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The History of ‘Guilty Pleasure’

I have a radical idea: …let’s take down the term “guilty pleasure.”

What if we stop feeling guilty about pleasure and the joy that accompanies it and actually use pleasurable experiences as a way to love and empower ourselves? 

I remember my first intuitive development teacher, who, in my 26 year-old eyes, was an infinitely wise and intelligent woman. One night she mentioned to her students how she and her partner watched “Wheel of Fortune” every week. I remember thinking how relatable and “normal” that sounded, like the Dalai Lama enjoying a pink-frosting covered donut.  Both sound like ‘guilty pleasures’ – don’t they?  

I notice that many people possess the attitude, “it’s OK for other people to enjoy pleasurable experiences, but not me.” Interestingly, when it comes to one’s own self, especially for women, the attitude toward enjoying pleasure is substantially more stringent. There’s resistance to taking time to do anything other than work at one’s job and care for others, and enjoying simple things such as:

  • Stopping at a gift shop just to read the funny cards
  • Putting whipped cream on one’s coffee
  • Watching Real Housewives of New Jersey
  • Taking a languorous bubble bath

When we admit that we have indulged in pastimes like these, they’re automatically tagged with being wasteful, overly indulgent or wrong in some way, even sinful. Sometimes people go so far as to “confess” their pleasurable pursuits to a trusted friend as a way to decrease the guilt they feel through the acknowledgment and validation of a sympathetic person.

Clearly, pleasure and guilt are prevalent in many people’s lives.  In order to stop feeling guilty about pleasure, however, it is best that we understand it a bit, so we know exactly what we are taking down.  What follows is a very brief history of guilty pleasures, followed by some closing thoughts on the matter.   

Where does this term and the idea of feeling bad about pleasure even come from?

A guilty pleasure is a phrase commonly used to describe something you enjoy, but you feel guilty about enjoying it, and you do it anyway.

This association with pleasure and guilt has a storied history in White, Euro-American, Western civilization! Indulging in pleasurable, oftentimes sensuous experiences was deemed sinful by many ancient Christian Church leaders. Catholic “confession,” a recommended regular activity for devout Catholics wherein they sit in a small booth and confess their sins to a compassionate priest listening in, is one manifestation of how pleasure and guilt are encircled by religious doctrine. In response to the penitent person’s confessions, the priest often recommended religious actions such as repeating certain prayers as a way to redeem the person from their sinful actions and release them from burdensome feelings of guilt.  

When the Protestant Reformation took place in the 1600s and many European faithful left the Catholic Church and formed new Protestant churches (that eventually became the recognizable Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Congregational church movements), it called for new ideas about guilt and sin.  Under Catholicism, being a member of the church and following its sacraments anointed the person as ‘saved’ by God. That presented problems for the Reformation’s leader, Martin Luther. He had to figure out how God can show who his blessed followers are, now that the religious edifice of the Catholic church had been abandoned. The answer – was with an abundant life. If your belly was full, and you had a home and possibly some property, it was proof that you were with God and He had bestowed the gift of abundance on you and your family.  Subsequently, many Protestant faithful were extraordinarily disciplined, denied many pleasures, and worked extra hard to earn an abundance in their lives, which meant they were graced with God’s blessing.  

The tension here – between denying one’s needs to meet one’s work goals and one’s personal needs (including pleasurable needs) – formed the foundation for what the pioneering sociologist Max Weber called “the Protestant Work Ethic.” This famous White, Western ethic pushes us to work our tails off to amass wealth and prestige because it shows that you are one of God’s chosen.

Oh, but unpacking the meaning of “guilty pleasure” includes a more psychological twist.  

Scholars claim that the term “guilty pleasures” began circulating in the 19th century.  It may have influenced Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who was part of a large scale 19th century White, Western intellectual movement to better understand the individual person. Modern psychology is the product of this initiative.   Freud dismantled the classic notion of the religious soul lying at the core of our being and instead posited a purely psychological person with three conflicting parts: the superego – which is the part of us that embodies the rules and laws and is associated with our conscience; the id, which is the impulsive, animalistic side of our psyche and is motivated to pursue pleasure (also known as the pleasure principle), and the ego, which plays the role of mediator between the demands of the superego and the impulses of the id. The id, ever pursuing pleasure, might be desirous for some tantalizing thing, ranting, “I want my pleasure now.” Whereas the superego says, “No, that is not good for you.  Behave yourself.” And the ego, charged with relentlessly steering your personhood through this conflict, employs all kinds of psychological strategies to delay gratification and diffuse the id’s pleasure-seeking demands. Critics have argued that Freud’s superego is nothing but a psychological stand-in for God and the id is nothing but our carnal, impulsive, sinner, suggesting that Freud is less modern psychology and more a refitting of Judeo-Christian theology in  modern, secular dress. Regardless of the similarities, both models put you at the center of this conflict between disciplined saint-superego and impulsive, pleasure-seeking id-sinner.

Freud had a special theory about guilt.  

When we ignore the demands of the superego our conscience pricks us, and we feel guilty, which is not a pleasant experience. The pleasure seeking id is taken aback by the apparent punishment following pleasure seeking. Subsequently, we  behave and deny the id’s pleasure seeking in order to not feel guilty, because that’s not pleasurable either. We avoid eating the chocolate cake because it’s both unhealthy and if we eat it we will feel bad; we let ourselves down in some way. We don’t hit people when we’re angry because it will physically hurt them, cause us to lose friends, get us charged with assault, we will regret it, etc. In each case, the experience of guilt – of having our conscience aroused around potentially inappropriate behavior – curtails us from doing the act because the guilt we will feel is not pleasurable.  Not surprising that Freud thought the capacity to feel guilt was a central component of civilization. Without it, there would be few constraints. One definition of a sociopath, or a person pathologically anti-social, is that they are incapable of knowing right from wrong, and thus inured to the feelings of guilt and shame, which makes them dangerous to society. Note that shame has entered this narrative, but that is for another newsletter!

That brings us to the present – more or less – and the task at hand of taking down the term “guilty pleasures.” There are several ways to do this. Feminists argue that this entire history is saturated with patriarchy. The very existence of guilt as a means of control perpetuates the interest of men and denies power to others. God is the father who punishes those who misbehave, while the church’s old male patriarchs are responsible for the theology that set up the idea that pleasure is sinful in the first place.  Freud and most of his lot of founding psychologists were relentlessly sexist. In this light, rejecting the idea that pleasure is sinful – or guilt inducing – can be seen as both subversive and liberating. Yes, reject the idea that a bubble-bath is a guilty pleasure!  It is a liberating, revolutionary act against a stultifying patriarchy whose policies squelch the power of pleasure! You go girl!

In another light, simply understanding this history allows some degree of personal freedom.  

We can choose how we are going to feel. Yes, too much chocolate cake is bad for you, but in moderation, it’s fine. Indulge! Enjoy! Guilt begone! Yes, most of us will have to delay some gratification – and pleasure – to meet our work goals. But there’s tiny daily pleasures, such as feeling the softness of a flower petal between our fingers or taking time to massage scented lotion into our skin after a shower, as well as the weekend and vacations! Indulge! Enjoy! The point here is that in this modern psychological world, we have the power to choose. And I choose to take down the idea that my pleasures instill guilt and instead, insist that my pleasures are my own, and I am fully enjoying them without a twinge of guilt as a defiant act of self-love.

Now the pleasure is being free of the guilt of pleasure.  

That is empowering! This works well for the first piece of chocolate cake, and maybe for the second, but by the third, a modern embodiment of the superego shows up in my world, the state-supported dietary expert who warns me not to eat too much sugar, cholesterol etc. And the reality is, pursuing certain pleasures harms others. Unless we intend to be hurtful, we want to avoid these actions! Oh well! Maybe there is some truth to Freud’s views of guilt, but he too must be taken in moderation!

Questions or comments about this topic? Just pop me an email. Connecting with you would be my pleasure.

©2023 Julie Schmit, Shakti Bodyworks, LLC, DBA Bold and Sacred

Post Author: Julie Schmit