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.

What Do You Need To Know About Asexuality?

I believe that every therapist, and certainly all sex therapists, should be prepared to work with asexual, or “ace” people. Some might assume that sex therapists don’t have anything to offer asexual clients. I can understand the misconception: what could a therapist who specializes in sex issues have to offer someone who has little or no interest in sex? However, NOT wanting sex is just as valid as WANTING sex, and both can create relational stress in certain circumstances—which you might be called upon to work with in therapy. 

Asexuality is one of the topics therapists ask me about frequently, so I’m going to provide a very brief primer on asexuality here, focusing specifically on challenges therapists have asked me about. There is much more to know; check out these online resources about asexuality:

The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network

Trevor Support Center: Asexual

50 Shades of Attraction: Understanding the Asexual Spectrum

If you’re going to work with asexual clients, there are a few basic things you must know. Asexual people and everyone in that ballpark (ace, demi-sexual, aromantic, grey-a, etc.) are marginalized populations. That means they get discriminated against as a result of people either having misconceptions and misinformation about them, no information about them, or believing they are in some way inherently bad, wrong, or broken. When you work with marginalized populations in therapy, it is extra important that you know enough about their identity (in this case, asexuality) to avoid causing harm. 

Happily, my blog post, a little online browse, and an open mind should be sufficient to get started. There is one important caveat: if you do a little reading, and find that you still believe asexual people are in some way flawed, you are not yet qualified to be their therapist. In that case, if you are still interested in working with the ace population, you will need extra training, consultation with an expert, and/or to refer those clients to someone who knows more about asexuality. 

Here are some basics:

  • An asexual person doesn’t need to have sex in order to be healthy and happy. 
  • It is possible to have a wonderful relationship without having sex. 
  • Asexuality isn’t a problem; it’s a perfectly normal way of being. 
  • Asexuality is an identity, meaning it is part of the way some people are, or how they see themselves. 
  • Asexuality is not the same as sexual aversion, or low desire, and is not a sexual dysfunction.
  • Asexuality is not caused by fear of intimacy, or attachment wounds. It is not connected to any psychopathology, any more than any other sexual orientation or identity is. That said, of course some people in any group may have attachment wounds or psychopathology. It is the lack of causation that is the important part. 
  • Asexuality is not the same as abstinence; some aces are abstinent, and some are not. Some experience self-pleasure, arousal, orgasm, and/or partner sex, and others do not.
  • Some aces enjoy romantic connections, some do not.
  • There is a huge range of self-expression in this, as in any other population. If you can imagine it, it exists.

You can put your asexual client at ease by making it clear that you understand and respect their identity, and that you’re not going to try to “fix” their asexuality. It’s ok to tell them you don’t have much experience in this area. For most people, the most important part is that your mind is open, your heart’s in the right place, and you’re willing to learn (and not just from your client). But if you happen to have a client who really wants a therapist with a lot of experience with asexuality, it would be doing them a disservice, and would also be unethical, to misrepresent yourself in this matter.

There are a number of sex- and relationship-specific challenges that might bring an asexual person to therapy, in addition to the vast array of challenges people experience that are not related to sex, sexuality, or asexuality.

For one thing, it can be very challenging as an asexual person to find an intimate partnership where they can be themselves comfortably, not feel pressured for sex, and experience intimacy in ways that they enjoy. As a therapist, your role might be to help your client navigate that challenge. You could support them through the emotional pitfalls of seeking and nurturing a relationship, and help them hold steady and speak their truth to potential partners. As always, you can do a great deal of good simply by normalizing asexuality and affirming your client’s identity. Sometimes there is also an opportunity to provide support, information, and resources to partners.

You might also see a client who needs help navigating an already existing relationship. Sometimes asexuality has always been part of the picture, and other times it emerges somewhere down the line. It is also not uncommon for a couple to come to therapy for a desire discrepancy, and in the course of therapy it begins to become clear that one partner is actually asexual. This may have always been the case for them, and they may or may not have been aware of it. Or their asexuality may have emerged more recently. Sometimes the client, and/or their partner, knows what asexuality is, and other times they are learning about asexuality from me in therapy. 

Here are some concepts that may help you as you begin to work with asexual clients:

  • Some asexual people experience willingness to have sex, even though they don’t experience desire. Being willing is sufficient for having a consensual and positive sexual experience. Identifying and accessing willingness to have sex, in the absence of sexual desire, can be a very successful solution for some couples. Of course you must ensure that the asexual partner’s choice to have sex is freely chosen and authentic, without any external or internal coercion or pressure. Otherwise, it doesn’t really check the box for “willingness”.
  • Sometimes consensual non-monogamy is a workable solution, because it makes it possible for the couple to preserve their relationship while also allowing the non-asexual partner to express and explore their sexuality. 
  • Lots of asexual people experience romantic love, so this can offer a point of intimate connection that works for all involved.
  • More people are somewhat ambivalent about sex than you might think, without being asexual. It is certainly possible for a sexual person to be in a relationship with an asexual person, and to make the decision that sex isn’t as important to them as other ways of connecting, experiencing intimacy, and being close. 
  • All relational therapy is about strengthening connection, so place your focus there. Some people connect through sex, some through outdoor activities, some by raising children together, some by playing video games, some by cooking together; the sky is the limit. Sex is far from the only way to experience closeness, intimacy, and vulnerability.