On the Politics of Intimacy: Sexual Freedom as a Blueprint for Democracy
Meg Saxby, MSW, RSW, is a social worker, educator and consultant. Her background is in sexual health education, gender-based violence response and organizational responses to trauma. In her current practice, she works with individuals, groups and organizations who want to heal from harm. Meg lives with her boyfriend, their new baby and a growing collection of semi-feral backyard cats in the east end of Hamilton, Ontario.
I’d like to unpack the concept of a pleasure practice and share my (very personal) journey with self-pleasure.
We don’t tend to think about pleasure as something to practice. I certainly didn’t. The term “practice” has certain connotations. Take playing scales—there’s no grand crescendo, it’s not especially fun, sometimes you have to force yourself, it’s kind of boring. Not very sexy, is it? But that’s precisely the point. Calling it a “practice” takes the pressure off. It puts the emphasis on the attempt rather than on the results. It acknowledges that there is a learning curve, that pleasure is a muscle to strengthen over time.
Although sex is a human instinct, many people’s instincts have been stifled by cultural shaming, historical repression, or trauma. If you are someone for whom sexual pleasure is erratic or elusive, chances are you have some shame and anxiety when it comes to sex. You feel the pressure to perform, to respond in a certain way to touch. Your lack of arousal makes you feel like a failure. Perhaps you’ve lost trust in your body, or never trusted it to begin with. You think, “Maybe I’m just not that sexual a person.”
For many years, I thought I was sexually broken. Orgasms were elusive, I didn’t get aroused when I was “supposed” to, and I often felt more pain than pleasure during sex. I developed a reliance on vibrators, which could get me off in a detached, mechanical way, but didn’t teach me about my body or its arousal patterns. A few years ago, recognizing my dependence on it, I decided to give up my vibrator. I had sex with a friend of mine, and it was pretty mediocre for both of us. Afterwards, he gently suggested that I needed to “develop a deeper relationship with my vagina.” Now, while that was mansplaining at its best (!), what he said resonated with me. I knew it was true, and I knew why.
Now let me pause to say I am not knocking vibrators or shaming anyone who uses them. I am 100% for anything that allows women* to experience pleasure, especially pleasure they might otherwise feel unable to access. Vibrators helped me discover that my body’s capacity for pleasure, which is something I wish for everyone. But they did not help me discover what I liked when it came to sex with a partner since their particular sensations cannot be replicated by human touch, nor did they help me become more mindful or attuned to my body. If anything, they trained me to mentally detach because they required so little active engagement on my part. I could hold a vibrator to my clit and go over my to-do list in my head while I waited for the guaranteed, if underwhelming, sparkle. Now, clearly I was not working intelligently with my vibrator. I’m certain that vibrators can be used to deepen one’s connection to one’s body and to enhance sex between partners. But personally, I had not taken the time to organically and intimately explore my body using just my own hands, and the instant gratification delivered by a vibrator allowed me to bypass that process. As a result, I actually didn’t know how to pleasure myself with my hands, and this left me with a sense of deep shame.**
When I began to practice (albeit at the time I wasn’t thinking about it as a “practice,” which caused me some strife), a lot of my fears and insecurities around sex bubbled to the surface. I was sure that other people knew their bodies inside and out and could elicit ecstasy from them on demand, whereas my body was and always had been a mystery to me. Because I hadn’t learned to trust my body, understand its needs, or respect its rhythms, I couldn’t give voice to what it wanted, nor was I skilled at setting boundaries. As a result, I often forced myself to have sex when I didn’t want to and endured things that didn’t feel good. Sex was therefore a major source of anxiety. I felt my body was unreliable—sometimes it opened up, often it didn’t—and questioned my capacity for pleasure. Yet I also knew—had always known (since I was a child and got in trouble for it!)—that there was an ecstatic wildness at the core of my being; that I was, in fact, a deeply sensual person capable of immense pleasure (I believe all humans are). I knew it was within me to overcome the blocks I was experiencing, but I felt tremendous resistance.
Because I was unpracticed at self-pleasure, I wasn’t getting “results”. I didn’t get aroused, which made me feel hopeless and like a failure. Self-pleasure was not something I looked forward to because it brought up a lot of anxiety. I had to force myself to do it, which was triggering in itself given the trauma I’d accumulated from repeated instances of nonconsensual sex. I was over forcing myself to do anything when it came to sex. But I needed to give myself a kick in the butt because my avoidance was quickly turning me asexual, as I was neither self-pleasuring nor having sex (I had chosen to remain celibate for a time in order to focus entirely on myself and become sexually self-sufficient, so to speak).
Only when I started thinking about self-pleasure as a practice—an exploration—did I begin to soften around it. The Taoists call it “self-cultivation”, which for me was a revelatory and vital reframing. It broadened the scope of the practice and deepened its meaning, such that pleasure wasn’t actually the goal. The goal was self-gnosis. (Though really there is no goal, hence the term “practice”.) Consider a meditation practice. You can’t succeed or fail. The goal is not to have zero thoughts. The goal is to simply to show up and to bring awareness to your thoughts without judgment. Every sit is different. Sometimes our minds are overactive, sometimes we find inner peace. Self-cultivation is the same.
It is a practice in total-body awareness, deep listening and deep presence. It’s not about accomplishing anything—it’s about carving out the time and space to be with yourself without making any demands of yourself. It’s about meeting yourself exactly where you are. As women* we are already prone to feeling inadequate or not good enough. If you are new to self-pleasure or have blocks around sex, demanding any kind of result is going to activate those feelings of failure and anxiety. But if the “goal” becomes, “I’m going to sit with my hand resting on my yoni for five minutes and observe any sensations that arise,” you’ve set yourself up for “success.” And because we avoid that which causes us anxiety, by removing the source of that anxiety, you’re more likely to show up to practice.
In a previous episode, Nikesha spoke about decolonizing the creative process by creating a destination for spirit rather than trying to dominate it. Similarly, a self-pleasure practice is about creating a destination for pleasure—not about forcing it to occur.
Certain techniques I learned from studying with Layla Martin and Zhen Dao—yoni massage, breathwork, erotogenic yoga, jade egg exercises—were important stepping stones (scales, if you will) in my self-pleasure practice because they were capacity building (designed to increase blood flow and tone the muscles of the pelvic floor, for example) rather than pleasure oriented. They helped me develop a deeper relationship with my yoni, which later enabled me to probe the possibility of pleasure, and on days when arousal just wasn’t happening, I could still feel like I was making “progress” by simply completing the exercises.
Once you remove the pressure, self-cultivation can be deeply healing. You can take all the time you need, you can stop whenever you want, you can express a full range of emotions, you don’t have to worry about what you look like or sound like or if the thing you desire is considered “acceptable”; you only have to worry about pleasing yourself. Indeed, the gift of your full attention is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give yourself.
It also raises the bar in terms of what you are willing to tolerate with another person. Once you start bringing yourself to new heights of pleasure on your own, you find yourself only wanting to have sex with someone if it’s going to be at least as good, if not better, than it is alone. This is a pretty major development if you’ve grown accustomed to prioritizing other people’s pleasure because you’ve all but given up on your own. The onus isn’t on the other person, however. Sex with a partner will be especially good because you’ve done your research and can help guide the experience towards mutual ecstasy.
When I started approaching self-pleasure with curiosity and openness, I began to learn about myself—about what causes my mind to wander and what happens in my body when it does; about what causes me to feel overstimulated and when I need to slow down; about when I’m grasping after sensation versus letting it find me; about the nature of my desire and my relationship to taboo; about how to overcome mental resistance and when to be gentle with myself; about what helps me open and what makes me close. This self-gnosis is extraordinarily powerful and extends beyond the realm of sex. It has resulted in deep trust in and reverence for myself that has utterly changed how I move through the world. It has taught me to listen instead of judging. It has taught me patience, presence, and surrender. It has taught me that change is a constant because my body is always changing, as are my desires. It has more deeply attuned me to my internal compass, my “hell yes” and my “hell no”. It has taught me that I am worthy.
As adrienne maree brown writes in Pleasure Activism, “Feeling good is not frivolous. It’s freedom.”
It’s easy to cast our responsibility (and yes, it is a responsibility) for pleasure aside, to discount pleasure as frivolous or to rely on others to give it to us. Self-pleasure is about self-sufficiency and self-respect. And it doesn’t have to be sexual. It can be about small moments of gratitude, indulgence, and celebration, about saying yes to you, whatever that means for you.
Remember…it’s just practice!
* While I am ever hesitant to make sweeping generalizations based on gender, the historical suppression of female sexuality cannot be denied and must be explicitly addressed. There are exceptions to every generalization, but the statistics are revealing: a study from the University of Chicago found that 38% of adult women masturbate compared to 61% of men. Another study by the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found 80% of teenage boys versus 23% of teenage girls masturbate. Consider the longterm repercussions of this phenomenon. No wonder pleasure is more elusive for women—we’ve had less practice! I just imagine a dude reading this thinking, “Wait, so…you have to force yourself to masturbate? I’m confused. I have to force myself not to masturbate...”
** UPDATE: I've re-integrated a vibrator into my self-pleasure practice and use it in combination with my hands, yielding maximum pleasure thanks to the more nuanced understanding of my body I was able to cultivate.
I also acknowledge that I am speaking from the limited perspective of a cis-gendered woman. I can only speak from this perspective because this is all I have lived; I can only hope that my candor about my personal experience is of some use to others, regardless of their gender. The conditions that have affected me have affected all of us, and my prayer is that all genders and orientations discover their authentic selves and inherent value in their pursuit of pleasure.
If you are someone with an alternative perspective to share, I would love to feature your experience on the show and on the blog. Please reach out to me.