What do you pay attention to when you’re touched? Say, for example, as you are reading these words, you allow yourself to become aware of the touch of your clothes on your body. What do you notice?
If you pay careful attention, you’ll become aware of a number of things. You will be aware of how an item of clothing feels, in a double sense. You can feel it as a matter of sensation [warm, soft], and you can also feel it as a kind of emotional colouring: the warmth feels comforting. And if you keep your awareness, you’ll probably become aware of an imaginal dimension as well: the feeling creates images, or memories, or associations. Likewise, you will become aware of the alive, dynamic quality of your body: the interface between the fabric and your skin changes with the movement of your breath. And, of course, you’ll be aware of a constant or intermittent patterning of thoughts.
When I do bodywork with clients, I encourage them to experience my touch in the widest way possible so their body becomes like a living three dimensional world, where there is always something new to be discovered and experienced.
But what most often gets in the way of that unfolding depth is a curious question:
“Am I aroused?”
And behind that question is a persistent internal dialogue, which goes something like this:
When I’m touched in a sexual way, I don’t seem to be aroused. I should be aroused, but I’m not. What’s wrong with me?
When I’m touched in a sexual way by x, I don’t seem to be aroused. What’s x doing wrong?
Asking questions like this is like asking “Why am I not seeing elephants?”. If your attention is focused on what’s not there, you won’t be aware of what is.
Why do we equate desire with arousal? And what do we mean by arousal?
To ask the question is, I think, to answer it: in the heterosexual world, we commonly think of arousal in terms of the wish, preparedness or willingness for sexual intercourse.
And when you think in those terms, you suddenly realise the weirdness of a question we often ask ourselves:
“How do I know if I want to have sex?”
Why is this question weird? It’s weird because we don’t normally have to go hunting for our desire: when we want something, it’s – at least most times – clear that we do. I generally don’t have to infer my desire from something else.
But in sex we do. A woman might notice she’s wet and think something like “Well, my body is ready for sex, although I don’t feel I want it. But I supose I must really”. Or a man might think “I’ve got an erection. I’m supposed to do something about it. So I’d better”.
What are the assumptions behind this? Well, they include:
- the point of sex is sexual intercourse
- if our body appears to be ‘ready’ for sex, we should be too
- because our body is more reliable than our mind
No wonder there’s so much terrible sex. All subtlety and nuance is whisked away, replaced by the on/off machine analogy of a dimwit.
In our nervous system, sex is under the jurisdiction of the parasympathetic branch, rather than the sympathetic [‘fight or flight’]. And it makes sense. The parasympathetic is colloquially known as ‘rest and digest’ and ‘feed and breed’; it’s in charge of those activities we can do when we’re safe, and don’t need to mobilise our systems to deal with danger.
So, paradoxically, if you want to become sexually aroused, you should get more relaxed. But here’s the thing: if you’re anxiously scanning your system for signs of arousal, you’re going to become less relaxed, not more. You’re going to be more in the sympathetic branch. And that’s often why there’s a negative feedback loop. One of its most obvious manifestations is with erectile dysfunction, but it plainly applies in a more widespread yet more insidious way to female sexuality too.
When I was learning dance, in my thirties, I was taught how to jump. I imagined that to jump, what I needed to do was to will myself up. But in fact, if you want to jump, what you need to learn is how to relax, how to fall into the earth. And then, as you’re falling into the earth, jumping happens.
LIkewise with pleasure.
And the best way to relax and be present is to open up to the complete range of our somatic and imaginal experience. If you’re curious what that might be, I write about it in more detail here