feather, Caress, Massage, Compression, Tickle, Slap, Pinch, and Pull. I’d need to tell her how and where I wanted her to touch, how heavy or light of a touch I wanted, which direction I wanted it in, and the speed. I could also layer the options or choose a specific order. It was all up to me. If I said Pause she would lay her hands on me without moving them. If I said Stop she would take her hands off my body. I could choose if I wanted to talk about why I asked for that or not. The main rule was I needed to tell her what to do since I was the one with all of the control. If I asked instead of told, she’d stop what she was doing until I delivered it as a command. I also had to keep in mind the SIBAM model, which was developed by Somatic Experiencing founder Peter Levine. SIBAM stands for: Sensation, Image, Behavior, Affect, and Meaning. Each of these acronyms are a channel of meaning that my mind brings up related to the forms of touch I would be exploring. I learned this is especially helpful in overcoming trauma. Whatever came up for me we could discuss after the session.

The next day there was a massage table set up in the middle of the studio. Everything was there for my comfort: Blankets, pillows, wedges, a table heater, warm washcloths, and water. I immediately felt safe and taken care of. We sat and talked and went over the rules. While the morning session would be devoted to my being entirely in control and saying what I wanted, the afternoon session would be more educational. Darshana would take cues from what she learned I liked and responded to during the morning session and combine it with some things she thought I might like but not have thought of on my own. 

I could start the Bossy Massage with as much or as little clothing as I wanted. I stripped down to my underwear and laid face down on the table. I told her I wanted a slow feather on my back. She obliged and asked me how it felt and what I was thinking. “I wish you were an octopus,” I responded, “so you could feather my entire body right now.” The sensation made my body tingle as if every nerve ending was activated. I layered in caress. Then pinch. After a minute of that, she stopped and asked me what I wanted next. We went through the same things on my arms, only I told her to pinch harder. After that, I took off my underwear to have her do the same combo on my butt. Then I asked her to include slapping with compression after the slap. The slap made my body come alive. I asked her to slap and pinch it harder. While the feather was blissful, the slaps and hard pinches made everything in my body feel like it was standing to attention. I could only focus on the present and that really good feeling of pain. I felt incredibly turned on and very aware of how alive I was in that moment. I was holding my breath. She told me to breathe, but I couldn’t. My breath caught in my throat and I started to feel tears welling up. I told her to stop. And, since this wasn’t an offer we had discussed in advance, I asked if she would hold my hand for a minute. I’ve never asked anyone to hold my hand while I was emotionally overwhelmed. In that moment though, I needed her to hold space with me as I cried. I needed her to hold my hand while I released the pain of holding onto shame for so long. The shame of an orgasm from fear, the shame over my body, the denial of touch; and now the love of this feeling of pain. We breathed together. My tears stopped. My shame began to evaporate. I let it all go. Out of all of the things that took place during our sessions, that moment was the most intimate and vulnerable for me. I was naked on every level, finally allowing someone else, someone I trusted, who built this container of safety and exploration with me, to see everything in me. It was then I knew I would be ok in the present and in the future. I could do this. I could sledgehammer through the walls I put up with others. 

When I was ready, we continued. I asked for more slapping. I was now unashamed by how much I loved it and how it made me feel. I had discovered something I liked, something that turned me on. I asked her to pinch harder, but she commented that my ass was firm, which made it hard to grab for a pinch. That made me feel good and surprised me. I have a big ass, but it’s a tight one? Who knew? After a minute she stopped and asked what I wanted next. I said I wanted to turn over and start with compression, feather, and caress on my chest and breasts in a slow, up and down direction. I wanted to play with the sensitivity of my nipples. I told her to tickle them, then pinch them. I quivered. I saw colors flash behind my closed eyes. It was such a good pain. From there I progressed to my belly, my most hated part of my body. I always had daydreams of plunging a knife into it and cutting out all of the fat and loose skin. I asked for everything on my stomach: Pinching, pulling, caressing, feather. It all felt so deliciously good. In that moment, I was grateful to have the extra space on my body to allow it to give me such pleasure. I then commanded her to move to my upper thighs and vulva. The feathering and caressing felt exquisite. I had her go back and forth between that and my nipples. Then I told her to slap my vulva. She put on a glove for hygiene and slapped. I told her to do it harder. She went harder. It took me out of my body. I told her to keep slapping and alternate that with scratching my nipples. I nearly climaxed with that combination. Just as I was about to come, she said we were going to slow down and still my body. She laid her hands on me and we breathed together. My body shook and quaked from the energy and pleasure as it leveled itself. 

“Your pussy is so juicy,” she observed as I sat up. It was an encouraging reflection of my genital response to pleasure. Something I didn’t know I needed to hear. Similar words had been used against me in the context of my assault, but said in the safety of this container it made me feel a sense of pride in and love for how my body could now respond to pleasure. Consent, context and safety were beginning to come together in my mind. For the first time I understood what it meant to be in a body and sex positive space. It was also the first time I understood how my body could look to someone else without hearing negative words in my head. If Darshana left a good handprint after a slap she’d tell me, satisfied by both her efforts and my skin’s response. I delighted in the fact that my paleness was an asset here. I realized what my body could give and receive at its size. How it could turn me on. Darshana reflected all of this back at me like a mirror. We debriefed after the session and I told her all of these things. We took a lunch break and I sat outside in the sunshine, allowing all of my feelings to come up. I treated the processing as a passive download into my brain. I didn’t try to stop it to examine everything nor did I try to overthink everything I felt. For the first time I didn’t have any anxiety in my body. 

After lunch, we talked about what would come next. Darshana took out a diagram of a vulva and we went over all of the different parts of it. Then, we started with the learning/teaching session, which was more genital focused. I wanted to know what turned me on and anything about my particular anatomy that would be helpful to know. The afternoon session was meant to go more like sex would, meaning we wouldn’t stop after a minute and restart with a different part of the body. It would be continuous unless I wanted to change positions, pause, or stop completely. Darshana started with warm coconut oil as she caressed my vulva with her gloved hands. She spread my outer lips and ran her fingers around my clitoral bulbs, telling me what she was doing as she was doing it so I would know where everything was located. She told me things about the shape and size of my clit that would be helpful or fun for a partner to know and suggested what I (or a partner) could do with that knowledge. She demonstrated. It felt really good and relaxing. She stroked up and down slowly, quickly, light pressure, heavier pressure. She flicked and pinched my clit, delivering occasional slaps which heightened my arousal and focused my brain on being in the moment. I tried to remember to breathe this time. I focused on how the muscles in my body tensed or released depending on what was being done. I squirmed with pleasure when she stroked up and down my inner lips from the perineum up and back down again, adding pressure or taking it away as she went. Then, she felt for my g-spot, since I told her I wasn’t exactly sure if I knew where it was. She pressed it to let me know where to find it. Then started stroking it, slower first then faster. My body started shaking as she sped up. She suggested I might want to touch my breasts to add to my pleasure. I gave it a try. My body started jerking like jolts of electricity were going through it. She slapped my pussy. I was so in my body but I also felt like I was in another galaxy. My body pulsated. I kept edging. I told her when I come I’m usually not as direct with my clit and/or I use a vibrator. She asked if I wanted to show her how I bring myself to orgasm. I did so in a way I knew would make me come quickly. Based on that she tried some new things with pressure changes. It was an exquisite combination of pain and pleasure. I was living right on the threshold of ecstasy, but I wasn’t climaxing. She told me it’s easy to orgasm when we masturbate because we’ve already laid down that neural pathway. Being on the edge like this in a state of utter pleasure without the climax indicated I was starting to create new neural pathways. Then, she brought me back down. I involuntarily shook. She placed her hand on my chest and another on my vulva as we began to sigh-breathe together until my breath and body returned to a neutral state. 

During our final debrief I told Darshana how I am always in my head with my emotions, trying to untangle and identify them. Sometimes it’s hard to get the words out to describe what I’m feeling. But today I could name feelings of power, bliss, euphoria, and confidence. It made me recognize the things I always hated about my body were the things that really turned me on when they were pinched, grabbed, pulled, caressed, and slapped. They made me feel sexy and temporarily grateful for my body as it is. We could both see my nipples were such a source of pleasure and immediate arousal for me. I discovered I loved pain. It turns me on so much it can make me come. I had a feeling of pride for what my body could do, for the fun we had experimenting with it. For the laughter that naturally came up during light moments. I knew sex was about joy but this was the first time I could actually feel that joy for myself. 

Later, in my debrief with myself I didn’t overthink anything. I wrote it all down. I love sex. I love how it makes me feel. I love pain and feather light touch. For this one day, I was completely uninhibited. I was kinky. I was mostly unashamed. I enjoyed everything about my body and every new discovery it brought me. I was starting to understand a new level of intimacy and felt a desire for other types of intimacies I had always protected myself from. I created a new roadmap with routes I didn’t expect. I met a new part of myself, a new part of my sexuality. She’s fucking powerful. She is unapologetic in her wants and desires. She knows how to ask for them. She moans and convulses without shame. She laughs. She’s proud. She is me. I finally know what pleasure feels like. Having these sessions with a practitioner who helped me to be brave enough to claim my sexuality and desires was a beautiful beginning. While there is still work ahead (and in my head), I now know the pleasure I am capable of and how to get it.

A few weeks after my sessions with Darshana I downloaded an app and started messaging with a guy who looked like a lumberjack. We flirted. We made a plan to meet up. Our in-person banter was light and fun. He made it clear he wanted to please me. We left the bar and went to a hotel. My goal wasn’t to have great sex. Instead, I was focused on having a good experience and creating a safe and trusting container to explore my desires with someone new. We laughed, we talked, we fucked. After he came twice I realized I wanted to, too, but he wasn’t having success getting me there. I laid down naked in front of him and brought myself to orgasm, knowing that pleasure is our birthright and I was taking mine with my own two hands.


Erotic Wholeness Guide

I believe that each of us tending to our personal erotic liberation is an essential contribution to our collective liberation.

My journey began as a precocious child who loved to dance, move, touch and speak her mind boldly. I once thought I’d become a lawyer and spent more than a decade building a successful corporate career early in my adult life only to find my heart calling for something radically different. That call led me to blaze a path across the terrain of sexuality, somatics, social justice and soul.

Inspiration and guidance have come to me from many sources, including the potent voices of the Black intersectional feminist movement, the pancultural wisdom of many earth-based traditions and powerful modalities such as Somatic Experiencing and Sexological Bodywork.

I’m deeply honored to serve and inspire in the ways I do.

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