Sex as Self-Care

sex

This week and last on the podcast I’ve shined a spotlight on self-care. And I would be remiss if I didn’t include sex in the mix. Because whether it’s with a partner, or yourself, or something that you’re not participating in at the moment, sex is an indisputable part of being a person and therefore has a role to play in being a better person. It’s also an important way that we take care of ourselves on multiple levels, physical and emotional. 

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That’s why I’m interviewing Alicia Gauvin, Executive Director of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, a nonprofit organization based in Providence, Rhode Island that provides medically accurate, consent based, and pleasure-guided sexuality education, therapy, and professional training to adults.

Welcome Alicia, it’s great to have you. The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health offers what it calls “pleasure-guided sex ed.” Can you explain what that is, and why pleasure is such an important part of not only your work, but also our lives?

Yeah, so when we say pleasure guided, what we mean is that the possibility of the experience of pleasure is at the core of what we are talking about. And the reason we place some emphasis on that is because so much of the sex education that we receive, you know, growing up, whether it is through conversations with family or from schools, or from religious leaders in our communities, it’s often fear and shame based.

I mean, there are definitely some instances where pleasure is talked about and uplifted. But most of the time the emphasis is on preventing pregnancy, or sexually transmitted infections. But so when we ignore or minimize or dismiss pleasure as a healthy component of our sexuality, we neglect one of the major reasons people engage in sexual behavior in the first place.

And so if we’re dismissing that, we are not enabling people to have conversations about the types of pleasure that they enjoy. We are not empowering people to have conversations with their partners, to communicate what their desires are. Or behaviors that they want to engage with. And so that can impact the ability for people to consent to behaviors. And we put ourselves at risk by potentially engaging in behaviors that are not good for us.

For example, there was a tweet on Twitter that was circulating, I don’t know, I think in December at some point. And it was something to the effect of “Please do not DIY sex toys right now. We are in the middle of a pandemic. You do not need to go to the emergency room because you got something stuck in your butt.” And as funny as that is, it’s true. There is a book that is devoted to things that people have gotten stuck in their bodies because they did not know that the thing that they were putting in there could get stuck.

Also when people encounter these medical issues, they tend to wait before going to the emergency room. And that only causes the issue to become that much more serious. So by having conversations about pleasure, people can learn how to safely engage in behaviors that minimizes harm to themselves and others.

And ultimately people that are harmed by avoiding these conversations are people who have experienced oppression historically. So in the cultural zeitgeist,  it’s fine to talk about men’s pleasure because that’s their right. But if we talk about female pleasure, that’s so much more taboo. Or if we even think about just like the ways we talk about sex and sexuality, we often minimize the experiences of people in the LGBTQ community as well. Even just thinking about school-based sex ed that’s, it’s very heterocentric. And so we’re not giving folks the opportunities to learn how to experience pleasure in a way that is safe for them either.

You guys are doing all kinds of important work out there. As you’re talking, I can’t help but hear that Justin Timberlake song, I’m Bringing Sexy Back. But it’s, I’m bringing pleasure back. I love it. Let’s bring it front and center. So how do you see the relationship between sex and self-care? Can you draw that out for us a little?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and I know self-care is like a big word right now. And I’ve seen again on Twitter, lots of different opinions on self care. But so the way I’m interpreting self-care is things that optimize your health. Whether that’s your mental health, or your physical health, or however else you define health. I think one of the things that people don’t think about is how much we ignore how our bodies feel by not thinking about how we are experiencing pleasure.

And this is not just limited to sex. I think this is a cultural thing. Maybe especially in the Northeast where we have those puritanical roots. But there’s a lot of shame that goes into like food and our right to enjoy something that brings us pleasure that we’re eating. You know, and that’s kind of like the cross of diet culture. But even just from a medical standpoint, experiencing an orgasm can help reduce your risk of certain cancers as well as your chances of a heart attack. So by denying yourself the opportunity to have an orgasm, you are increasing your risk of certain cancers and increasing your chance of having a heart attack.

Now, is there a direct line? No, I’m sure there’s other factors that are at play. But also having an orgasm can help decrease your stress. It can help you sleep better. It can help boost your immune system. And can help you experience less physical pain. Especially right now, during cold and flu season in a global pandemic. It’s an extremely stressful timeline for many, many folks. That could be a free thing that you can do for yourself that doesn’t involve changing your diet, taking a pill, buying a Peloton. It’s something that you can do in the safety of your own home with, or without a partner. And it’s not something your doctor’s going to prescribe or talk to you about most likely.

Right. What about the relationship between sex and being a better person? Am I trying to draw a line there that’s not there?

I think that there’s absolutely a connection. Kind of going back to what I was saying at the start, like when we are more comfortable talking about the things that bring us pleasure and make us more comfortable with our bodies, I think that allows us to extend empathy to others that we may not have had the capacity to do so before. And I think it encourages a deeper and more fruitful relationship with yourself.

You know, we talk about going to the doctor for our annual checkups. Go to the dentist for teeth or oral care. But we don’t ever talk about doing a sex audit as weird as that sounds. But our bodies changed throughout the course of our life. And so, you know, if we’re not checking in with how our bodies are functioning or exploring alternative ways to experience pleasure, we are setting ourselves up for failure. In that we are creating this unattainable goal. And again, I think we want to minimize the feelings of shame and fear that ultimately can cause conflict, right? Like that’s ultimately at the root of most of our societal ills.

Right. Right. And it’s hard to be evolved or come from a big-hearted place if you’re feeling shame. It’s just easy to kind of adopt a defensive position, which is when you’re not at your best. I see the line. I see it.

Yeah. And  I think it does encourage you to think about like different possibilities. And like, why might someone enjoy some, might enjoy X when I enjoy Z? For example, I really like chocolate. And my partner does not like chocolate. Does that make my partner a bad person? No, it means there’s more chocolate for me. I don’t have to worry about them eating it.

So if it’s the same thing if you encounter someone that says that they’re in the BDSM scene, that doesn’t make them a bad person, if you’re not into that. It means that you like two different things. And yet, because it’s such a taboo in our society, we feel the need to place this person in like the “other” category rather than like embracing who they are as a whole person.

Switching gears a bit, I’ve heard of a lot of pandemic babies. Which suggests that people are using the quarantine to get busy. But I’m also hearing from a lot of people that all the together time is killing the mood. And with kids at home all the time, you know, I can vouch that alone time and adult time is hard to find. And then there were also reports of domestic violence spiking, thanks to many reasons, including high stress and more time spent cooped up inside the home together. What’s your take on how sex fits into self-care during this particular unique moment in time?

Yeah. I mean, if someone’s experiencing domestic violence, I don’t think that sex is going to solve that issue in your relationship. And there’s at least in Rhode Island, there’s a lot of great resources out there. Because of the spikes, I know that they’re at capacity.

But I do think that, kind of going back to the top in terms of finding time, or maybe it’s not finding time. But creating an environment where there is a better atmosphere. And I’m not someone with kids, so don’t know if my suggestions of things to do with kids in your home are based in reality. And I would imagine that it depends on how old they are as well. But I have friends that have kids who will say, we’re going to go have some alone time. And these are kids that are able to occupy themselves for at least, you know, a decent amount of time without fear of burning the house down.

But also like in terms of killing the mood, it is a stressful time. And stress can have an impact on our sex drives. For some people, it makes them want sex even more because it’s a form of release. For other people it’s like, this is the last thing I want. And I think that part of it is you need to have a conversation. If it’s partnered sex, you need to have a conversation with your partner about what your expectations are.

There’s a really amazing resource called A Sex Journal. And it helps you have those hard conversations because we’re not taught how to talk about our wants and needs. Especially when it comes to sex and what it encourages you to do, and I promise this is not like an ad. It’s just a resource that someone came up with that I’m a huge fan of it. It encourages you to talk about what you and your partner are looking for in your sexual relationship. And then it gives you very brief prompts after you and your partner have had sex that you can then debrief. Like what was really great? Like what do we want to definitely do again? And what is something that we felt was lacking? Or what is something that we could do differently next time?

I know a lot of people who have used it and it has facilitated a lot of really great conversations that they never would’ve thought of having with their partners. So I definitely encourage folks to look into that as a resource.

But also in terms of like changing the mood a little bit, I don’t know about anyone else, but I find myself a lot more time in yoga pants not doing my makeup or hair. And so sometimes it might just be scheduling a date night. Like, see if someone in your pod can watch the kids and have an at-home date night with your partner. Or with yourself. Put on some makeup, put on some nice shoes and like, feel really good in your own body. And that will translate to creating an atmosphere where you’re both feeling really good and want to play.

Nice. And just to help folks find that resource, which does sound amazing, it’s called A Sex Journal. Is there an author or another way that we could identify it.

Yeah. It’s asexjournal.com. Apparently goop has done an endorsement of it. But it is a fantastic tool. I can’t recommend it enough.

Thank you for that. So the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health has some amazing virtual workshops. I was checking out your website before we hopped on this call. They cover everything from how to talk to your kids about porn to polyamory. And that was just for a couple of months. What are some other ways you’re supporting folks? And how can listeners connect with you and take part?

Yeah, the virtual workshops we’ve been doing on, I guess I would consider it like a trimester based schedule. And this is something that came out of not able to do in person workshops, and is new for us. And we never thought that we would be doing workshops for parents. Because a lot of the folks that are, you know, behind the scenes are not people with children, myself included. So when we were trying to have our pivot discussion about where the organization was going, we really wanted to support other independent sex educators who are also experiencing job loss because of everything, you know, getting shut down.

So we put a request for proposals out there. And we got so many incredible proposals from sex educators across the country. So we created this, this parenting mini series. And that was one of our most popular programs since the start of the pandemic. And is something that we plan on continuing, because there are so few resources for parents on how to have sex positive conversations with their children.

But we also are going to have a series that is about different aspects of pleasure and sexuality. As well as a professional track. So for medical providers and mental health professionals who are wanting to learn how to have these conversations with their patients and their clients. As well as provide more culturally competent care in terms of like serving the LGBTQ community. We have a great lineup of workshops that are going to be announced within the next couple of weeks. So probably by the time this comes out, it will be live on our website, which is the CSPH.org.

We are also @theCSPH on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We also provide tele-therapy right now. And our clinical director is a certified sex therapist. She’s one of three in the state of Rhode Island. And we work with adults experiencing sexual challenges, difficulties, and trauma. Then our other tier of programming is the professional training, as I mentioned.

And we also do community events. This past Friday, we had a sex trivia night for Valentines. In March we’re going to have a storytelling event. All of these are virtual. Trying to give people opportunities to connect with others while staying home and staying safe.

Daily Tiny Assignment

Okay, so Alicia shared some pretty eye-opening information about just how good sex is for us on many different levels. Everything from boosting immunity to promoting relaxation. Your tiny assignment today is just to think about what you need in order to be able to have more good sex, more orgasms in your life. Just identify what is missing for you. Is it alone time? Is it a conversation with your partner? Or is it a sexy book to get you in the mood? Think about it, ask yourself. Listen to what comes and then honor that the best way that you can.

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