Do you feel like you know yourself, really know the internal workings of who you are and how you engage with world the way you do? How about when it comes to your sexuality? Do you feel like you are aware of the different parts at play inside of you? Are you ever curious about why you desire what you desire or how your fantasies can feed your sexual life? Do you wonder about your body and its responses? Are you ever confused about conflicting beliefs or urges? Do you have things you might like to see change or transform in your sex life?
When was the last time you really explored your sexuality? Often we get an influx of information, usually somewhere around junior high, that we rapidly adapt to, feeling like we have to perform sexual know-how so we don’t look foolish or naïve. We start from a place of feeling like we know nothing, so we stop listening to ourselves. From there we bumble along through our early sexual experiences, searching for external cues and crucial information that will make us acceptable sex partners. Some of us might have looked to magazines, porn, seemingly experienced friends, maybe even some sex-ed videos or classes. We keep trying to find the perfect performance tips, learn to touch spot A, then B, then C, while desperately trying to keep things from becoming routine. Society tells us there is an answer out there, if you just listen to the right person.
But the sexual answers for you aren’t out there. And the external searching for those answers leaves many of us feeling dissatisfied, more confused, and alienated. The place you really need to be looking for sexual answers is inside yourself. Let’s be clear, the longest running sexual relationship you are going to have is with yourself. Shouldn’t you get to know that sexual partner, the one who is present for every sexual experience you have? Can you imagine what might happen if you opened up the possibilities within yourself, if you became fascinated with the sexual person you are, if you became fully awake to this part of yourself? This will feed your sex life more than any external tips or role models.
This is excerpted from The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook, by Melissa Fritchle, Sex Therapist& Educator --to be published in Fall 2014. Almost here...
Don't abstain for Aunt Flo's sake
Put two things that people rarely talk openly about together – sex and menstruation – and what do you get? A lot of myths, exaggerations, unexamined worries, and questions..and a lot of people not talking about what they are doing. Despite old cultural taboos about the nastiness of menstrual blood, a woman having her period is perfectly viable and healthy sexual partner. Some women suffer considerably while menstruating, for others it is a mild annoyance and they would be happy to engage in sex play during their bleeding time. An overview of all studies done on sexual desire and sexual activity levels and menstrual cycles (up to 1980) found mostly variations. Some studies found peaks at mid-cycle, some pre-menstrually, some during menstruation, post menstruation. (Schreiner-Engel, 1980). So once again, everyone is different. If you or your partner are one of the ones who feel desire during her period, not to worry, you get a thumbs up for all kinds of play.
Not only is sex during menstruation not bad for you, it may have some benefits. Orgasm can be a great way to relieve menstrual cramps and headaches, so that can be a good reason to invite a partner to play with you even while bleeding. Of course is you are feeling shy, orgasms from masturbation work just as well. A really interesting study (Meaddough et al, 2002) found that women who had sex and orgasms during their menstruation were less likely to develop endometriosis than women who rarely had sex during their period. This may have something to do with the uterus’ role during orgasm. Uterine contractions that happen during orgasm actually change direction based on the phase of the menstrual cycle. This is amazing to me. Mid-cycle when a woman is most fertile the uterine contractions pull semen up towards the uterus. But during menstruation the contractions serve to expel material out of the vagina. This can also cause your period to last fewer days as the blood gets expelled more quickly. I find this fascinating fact out in Mary Roach’s Bonk.
Fresh menstrual blood is a normal body fluid and is not going to hurt you. It is fine to get it on thighs, penises, hands, etc. It is even fine to engage in oral sex with someone who is menstruating. Of course, if the woman menstruating is carrying an STD or HIV her menstrual blood can transmit this. So practice safer sex, as always. Otherwise, your main concern is messiness. You can shower first, make gently wiping each other down with warm washcloths part of the play, have sex in the shower (use lube!), or just put down towels or old sheets and clean up after. But there is no need to be afraid of your body or your body’s natural cycles. If you feel desire and you want to act on it, go for it.
These muscles could use a workout
I am writing in praise of Kegels, the pelvic floor “exercises” that can improve just about anyone’s sex life. When we think of our sexual body parts, mostly people think of the penis, vagina, vulva. But in actuality our genitals are surrounded and supported by the very important pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor muscles contract as a part of orgasm in both men and women. Strong contractions of these muscles can be felt by partners if you are engaging in penetrative sex and a taut vaginal canal can improve sensation for both people involved. Men who want to have multiple orgasms train themselves to contract their pelvic floor muscles on command. And people say that their orgasms become more intense as they strengthen these muscles.
Like in other areas of the body, muscles that are too tense limit us and limit sensation, muscles that are too weak limit our control and movement and, in the case of pelvic floor muscles, limit our orgasmic ability. If a muscle stays weak for too long it can atrophy. But, again as with other muscles in our body, we can always train the muscles to make them healthier. What we want is a balanced healthy set of muscles that we feel we have some control of and connection to. Note that balance includes being able to relax these muscles as well. Sometimes chronic tension in the pelvic floor muscles can contribute to sexual pain and learning to release the muscles brings relief.
So how do we do Kegels? The great thing is you can do them anytime, anywhere. No one will notice. One way people can get familiar with these muscles is to try and stop your stream of urine. You will instinctually use your pelvic floor muscles to clamp down on the flow. That isn’t am especially fun way to practice, but try it if you feel unsure about how to access these muscles. To practice Kegels, you think about the floor of your pelvis – the area between the vaginal open and the anus or between the scrotum and the anus – and imagine pulling that area upward into your body. It is a small movement. Try doing several small pulses and then hold the contraction for a longer time. As you get more control you can play with contracting more to the front of your body, then more to the back or contracting in time to music. Always remember the release portion too though. And ideally you want to not use your buttocks or thigh muscles to do this, so work on keeping those areas of your body relaxed.
Still wondering if you are doing it right? You can see the muscles contract. Those of you with a vulva will need a handmirror or you can insert a finger and feel the muscles contract if they are strong enough. Those of you with a penis can make the penis twitch, easier to see with an erection, or you can insert a finger into your rectum to feel a contraction. Keep trying, you will get it.
Each time you do a Kegel, contract and release, a rush of blood flows into the tissue. This will keep the tissue healthy and in women it will also increase lubrication, so Kegels are also a great way to warm your body up for sex. Fair warning, doing Kegels will increase your sex drive. They can be a great way to use commuting time but you may arrive at your destination with sex on your mind. Enjoy.
Research released this year has shown that instances of sexual coercion among teens are disturbingly high. What was ground-breaking about this study is that it focused on self reports of perpetration. It asked questions about sexual coercion- verbally intimidating, pressuring, using guilt, getting someone drunk, or harassing behaviors- as well as forced sexual contact. Teenagers were asked if they “had tried to make someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”, or “made someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”. And based on their own responses – nearly 10% of teens have been sexually coercive. Also disturbing are patterns around personal responsibility. Fully 50% of the perpetrators said that the victim was completely responsible for what happened. And by the way, by the age of 18 perpetrators were equally boys and girls.
A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy looked at teens’ behaviors around sharing sexual content online. They found that 25% of girl and 33% of boys reported that they had been shown naked pictures intended to have been sent privately to someone else. Add this to what we have seen in the news about patterns of sexual harassment and bullying among teens and children.
I have believed for a long time that we should to be providing better and more comprehensive sexual education. Now it is clear to me that not only do we need to talk about sexual health and safety, but we need to be talking about sexual respect. It is time to define polite sexual conduct. And to erase once and for all the insidious idea that if someone is behaving sexually, they no longer deserve respect.
If kids are learning just by observing what is going on around them, then I can understand how they would be confused about how to treat others respectfully. In this era of decreased privacy and people’s personal lives as public entertainment, it is critical to teach about personal privacy and choice. Maybe the ever- intensifying ramp up from afternoon talks shows featuring humiliations, have numbed us to other people’s shame and turned us into virtual perpetrators, invited to laugh at someone falling down drunk and flashing their underwear. Humiliation has become entertainment. In this environment, how do we talk to kids about vulnerability? How do we help them to separate how we relate to the “real lives” on TV from how we relate to real people in our lives? How, in a world of selfies and sex tapes, do we talk about the fact that many people want their sex life to be private and that beginning a sexual relationship with someone can be a tender, trusting act? We need to explain why it is ok to laugh at the sexual behavior of “Carlos Danger” but not at the girl in your class who sent a topless pic to the person she has a crush on. And while we are at it, we need to talk about handling frustration and that you will not get to satisfy every desire you have the moment you have it, regardless of what the constant availability of nearly everything else may imply.
Maybe we can tell ourselves that as adults we that we are clear on where to draw the line between harmless amusement at other’s expense and actual harm, or who has abdicated their right to sexual choice or privacy. But it is time to admit that kids aren’t clear about that.
Most of you have probably heard by now about Missouri’s Republican Senate nominee, Todd Atkin’s statement that victims of "legitimate rape" don't get pregnant because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." This false belief was being used as justification for denying rights to abortion for rape survivors. You may believe that one man’s misguided beliefs don’t affect you, but the shocking prevalence of flat out wrong information and limitations put around people seeking accurate sex information and education about sex deeply affects us all. In 2013, with all the clear science we have now, we need to ask ourselves –why would Todd Atkin’s still hold this false belief or (in the case that he was purposely giving false “facts”) why would he think that the American public would believe this? Because we are sadly and shockingly underinformed when it comes to sex.
Having taught Human Sexuality in Uganda, I saw firsthand the devastating impact on communities that had been given false information about their bodies and their sexual functioning. I worked with people who had been told that HIV is caused by an unmarried girl touching a man. I spoke to men who had been told as boys that a women’s vagina will trap and tear their penis. I talked with the people there who were taught to be afraid of sex and, perhaps more importantly, we talked about how even these terrifying messages didn’t stop the intrinsic and natural sex drive within them. The people I met in Uganda desperately wanted accurate sexual information; they said their lives were changed by it. And they wanted this for their communities to be healthier and happier. They took risks in being leaders in learning and sharing unbiased facts about sexuality.
In America, even in the liberal area I live in, students in my Adult Sex Ed classes consistently tell me that there was so much about their own body and sexual responses that they didn’t know and were relieved to learn. And I know from my therapy practice that the affects of misinformation and lies about sex go deep and can last a lifetime.
If you were upset by Todd Atkin’s statements, I invite you to use that emotion to empower and motivate yourself. Seek out good sex education, for yourself and for the children in your life. Go buy a book about your body and sexuality. Volunteer for a rape crisis center or an informational hotline in your area. Support scientific research projects. And, whatever your political affiliation, support political candidates who will use accurate, scientifically supported facts when making decisions about your sexual health. It is our right to be informed about our own bodies.