The biggest lie we've been told about pleasure


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

Kirsten Dunst in a scene from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.

Kirsten Dunst in a scene from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.

There is a spectre haunting us. Like an ice wind it howls through our homes, cutting through our flesh, rattling our innards and cracking our bones. It is everywhere, this spectre, lurking in our lounge rooms and tyrannizing our televisions. It has commandeered our cafes. It serves us crumbs instead of cake. 

This is the spectre behind the desiccated joylessness of cupcakes. 

This is the spectre of portion control. 

Maybe you noticed its gnarled hands curling around your Orange Is the New Black downloads, telling you to not have too many. ‘Don’t watch them all at once’ it croaked. ‘Save some for later’. 


Or perhaps you caught it transforming the writing in your book into a hieroglyphics of hunger: ‘less is more’ it whispered menacingly, with a picture of a skeletal French woman cutting a lentil in half.

It has colonized your bank account and converted that deliciously wasteful ten grand luxury holiday into a monthly mortgage payment. It has replaced the marvels of Manolo Blahniks with the monotonous hum of a Miele dishwasher. 

The spectre is everywhere, turning the giddy delights of first love into bootcamp for the heart. Don’t spend all your time together. Be disciplined. See each other a few times a week.  Don’t have sex on the first date. 

Portion Control has many co-conspirators like Impulse-Control and Self-Control, but it’s usually seen working in cahoots with the nightly forces of Pleasure Delay. 

There they are, driving their dreary Protestant swords into Instant Gratification, our lithe and wriggling hero. Portion Control and Pleasure Delay even borrow from each other’s language. Just recently, NYMag bleated at us to not ‘binge-watch’ OITNB. There are hidden pleasures in a long wait, they preached. 

Now I am happy to concede that there are times when it is best to exert self-control for the sake of future happiness. Being environmentally responsible today to halt climate change tomorrow, or giving up smoking in the interests of future health are obvious examples. 

But I resent being constantly being told to put my hedonism on hold, or that I can’t have my cake and eat it too, or too fast. What some people are calling ‘anticipatory delight’ seems to me like penitential discipline. Pleasure delay is medieval denial in modern clothes. 

First, let’s look at its origins. What’s behind this urge to put off pleasures? Why are we constantly told to have bite-sized portions of, well, everything? 

Christianity is mostly to blame. Adopting a regime of self-denial, of eucharist-sized dessert, is nothing more than contemporary martyrdom. It’s proving your virtue through renouncing the flesh and through disciplining desire. It’s a perverse form of acetic distinction that works in the same way that boring ethical Christians distinguished themselves from riotous pleasure-filled pagans. 

Like any form of cultural distinction, this denial is an operation of power. Announcing your capacity for pleasure-delay or small portions, means you enter the ranks of a morally pure in-group whose hungry, fasting bodies mark their supremacy over a lusty, wanton out-group. 

It’s Christendom vs the Barbarians. It’s the chosen ones vs the sinners. It’s cupcakes vs mudcake. 

Why else do we use the language of Christianity when describing pleasure? Is a magnum bar really ‘wicked’? How is a detox anything other than a ritualistic renunciation of sin? How is pleasure delay any different to earthly denial in this world in anticipation for heavenly fulfillment in the next? 

Unsurprisingly, the middle-classes of the Victorian era loved Christianity. The bourgeoisie and baby Jesus went together like Lizzy and Darcy. And so pleasure-delay became a mark of social status. The middle classes thought they were peculiarly blessed by a capacity for thrift over impulse, for industry over amusement and edification over sensory indulgence. The working classes and non-Europeans, they argued, lived in a carnivalesque world of sex and sin.   

Much the same logic still operates today. A thin body happy to wait for tomorrow’s pleasures communicates social status to those around them and a virtuous inner moral state.  It suggests that the same discipline and improving fervor that this person applies to their body can also be applied to their work. 

This happy docile worker doesn’t need external oversight! They’re already overseeing themselves. 

This is also the logic that allows the execrable Jamie Oliver to saunter into working class schools and sneer that the children don’t have argula for lunch. 

But we don’t all shoulder this burden of impulse-control equally. It’s women who are told that they have to wait for food/serials/sex/ and pleasure and it’s women who are taught that they have less right to pleasure than men. How else does the sexual double standard work? Men’s right to sex is considered natural and necessary - ‘he’s just sowing his wild oats’, ‘men need sex.’ Women’s sexual desire is either denied - ‘they’re more emotional’ - or socially punished - ‘they’re sluts’. Men can be bawdy, boozy, hedonistic brawlers but women must contain their primal urges.  Why? Well, it’s complicated. But it’s partly because of fears of female sexuality as a volatile force in need of repression and partly because bourgeois women have been responsible for socially policing the bounds of class. Their bodies have needed to be socially legible to each other at a glance. 

It may seem like a harmless rustling – a journalist benignly suggesting that we not give up an entire weekend to watch what happens to Crazy Eyes. But I say the rustling is sinister. It’s the croak of a gloomy spectre telling you to renounce the joys of desire and the flesh and to discipline the delights of the heart.