"The world touches us in so many ways," poet David Whyte reminds us in his book Consolations, "through the trials of love, through pain, through happiness, through our simple everyday movement through the world."
This sense of connection is what many of us have missed in the last year: a hug from a friend, a kiss from a lover, the casual brush past a stranger on a crowded street. And it is essential, a need deeply rooted in our biology. Jesse Kahn, a licensed psychotherapist and sex therapist based in New York City, explains touch releases oxytocin, reduces stress, and calms our nervous system. The absence of it, he says, can manifest as "depression or anxiety or a feeling of loneliness or stress."
That is why it is important to remember that we have a far greater capacity to bring the comfort of touch to ourselves than we might realize.
Celebrating our bodies, and the pleasure they can give us, can be the starting point for an extraordinary relationship with ourselves and the world.
Here's how to get started.
Get curious about happiness
"The relationship that we have with ourselves is primary, one that we're going to have for our entire lives. And it's also the most intimate," Kahn says. That is why it is important to consider the broad continuum of what brings us pleasure. Maybe it's a walk on the beach, or a long hot bath. Or maybe it includes connection that's more intimate.
adrienne maree brown, the author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, spent three months of the pandemic alone. "I began to question what it actually meant to touch myself. Not touch myself in the erotic sense, though that was a component, but what [did] it actually mean to deliver touch to myself?"
What she learned was revelatory: that if she was willing to slow down and take time, she could give herself "a huge amount of the sacred touch" that she longed for.
Believe you are worthy of receiving that joy
What was fundamental to brown's self-connection was deep acceptance of her body, a shift that took time.
"As I looked at my stretch marks and cellulite, I thought, 'This is not what a body is supposed to look like.'" But then, she caught herself, and started to question where those ideas came from. What she found was a cacophony: capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy; ableism and fat phobia.
Once she identified these sources, she says, she was able to slowly disassociate from them. Now, when she looks in the mirror, she speaks to herself with love, and reminds herself that the thighs she once judged hold power: "These are the sacred legs that hold me up."
Start to explore the ways your body can give you pleasure
Your body, sexologist Megan Stubbs reminds us, "is the vessel that's carried us through life, and through a pandemic. And it is something that's also able to bring amazing pleasure."
If self-exploration is new, treat it like a new relationship with another person: be curious and give it time. "You don't just have to necessarily focus in on majorly erogenous zones," Stubbs says. "Touch your earlobe or notice the way your fingers caress your neck." And then, keep going. "You may find that that light touch is just enough. Or maybe you want to apply more pressure, a percussive tapping, a tweaking. It's fun to experience different sensations."
"Masturbation can be the turning point for a lot of people when it comes to making peace with their bodies," Stubbs writes in her book, Playing Without a Partner. "Understanding that you are worthy of sexual pleasure is so powerful. You, in whatever body right now, can and deserve to experience pleasure."
Have fun and experiment with different kinds of touch — and maybe toys
Masturbation is normal and healthy—and sex toys are, too. In fact, people have been using them for centuries. If this is your first foray, Stubbs recommends reading reviews, and making a modest investment to start. "Don't break the bank on one toy. Get a couple of value-priced toys with different styles and see what you like," she says.
Her top suggestions?
1) Vibrators that come in a variety of sizes and settings. They can be used on many parts of the body and in different types of sexual activity both solo and with others.
2) Dildos — non-vibrated or non-powered toys — that offer "feelings of fullness and penetration."
3) Anal toys that are inserted and, she cautions, must be used with lubrication and have a flared base.
4) Strokers that fit snugly over the penis and replicate the feeling of intercourse.
Ultimately your choice to use toys or not comes down to interest, Kahn says. "Do what works for you."
Pleasure is powerful. Harness that joy beyond the bedroom.
The joy you experience can be used as a guide, adrienne maree brown says, to engaging in the world. "Pursuing pleasure within your body is a way that our body trains us for how we are meant to move to those orgasmic experiences of life," she says.
How you touch yourself — with curiosity, care, and love — can inspire how you touch the world.
Simran Sethi is a journalist who reports on psychology, sustainability, and ways to make the world more delicious and just.
The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle.
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