Pleasure isn’t guilty

The delightful Bree recently commented that ‘pleasure isn’t guilty,’ a statement I strongly agree with, but it’s something the United States and many other heavily Christian, Westernised cultures struggle with. This reflects a number of social attitudes, but one of the strongest may be the streak of Calvinism that runs through countries like the US. In order to be good citizens and in order to be righteous, we must suffer — thus, pleasure must be punished, and classified as a wrongness. If something is enjoyable, it’s evidence of guilt.

Comments like ‘it’s my guilty pleasure’ or ‘it’s my guilty secret’ are common — as are ‘oh, I couldn’t’ in response to being presented with something that will be enjoyable, like a slice of cake or a handful of berries. Women in particular are prone to this social attitude, believing that they need to shrink up very small and not enjoy anything about their lives in order to be viewed as human beings. If they don’t, they’re obviously speaking and acting out of turn, because women aren’t supposed to enjoy things. See, for example, the incredibly tangled and gross attitudes surrounding female sexuality in the West, where the very act of deriving pleasure from sex, let alone actively soliciting, is viewed as evidence that a woman is morally suspect.

If something is enjoyable, it shouldn’t cause guilt. It should just be enjoyable. It’s fine to do something that’s fun, and in fact, there’s a lot of evidence to support the hypothesis that doing things that make you feel good contributes to better mental and physical health. If you decide to take the day off from work and do nothing in particular, it’s not a guilty pleasure — maybe you needed a day away from the pressure of a potentially intense work environment. If you want a slice of cake, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Cake is value neutral; it’s society that has decided to assign cake a negative value, judging those who choose to enjoy it.

The ‘guilty pleasure’ paradigm is very directly tied into the sexist attitude that women need to apologise for everything they do. Enjoyment as moral wrong is an entrenched value in societies heavily influenced by Calvinist and extremely austere moral and social attitudes, and thus people feel a very twisted and upsetting need to apologise for enjoying something. More so, for just being happy, as though they are causing some kind of direct harm to society by sitting on the beach in the sun or watching television or eating a cookie. The logic behind the imperative to apologise is trained into people of all genders, but especially women, at a very early age, and it’s difficult to disentangle.

Things that should cause guilt are those that cause a collective harm to society. Murdering should make people feel guilty, because they are taking another human life and contributing to untold suffering on the part of the victim and her survivors, the friends, family, loved ones, and other that she touched and might have touched had she remained alive. Abuse should make people feel guilty, because it hurts people and causes lasting harm in the long term as well. Things that damage other human beings and hurt the structure of society as a whole should induce a sense of guilt, as they’re violations of basic ethics as well as the social contract.

A sense of scale is appropriate, and people may have varying lines for greater or lesser violations of the social contract; one person might meticulously keep to the speed limit on the grounds that it’s the law, while another might feel that exceeding it by 10-20 miles per hour isn’t cause for concern. But some things are clearly categorical sources of social harm, and these are the things that we should be identifying as guilt-inducing. Not eating a cookie. Not violating a diet. Not enjoying a fun television show. Not reading romance novels, a frequent target of abusive commentary from people convinced that they’re superior to romance novels.

Something pleasurable for you might not be pleasurable for someone else — I deeply enjoy watching Reign, for example, while you might think it’s terrible — but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you consume it, or observe it, or participate in it, and you have fun. You may feel better about yourself. You may feel more able to engage in society. You may feel less constricted. These pleasures are the things that make life worth living for a reason, and loading them with a complex of guilt makes them much more difficult to enjoy; the notion that people must apologise at every step for the things they like also reinforces elitist notions of what is socially acceptable to enjoy and what is not.

Kale, yes, cake, no. The Wire, yes, Reign, no. Literary fiction, yes, romance novels, no. These artificial boundaries create a clear divide of what should induce guilt and what should not, and set standards by which society is supposed to abide; some things are art to be viewed seriously and respectfully, while others are ‘trash’ and the people who enjoy them are suspect, so thus must apologise for liking them.

Pleasure should be viewed as what it is: Value-positive. It induces a sense of gain and fulfillment. This is not a bad thing. People do not need to apologise for the natural human desire to pursue something that makes them happy, whatever that thing might be. Claiming that people are wrong or deviant for the things they enjoy is far greater evidence of moral failing than enjoying them in the first place.

Image: Chocolate Treat, sea turtle, Flickr