What is Erotic Self-Care?
Eroticism is fluid, personal, and so much more. Let’s celebrate and explore. Earlier this month, Esther Perel published a thoughtful and interesting reflection on eroticism and how it’s more than just the sexuality you share with a partner – it’s about self-exploration and understanding. Perel posits that we are responsible for turning ourselves on and off, and the ways we do this evolve throughout our lives.
My initial thought, as a cisgender woman, is pretty straightforward. A poke of the clit has worked for me for many years, and will probably still do it when I’m 80. The flip side, of course, is that rumour that cisgender men will think about thoroughly unsexy things (modern politics, perhaps) in order to delay orgasms and last longer for their partner(s).
But then I cast my mind back to the way that sexuality has evolved throughout my life. As a child, I had non-sexual crushes (‘squishes’) on other children, and one only has to walk through a playground to see kids solemnly swearing that they’ll get married and then clasping sticky hands to realise that this was pretty universal.
As I matured, physically and psychologically, things shifted. Through pornography and media (and whispered conversations with my friends) I began to understand physical sexual intimacy a bit better. The joke goes that everyone discovered wanking at 14 and didn’t stop for six months, leaving their genitals a little battered, and that certainly seems to be true for many people.
During that time we discovered fantasising, a new relationship with our bodies, and an understanding that we wanted to be kissed there, spanked here, and receive oral sex in this position. Some of it is definitely more graphic than the rest – I realised that I liked curly hair and playing with curly hair, but understood that this was intimate, but not necessarily sexual.
Now, having left my sticky teenage years behind, I can explore a plethora of new sensations with sexual partners, endless toys and gizmos, or whatever else I fancy. I know people who regularly attend orgies, and others who like missionary sex with their spouse. In 20 or 50 years’ time, perhaps we’ll all be popping viagra to see what it does to clitorises or to counter the effects of our heart medication.
My point is – sexuality evolves, and what is erotic at one time in our lives may leave us shuddering in another moment. Orgasming can switch from something you’ll literally bend over backwards to achieve (or help someone else achieve) to a quick way to dispel stress hormones and boost your emotional health.
When we do leave our heavy masturbation years behind in puberty and start to explore things with other people, the message that some of us feel bombarded with is that self-confidence is sexy. Considering this now, the message is a little difficult.
Telling someone to be confident can backfire as they try to imitate it and come up with something thoroughly flimsy and unconvincing. However, the idea of a woman, resplendent in lingerie, perhaps with some wine or handcuffs, looking at you with sultry eyes and saying ‘worship me, for god is a woman’ is the kind of thing that would make anyone weak at the knees.
This is one person’s view of sexual health. For others, eroticism may be much more complex. Every time I see little girls dressed in white promising their fathers that they’ll stay celibate until marriage (which is literally ritualised in parts of Christian America) I wonder what kind of sexual problems they’re being set up for. Will they feel shame when they touch themselves?
What will happen to their emotional health when some, inevitably, realise that they’re gay, or trans, or not part of the church-sanctioned sexual experience? Psychologists will tell us that sexuality and eroticism are shaped by childhood experiences and I’m concerned that teaching sexuality as dirty or shameful will affect the interesting and intricate erotic experiences that people have in their lives.
Exploration and suggestions
If you’re a woman who feels that she’s missed out on what makes eroticism, here is what I would recommend. Firstly, lock the door, lie on your bed with a mirror and take a look at your own genitals. They’re no more inherently dirty or shameful than your elbows. Have a prod and a poke. Then go out and buy every toy you can find, go to burlesque shows and gay bars, watch Sex Education, grab a copy of The Vagina Bible, have one-night stands, buy a new erotic novel, eat some oysters and savour their sensual repulsion.
Chat to sex workers, take a dance class, read up on how to give and receive good head, stay up all night drinking red wine with someone who makes your toes curl, check out a forum run by asexual people, go to a good sexual health clinic and discuss contraception, spend an afternoon on a depraved site on the Internet, find pictures of your teenage crushes/heartthrobs of your youth, ask your friends about the best sex they ever had, or just say to your spouse that you think you’d enjoy a light spanking after dinner. If something feels right and exciting, go for it.
Eroticism is a strange, gross, sexy and evolving thing. We don’t need to stigmatise it, and in fact, enjoying and exploring it can teach us a lot about ourselves and our partners. Trying new things in your erotic life is a great way to feel more fulfilled and connected to yourself and others, or just grab a few fun anecdotes to pass around to your friends. If you’re reading this to find out what eroticism is, I wish you luck and joy on your journey.