We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. This week’s topic: How to have a better relationship with your own sexuality.
Q: My question is pretty simple: I'm worried that I don't have much of a relationship with my own sexuality. Sure, I have sex, but it's never that amazing to me, and I don't really tend to masturbate all that much. I'm just kind of busy doing other things. Is something wrong with me? What can I do to enjoy my sexuality more?
I work with a variety of issues in my sex therapy practice — orgasmic difficulties, low libido, mismatched sex drives. The course of therapy always looks different, but a lot of what I do boils down to teaching my client how to have a healthy relationship with their sexuality.
It sounds hokey, but what does that mean, exactly — having a good relationship with your sexuality? Let's shed some light on this often unclear topic, and outline some practical steps you can take.
GET TO KNOW YOUR BODY...
The foundation for a healthy relationship with your sexuality lies in having a healthy relationship with your body. This is a real challenge for most of us: Some people don’t like the way their bodies look, while others are too distracted by their brains to stay present in their bodies. You may have a long way to go toward body acceptance, but don’t let that stop you from making an effort now.
One of my favorite ways to start developing a better connection to your body is to start finding its "happy places." These are the locations, activities, or times where your body feels content, and you feel more connected to it. Perhaps you feel genuinely badass when you’re doing Crossfit. Maybe it feels like your body could happily lay out at the beach all day. Seek out the activities that your body likes doing, and engage in them more regularly.
It’s also useful to practice checking in with your body throughout the day. Doing so will help you build your connection to your body and learn to become more present. Imagine pulling your energy out of your brain and down into your body. Actually pretend you’re “traveling” around inside of your body, checking out what’s going on in different places. Try paying more attention when you touch your body, like when you’re taking a shower or putting on lotion, and imagine being gentler or more loving with your touch.
...AND KEEP IT HEALTHY
It’s important to take good care of your body too. The usual suspects like exercise, healthy eating, taking time to de-stress, and regular visits to your OB/GYN and primary care physician all apply.
Pay special attention to keeping your genitals healthy. Wipe from front to back, pee after sex every time, avoid douching, and sleep naked or in cotton underwear. Good sexual health also means having safe sex. It’s vital that you educate yourself about the risk level of the behaviors you engage in.
I also recommend regular PC exercise to most of my clients. Your PC muscles are the ones you have to flex to cut off the flow of urine. Practice pulsing them 10 times in a row, then squeezing and holding for a few seconds at a time. Developing stronger PC muscles can lead to stronger orgasms and greater orgasmic control.
The sex education that most people get — if you were lucky enough to get any in the first place — is pitiful. You may have seen diagrams of genitals, but take some time to learn about your own sexual anatomy. Women are socialized to believe that our genitals are “gross” or “embarrassing," so I understand why so many women have never even looked at their genitals. Take a deep breath, grab a hand mirror, and take a peek. Try to identify your labia majora, labia minora, vaginal opening, perineum, clitoris, and clitoral hood (Google an anatomical drawing for a little help). Familiarize yourself with the unique details of your body.
The other issue is that no one ever teaches you to have sex! You have to be proactive about developing your sexual skills, whether you’re single or in a relationship. Experience definitely helps, but you can educate yourself on your own too. Fortunately, there are so many resources available these days. Check out blogs (might I humbly suggest my own?), watch YouTube videos (grapefruit technique, anyone?), read books, attend workshops, or trade tips with your friends.
PRACTICE COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Poor sexual communication brings a lot of people into my office. Sex is such a delicate topic, and not being able to communicate about it adequately can wreak a lot of havoc in your love life.
You can start improving your communication skills by practicing saying explicit words or phrases in the privacy of your own home. Think of every single word for genitals or sex that you can think of, and repeatedly say them out loud until you can keep a straight face. Try out requests like, “harder” or "touch me right here." The goal is to make these requests less of a big deal. You can also try being more honest about your questions or interests with your closest friends.
Next, you’re going to want to learn how to talk about sex with a current or future partner. My two most important tips are to acknowledge your discomfort, and speak about your own experience using “I” language. For example, you might tell a partner, “This is hard for me to talk about, but I think I’d like to try having more foreplay before we have intercourse.”
LEARN HOW TO IDENTIFY WHAT YOU WANT
We live in a pretty sex-negative society, so we get a lot of messages about what we “should” and “should not” do when it comes to sex. Most people get so hung-up on these rules that they start losing touch with what they actually want. But you can’t have a healthy sex life by letting others make your decisions; you have to get clear on what feels right to you.
Try to be more conscious about separating societal ideals from your genuine feelings. Acknowledge the “shoulds” that you’re aware of, then try to identify any opposing thoughts you might have. Ask yourself what your goals are. For example, let’s say you’re trying to sort out your feelings about casual hook-ups. If you’re a woman, you’ve probably seen slut shaming of women who sleep around. But you might also be able to recognize that casual sex feels fine for you so long as it’s with someone you respect, and you’re both up front about the fact that it’s just a hook-up.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPLORE
Many of my clients complain about not knowing what they like, and the most important piece of advice I give them is to explore. There are an endless number of positions, fantasies, toys, and dynamics to play around with, and you can’t know whether you’re going to like something unless you try it. You can help yourself feel more comfortable with the idea of exploring if you remind yourself that it’s perfectly fine to try something you don’t end up liking. Realizing that vibrators don’t really do it for you isn’t going to be the end of the world.
It’s also important to give yourself permission to explore the things you are curious about. Almost all of my clients feel ashamed about their sexual desires, even when they are for relatively “tame” things, like wanting oral sex. Acknowledging and honoring your sexual tastes (so long as they involve consenting adults!) is an important part of developing a healthy sexuality.
INVEST IN YOUR SEX LIFE
Your sexuality deserves some self-care. A lot of women struggle to spend time or money on themselves, but it’s worth trying to push past that discomfort and invest in anything that helps you develop a better connection to your body or sensuality.
Spend time reading books, participating in workshops (like my free female orgasm workshop), or taking yourself out on relaxing date nights. Spend money on sex toys, massages, or turning your bedroom into a sultry oasis. With each step you take, remind yourself: “I am doing this to invest in a healthy sex life. I am doing this because I deserve it.”
Most people, women especially, feel a little discomfort with the idea of masturbation. I would say that at least half of my female clients have never masturbated. I always encourage my clients to give masturbation a try, because I believe it is one of the best ways to have a healthy relationship with your sexuality. Masturbation helps you learn about your body, discover what type of stimulation works for you, and teach a partner how to please you. Check out my online orgasm course for a crash course on masturbation!
FOCUS ON PLEASURE
If there’s one tip I find myself giving over and over again, it’s to focus on pleasure. Sex brings up so many different emotions, and it’s easy to get swept up in anxiety, embarrassment, shame, or fear. If you keep your attention on what brings you pleasure, you’ll be able to tune out most of those other emotions.
You can start paying more attention to your pleasure by asking yourself this question several times throughout the day: “What can I do to feel more pleasure in this moment?” Even if you do something as small as taking a deep breath or getting up for a cup of tea, you’re training your brain to be more aware of your pleasure, and sending yourself the message that you’re worth it.