The writer, speaker, certified trauma professional, and sexuality educator talks The Pleasure Plan.
When you write a memoir, people often tell you that you're brave — to be so vulnerable, to expose yourself (metaphorically, of course) so deeply, to appear neurotic, needy, or just plain unlikable. Laura Zam takes this fearlessness to Medal of Courage levels in her new book, The Pleasure Plan. Let's just say holding a mirror between her knees and showing her lady parts to a roomful of strangers (all naked, to boot) is not the most revealing moment in the narrative.
Not even close.
An extension of her New York Times “Modern Love” essay published in 2014, Zam's book is about sexual healing — hers, specifically — and, by extension, ours. In an effort to save her marriage, she tries numerous erotic-recovery techniques, including hypnosis with a bawdy therapist; Tantra with a geriatric mistress; and cutting-edge workshops in desire, arousal, and climax. Included at the end of each chapter is a guide with practical tips and worksheets.
Ultimately, The Pleasure Plan is more, much more, than the story of Zam's quest for sexual healing. It's hysterically funny (she records her thoughts in what she dubs a Screw Journal), heartbreaking (her mother is a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in the gas chambers), and a cri de coeur that empowers women to speak up, seek help, and take charge of their own sexual health.
Why do women have a hard time recognizing, addressing, and talking about their sexual issues?
Our pleasure is completely undervalued. In grade-school health classes, we don’t learn about our main sex organ, the clitoris, not the whole structure (what’s inside and outside the body). Also, throughout a woman’s life, she has it drilled into her: “Sex” is, conceptually, organized around male ejaculation. Unless a woman is in a queer relationship, she thinks her pleasure is a warm-up act for the main attraction.
You tried 30 different sexual-healing modalities. Which helped the most and least?
What helped the least is where I start my book: having a therapist tell me I wasn’t a “sexual person,” so I should just lie there and accept painful pounding so my husband wouldn’t leave me. Yeah, that was bad advice. But even so, everything I tried had some significance in understanding trauma recovery, female sexuality, relationships, and my own individual problems. What helped the most was working with women, most of them post-menopausal “goddess-crones” who passed on vast knowledge of human sexuality — in particular, sexologist Betty Dodson; Francesca, Tantrika; my physical therapist, Stephanie; and Diana Daffner, who runs couples’ workshops with her husband.
You attended some risqué counseling sessions, and some that required your husband’s participation. How did you convince him to be fully on board and to be portrayed honestly in your play and in the book?
It wasn’t easy. Initially, my husband, Kurt, was afraid I was just digging up old trauma. He was interested in better sex, though — for him and for me. Once my recovery went into full gear, he was not only fully onboard, he began to say, “Hey, I need sexual healing, too.” I think people of all genders are carrying the wounds of abuse, rejection, body shame, and so many other experiences that need healing.
It was shocking to find out how little training doctors, even OBGYNs, get in sexual health. The same applies to mental health professionals. Why do you think that is, and how can we bring awareness to this issue?
Since female pleasure is not prioritized as a societal issue, it’s not prioritized as a medical or clinical issue vis-a-vis training curricula. Doctors, including OBGYNs, receive very little information in medical school about how pleasure works and how it interfaces with common sexual dysfunctions, like low libido and painful sex. Therapists are also under-trained in human sexuality, though some physicians and therapists do seek out sex education on their own initiative. One goal of my book is to start a conversation around this lack of training, helping medical and mental health professionals better serve their populations.
How were you able to bring humor to such serious topics? Why did you think it was important to do so?
It wasn’t really a choice; it’s just how my brain works. In teaching workshops on using humor to reshape trauma narratives, however, I did really dig into the significance and the science. In order to laugh at our circumstances, we first must rise above the pain of it. From this perch, it’s easier to find solutions. Humor, I believe, is a critical step in recovery.
If women could take away just one thing from this book, what do you hope it would be?
Pleasure matters. It matters because each of us matters. Our experience on this earth means something. I want to help my readers see their lives as precious and valuable. I hope my book inspires them to celebrate their bodies, their exuberance, their time on this planet, and their worth.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I'm so jazzed about connecting with my readers. Coronavirus has made me think about all kinds of new ways, like doing Facebook Live and creating an online course based on my book. I'm also gearing up to do tons of public speaking once we're allowed to congregate again. Maybe another book will emerge from all these soulful interactions. Who knows?
[Editor's note: Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, will host a virtual launch for The Pleasure Plan on Saturday, May 16th, at 6PM. Click here for info.]
Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.