Written by: Caitlin Edwards
When working with couples, my experience is that discussing sex falls into two categories. It is either great and easy to talk about—or it is a primary concern that cannot be broached. We find ourselves in a society that is both inundated in sexual content and yet silent on what healthy sexual relationships look like, leaving us unsure how to navigate conversations about who we are as sexual beings. We often lack understanding about our sexuality and the taboo nature of this topic results in silence rather than active questioning. Discussing sexual intimacy is hard, and I want to broach this topic gently.
What is healthy sexuality?
Although ‘healthy sexuality’ sounds like it should be innately understood, what constitutes a healthy sex life remains ambiguous, even for experts. What is considered sexually healthy is likely going to vary and depend on who you are as a cultural being. Your age, your politics, your religion, your gender, your sexual orientation, and your overall culture are going to influence what you consider to be healthy. To me, a healthy sexuality means being able to fully, joyfully and safely express who you are in a sexual context.
What does physical touch have to do with healthy sexuality?
Physical touch is (no surprise) an important component of healthy sexuality. One of my clients, in rediscovering their sex life stated: ‘a touch is worth a thousand words.’ Research demonstrates that certain aspects of physical touch are necessary for humans to develop normally. Yet, many people struggle with physical touch in that it is not comfortable, natural, relaxing, or safe. Many of these struggles result from a lack of linking touch to safety, relaxation and pleasure during childhood development.
Eye contact is another form of touch, albeit non-physical. Research demonstrates that loving eye contact from parent to child is an essential aspect of feeling loved and nurtured. Again, many people struggle with this—it feels unsafe to maintain eye contact for long or eye contact was modeled while growing up. Without the experience of the loving gaze, reaching out to others in this way may feel unsafe or too much of a risk.
So, what happens if you are someone who struggles with physical touch or eye contact? What if being close to someone in this way feels unnatural, uncomfortable or unsafe? Fortunately, there is hope.
The importance of non-genital touch cannot be understated. Whole-body touch is not only important for achieving sexual arousal (especially for women) but also necessary to create safety and connection. Talking to your partner about both physical touch and eye gazing are great ways to get started in increasing your comfort.
If I do not have a partner, how can I become more comfortable with physical touch?
There are several strategies you can use if you do not currently have a partner to develop comfort with physical touch. Massage can be an aid to increasing comfort, especially because well trained massage therapists are communicative about what feels okay for you. Dance classes, or even dance therapy, can also help as can spending time with animals. It is natural for animals, especially pets, to give and receive comfort physically and this can feel safer than a human companion.
An at-home exercise:
Sex therapists often recommend drawing what is called a BodyMap to define how you like to be touched. When creating a BodyMap, you draw an outline of the front of your body and an outline of the back of your body. Then, while imagining yourself in a relaxed, safe situation, color the BodyMap using the following code:
Red=No physical touch under any circumstances
Blue= Touch may or may not be okay here, depending on how I feel
Green= I always like to be touched here
Now, when looking at the BodyMap, what colors predominate? How do you make sense of what you have drawn? Can you make sense of it on your own? Or would talking to a therapist help? It is helpful to share your BodyMap. It may feel safe to share your BodyMap with a partner, or it may not. It may feel safer to share with a friend or a therapist.
As a therapist, sexuality is something I enjoy discussing with my clients. Sex is an innate part of who we are, and I want to increase my client’s comfort around this aspect of their identity.
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