Self-Pleasure That’s Really About Pleasure

Self-pleasure is a particularly relevant topic right now, as COVID-19 reshapes the way we conduct our lives, including our intimate lives. Many of us are quarantined, sheltering in place, or socially-isolated, and most of us are avoiding unnecessary contact with others, even if we’re still going to a physical workplace. Some are separated from partners, others are not. Either way, this moment in history is an opportunity to explore your own sense of what is erotic. I’ve gotten some questions about this topic, so today, I’m going to focus on self-pleasure and how to build a stronger erotic connection with yourself. 

In our culture, we tend to assume that desire comes from outside ourselves: we see a sexy person walk by, and we get turned on. But the truth is that desire comes from within: when that sexy person walks by, it leads to a thought, and that thought comes from within you. It’s your interpretation of any given stumulus that makes it erotic, and results in you feeling turned on. It’s not a “bolt from the blue;” it comes from your own erotic self. 

Why is this important? This is the point I want to make: because sexual desire is essentially seated with you, it is something that you can nurture. This is where building a positive relationship with your erotic self starts. Could you build the ability, within yourself, to turn yourself on because you want to be turned on? To feel sexy because you want to feel sexy? To create a sexual vibe within yourself, because you want to experience that? 

In our culture, self-pleasure is called masturbation, and it’s seen as a sin, or as somehow harmful. We’re subjected to tons of propaganda about the dangers of self-pleasure, social, religious, and otherwise. I want to reframe that: self-pleasure is simply that, pleasure you create for yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you have one partner or multiple, whether you’re in the same home or in different homes, or whether you’re sheltering in place separately or together. Everyone has access to their own feelings of desire and arousal within themselves, and this is a great opportunity to explore that.

When we talk about masturbation, the implication seems to be that it’s a quick and somewhat shameful thing you do in secret. Maybe you do it for a purpose: 

  • to manage anxiety
  • because you’re bored and it gives you something to do
  • as a study break or a work break
  • to relieve your menstrual cramps
  • to help you go to sleep
  • to relieve intense feelings of desire

Now, all of those are great reasons for self-pleasure, but it seems to be that the “pleasure” part is strangely absent. If this is a sneaky, shameful thing we do as quickly as possible, just to get it over with, I think we are selling ourselves short. 

What if you really treated self-pleasure as a form of pleasure? What would make it luxurious and lovely? Think about it for a minute. 

  • Would you light candles? 
  • Would you take your time? 
  • Would you tease a little? 
  • Would you bring in some other things that are sexy to you? Maybe some props or a sexy story? 
  • Maybe a sexy phone call with your beloved? 
  • Would you explore your body more broadly?

Whatever you would choose to bring in to make your self-love deeply pleasurable and erotic is wonderful; it’s all about discovering your inner eroticism and following where it leads. 

If you missed last week’s blog, check it out here; it’s all about self-pleasure strategies partners can use to stay connected while they’re self-isolating. I’m going to be vlogging and writing a lot more in the coming weeks about the impact of COVID-19 on sex, intimacy, and relationships, so stay tuned!

How Self-Pleasure Can Help Partners Stay Close in the face of COVID-19

Last week, I blogged about how COVID-19 has impacted people’s romantic and sexual lives. Today, I’m following up by offering some practical advice for how people can maintain a fulfilling intimate connection and a joyful sex life, even when they’re socially distanced from their partners. I’m going to be focusing on self-pleasure, because it’s one of the most useful skills you can have for maintaining a satisfying erotic life. 

Contrary to popular belief, self-pleasure can be immensely useful for strengthening your sexual connection with your partner. This is more true than ever right now, when many people are socially distanced from their partners, either because they’re living in separate households or because they’re trying to avoid sharing germs within the same household. It can be very disappointing and frustrating to be unable to physically connect with your partner in person. Right now, if you are socially distanced from your partner, you can’t have partnered sex, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share erotic experiences, or experience intimacy and closeness. That’s where self-pleasure comes in. 

If you have clients who are socially distanced from their partners, now might be a good time for you to get comfortable discussing the concept of self-pleasure with your clients. They may need your help to think creatively about the possibilities for connection that are still open to them, even in this time of social distancing. They will also need your encouragement: it’s hard, but they can get through this. It’s going to be okay. In fact, I think there are some ways that partners can actually take advantage of this situation to build skills that will help them to create a stronger sexual connection now, and in the future. 

In our culture, we tend to assume that sexual touch should be from one person to another person. I don’t agree with that idea. In my experience, one of the most powerful sexual skills you can possibly have is the ability to touch yourself for pleasure when your partner is with you, and for you to find it erotic to watch your partner do the same. 

That’s because, over the course of their life, there are almost certainly going to be situations where partnered sex is off the table. We’re living through a very dramatic example of that principle right now, but this will probably not be the last time that your clients find themselves in a situation where their typical ways of having sex aren’t working for them. 

When that happens, you don’t want them to have to shut the door to intimacy entirely. Self-pleasure is an incredibly useful, and versatile, skill. Being able to experience pleasure in tandem with your partner, without worrying about giving them an orgasm, or about triggering sex pain, or about having an orgasm too quickly or too slowly, can really reduce anxiety, and therefore free up more psychic energy for pleasure and connection. It can allow partners to have a joyful, connected sexual experience, when otherwise they may have had a stressful, disappointing experience, or given up on having sex entirely. 

The key to having great sex over a lifetime is flexibility. If you want to maintain a fulfilling sexual connection over the many changing circumstances of a lifespan, you’ll need to be able to respond creatively to new challenges. Now is a perfect moment to practice that skill. Let’s imagine that you’re on some kind of videoconference platform with your partner, and you’re having an intimate interlude. You’re going to have to touch yourself if you want there to be genital touch, because your partner is far away, on the other side of a screen. This is the same for phone sex and sexting. Of course, if you just want fun, juicy flirtation, you can totally do that without touching your genitals. But if what you want is genital touch, I’m here to remind you that you can do that. Just put your hand on your genitals, and enjoy the vibe you can build with your partner when they’re doing the same. 

This as an opportunity to for your clients to build their repertoire of ways to experience erotic connection with one another. If they can respond to this moment with creativity and flexibility, it will certainly pay off in their relationship down the road.

The Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part Two

This is the second post in a deep dive into the three aspects of differentiation of self. In my last post, I wrote about the first aspect, which is identifying what you feel, think, believe and prefer. You can read it here.

This time, I’m focusing on the second aspect of differentiation of self—holding steady while expressing unique and individual thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and preferences to someone else. There are two distinct and important aspects to this:

  • Holding steady, by which I mean getting grounded and remaining calm while saying your piece. This skill is foundational to effective communication, and underlies all aspects of differentiation.
  • Stating thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and preferences as clearly, deeply, and fully as possible, regardless of what reaction is likely from the listener. Depth is important. Often people make the mistake of staying on the surface of the topic, rather than going deep. That’s because it often seems like depth would be more difficult for the listener to receive gracefully. More often, the opposite is true: providing enough depth helps the listener access empathy for the speaker. A full communication should cover not just what was perceived to have happened (framed as a perception, not a “truth”, since partners may very well remember events differently), but also the feelings that occurred for the person who is speaking, and the stories or meaning made by them about the events and feelings. It is important that this communication be explicitly framed as being about the speaker’s perceptions, feelings, and meaning-making.

The second aspect of differentiation is tricky because it exists relationally, as part of a dynamic between people. Consider:

  • Someone might be very worried about how their partner will react to something they want to share. They might be able to figure out what they think, but have a lot of difficulty sharing their thoughts. 
  • If the listener begins to show emotion about what the speaker is saying, for instance by getting angry or starting to cry, the speaker might backpedal, soften, or completely change what they are saying in order to avoid a difficult discussion.
  • If the listener has a history of becoming upset during a difficult conversation, someone might choose not to disclose difficult things. This is a real pitfall if the listener becomes quite dysregulated. It can be very challenging to speak up when your partner tends toward extreme responses. Nonetheless, the downside of not speaking up is undeniable: an upsetting interaction will have been avoided, but the person who decided not to speak up will not feel seen, understood, or accepted for who they are in this relationship.

There are many reasons a person might have difficulty holding steady and expressing themselves deeply, calmly, and fully. They could be responding to echoes of past trauma, perhaps having been punished in some way for speaking up, or for individuated non-conformist thinking. They may have gotten subtle but pervasive messages that children are to be seen and not heard. Their parents may have modeled never discussing difficult topics, or difficult topics discussed by family members may have led to chaotic interactions, drama, anger, or abuse. It is also possible that their current partner engages in dramatic responses to difficult discussions, or even shuts down some conversations entirely. 

Whatever the cause, as a therapist, it is important to help clients identify how they want to be in their relationships. Do they believe in creating relationships where both partners feel seen, heard, and known? Do they believe in creating emotional safety so everyone can figure out their deeper desires, thoughts, and feelings, and discuss them? If so, the therapy will need to support the development of all three parts of differentiation. 

Here are some tips for increasing your ability to express your beliefs, preferences, and feelings:

    1. Take a deep breath. If speaking up makes you anxious, take some time to notice how you’re feeling. Breathe deeply (concentrating on a long exhale) and relax your muscles. Blink slowly. Exhaling and blinking slowly tells your limbic system that you are safe, so you can gather your thoughts more effectively.
    2. Take a few minutes to get clear. Don’t start talking until you think through what you want to express. You could even take notes or rehearse, if you’re really concerned. Get your message boiled down to one topic or one aspect of a single topic. Biting off too much at a time is a great way to flood yourself and your partner, and create confusion that makes it hard to get anywhere.
    3. Recognize that you can’t control your partner’s response. Maybe what you have to say is going to irritate or disappoint your partner. That’s survivable. “No tension ever” isn’t realistic, so don’t make that your outcome goal. Keep your eye on the real goal: saying what you intend to say.
    4. Remind yourself what kind of partner you aspire to be. Do you believe in being honest? Do you want to be fully and deeply known by your partner? Fix your focus firmly on the long term goal of building the kind of relationship you want to have, rather than the short-term goal of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion. 
    5. Keep it relatively brief. Particularly if this is a big challenge for you, keep it to 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t get distracted by other topics. 
    6. Ask your partner to say back what they are hearing. This is important because it makes it so you can clear up any misunderstandings right away. People mis-hear things all the time when stressed, so don’t skip this step.
    7. Thank your partner for listening to you. Positive feedback actually works. If your partner listened well, said something insightful, or responded in any positive manner, be sure to take the time to appreciate it. Even if it went badly, thank them for showing up and trying.
    8. Find something connecting to do after you talk. A relationship that involves constant processing leaves no room for fun. Develop the ability to intentionally create some positive experiences together. Go for a walk or bike ride, watch something fun on Netflix, or just snuggle on the couch. Pet the animals. Hush and connect.