How To Get Comfortable With Touching Yourself : Life Kit : NPR



SIMRAN SETHI, HOST:

A heads-up – this episode is about self-pleasure and may not be for everyone. I’m journalist Simran Sethi. Welcome to NPR’s LIFE KIT. The morning of January 14, 2020, was chilly and overcast, a nondescript day save for the fact that it was the last time I was kissed. I was in an airport in Mexico saying goodbye to my then-sort-of boyfriend. He leaned in toward me. I leaned in towards him. He put his hand on my cheek, and his slight beard brushed my chin as his lips touched mine, and my body filled with light.

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SETHI: If you told me that would be my last kiss for the entire year, I wouldn’t have let him get on the plane. In COVID time, this drought of connection isn’t unique, but what has felt specific is the way it’s forced me to get creative and redefine pleasure. There is a glorious spectrum of how our bodies bring us joy. And today, we’re going to explore all of it – including sexual pleasure – starting now.

MEGAN STUBBS: Orgasm is the new apple a day. It can help boost your immune system, boost your mood, you know, decreases pain, reduces headaches, helps you sleep better, gives you better-looking skin, puts a smile on your face. I mean, there are really no drawbacks (laughter).

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SETHI: On this episode of LIFE KIT, we’ll look at how the absence of physical connection with others gives us an opportunity to be more present to the joys that our bodies can bring. We’ll debunk myths and learn the facts about self-pleasure, get guidance on how to bring ourselves joy and learn how self-appreciation can spark deeper engagement not only with ourselves, but with the world.

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JESSE KAHN: Your relationship with yourself is sort of the longest relationship you’re ever going to have, and it’s also probably the most intimate relationship you’re ever going to have, right?

SETHI: That’s Jesse Kahn, the founder and director of The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.

KAHN: It’s an evolving relationship. Nothing remains the same, whether that’s because we are growing in time or the context changes or both.

SETHI: In this time of physical distancing, the context has most definitely changed. I ache to hug my friends and squeeze my nephews.

Touch is something I have missed so deeply…

KAHN: Yeah.

SETHI: …In this past year.

KAHN: Yeah. We need touch to survive. It’s a very biological need. Touch releases oxytocin. It reduces stress. It calms our nervous system. It’s that coregulation that we experience when we’re in close proximity to another person and kind of being held by them.

SETHI: And the absence of it shows up in different ways.

KAHN: For some people, they might be really, really aware of, wow, I haven’t even had a hug in a year. And for other people, it might be depression, or anxiety, or a feeling of loneliness or stress, difficulty sleeping.

SETHI: For me, it’s been all of the above, and I’m far from the only one.

ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: I was alone in Hawaii for three months, and it was the longest I’ve gone without another human touch.

SETHI: Meet adrienne maree brown, the author of “Pleasure Activism: The Politics Of Feeling Good.” That solitude, she explains, was an unexpected teacher.

BROWN: It really put me into some deep work – right? – that I was really grateful for ’cause I was like, OK, I’ve got my vibrators; I have silicone cups that I was using to give myself a massage effect. And I was just, like, taking baths and taking showers and doing all this stuff.

SETHI: But it wasn’t quite enough.

BROWN: And I was like, it’s not – I’m not getting what I need.

SETHI: So she started to pay closer attention to what her needs actually were.

BROWN: I started to really focus on like, what does it actually mean to touch myself and not touch myself just in the erotic sense, although that was a component of it? But what does it actually mean to deliver touch to myself? And I was like, oh, my gosh, I can really give myself a huge amount of the sacred touch that I need, but I have to slow down, and I have to be willing to do it. And it’s not just about rushing to some satisfied concept – you know? – the orgasm, right? It was really being with myself. And I started to get curious.

SETHI: That’s takeaway one of our crash course on self-pleasure. Slow down, and get curious because pleasure, Jesse reminds us, is all-encompassing.

KAHN: Self-pleasure is really anything that brings you pleasure, whether that means walking on a beach, taking a bath or using a vibrator – sort of anything in the realm of what provides and creates pleasure and joy for you.

SETHI: As we get older, busyness, judgments and stories from the outside world can influence how we think about our bodies. Scrutinizing those messages takes work, but the rewards are amazing and lead us to takeaway two; believe you are actually worthy of pleasure, and take steps to celebrate the body that can give it to you. If that feels like a tall order, adrienne says, start small.

BROWN: I started with what I felt most comfortable with, which was my left pinkie. You know, I was like, you’re a beautiful little pinkie; there’s nothing wrong with you; there’s nothing to fix about you – just offering gratitude. And I did that slowly but surely from the parts that I loved the most to the parts that I was kind of neutral around and then finally to the parts that I really felt negatively towards.

SETHI: For adrienne, that was her thighs, her arms and her belly.

BROWN: There’s stretch marks. There’s cellulite. They’re floppy. This is not what a body is supposed to look like, which is such a deep thought to have inside yourself, that the body that is miraculously carrying you through life is somehow wrong. And you start to be like, who put that idea in my head? Where did that concept come from? And you see capitalism there. You also see white supremacy. You see patriarchy. You also see ableism, fat phobia.

SETHI: The way she started to let go of those harmful messages and constructs was to think about who adored the parts that she didn’t.

BROWN: I have little babies in my life who love those parts. They’re, like, the favorite parts. And then there’s been this huge resurgence around black thighs and, like, dimpled thighs and twerking thighs. And that has been really helpful. But I had to look at my own thighs and be like, these are the legs that hold me up; these are the sacred legs that hold me up.

SETHI: This wasn’t easy, not even for the author of a book on embracing pleasure.

BROWN: If someone had told me I was going to – like, at 19, 20, that that was going to happen, I would’ve been like, impossible; I’ll never love myself this way; I’ll only love myself if I could change. And instead, now when I catch myself in the mirror, I’m just like, yes, girl, looking good, right? Look at those curves; look at your strength; look at your posture. Whatever it is that I can find to affirm in myself in that moment is available to me.

SETHI: This appreciation takes time.

BROWN: This is not an overnight practice. This one is, like, a multiyear practice.

SETHI: But it’s worth it. Learning to love ourselves is worth it.

BROWN: You start small, and you start building, and you stay consistent, and you notice – try to keep learning to catch yourself when you’re looking at yourself with negative self-talk, and just be like, what? Oh, OK, but also…

SETHI: That also – that’s the process of catching your inner critic. Remind yourself how your body, with all its dimples and wrinkles and whatever, has also served and supported you. Your body is a constant companion that will never leave you. Try to celebrate it. And once you’ve started that work, you’re ready for takeaway three; get curious about the kinds of touch you actually like.

STUBBS: Exploring yourself is a really great way to, one, pass the time, but also just to get your – get to know yourself better.

SETHI: Meet sexologist Megan Stubbs, the author of “Playing Without A Partner.”

STUBBS: Find a little cozy spot in your room – maybe it’s on the couch – and just explore your body. So do a whole body map. You know, touch yourself with purpose.

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STUBBS: Like, you’re touching your earlobes. How does that feel? Maybe you’re touching your neck, and you’re like, ooh, I like the way my fingers, you know, lightly dust across my skin – gives me chills. We don’t just have to necessarily focus in on majorly known erogenous zones. You know, you can find pleasure with a lot of things. I mean, think how great a massage feels. That isn’t necessarily sexual, but it still feels really good.

So take time to explore what sensations you like and where you like to be touched. Maybe you might find some new places to discover. And you’re like, wow, I really like the back of my knees touched; Like, that feels super, super good.

SETHI: That awareness could also come in handy if or when you want to connect with others.

STUBBS: The better you understand what you like and what you don’t, the better you able are to communicate that to a partner. And of course, using yourself as your own guinea pig, you could say, hey, I like this; maybe my partner likes this. And that’s a great way to start a conversation of like, hey, have you ever considered, you know, tickling the back of your knees?

(LAUGHTER)

SETHI: Well, I’ll give it a shot. Why not? Here’s how to get started.

STUBBS: You’re going to set the scene on all, like, sense fronts. You’re going to dim the lights. You’re going to light your favorite candle. You’re going to stream your favorite music. You’re going to dress up because you deserve this – or dress down because you deserve this. You’re going to really make it a production. That’s going to put your brain already in that mood of like, OK, this is for real; this is going down.

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SETHI: And keep exploring.

STUBBS: It’s never wrong to start off with a light touch. You may find that that light touch is just enough; that would be all you need. But sometimes you’re like, maybe I want to apply more pressure. Maybe I want to be, you know, doing a different kind of touch – maybe a percussive tapping, a tweaking. You know, it’s really fun to explore different sensations. But definitely start out with a light touch.

SETHI: And if you’re feeling any kind of hesitation, remember – self-pleasure is healthy, loving and great.

KAHN: Pleasure, sex, masturbation and relationships are some of the things that we learn so little about, and yet we’re expected to just know. Some of the myths around self-pleasure that I hear a lot are that it doesn’t count as sex, that it’s dirty, that it’s only to be had when you’re not having partnered sex or even that it’s a criticism of the partnered sex.

SETHI: And what would that new message be, then?

KAHN: For me, the first step is just curiosity, right? It’s – why do I think this? Who taught me this? Do I think this? Do I want this to be a narrative in my life? Is this narrative and is this story working for me?

STUBBS: Masturbation has a lot of stigma around it because it’s never really talked about in society in a positive way. But it’s completely natural, and it’s not dirty or shameful. It’s a completely normal, natural thing you can do.

SETHI: Touch and pleasure are part of what it means to be human, which brings us to takeaway four – as you build or deepen your relationship with yourself, be open to trying new things.

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KAHN: Using your hands or your own body can allow for a level of control. And there’s certainly something very intimate around touching yourself with your hand or touching yourself with a part of your body, however that looks for you. And there’s also something that can be really exciting in the newness of a toy, something different than what your own hand can provide.

SETHI: Humans have been using sex toys since the Ice Age. This isn’t new. They’re a great way to enhance pleasure, which is why Dr. Megan dedicates an entire section of her book to them.

STUBBS: There are many amazing value-priced sex toys that are totally accessible. So I really recommend seeking out reviews from people – there’s lots online you can find – and just trying some out. Don’t break the bank on one toy and then be like, I hate this. If you get a couple of value-priced toys, you know, different styles, you can just try them out and see what you like.

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STUBBS: I think one of the most classic toys is a vibrator. So that’s a really great place to start because it’s such a versatile toy – something that’s like a wand vibrator or a Pebble or a bullet vibrator is, you know, small, unobtrusive, not confronting. There are a variety of strokers that you can put over your penis and use to stroke with that. There are even some that do it on their own – auto-suckers, like, those – that’s what technology has done for us today (laughter).

SETHI: So, I mean, a cornucopia of delight is basically what you’re saying.

STUBBS: Honestly, if there’s something you’re into, there’s probably a toy for that.

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KAHN: Ultimately, your choice to use toys or not comes down to what is of interest to you. Just do what works for you.

SETHI: That might mean stimulating yourself to orgasm.

STUBBS: For many, it’s an intense building of pleasure and pressure, and then there’s a release. So boom – mountaintop.

SETHI: But that isn’t the only way to feel good.

KAHN: I find that when we put too much pressure on orgasms, we’re also putting too much pressure on sex. If that is the end goal for you, awesome. And if that is one part of the process that you may or may not make it to or don’t want to get to or want to play with and flirt with in different ways, that’s also great.

SETHI: This is, to me, one of the most beautiful things about this story – the permission to feel good. We deserve pleasure. And especially in these hard times, it feels really important to celebrate it.

STUBBS: This is the vessel that’s carried you through life, carried you through a pandemic. And, you know, this is something that’s also able to bring you pleasure. So even if you hate the skin that you live in, look what just happened – this skin that you don’t like gave you some amazing pleasure. So if you’re not grateful for that, like, what’s going on? You know, come at your body at a place of respect.

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SETHI: Respect is the cornerstone of adrienne maree brown’s work. She explores pleasure as a path to self-love and a conduit to collective change

BROWN: In pleasure activism, I quote a friend of mine who said, when I’m happy, it’s good for the world. When I am happy, it is good for the world.

SETHI: That leads us to takeaway five – pleasure is powerful and goes far beyond the erotic. Finding pleasure within ourselves can and should extend out into the world.

BROWN: So much of the way our society is currently constructed is to live from the outside in – right? – from the outside perspective. Someone’s telling us what to fix, that we don’t have enough, that we’re not thin enough, that we’re not pretty enough, that we don’t deserve, we don’t deserve, we don’t deserve, and we should be spending money so that we can improve ourselves to somehow deserve.

SETHI: Self-pleasure reminds us that we don’t have to settle.

BROWN: And it’s such a different starting point to go inward, to recognize the abundance of sensation, the abundance of space, the abundance of your breath and then the abundance of needs that can be met. And I think it really does something. Like, it rewires your system when you start to experience met needs.

SETHI: We start to remember our capacity, she says, and our agency.

BROWN: We actually have access to everything we need from the inside out – not just the inside out as individuals, but from the inside out as community.

SETHI: Think about it. When you feel good, you can show up for yourself and for others, and you’ll start to have a better sense of what works – not just in your body, but in your life.

BROWN: I was regularly doing things that I didn’t care about, that didn’t nourish me. They were out of obligation to other people, that I really just didn’t want to do because I thought it would please other people.

SETHI: What I’m really hearing is that self-love and this self-pleasure becomes a compass.

BROWN: Yes, yes.

SETHI: And it helps you to orient yourself in the world.

BROWN: Absolutely. Absolutely. A compass or even a pendulum, where I feel a pull, like, it towards – and I’m like, oh, I want to go – I want to do that. It’s like, there’s no doubt, like, do I have the time? It’s like, I will make the time. I will figure it out because this is a yes.

SETHI: Because you have gotten so intimate with yourself…

BROWN: Yes.

SETHI: …That you hear it.

BROWN: Yes.

SETHI: You hear it strong and loud.

BROWN: That’s right. And this is actually where the body practices are super helpful.

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SETHI: Body practices are what we’ve just explored. It’s a walk on the beach, gratitude for our thighs, tickling the back of our knees or giving ourselves an orgasm.

BROWN: If you are pursuing pleasure within your body, you can feel the touch. It’s like, that’s not really getting me anywhere, right? (Laughter) Like, that one’s not taking me there. This fantasy is not really working for me. You know, oh, this touch over here, just to the left a little bit. Oh, now, if we go inward at this point, I’m ready for this. Then all of a sudden, there you are – yes.

SETHI: That yes is a sign steering us toward not only what feels good in our bodies, but what we can activate in our communities.

BROWN: Practicing that is not just, like, you know, scandalous fun. It’s like, it literally is a way that our body trains us for how we are meant to move through to those orgasmic experiences of life, to the erotic – ah, yes.

SETHI: Self-pleasure reminds us that even through hardship, there’s possibility for joy.

BROWN: When I look at the organizing that’s happening right now and why it is so compelling, it’s all organized around yes. Watching people come into the street to dance and to sing around that is so incredible. Like, it’s such a different way to approach work. I look at how people survive the impossible moments – it’s that pleasureful, joyful, communal yes. There’s something here that is life, and we are going to move towards it.

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SETHI: So to recap, the path to self-pleasure starts with, one, getting curious about what makes you happy and, two, believing you are worthy of that happiness. Then you can start to appreciate the ways your body can give you pleasure. Takeaway three – and this is the fun part – get curious about what kinds of touch you actually like, which also means embracing takeaway four – deepen your pleasure with different kinds of touch and toys. And takeaway five – remember, pleasure is powerful. Harness your ability to know what you like and don’t like, and use that awareness in the bedroom and beyond.

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SETHI: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes, including How to Show Up for a Friend and How to Show Up for Yourself. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And as always, here’s a completely random tip, this time from listener Phillip Nordic (ph).

PHILLIP NORDIC: My tip is that if you’re dealing with some text in a document that has annoying or strange formatting and you want to get rid of that formatting, copy and paste it into your URL bar and then copy that into the document you’d like to put it in, and the formatting should go away.

SETHI: Do you have a random tip? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at [email protected]

This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. And Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I’m Simran Sethi. Thanks for tuning in.

(LAUGHTER)

SETHI: But that isn’t the only way to feel good.

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