Welcome to the first column in an occasional series about sexual communication! Today, we’re starting at the beginning, with a topic that you don’t really hear that much about: sexual communication with yourself.

A Greater Good series about sexual communication

What the heck does that mean, exactly? On the simplest, most visceral level, I’m talking about knowing what kind of sexual experience your body would like to have. Note that I say “your body,” not “you.” Why the distinction? Because the conscious mind isn’t really the source of desire. At the end of the day, what you want is what you want.

The trick is figuring that out, and, here, science can help a bit. Many people easily befriend their libidos and fantasies; for them, desire comes naturally and in many forms. This particular column is not really for those people…sorry, people. Instead, I’m speaking to everyone else, to those who are in a stage of life when they’re struggling to admit to themselves what they want and how they want it.

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What gets in the way of knowing your own desires? Youth, for one thing: It takes time and experience to get to know yourself. Later, perhaps, your personality might get in the way: For example, maybe you’re too damn intellectual and uptight (that once described yours truly, I’m sorry to say). An aversion to your own desires could be the result of sexual abuse, or of an injury. Your medications might be a problem. Menopause or some other carnal evolution could be a factor. It could come from being raised with values that ask you to feel ashamed of your body and desires, because sexual activity outside of marriage—including with yourself—was deemed a sin.

No matter what is putting up barriers between you and your sexual self, you can overcome them. And when you learn to sexually communicate with yourself, then your sexual communication with others will dramatically improve. Here are some ideas to consider and skills to develop.

Masturbation as journey

Where to begin? I actually do think masturbation is an excellent starting point—you’re probably there already, even if most of the world’s major religions don’t approve.

Our society has made good progress on masturbation. The number of people who admit to masturbating seems to have gently increased over the past few decades, especially women, making it the world’s most popular sexual activity. And it has become way more visible in the culture at large, on TV, in movies, and even in novels (starting most famously with Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint).

Most recent studies suggest that about 80% of men (give or take 10 points) and two thirds of women bring themselves to orgasm at least several times a month. Those numbers fluctuate wildly based on demographic factors like age.

One pattern I’ve noticed, in reviewing these studies, is that we tend to touch ourselves more during transitional periods of our lives. It’s not surprising to hear that male teenagers engage in a lot of self-pleasuring—but did you know that women seem to masturbate more as they approach menopause? This to me gets to an important point: During times in our lives when our bodies are changing, we may need to figure out, once again, who we are and what we want. Masturbation is one way to do that.

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We think of masturbation as hands on genitals with orgasm as the goal, but here, I’m going to define it more precisely as generating fantasies in your mind, to discover how your body responds to each one, while using different kinds of self-touch to explore that intersection. Orgasms are, in fact, optional. When we jack (or jill) off, we’re traveling along a body-mind loop, taking in the sights, seeing what we have to offer ourselves, not necessarily traveling the fast train toward O-Town.

Sex educator Emily Nagoski wrote an excellent book on the topic titled Come As You Are, that I’d recommend for those struggling to understand their sexual selves. If you are, you’re not alone. One of the many things I liked about the Netflix series Sex Education is that the protagonist, Otis, doesn’t know how to pleasure himself. In his case, it’s precisely the pressure to be sexual that prevents him finding his true sexual self. When he finally does, the results are, um, explosive.

Sex Education also features a character who is asexual, or Ace. Not everyone experiences sexual desire. When I talk about listening to your body, it’s OK for that body to say it’s not interested in sex with others or with yourself, temporarily or permanently—and if that seems to be who you are, then of course there’s a recent book for you: Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, by Angela Chen.

Masturbation as mindfulness

I like to see masturbation as being essentially a mindfulness exercise, in the same league with breathing meditation, the raisin meditation, and the body scan.

In point of fact, I think all three of those exercises can help put you in better touch with your body and your fantasies. In a mindful state, we’re intentionally paying attention to what’s happening while it’s happening, with kindness, without judgment—and as we’ll discuss, that kindful, nonjudgmental part is rather important when it comes to sexual self-communication.

You might even consider starting a masturbation session with a body scan, which simply involves pointing the spotlight of your attention at your own body, one part at a time, head, shoulders, knees, and toes. If you’re giving this exercise a sexual spin, then you might gradually bring your attention to your genitals.

I think it’s important, if you are treating masturbation as a mindfulness exercise, to let go of any goals, including that of arousal. “At the heart of mindfulness lies a deep paradox: We facilitate change by not trying to change,” write Emily Nagoski and OB-GYN Dr. Lori Brotto in their 2018 book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire. They continue:

Acceptance is a difficult word to apply to sexual concerns. Women resist the idea, thinking, “If I accept my lack of desire, aren’t I accepting that I’ll have to live with it forever?” On the contrary, only by allowing ourselves to be fully aware of our internal experience can we understand it well enough to know what our bodies need.

You can say something similar of research into survivors of childhood sexual abuse, where mindfulness has been documented as an effective treatment. In her 1999 book, The Survivor’s Guide to Sex, Staci Haines features accounts of how kind, nonjudgmental masturbation helped women find themselves. As one person, “Stephanie,” writes:

I learned to slow down and not just go for the orgasm masturbating. As I began to pay closer attention, I saw the entire cycle of my sexual “stuckness.” I begin to get sexually aroused, begin to feel excited, and then get a wave of shame: “I am not supposed to be doing this.” I keep masturbating, and the next wave is guilt: “See, I do like it, so I did deserve the abuse.” If I can keep breathing and touching myself, the grief and sadness under the guilt and shame come up. Usually then I cry. I get farther each time, though. I used to stop at the shame, and just shut down. I feel like now I am unpacking that guilt and shame from on top of my sexuality and feeling the deeper levels. I am freeing myself up.

Stephanie’s testimony is a beautiful summation of the power of sexual mindfulness. While both of these books are targeted at women who are struggling with sexual self-connection, the insights they share can apply to all of us.

Indeed, during the past few years, more and more studies have explored the interactions of mindfulness and sex with many different populations. For example, a researcher at Brigham Young University recently found that an online sexual mindfulness program seemed to help Black and interracial couples experience more emotional and sexual satisfaction. Another study published this year in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy got similar results with a two-session, six-hour program. Yet another paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior looked specifically at nonjudgmental awareness and found that people who exhibited it had higher relational flourishing and sexual harmony, if not “orgasm consistency.”

As Nagoski suggests in Come As You Are, when practicing masturbation as a form of mindfulness, you should try to approach yourself with kindness. Speak to yourself as an ideal lover might, in a way that is gentle and caring. Intentionally focus on the things you like about your body, consciously overriding self-criticism. Aim to welcome and even to (when you’re ready) celebrate your sexual self as it is, not what your younger self or your parents or society have said it should be. Meeting yourself where you are right now is the essence of sexual mindfulness—and it’s a skill that transferrable to sex with partners.

Masturbation and bravery

Many people see masturbation as unnecessary if you have a sexual partner or partners. Some people don’t like it when their partners masturbate, experiencing it as an insult: “Shouldn’t I be enough?” If you feel this way, nothing I write here will convince you otherwise. However, consider those feelings in light of what I’ve written so far.

I know a couple who intentionally made space for each other to masturbate during pandemic quarantines. One of them would keep their remote-schooling kids away from the master bedroom, so that the other could take time for self-exploration.

This was necessary for both of them. She was going through menopause, and the meds she took to deal with pandemic-time depression were killing her sex drive. Since her desire to have sex with her husband had waned, he simply needed the relief. Later, they learned to masturbate side by side, as they went to bed.

In the process, she was learning about her new body, watching different kinds of pornography, discovering what now led to arousal and what didn’t, and letting him in on her discoveries. The fact that he respected her boundaries and made space for her self-exploration enhanced their trust and connection, instead of diminishing it.

Today, from what I understand, they more often have sex together. It’s different than what they had before. They have sex less frequently, and orgasm is more optional; they’ve learned to playfully tease each other before she turns to her vibrator and he puts his hand to use. I, for one, find this story very sweet and romantic, but there’s also a lesson in it: Learning and re-learning to sexually connect with yourself can help you to have strong sexual connections with others, if that’s what you want.

I started this column by separating mind and body, but only because there are times when their connection is broken. In the end, of course, “You are not separate from your body,” writes Haines in The Survivor’s Guide to Sex. “Rather, your self is revealed in and through your body all the time.”

Finding that oneness can take bravery. For real. Not the kind of heroic courage that involves running into a burning building to save a kitten; this is more the ordinary kind of bravery that helps you to keep growing when it would be easier to hide or stand still. As my colleague Amy Eva has argued here in Greater Good, cultivating everyday courage involves seeing yourself as courageous, getting comfortable with mistakes and dead ends, trying and trying again, looking for role models, and clarifying what’s important to you.

In future columns of “Good Sex Talk,” I’ll be getting outside of our individual heads and exploring sexual communication across minds and bodies—and we’ll be talking a lot more about being brave. Sex can involve so much shame and fear, and those feelings might always be with us.

But what could we become if we befriended those feelings and politely asked them to sit down, so that other feelings could come forward? What if we approached sex as an opportunity for compassion, empathy, gratitude, and generosity—or even awe, forgiveness, and purpose? What possibilities would open up to us, if we could do that? That’s what I’m aiming to explore.

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