Consequences of Sensual Expression

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Dear Dr Ren,

When I relocated from a city to the town where my sister lives, she gave me a gift certificate for a massage with Kelly, her regular RMT. Following that session, I mentioned intending to rebook another appointment. My sister said she’d give me another recommendation, but Kelly wouldn’t see me again. I had to pry to get the reason.

It seems I moaned during my massage and that offended Kelly. Apparently I sounded “sexual.” It wasn’t sexual…I was just responding to my pleasure! I was shocked and angry at first, but those emotions gave way to a deep internal shame. I had embarrassed my dear sister, and potentially damaged my reputation.

I wondered who else judged me for what I considered simple expressions of pleasure.

Now I find myself hyper aware of how I express my response to any kind of pleasure, lest I’ll be judged. I’m less quick to hug, or even touch someone casually. How can I know what’s acceptable?

Have I missed an etiquette lesson?


Dear Moana,

This incident has clearly had a profound effect on you. Kelly’s response to your coos of pleasure during your massage is an example of what we call sex panic or pleasure phobia.

As a culture, we are confused and conflicted about sex, touch and pleasure, and how we combine and differentiate them. Sex’s power sometimes frightens us. That can stop us from fully expressing ourselves so that we don’t risk appearing sexually motivated even when we’re not.

All touch becomes suspect when we’re nervous about sexuality. Because sex and touch are so intertwined in our society, it can be difficult to disentangle them in every context without additional cues to how to interpret the touch correctly. Kelly’s discomfort with sensual sound resulted from her misinterpretation of your sounds as sexual, and that frightened her.

We go so far with this fear that a parochial school recently imposed a No Touch rule for its students. That’s right: elementary school kids will be punished if they are ‘caught’ touching! Teachers, sadly, have long been advised about the ‘inappropriateness’ of touching their students, even when they need comforting.

The concept of ‘pleasure’ gets even more confusing. It’s difficult to pigeon-hole the source of pleasure, as it lives in a multitude of settings, situations and contexts.  If Kelly’s frame of reference regarding pleasure is limited, she’ll lack an appreciation for context. Hence, she interpreted your appreciative moans as your aching muscles eased as love calls.

So yes, Moana, I do think it’s easy to offend the skittish. Those who are uncomfortable with sex will likely be judgmental about expressions of pleasure as well. You experienced deep shame as a result of her judgment.

Perhaps your new town is less enlightened than your old one. You may have to reign in your exuberance to fit in. That’s the sad but realistic news.

The good news is that, once behind the walls of your own home, you can set the rules. Enjoy hugging family and friends. Set an ethic of abundant physical interaction within your inner circle.

And inside your bedroom, you can express yourself with abandon, free from judgment. No need to hold back here. Here you can be as expressive as you want to be. Create an environment in which pleasure and erotic heat can flourish. Design your own personal oasis where unfettered emotion and expression always welcome you!

You’ll encounter lots of Kellys. Though you may resent having to trim your expressive sails to avoid the shame they would have you wear, you can balance the injustice by building a judgment free, touch positive zone within your own home.