Hands running up and down the slopes of bodies, thighs touching, torsos pressing into each other….Touch is the sense most commonly linked to sexuality. We touch and are touched. For some of us, sexual interactions are the main, or only, time we engage in extended touch with another person.
When we talk of touch in sex, we often hear about ways to touch another person. Often the advice centers around finding the “right” places to touch. Maybe there will be some input on whether to touch lightly there or firmly. We also hear about how to receive touch, how to relax and experience the sensation of someone else, hopefully, pleasing you.
I am going to invite another aspect of enjoying touch – the ability to track sensation and take pleasure in the act of touching itself. What do I mean by this? We can touch in such a way that touching turns us on. Try it now with yourself; use your hand to touch your opposite arm. Close your eyes and notice what your hand is feeling, heat, softness of skin, crinkly quality of hair. Now slowly move your hand and feel sensation under your fingertips, different than the sensation under your palm. Now you are engaging in the act of touching.
It is harder to focus on this when you touch yourself because, as you probably noticed, the sensation in your arm being touched is pretty distracting too. That is not a bad thing! Let’s have pleasure from multiple channels. With a partner though, it can be a fun practice to experiment with touching for your own sensation of pleasure. Rather than focusing on tweaking spot A, then brushing spot B, then vigorously rubbing spot C, in hopes that this will feel good to your partner, try something different and touch according to what feels good underneath your hands. It helps to close your eyes at first so that you can focus on what you feel. Then slowly explore.
Engaging in this way you may find that you love parts of your partner’s body that you didn’t appreciate before. You may get aroused by slickness, folds and hills, roughness tingling against tender fingertips, warm hidden spots. Think of your own hands as erotic zones in their own right. They are just as sensitive as nearly anywhere you are going to be touched.
There is a great likelihood that your partner is going to like this too. Slow sensual touch from someone who is enjoying themselves is a pretty big turn on. This practice is not to replace the other ways of engaging with touch; take time to give purposeful touches and to receive. This opens up a new way to explore and enjoy sexual play and new channels for pleasure.
In Buddhism there is a concept called the realm of the hungry ghosts. In this space as ghosts with tiny mouths and throats but enormous bellies. They are always hungry and can never be satiated. They are bound to their desire, constantly seeking more, trying to be full. These ghosts provide insight in to the pain of unsatisfied desire. Many of us have experienced the torment of feeling unsatisfied, longing, desperate to meet a need that remained unfulfilled. Sexuality may have caused us to feel like these ghosts trying to feed but never nourished.
So how can we avoid this frustrating existence? In this metaphor we need to expand our mouths and possible shrink our bellies, take in more while being full on less. I believe we can do this by being mindful and increasing our awareness of sensation and feelings. We take in more by experiencing everything more vividly, reducing distraction and focusing on really feeling what is happening. We increase pleasure by slowing down enough to taste it before rushing on to the next bite. We don’t think of an empty belly waiting to be filled, but think of each rush of flavor as it enters our mouth. Each touch, each breath on our skin, each shudder is appreciated. And so the experience becomes more satisfying.
We shrink our bellies, not by denying ourselves but, by being careful of what we label as “enough”. We are introduced to increasingly impossible and frankly, outlandish ideas of what we are supposed to be satisfied with, leading us to stay chasing an elusive finish line. Stay wary of temptations to always need more. The possibility of more is exciting, it is a gift, but if it becomes a distraction that takes you away from what you currently have to enjoy, be aware of that.
We live in a society that encourages constant dissatisfaction. This makes us good consumers as we desire the relief of the next thing to make us happy. We are trained to be hungry ghosts distracted by unrelenting stimulation, trying to ingest it all, but getting little nourishment from it. Our sexuality is affected by distractions too, of all kinds. It takes focus to really take in a sexual experience without minimizing it by rushing or performing or over-thinking.
Sometimes the most simple things are what satisfy – a fresh strawberry, a quiet moment to hear the breeze in the tree, a singular awareness of the softness of a tongue on your body. Feed yourself by paying attention to what you are taking in. Let yourself enjoy freely, without wondering is there supposed to be more? Change from ghost to flesh and blood.
The FDA is holding open meetings in October to obtain patient and doctor input on female sexual dysfunctions, specifically low desire. Now since it is the FDA, they are hoping to gain momentum on developing a medication that can treat lack of sexual desire. Which makes those of us who work with people struggling with sexual concerns sigh with frustration, “As though it is that simple.”
Sexual desire is complex. So much so that we can also say it is mysterious. Why we crave what we crave, why we crave it sometimes and not other times, why we are drawn to certain people, all questions without clear answers. And why we can’t just convince ourselves to want sex when it the person, place or time are convenient? That is a question that many people ask themselves. Low sexual desire is only a clinical issue when someone wants to want sex. But wanting to be sexual is not the same thing as desiring sex in that moment. And so many people are seeking their sexual desire spark to reignite.
There are physical issues that come into play with low desire, certainly. Hormones, brain chemistry, stress levels, exhaustion, side effects from drugs, general health and more should be considered. But so should emotional stressors, lifestyle, religious or spiritual conflicts, body awareness and acceptance, beliefs about sex and pleasure, traumas and fears, self image, lack of sex education, ability to enjoy sexual stimulation, and on and on. And I haven’t even started listing all the ways the relationship the person is in may affect their level of sexual desire. An issue that starts from one stimulus, say back pain, can lead to a pattern of saying no to sex, which leads to distance and resentment in a partner, which leads to less desire to be with them, which leads to less positive thoughts about sex…You can see how things interplay.
Even if the FDA can create a pill that motivates sexual desire would we want to take it? There is a creepy factor in feeling as though your sexual desire is manufactured. What invites us to ask ourselves, what is “real” desire. Desire is not just physical, nor just emotional, or relational. Our sexuality is interlaced with all aspects of our lives; that is one reason it is so potent. Sexual happiness can heal us on many levels and sexual unhappiness can trouble us on many levels. Desire draws on multiple aspects of Self, and my sense is that many of us want it that way.
There is a group specifically challenging the medicalization of sex, called the New View Campaign. Let’s keep our approach to sexual health diverse and multi-dimensional.
Philosopher Nietzsche had a term Lebensneid representing “life envy”. I think most of us are familiar to some degree with the nagging feeling that if only your life was more like that life over there, you would be so much more content. I wonder if we are feeling more and more life envy as we become more and more exposed to others lives, constantly bombarded with images and stories of how other people live. I mean we even have news stories about tiffs over who gets to claim the title of lifestyle guru, and who is just a faker. The power to feed our life envy in a job title.
Life envy does seem to be connected to the plethora of life choices we have available to us. In her wonderful book, Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a Hmong community she visits in Vietnam and how few choices the people there have in how their life will unfold. The surprise is that because of this they actually seem to have less angst about the state of their life. Choice brings with it doubt. There is always another option not chosen. There is always a “what if?” Perhaps life envy is an externalized version of “what if?” turned into dull but distracting coveting.
What can we do when we are caught in Lebensneid, convinced that our life is lacking in comparison, that they are having better sex, better relationships, a better body, a better orgasm…? We can recognize that these things are incomparable. Trying to reduce the seductive call of all those things out there that we cannot actually do anything with or about will allow us to feel more empowered. Really Gwyneth Paltrow or Jay Cutler do not have something you want. What will make you happy is totally unique to you, shaped by interconnected elements of who you are. It will involve choices and sacrifices that only you can judge. It will also involve joys and satisfactions that are only for you.
We all have our moments of the grass looking greener over there out of reach. It seems to be human nature to feel longing. And we are invited by our consumer culture, where happiness is just one purchase away, to ask ourselves, “Am I fulfilled? Is this as good as it gets?” Look around you, not at what others have, but at what you have. Some of it may be pretty amazing as is. Some of what you have may be raw material to work with in creating something amazing. Don’t fall into the passive disengagement that goes hand in hand with life envy. Be inspired by what is possible but know that happiness will only be found in your own life, not in the imagined life of someone else.
Sex with another person can be a gift both given and received. It can nourish us and refill us in multiple ways. At its best partnered sex can be a dance of give and take, pleasure experienced and shared, so that the giving and receiving becomes blurred. Sometimes we stop noting the many ways we give and receive when we are sexual together. As we near the fall solstice when our days and nights are balanced, it is an appropriate time to ask ourselves – how am I doing with balancing giving and receiving for myself?
There is a graciousness in giving that many of us have been taught; we show love by giving. But we can also show love by receiving and there is a graciousness in receiving that may feel less familiar. How do you open yourself to receiving from another person freely? Each of us has our own relationships with these states, and our own limits. Sex is a great window for seeing into our abilities to give and receive and the ways we stop ourselves from doing so.
Everyone of us has probably had times when we gave but were actually being more controlling than generous. And times when we appeared to be receiving but didn’t feel nourished or open at all. In sex we can perform either of these states without taking in the benefits of them. Some of us have guilt about laying back and being pleasured. We may have been told it is degrading to focus on pleasuring your partner without getting something for yourself. We have shared myths about gender and how men are supposed to perform or how women are supposed to perform that get in the way of letting ourselves freely take in or give back. You get to do both, sometimes at the same time.
And that’s the thing, only you will know what giving or receiving looks like or feels like for you. One person may be strictly dominant, only enjoying the active role, not desiring their partner to touch them at all. And that person may still be very much receiving, while also giving to their partner. She may receive empowerment, vicarious joy, her partner’s trust, love, intense sexual excitement and satisfaction…and more. The acts of giving and receiving are not about what sexual behaviors you are participating in or whose mouth is on whom. It is an awareness of the gifts of both states. So check in with yourself. Are you allowing yourself to give in ways that feel good and satisfying to you? Are you allowing yourself to receive in ways that refresh and fulfill you?
Is sex only sacred if it is connected to a religious or spiritual practice? Do I have to believe in transcendent states to have sacred sex? Do I have to light candles and pray? What does God or Goddess have to do with it? Is sacred sex available to me?
The word sacred has most often been used in terms of religious or spiritual value. And forms of sacred sex are often taught in connection with a specific practice, such as Tantra which is from of Hinduism. But the definition of Sacred includes anything that is regarded with reverence and protected. It can also be defined as anything that is approached with dedication and intention. So anything can be made sacred. And anyone can have sex that is sacred to them, without religious or spiritual framework making it so.
How might you make sex sacred for you? *By treating sex as an important and valued part of your life and self *By dedicating time to have sex, excluding outside distractions and interferences and creating space to focus. *By clarifying your intentions for being sexual, whether with yourself or partnered. What is it you seek to offer? What is it you seek to receive? What do you want from sex today? *By keeping your intentions in mind so that you act from them *By being aware, of sensations, feelings, your partner, your desires and giving all of these reverence by allowing them to be fully experienced *By seeing sex as more than a physical act. Perhaps for you it is also a way to learn about yourself, a way to get grounded and relaxed, a way to solidify your bond or express love, a way to express yourself…
Sacred Sex is available to any of us, if that is what you desire. Some sacred sex is seen as a path to enlightenment. But perhaps any of us can be enlightened; the question is what do you want shed light on? What do you want to better understand? Experiencing any element of life in a sacred way is a mindset that has foundations in gratitude, awareness, curiosity, and open discovery. All great things to bring to sexual exploration. See it as sacred or as profane, sexuality has so much to offer us.
The freedom to express yourself in any way you see fit is an amazing gift that everyone should experience. For those of you heading to Burning Man, you know preparation is key. Thinking ahead can give you the freedom to stop thinking so much and to just enjoy and explore, and still come home healthy and free of regrets.
Clothes have definite benefits but how often do we get a chance to be naked? If wearing very little is the way you want to go, be mindful of the more delicate parts of your body. Foreskin and public hair both serve the purpose of providing some protection from external irritants, but many of us are without these protections. Pubic hair functions as a soft screen that catches things like dust before it reaches your vulva. If it is an option, you may want to take the counter-culture stance of letting it grow out for now. If not, just be aware that your vulva is exposed and treat it accordingly. Body paints and glitters are generally not designed to play nice with genitals, so work around. And of course, if a body part has not seen the light of day in a long time - sunscreen!
In Girl Scouts we had “sit-a-pons” which were cushions to sit on that we carried with us. This is not a bad idea, even in decidedly non-Girl Scout-ish environments, so you have a soft place to land. Still everything is going to get dirty. Anytime showers are hard to come by, it is good to get body wipes to clean up easily. A lot of the body wipes sold in stores are not designed for genitals, so find ones that are, like After Glow Toy Tissues (with the added bonus of being safe for cleaning your toys too!) You can use the tissues before sex and after sex to minimize dust or other dirt getting places it shouldn’t. If you are prone to UTIs you can ask your doctor for an emergency travel prescription if you are going somewhere without access to pharmacies. They may not give it to you, but it is worth asking.
Looking forward to a little ecstasy-induced trust or other escapes from your reasoning mind? Be honest with yourself up front about what you want to experience and prepare to make it easy to protect yourself. Acknowledge with yourself up front that even awesome, loving, beautiful people can have STDs and, since so many can be carried with no symptoms for years, they may not be aware that they are putting you at risk. Practice safer sex and be prepared by carrying your own condoms or other barrier methods. Communicate your boundaries ahead of time and while you are engaging with a partner. That way you can enjoy yourself without unwanted consequences later.
You probably planned for months so that you can have an amazing break from the everyday realities of life and still be comfortable. You deserve a chance to let go of worries and be playful but our bodies’ needs and realities are a constant. Make your sexual health a part of your plans. Plan ahead then play hard.
There is a poem full of longing by Stanley Kunitz that ends with “Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.” The poem expresses a moment of exile from the self, those times in our lives when we have changed or are changing in ways uncomfortable and seeded with grief. And then it ends with this hope, the potential of love and touch and sexuality to bring us back to some foundations of who we are and the willingness to let someone else see a side of us that feels elusive.
One of my hobbies is photography and lately I have been inspired by nudes. This has invited me to ask myself, what is it that I am trying to capture with nudes that is different than photos of clothed models? I think some of the answer is in what this poem expresses. When we can shed clothes, we shed expectations of identity, those external cues about who we are supposed to be or cannot be anymore or have become. We become more vulnerable, sure. But there is also a freedom. When I am gifted with the opportunity to work with models who will be nude, I feel like I get to work with a Human Being, rather than with a fixed identity or a part of who they are. Clothes cover but they also limit. Being naked, the person is more of a mystery and I am drawn to pay attention to each gesture, each expression, each interaction to let them show their self to me.
So one of the potentials that lies in sexuality with a partner, long term or not, is the chance to shed external rules and roles and to show up naked. How might you allow yourself to have sex in a way that reminded you of who you are at the core? Touch can pull us back into the simplest, and yet profound, information source about our self that we have – our body. With someone who has known and loved you, touch can convey a memory or contain a history of you that is still there for you to draw on. And how could you approach sexual engagement with a partner with the intention to remind them of their incredible humanness? How could you honor their nakedness with you by freeing them from being a certain way or a certain person?
This poem reminds me of the availability of the present moment, of joining with someone else to be human in the midst of all kinds of noise encouraging us to be something more limited. As we face loss and transitions and endings of all kinds, sexuality can be a place to return to our self. Sex itself will change too, sometimes feeling unrecognizable. But if we let our self open to touch maybe we can find relief from our private disappointments and insecurities and doubts for a time. How can we let sex remind us to let go of all the things we don’t have to use to define ourselves? What distractions to our Self can we shed as we shed our clothes? What if sex is a place to celebrate our mystery and also our simplicity?
Do you seek your self when you are having sex? What if you did?
Do you feel like you know yourself, really know the internal workings of who you are and how you engage with world the way you do? How about when it comes to your sexuality? Do you feel like you are aware of the different parts at play inside of you? Are you ever curious about why you desire what you desire or how your fantasies can feed your sexual life? Do you wonder about your body and its responses? Are you ever confused about conflicting beliefs or urges? Do you have things you might like to see change or transform in your sex life?
When was the last time you really explored your sexuality? Often we get an influx of information, usually somewhere around junior high, that we rapidly adapt to, feeling like we have to perform sexual know-how so we don’t look foolish or naïve. We start from a place of feeling like we know nothing, so we stop listening to ourselves. From there we bumble along through our early sexual experiences, searching for external cues and crucial information that will make us acceptable sex partners. Some of us might have looked to magazines, porn, seemingly experienced friends, maybe even some sex-ed videos or classes. We keep trying to find the perfect performance tips, learn to touch spot A, then B, then C, while desperately trying to keep things from becoming routine. Society tells us there is an answer out there, if you just listen to the right person.
But the sexual answers for you aren’t out there. And the external searching for those answers leaves many of us feeling dissatisfied, more confused, and alienated. The place you really need to be looking for sexual answers is inside yourself. Let’s be clear, the longest running sexual relationship you are going to have is with yourself. Shouldn’t you get to know that sexual partner, the one who is present for every sexual experience you have? Can you imagine what might happen if you opened up the possibilities within yourself, if you became fascinated with the sexual person you are, if you became fully awake to this part of yourself? This will feed your sex life more than any external tips or role models.
This is excerpted from The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook, by Melissa Fritchle, Sex Therapist& Educator --to be published in Fall 2014. Almost here...
Karen started having a deep burning sensation with intercourse a few months into her first long-term relationship. Sex had never been comfortable for her but she had a few times when it felt easy and fun. But over years the burning gradually got worse and her fear of it increased until sex and pain became linked in her mind. Sometimes now her boyfriend Jon is unable to penetrate her because her vagina is so tight it feels like it is cramping. Even oral sex and touch have become intolerably painful, although sometimes Karen tries to push through it. Sometimes Jon is understanding, sometimes he is frustrated, but mostly both Jon and Karen are confused. Why is this happening? Why can’t sex be easy like it is for other people? Karen’s gynecologist says there is nothing wrong with her, but the pain is very real.
Sexual pain is rarely talked about but it is not uncommon. The type of pain I described here, called Vestibulodynia, affects some 17% of women in their lives. It can last for many years, even decades, and sadly often goes untreated. Factors such as genetics, hormones, infections, allergies, inflammation, and tiny tears in the tissue can contribute. And there are several other common diseases that can cause sexual pain, adding to the numbers of people suffering a major loss to their sex lives. And there are conditions that cause sexual pain for men as well, equally unspoken.
One incredibly challenging aspect of any chronic pain is the isolation involved. There is no way to measure pain objectively, no one else can truly understand or monitor your pain except for you. This can cause people to question themselves. For sexual pain, every woman I have worked with had been told by a doctor that there was nothing physically wrong, leading to years of self-doubt and distrust that anyone could help. In fact, the people that we generally go to for sexual health questions – our gynecologists – are simply not well informed or trained in sexual functioning issues. Sexual pain is a specialty and practitioners can be hard to find but when you do they can often diagnose and treat disorders that a majority of doctors will miss.
And treating sexual pain includes sex therapy. Not because it is all in your head, as it may have been treated in the past, but because ongoing pain, particularly pain that affects such a valued part of your life as sex, is traumatizing. It can lead you to feel alienated from your body, from pleasure, from your partner, from the universe or god or anyone who didn’t help. It may have reinforced past sexual abuse memories or negative beliefs about sex. You may have stopped seeing yourself as a sexual person. There is grief over what you have lost and about the ongoing worry about if the pain will return. Recovery requires new relaxation skills, new attention to sensation and lots of communication with future partners. Reflexive tightening and anxiety about sex can make things worse so it is important to get support as you prepare to reengage with sex.