Why Eroticism Should Be Part of your Self-Care Plan

By Esther Perel & Mary Alice Miller

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We carry the responsibility of our desire. Why? Because desire is an expression of our free will. Nobody can force us to want. So if it is ours, then it is also our responsibility to activate it. Freedom always comes with responsibility. We can turn ourselves on and we can turn ourselves off. We can have thoughts that will instantly shut us down and thoughts that will keep us open to possibility and curiosity. We can enliven ourselves and we can numb ourselves. Eroticism blooms from the tension between excitation and inhibition and manifests in the things we say and do, by how we act, and by how we think. We tend to think of eroticism as a sexual state shared by two or more people, but really, it starts with the individual. And it requires practice. 

What is Eroticism? 

Eroticism isn’t sex; it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination. It’s the thoughts, dreams, anticipation, unruly impulses, and even painful memories which make up our vast erotic landscapes. It’s energized by our entire human experience, layered with early childhood experiences of touch, play, or trauma, which later become cornerstones of our erotic life. We know that even things that give us the most pleasure can come from the most painful sources. Eroticism is not comfortable and neat. It unveils inner struggles, emotional tensions, a mix of excitement and anxiety.

How do we access it? 

I often talk about how couples who are plagued by sexual boredom find themselves there because of a lack of vulnerability with their partners. They prioritize getting it done over exploring the hidden desires that turn them on. The same can be said for the individual. When we’re on our own, we mostly know what gets “the job” done. Porn. Toys. Intense focus on a specific sweet spot followed by a quick finish. But to truly experience the benefits of eroticism, it can’t be treated as a job. So why are we so quick to punch in and punch out? Are we afraid of what may happen when we slow down and really spend some quality time with ourselves?

Now more than ever, we are our own panopticons, experiencing social control from the inside. We measure and judge ourselves, at times experiencing our body as a prison rather than a chateau full of rooms to lingeringly explore. And if we struggle with being inside our bodies, why would we take the time to explore them? Or for that matter, how could we ever feel safe to invite anyone else in? I'm not talking just about penetration. I'm talking about entering our personhood, our dreams, who we are, our heart and soul. Many of us are so self-critical that we forget these internal wonders. 

Erotic self-care begins with diminishing our inner-critic and giving ourselves simply the permission to feel beautiful, to enjoy our own company, to be more compassionate and realistic with ourselves without vacillating between excess and repression. I’m thinking of the many people who have described using their fingers to swipe the multitude of possibilities—better kept fantasy than reality—when those same fingers could be used pleasuring themselves. 

I turn myself off when… 

Incorporating eroticism into a self-care plan is basically about loosening the noose of a highly-developed cultural mandate about self-control so that we may explore what brings vibrancy and vitality into our lives. Whether we seek to explore eroticism on our own or with a partner, it always starts at the source: our self. 

Drawing on the work of the late therapist, Gina Ogden, I like to ask patients to complete this sentence: “I turn myself off when…” The answers are endless. “I turn myself off when…I check email before bed; when I worry about the kids; when I stress about work or the state of my finances; when I overeat or don't exercise; when I don't take care of myself.” Notice that, in this list, there is very little that is specifically sexual. What turns us off are the things that sap the energy and liveliness out of us.

I turn myself on when… 

The same is true in the reverse. When I ask people to complete the sentence, “I turn myself on when….” the answers usually have to do with taking time for self-care: going into nature; dancing; pampering; connecting to body and sensuality, nurturing. We turn ourselves on when we energize ourselves, when we are embodied and focused—not on any particular goal, such as having an orgasm, but on the present moment. Maybe it’s the sensation of a small square of dark chocolate melting on our tongue. Or the moment when, in the shower, we start noticing the hot water on the nape of the neck, underarm, and chest. There are so many parts of our bodies that we never think to wash, check, or touch.

Sometimes we ignore these parts of us because somewhere along the line, we began to shut them down. Maybe we were deeply wounded and don’t trust ourselves to open up again. Maybe we feel like we no longer deserve to be attractive because we no longer have the fit body or full head of hair we once had. Or perhaps illness has transformed us, confiscated our breasts, uterus, testicles or another part of us, that makes us feel unsexy or unattractive. Sometimes we are in mourning or feel guilty, as if we don't deserve to be sensual or awakened because we've just lost somebody. Sometimes we’re just annoyed. From the stresses of the everyday, to resentments, to deeper wounds, there are a lot of reasons for people to feel out of touch with their erotic selves. Often, shutting down feels like the only thing we can control. Incorporating eroticism into our self-care plans can alter our relationship with control and transform our state of being.

It’s about being receptive, willing, open, and responsive.

These are very important verbs in the realm of the erotic. It's not about saying yes or no to everything; it’s about a willing to be influenced, receptive, curious. When we’re shut down for a prolonged period of time, we don't feel open or responsive. We want others to make us want but that doesn’t work so well, remember? Wanting is something that we fully own. No one can make us want except for ourselves.

Desire and self-worth go hand in hand. In order to want, we need to feel deserving, an idea Susan Rubin Suleiman explored in her book “The Female Body in Western Culture.” Sadly, way too often when we don’t feel attractive, we can’t imagine that somebody else sees us with different eyes than the way we see ourselves. And we certainly don’t feel like we deserve their sensual touch or our own, for that matter. This is one of the ways that self-rejection speaks. I want to encourage us to change the script: I deserve to take a break. I deserve to stop working. I deserve to lay down. I deserve to make myself feel good. In that healthy sense of entitlement, we don't produce anything; there’s nothing to measure. It's a radiant interlude, a decision to notice what we generally don't pay attention to, to open ourselves up to receive and respond. 

Widening the Realm of the Senses

When we widen the realm of the senses, we invite the world in. I love to ask people the following questions. Answer them for yourself:

  • What's your favorite temperature of water? 
  • What's your favorite temperature generally outside? 
  • How do you respond to sun, wind, air?
  • Are you aware of what touches your skin, of what hovers around you? 
  • When you wash yourself, what’s your relationship to the body that you’re washing?
  • Do you enjoy touching yourself? And I’m not talking about genitals only, but pleasing and soothing yourself. 
  • When you drink coffee or tea are you just gobbling or savoring? 
  • Are you aware of your experiences in sensory, sensual, and physical ways? 
  • Which is the sense with which you make love the most? 
  • Which sense do you barely notice or use?

Incorporating Eroticism into Your Self-Care Plan

Self-care isn’t just about facemasks and mindfulness, though those are great, too. It’s about tuning into our bodies and letting them teach us what we like, what we don’t like, and what we don’t know about ourselves yet. There are so many ways to incorporate eroticism into our self-care plan, from integrating different types of touch—energetic, affectionate, sexual, and erotic—to exploring massage, stroking, tickling, and kinky playing. Jaiya, a sexological bodyworker who has joined us on Sessions, does a magnificent job of explaining the phases of touch, starting with hovering to healing and beyond. I also recommend Chen Lizra’s series “Somatic Intelligence,” in which she teaches Sabrosura, which is rooted in the Cuban art of seduction. Lizra teaches confidence, body awareness, and how to keep the tension through attitude movement. Try this: let your fingers roll from your elbow to your wrist in the absolute slowest way you can. Then go even slower.

For me personally, dancing has been my thing. We can cry when we paint, listen to music, read, or write, but we can't cry when we dance. The body won't let us; it can't move while it weeps. For others, it may be the self-soothing that comes from self-massage, that simultaneous giving and receiving. Some of us find eroticism across multiple practices such as tantra and yoga. Being in our bodies is not about performance or results. It’s about coming home. It's a pleasurable, sensual connection that reminds us that life is worth living even when we are in pain or struggling. If we want to be able to connect better with our bodies, we must invite ourselves to explore different experiences around our senses, and around our sensuality. Befriending our bodies and making peace with them is the beginning of one of the best relationships we can ever have: the relationship with ourselves.

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