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.
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?
Preparing Kids for Sex Requires a Different Kind of Conversation
I remember so clearly a moment from my Health class in High School – topic Sex. Our teacher, a 60 year old women with orthopedic shoes, lectured us saying, “Next time you are in the back seat of a car with someone you should pull out a flashlight and check their genitals for diseases”. Um…yeah. Not the most helpful sex advice I have gotten in my life. But I sure do remember it! Most of our sex education for kids focuses on the dangers of sex. Sure, we do want to prepare kids to be safe, to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and increasingly from criminal consequences for certain types of sexual expression. But focusing on the negative aspects of sex misses the reality of sex by a lot.
A sad side effect of the well meaning but limited way we generally talk to kids about sex is that it desensitizes kids to the anxiety-provoking aspects of sex. Does that statement surprise you? Here is what I mean by that. When we only talk to kids about the ways that sex is scary or dangerous, when they start to engage in sexual activity, if they feel scared or anxious it is no longer a red flag – that is how they have been taught sexual behavior will feel. When all we have heard about sex is related to the things that can go wrong, our mind creates a link between feeling anxious and worried and sexual behavior. I wonder how many of you out there had early sexual experiences that were uncomfortable, with high levels of nervousness and doubt, that looking back you think, “Man that could have been easier”? Personally, I want kids to learn that if sex feels scary or you are really anxious that is a sign to slow down and reassess. I want them to relate sex to pleasure, not fear and shame.
And that it what we need to be talking to kids about when we talk to them about sex – pleasure. But that scares people. There is a misguided belief that if we suggest to kids that sex is actually fun they will want to have it. I am sure as you see this in print you can also see how ridiculous this is. Kids will want to have sex. What they need to hear from us adults is how to know if they are ready, if the person they are with is a good choice as a sexual partner, if the sex they are considering is within their own values and integrity. And they need to hear from us that if sex hurts, you can stop. If you are too overwhelmed to be able to communicate with your partner, you can stop. If you are scared, you can stop. So what I really wish parents were saying to their kids : “ When it is time for you to start being sexual with someone, I wish for you to feel…”.
The next part is up to each family or adult and their own perspective. But I might suggest some things like, “…like you are good friends with the person you are with, that they respect you, that you have talked about sex and know what to expect from each other, that you are comfortable and confidant, that you have a safe and private place to be, that you focus on pleasure and expressing affection to each other, that you are excited and curious, that you know how to be safe and get the resources and answers you need, that you are ready”. Imagine what a sexual conversation like that might change.
There are two new products on the market to treat early ejaculation in men, and sadly, I think they reflect the limitations in the way we view sex. Both products are spray numbing agents designed to reduce sensitivity in the penis. In truth men have been trying numbing agents of various sorts in hopes of lasting longer for years, so the real invention now is that the spray apparently doesn’t transfer to the partner. I have no doubt that by reducing pleasure they allow a man to last longer, but I have to ask – is that an acceptable trade?
First as a sex therapist, I think it is sad to settle for a solution which requires one person to enjoy sex less so the other can enjoy sex more. And, in most cases, it is not necessary. Many times early ejaculation happens because the man is unaware of his level of arousal, so he is tipped over the edge into orgasm before he wanted to be. Often times he is distracted by thinking about his performance, worrying about when he will come, or wondering if his partner is close. Actually learning to become MORE aware of his sensation and messages from his body can help him to pace his arousal, change the level of intensity for himself, and possibly feel more in control as well. Becoming numb will not help to build a relationship to his arousal, it will just help him last longer, as long as he is numb.
The other sad aspect of this is how it encourages us to limit our sexual scripts. One approach to dealing with early ejaculation is to expand your sexual play to include a variety of things that feel good and give pleasure, using hands, mouths, skin, toys, etc, so that penetrative intercourse is only one possible aspect of a sexual experience. That way orgasm for either partner can happen at any time and both know that there are still many ways to be satisfied. Penetration may still be the preference, but we might question the impulse to numb someone’s genitals if we didn’t see intercourse as the only “right way” to have sex.
And speaking of numbing genitals – can we for a moment imagine the outrage if a company was marketing a product to numb women’s vaginas so they could have sex longer? Think that would be considered an acceptable solution? No, women would be angry about being treated like objects and insulted that their sexual pleasure was considered irrelevant to the sex act. Maybe we could give men the same respect and see their ability to have intense, fully sensate sexual pleasure as important. Let's shoot for the stars - everyone's pleasure is important!
Ah the forgotten nipple – so important in the early teenage years of sexual exploration but overlooked once penetration comes in to the picture. Don’t let this happen to you. I encourage you to not forget that nipples have serious pleasure potential. Include them in your sexual play.
Nipples may not be the most effusive body part or the most dramatic, but they are often asking for attention. Both men and women’s nipples are sensitive and responsive erogenous zones. Everyone’s nipples are different; actually they are like fingerprints, each unique. So the type of stimulation that feels good will vary a lot. Some people like a gentle touch, some people are excited by fairly rough play with their nipples. Nipples are more sensitive when they are hard, but erect nipples occur for several reasons so they are not necessarily a sign of sexual arousal.
Studies suggest that women’s nipples are more enervated, and therefore more sensitive, than men’s. A 2011 MRI study found that when women’s nipples were self –stimulated it lit up the area of their brain associated with genital sensation, (Komisaruk, B. R., Wise, N., Frangos, E., Liu, W.-C., Allen, K. and Brody, S), giving scientific background for many women’s reports that they orgasm more easily when their nipples are being touched. Many women can achieve orgasm from nipple stimulation alone. Women’s nipple sensitivity is also very affected by hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, so they are great teachers for us in the need to vary the way we approach our partner’s bodies and our own. What feels great today may not do it for you tomorrow, best to have some variety in your approach.
So touch them with a feather, your lips, your tongue, fingers or the tines of a comb. Touch your partners when you are together, touch you own nipples when you masturbate. Just don’t ignore them!
Have a relationship with yourself in which you explore sensation.
Summer time and the living is easy. The perfect time for this challenge. Go and get yourself a juicy piece of fruit, whatever you like. Mangos, nectarines, plums, watermelon – all good choices. Set aside a bit of private time, preferably outside in the sunshine. Get naked – this is key. Then eat that fruit in the messiest, stickiest, juice running everywhere way. Bite into it slowly, really taste the fruit. Lick the juice off of your arms and hands and….wherever. Enjoy yourself, no one is watching. Be succulent. Be a part of the summer harvest. Appreciate that you can enjoy this, today, at this moment.
Fifteen minutes later, what is the worst that can happen? You will be sticky and take a shower feeling kind of silly. But on the other hand, you could feel alive, sexy, and a part of a yummy ripe world. Take the chance.
“To like myself means to be, literally, shameless, to be wanton in the pleasures of being inside a body…the way I’d felt as a child, before the world had interfered.” – Sallie Tisdale
Oh how we use shame in our culture. So much so that even the word shameless may make some of you uncomfortable with its implications of immorality, humiliation, even chaos. It is a word that has been turned against us as an insult. But really, what a wonderful state it would be to really be shameless, even for a few moments.
Think about how often in a day you have doubted yourself, rejected your body’s desires or criticized your own appetites. Think about how many times you have stopped a luxurious stretch that your body craved before it even happened. Or how often you turned away from the impulse to kiss someone, touch the curls in their hair, or lean into the solidness of a another human body. Do you even notice the moments anymore when something tastes so good you want to moan or exclaim about it? Do you notice when you body wants to rock, beating out its own rhythm? Have you shut out messages from your body that tell you “you are hungry for something”, whether that is food, touch, sex, rest, movement or any of the other options out there that could feed you? Notice how many times in a day you say No to yourself.
Now I am not suggesting that we could be healthier or happier if we always say Yes to our every desire or urge. But we could be happier if we didn’t feel shame for having urges at all. Shame may not serve us as well as we have been led to believe. We can still make choices about how we respond, what actions we take, what our long term priorities are, without needing shame to motivate us. It is more empowering to say to our self, “I know I want that, but I am going to choose to not have it right now so that I can ______fill in the benefit___” Rather than saying, “I am horrible for even wanting that, I am going to pretend I never has that urge and tuck it away somewhere to remind me of how bad I am”. And as we become more at home with our shameless nature, we may find that many of those desires and urges can be fulfilled after all. There are a lot of small and large pleasures out there waiting for you, if you are shameless enough to let yourself have them. Aren’t you curious to find out what they are?
So often we approach our relationship to our body from a place of judgment and striving. We look at our body from the perspective of an external critic – how does my body look, what size does it fit into, how is it performing? But our body has so much more to offer us, if we approach it with different eyes, a different mind. So today I invite you to approach your body more like a poet or like an adventurer of the senses. Explore your body in a new creative way. Believe that it really is worthy of odes, sonnets, time and attention. Think of this as an imaginative scavenger hunt…
What part of your body has the texture of a rose petal just unfurled? What place on your body crackles like lightening? Where are you cool and smooth like a pebble polished by river water? Where does your body flicker like beating wings? Where do you feel like a dandelion waiting for a breath to be blown apart? What part of your body could be best described as sweet like candy? What part of your body would be described as salty like the inside of a shell?
What kind of touch would polish your body to a shine like it was preparing a sacred altar? How would you touch yourself like a shadow of a cloud on a sunny day? How can you touch yourself like ice cream dripping down the side of a cone? What kind of touch feels like bubbling water in a fountain? If your touch left trails of colored paint on your body, what designs would you make?
What else do you find when you truly explore? Who do you want to share these discoveries with?
I got to go and see Natalie Goldberg speak recently. She is a teacher and artist who has linked creative writing into a Zen practice. Her guidance has been a gift to writers around the world who need to be reminded to just sit down and write, to release editing and judgment, and to actually observe the world around you and write what is present and real to you.
She said something about the concept of having a “practice” that really struck a bell inside of me. She said the Zen concept of having a practice is not about improving. You actually don’t sit down to practice to get better. It is not about striving to be at the next level. You practice because you committed to practice. She said – and this really shook me – you practice to just feel and be where you are NOW because you believe what you are doing is valuable in itself. I started thinking about all the things I had been encouraged to practice throughout my life and how it always seemed that the reason I was doing it was so that I would get better. And I thought about the pressure of that kind of practice and how it so often stopped me from really appreciating and settling in to what I was doing at the moment.
It is the American way to strive. We are a self-improvement minded (some could say obsessed) nation. We are rarely encouraged to do something just for fun anymore; things almost always have to include a reason why something is good for us. We are a country of people who deeply believe we can and should do better.
What does this have to do with sex? Well, I was thinking about this constant focus on doing better, doing more, reaching the next level and I realized this is something people do to their sexuality as well. If the expectation is that our sex lives – with one partner, multiple partners or ourselves - will get progressively hotter, more intense, with better performances each time, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Even worse though, if we are focusing on taking it to some new level, we are often missing what is actually happening in the moment. “Practicing” so we can perform better can take us away from pleasure. Sometimes it could be helpful to just have the sex we are actually having in an awake and accepting frame of mind.
We are not taught to think in terms of “good enough” in America. And some of you are probably feeling a bit betrayed for me to even suggest that we not strive for better sex all of the time. To be clear, I think people’s sex lives can get more and more satisfying as we grow and I think we can try new things, learn new skills, and have more fun and more orgasms. I wouldn’t be in the field unless I believed in those things. However, I also believe that a lot of people are dismissing good sexual experiences because they think they should be having some other kind of sexual experience. And a lot of couples feel like they are failing because they haven’t tried something new lately. So how about this as an experiment – What if you approached sex and/or masturbation like a zen-practice just one time? Make a commitment to be present for it, to let go of trying to increase the velocity or intensity, to really try and be aware of where you are at that time. What if you engaged in sex this one time because you believe it is important and valuable, even if it never reaches some new level? What if you believed that the sexual experience, just as you are having it, had something valuable to show you?
“I will be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash” – reportedly written by Napoleon to his lover, Josephine.
Scientists are beginning to believe that humans have sensory receptors in our noses, long recognized in other mammals, that allow us to get information about other people from odors we can’t consciously smell. This ability may affect our sexual choices through the detection of pheromones and other smells associated with health, virility, and more. Fascinating stuff!
We know that scent plays a strong role in influencing our brain. We are born with a strong survival mechanism that causes us to automatically be repelled by unpleasant odors. But our olfactory system sends all kinds of messages to our brain, connecting in large part to the limbic system – primitive structures in our brain that regulate arousal, pleasure and reward, and also long-term memory. If you have ever wondered how you can recognize the smell of your first crush’s laundry detergent on someone years later; this is why - the part of our brain that processes smells is combined with our long term memory storage.
Here’s another interesting aspect of scent’s influence on us, neuroscientists tell us that the sensory experiences of smell skip the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and go straight to the amygdala, which governs our physical responses to excitement and fear. So being exposed to a smell (or for some, just the recalled memory of a smell) can cause a physical response. So it’s true, you can become aroused just by smelling a smell related to a past sexual experience.
Studies focusing on pheromones in human and our sense of smell have found that women near ovulation are drawn to men’s scents who are genetically more compatible with them. Studies by researcher Karl Grammer have found that women find different men’s smells more or less appealing depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle and that men’s testosterone levels increased just by smelling women’s odors during ovulation. Again, remember these are odors that our conscious mind finds nearly undetectable!
For many people, the smell of their partner during sex and on their skin later is a wonderful part of sexual excitement. Maybe for you this is a turn on, maybe not, but it seems clear that your nose is influencing your sexual arousal in ways we are only beginning to understand. Let yourself be interested in what smells appeal to you and which do not. Take notice of smell during your next sexual experience and see if there are any ways you would like smell to be added to your sexual ambiance.
References from Rodgers, Joanne Ellison (2001) Sex : A natural history. Henry Holt and Co, LLC : New York, New York.