It seems surprising in our seemingly liberated age that many people’s sexual experience is one of disconnection and dissatisfaction, and that this is not something more often brought to the attention of mainstream media. I have learned from many women that deep down their hearts are aching, for they long to know themselves and be totally met by another. Some part of them yearns to explore their deepest sensual and sexual nature, for they often feel unfulfilled, unappreciated and that they have not experienced their true glory as women. And so their bodies have tightened, closed up, inhibiting their pleasure and restricting their orgasms. Their heart may have closed too, causing sadness, loneliness, isolation, physical and emotional pain and perhaps in many cases even dis-ease in the body.
It is my belief that sexual confidence and joyful expression has a healing effect on many areas of our life. On the other hand suppression, restriction and shame of these natural process can lead to disharmony in our lives.
Ann (not real name) came to see me because she could not fully relax while making love and consequently could not experience orgasm with her partner.As she shared her life journey it came to light that she had also been suffering from anxiety on a regular basis, mostly in the mornings, for the last four years.We had a journey of three sessions where we explored the psychological, emotional and physical aspects of her sexual experiences. I also gave her processes to explore on a daily basis between sessions.And as Ann started to see improvements so she was motivated to persist with her daily practice. Soon I received a very excited text: ‘I had my first orgasm with my partner!’Three months later when Ann came for a follow-up session, she looked and felt like such a different woman.While she was talking about her new business idea, I asked ‘how about your anxiety?’ She had to stop and think and I remember her laughing and saying that she hadn’t felt anxious since working with her intimacy and sexual experience and that she had forgotten all about it!
So I want to consider in this article how early sexual experiences can send ripples throughout our lives; and if that’s had a negative impact, ask how we might re-educate ourselves and addressed this effectively. I will also briefly explore arousal and how it differs between men and women.
Habits of being
When we have a new experience, a new neural pathway is created. That’s the nature of neuroplasticity. Every new experience potentially changes our behaviour. That’s how we learn and adapt. If we repeat the experience, or the experience is particularly strong, more impulses flow along the pathway. Neurons that fire together wire eventually together – which is why we learn by repetition. The more you drive a route home the more natural it becomes and eventually you just get home without even thinking about where you are going. In this way we form habits – some that deplete us as well as some that can renew us. This means it’s possible to make empowering changes that re-wire our sexual neural pathways. We can actually rebuild a brain-body network that is more fulfilling.
One of the most common complaints I hear from women is that their man doesn’t know how to pleasure them correctly. Over the years that I have been helping women learn to receive the pleasure that they crave, one thing I have learned is that it needs to start with them: not with their lover, but with themselves. So I begin this journey of expansion by exploring how a woman first began touching her own body in a sexual way – or not as the case maybe. Unnecessary shame still lingers in our society around body self-exploration and unless addressed it can have a lifelong knock-on effect.
When we are teenagers we start to feel changes in our body. Our touching may move away from general exploration to a more goal-focused experience, ie masturbation. This is a key time in which our body begins to learn how it will receive (or effuse) sexual pleasure and what it needs to achieve pleasure and release.
When we start to touch our bodies sexually we begin build our touch-based neural responses as well as our emotional and psychological responses. And the two of course become interlinked.
The role of parents
As parents we need to contemplate what kind of sexual relationship as an adult we would like our child to experience. Of course, in this regard our own experience will profoundly affect the ways we think, feel and act. My personal preference would be to encourage experiences that are full of safe exploration, joy, playfulness, love, and pleasure; that involve being heard, feeling safe, a sharing that’s equal and honorable, that shows respect and self-care. As parents we may support this by encouraging our children to relish their bodies and senses as the amazing creation that they truly are; by educating them to look after their body, listen to it, and to feel that exploring it it is their birthright. If we can teach our children to understand their body not just anatomically, but also to know how it feels and responds, then their emerging sexual explorations will have a firm foundation in a healthy relationship with their body and their feelings.
If self-touch and exploration are kept in the shadows confusion and shame can grow. By not being open with our children we imply that self-exploration is not healthy and natural, when in fact it is an essential part of learning how we function and feel. Otherwise we do them a huge disservice. Unfortunately many of us have grown up believing that touching our body sexually is not OK. To make sexuality not OK or unsafe in some way will create some profound conflicts, not least because our deep-seated natural sexual drive is there to ensure we mate and keep the species going.
Stimulation and excitement
By seeking a positive relationship with every part of our body can we perhaps re-educate such negative conditioning – whether it’s us or the world around us that created it? In which case, if we want to enable more pleasurable experiences should we consider how we relate to the many ways we can touch ourselves?
Think of the ways we may stimulate and excite our body, using visual or mental stimuli, vibration, friction or gentle touch. Personally I feel none of them is wrong, but the question is, what do I want my sexual energy pathways to feel like? For instance if I only touch myself with the aim of releasing tension then am I neglecting to connect pleasurable sensations to other areas of the body? Or if I touch my whole body in ways I would like a lover to, then what is this telling my brain?
It can be instructive too, to notice how we receive everyday touch and how present we are with it. For example when someone shakes our hand, do we allow ourselves to really feel it and be present with that connection; or when someone hugs us goodbye can we stay fully present to this experience? Or do we in a certain sense leave the body; dissociate?
I have often seen among women who feel ashamed of touching their own body that they find it hard to remain present in the experience of almost any kind of touch. I believe training oneself that self-touching is other than a fun exploration can create a neural, emotional and psychological pathway of associations that causes touch to bring up negative emotions. However, the good news is that through conscious repetition we can retrain our systems to take on new patterns and ways of behaving. And this includes our relationship with touch.
Making the change
I have witnessed so many times that women can rewire themselves. Numbness, pain, tightness, disconnect, negative self-talk and shame can be rolled back to allow in oceans of pleasure, love and connection. The change entails regularly exploring the body through new and different forms of touch, thoughts and feelings. It’s the old adage – if you keep doing what you do, you will always get the same result, change what you do and you get a different result. So the rule is to explore what makes you feel good, then practice and repeat.
Many women override past negative experiences by using stronger stimuli to force a pleasure response in their bodies. Vibrators are widely accepted as a way for women to pleasure themselves. True, this strong stimulation of the genitals will create a physical response, which at first can be exciting and liberating. Unfortunately, I have often seen this goal-orientated (orgasm) approach to self-pleasure leave a woman feeling empty and with the sensitivity of her sexual organs diminished. Because neural pathways become habituated to strong stimuli, soft gentle touch becomes less arousing. In my experience women who use vibrators a lot may find it increasingly difficult to become excited by touch alone.
The anatomy of pleasure
There are many regions on and inside a woman that loving touch can open to provide deep sensual and orgasmic experiences. A woman’s entire body can be orgasmic, but for most women, awakening the sexual energy does not start with the sexual organs – touching them often comes much later.
I have found that where women touch themselves can influence different types of orgasm. Though every woman has slightly different anatomy and her own particular kind of orgasm, the most commonly known (and the least satisfying) is the clitoral orgasm. The g-spot orgasm is more powerful and cervical orgasm is also possible, as is a full vaginal orgasm and a whole-body orgasm. Sexual energy can even make random parts of our body feel orgasm.
My observation over the years has been that for a woman’s sexual energy and sexual body to awaken on the energetic, emotional and psychological levels most women need first to feel a sense of safety, affection, of being loved. And so before their body will respond in a wholesome sexual way, they need sensual touch. Men (of course in general and depending on circumstance) like to know that full sex is eventually going to happen. So some initial sexual touch can help a man to slow down and relax into the sensual experience of ‘foreplay’.
To my mind, the phases of arousal reflect a series of emotional and psychological events that allow a feeling of safety. From there closeness may progress to intimate contact. This makes evolutionary as well and psychological sense because before, during and after sex women are uniquely vulnerable. And sex requires us to be at the same time active and excited but also relaxed and open. Through touch, facial expression and voice, the feelings of safety necessary for allowing close and then intimate contact need can be evoked body-to-body. Words and touch create the initial emotional safety that allows a woman to stay fully present and not to disconnect from her bodily experience. These embodied sensations translate psychologically into emotions of love and a sense that one’s needs will be met.
Of course a woman’s body may respond with sexual arousal in many kinds of situation. However, in my experience a relaxed, non-adrenalised opening of a woman’s sexual body leaves no trace of trauma, whereas other kinds of experience often do. However, there are exceptions: what is arousing for one person – for instance anonymity, danger, violence – may be a total turn-off for someone else. Nor are a person’s arousal zones and excitement zones pre-set, but can change in the course of a person’s sexual life; they can be learnt about and nurtured.
For the autonomic nervous system to fully engage the sexual brain and body, the underlying security that welcomes holding and then loving must first be set in place.
Though the case for slow communicative sex is biologically based, unfortunately none of this is taught in our schools. Nor do most parents know enough (or if they did, do many feel open enough) to talk about these things. Yet when teens lack the kind of education on arousal and communication that Scandinavian countries provide, it is easy to see why unsatisfying sex lays down neural pathways linking it to feelings of shame, frustration, disconnection and failure. If, in their first hungry, urgent sexual forays, teens do to their sex partners only what they would want to have done to them, a habit for loveless, fast, disengaged sex can easily develop. Which is why young men need to know that giving their girlfriend a gentle shoulder massage before love-making warms up her parasympathetic nervous system, making her body more open, activating feelings of trust and so making deeper love and stronger orgasms more likely.
Vive la difference!
The same applies the other way around. A happy healthy sex life has to have the right kind of giving on both sides. Men and women need to be able and confident to let their partners know what they like and don’t like. This brings us to the difference between men and women, for it seems we are wired rather differently for sexual touch. In the initial arousal phase a man’s body wants to be touched on the inner thighs, perineum, genitals and nipples. However, for a woman, the same areas are ready only during the excitement phase after non-genital touch has her fully aroused by touching her shoulders, neck, throat, the sides of her breasts, her belly and waist, buttocks and knees. Women need time, connection, trust and love, so a lover who goes to her genitals too early while she is still only in her arousal phase can be a real turn-off. Only once the arousal phase has got her sexual energy flowing does the excitement system awaken the inner thighs, breasts and sexual organs for stimulation. Conversely, only after a man’s genital arousal areas have been stimulated and his sexual energy is flowing does the rest of his body open to arousal. A woman who starts softly stroking his body before he is excited will probably make him wish she would go to his genitals first.
Teens are now getting much of their sex education from pornography. Just as the media has spread the myth of the perfect face and body, in online porn they will usually see women shaved and with a small vulva. The need for pretty genitals has become a genuine concern and not only for many teenagers (so much so that many won’t even look at their genitals). Women, it seems, have become very self-conscious about the appearance of their vulva, which is why sadly labiaplasty – surgery to remove ‘excess’ labial tissue – is now the fastest growing market in cosmetic surgery. So is very important for girls and women to know that vulvas come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. I believe that to rebalance these cruel misconceptions we have to create new ways of approaching sexual and body education. Happily, change is happening and more good resources are now available, for example the book I’ll Show You Mine by Wrenna Robertson is a photographic guide sharing how different our vulvas really all are.
It brings me joy and thankfulness that through science and embodied exploration we are gaining knowledge that will help us have the experiences we are looking for. If we can trace back to our early sexual life, and come to terms with what we added along the way, we may begin to make helpful adjustments and set our sexual compass in a better direction. One of the most important parts of this process is to listen to the body and to be honest with where we have taken it, and what neural pathways our habits have set up. Once we know this we can start to make progress towards rebooting the system.
Becoming present to sensations: a practice for women
I would like to share a simple but very effective process to start this rewire. This involves learning to listen to sensations as information. (You might want to record this and use it as a guide to the practice).
- Sit or lie down comfortably. If you are prone to falling asleep while meditating then find a time when you are not so tired and remain seated. Close your eyes and just bring your attention to the breath moving in your body.
- Lick your lips and feel the sensation of breath moving over your lips, passing through your mouth and throat into your lungs while feeling the expansion and contraction of lungs and rib cage as you breathe.
- Let yourself get interested in the sensations you notice, especially in your chest.
- Move your awareness through your body, from your chest down your arms to your hands. Notice whatever sensations are there. Move your awareness down to your belly, your pelvis, your womb space. See if you can feel the connection between your pelvis, down through your legs and feet to the floor. Also be aware of your head, spine and pelvis.
- Be curious of the sensations inside your body, let your awareness roam.
- Bring your attention to the sounds around you, the sound of your breath, sounds in the room, sounds outside the room. Subtle sounds and loud sounds.
- Open yourself to the constant ever-changing stream of sound, open to the sensations in your body, the feelings of warmth, cold, tingles, aches, pains, cloth upon the skin, the breeze, blood pumping, your brain buzzing, your heartbeat.
- Merge these experiences in your body, in this moment constantly changing, constantly moving.
- Let go of any judgement of the sensations of them being good or bad. Just let them be.
- Include smell into your awareness.
- What emotions are moving? Feel and watch how they change and move through you, mixing with the other sensations of your body. See how some emotions move quickly some slowly, where they appear and move in your body, where the strongest feeling happens as they pass through.
- Notice your mind in the same way, thoughts rising and falling; no need to follow them, just let them be. The quality of the shapes and forms of your thoughts, notice any images as they arise in mind.
- Feel the constant change, constant hum on all the levels of your body, mind and being and then start feeling into the space in between these sensations – notice the spaciousness.
- What is constantly present within this ever-changing movement? This is the presence of life.
- Rest in this, savour this, surrender to this.
- When you feel ready, open your eyes, keep a soft focus, stay with what is naturally happening, move with this happening, see if you can carry this awareness throughout your day.
Sarah (not real name) came to me suffering from vaginismus, and was distressed that she couldn’t be intimate with her partner. She had been given dilators by her doctor but was too afraid to use them because of the pain.We worked through the time that it had begun, what had happened in her body, and what pattern the muscles had got locked into. I shared ways in which she could, step by step, meet the fear and the emotions including self-massage to relax the muscles. She worked daily with the dilators in between our sessions and her husband also got involved supporting her on this journey. Sarah now has the freedom to make love. It took her time and patience and a willingness to face the emotions around experiencing this condition but she did it.This created a lot more confidence in other aspects of her life too.
I hope this article has sparked some reflection on how having fulfilling sexual experiences and confidence can affect and support a healthy satisfying life.
I am so glad that there are people continually exploring and creating new ways of interweaving the wisdom of neuroscience with conscious embodiment processes.