Let's talk about sex, baby... Well, sexual wellness actually. We know, we know, you're probably thinking "not wellness again!". The word that's made it into our everyday vocabulary over the last few years. The word that's tossed around and soaked up by detox drinks, vaginal steaming (no, we don’t suggest you try it), and skincare products that cost more than our monthly rent - yet we're still no clearer on what it actually means. Add the word 'sexual' into the mix and things get even more confusing. Well, here at Ellen Terrie, we think sexual wellness is pretty damn important so we’re here to set the record straight.
So what is sexual wellness?
If you're not entirely sure, you're probably not alone. At first glance, it might seem like a call to action to masturbate more, and while you might be pleased to hear that an orgasm (or three) may be part of it, sexual wellness is actually so much more than that… The correct term would be multidimensional. It's not only related to your physical well-being concerning your sexuality as most people might think, but also your emotional, mental and social well-being too. It's about how you see yourself. It's about your ability to embrace and be empowered by your sexuality. It's about accepting and appreciating your body. It's about the quality of your relationships. It’s about setting boundaries and respecting other people’s boundaries. It's about having the sense of truly owning your sexual actions. We could go on, but let's put it this way - without sexual wellness, there is no wellness. It’s a part of what makes us whole.
Don't be mistaken though, sexual wellness doesn't just come naturally. It's an active process, meaning that it's something that's created through your choices and behaviours. You're now probably wondering how you become sexually 'well'? What does it entail? And where do you start? We’re not actually going to tell you to do any one thing in particular, because it's all about finding the simple actions, habits and products that fit into your life easily and make you feel your most sexually 'well' self, but here are some key practices that are essential for building a solid foundation in your sexual self-care routine.
Masturbation is good for you!
We know, we said sexual wellness wasn't just about masturbating more, but it's certainly a big part of it. Masturbation is amazing because it's just about you and your pleasure. It gives you the opportunity to take a break from the pressures of everyday life to reconnect with your body and literally rub (or vibrate) your troubles away.
Beyond feeling amazing, experiencing pleasure and having an orgasm is actually really good for your physical health. Have you got a headache or menstrual cramps? Maybe you're feeling stressed or struggling to sleep? Masturbating might just be your answer. Having an orgasm releases the body's feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters - dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin - into the body, which all have incredible pain-relieving, stress-reducing and sleep-enhancing benefits. Didn't make that spinning class this morning? Don't be too hard on yourself because, while it's not quite the same as actual exercise, masturbating and having an orgasm also raises your heart rate, which is really good for your cardiovascular health. Similarly, orgasms are also good for strengthening your muscles. Well, your pelvic floor muscles anyway - you know, those muscles that you've probably attempted to workout at some point, only to have no idea what you're meant to be doing and writing the experience off as hard work? Having an orgasm creates a series of muscle contractions in the pelvic floor, keeping it strong and healthy. So, essentially, masturbating is like a mini workout.
Now, I fully agree that sometimes masturbating should be as simple as a ten minute quickie in the morning before a busy day at work to reap the above benefits as quickly as possible, but it's also important to give yourself pressure-free time to explore your body. Try setting the mood to help you relax (sorry for the cliché, but seriously, it helps). You might like to change your bed sheets, put on some lingerie or the sweat pants you feel most comfortable in. Perhaps you’d like to take a long bubble bath or light some candles. Set the scene in a way that feels most authentic to you. When it comes to touching yourself, try rubbing, pinching, tickling, tapping, circular motions, up-and-down or side-to-side strokes. Try different positions, different toys, different lubes. Don't put any pressure on yourself to orgasm. Instead, have fun and think of what you're doing as trying to learn what kind of stimulation feels good for you.
In sexual self-care, it's important to prioritise your pleasure.
Word on the street is, when it comes to sexual pleasure, people with vaginas are really missing out. And we mean really. Because what we have on our hands is a pleasure gap situation. You know, like the pay gap? Well, it's the same with pleasure. Just 65% of heterosexual-identifying cis women report that they usually or always achieve orgasm with a partner, compared with 95% of heterosexual cis men. These stats teach us that male orgasms are prioritised over female orgasms and that straight-identifying cis women aren't experiencing as much pleasure as they could be.
Although definitely not the only reasons, this gender disparity is largely due to the cultural ignorance of the clitoris and for women and other people of marginalised genders being afraid to ask for what they want. While some cis-het women (less than 20%) can have orgasms from penetration alone, most people with vaginas will need some or a lot of clitoral stimulation, and there's absolutely no shame in that. Use your hands, ask for oral, introduce some sex toys like a bullet vibrator, or even a hands-free couple's vibrator (yes, there really is such a thing). All too often, heterosexual couples focus on penis-in-vagina sex and forget all about the clitoris. And when the clitoris contains 8,000 nerve endings (that's the highest concentration anywhere in the human body - for anyone of any gender), it's a red-hot pleasure button waiting to be explored.
Everyone deserves to experience pleasure, so take the time to figure out the kind of sex that you want to have with your partner(s). Ask yourself questions like, 'What does pleasurable sex look like to me? How would that kind of sex make me feel? How and where do I want to be touched?". The next step, communicate this with your partner(s).
Don’t be afraid to talk about your sexual needs.
The more you communicate, the safer, more pleasurable and more fulfilling your sexual self-care will be. The first step to better communication? Don't be afraid to use the words vagina, vulva, clitoris, sex or period. Even in 2020, there's still some shame in discussing sexual health and pleasure, and even shame in using the correct terminology. As of now, use this as an opportunity to pledge that you will practise calling these beautiful body parts and experiences by their actual names.
And I don't just mean when communicating to your partner(s) about sex - if you have pet names for body parts that feel comfortable to you and your partner(s) to use in the bedroom, that's up to you. I mean when talking to yourself, your friends, and your doctor. Know how to articulate when something changes or doesn't feel good. Even when something feels great - talk about it out loud to those around you without judgement and shame. I know it doesn't sound very sexy, but the simple act of talking about your sexual health and pleasure problems and experiences - before you even get to the stage of fixing them - can have a massive impact on your overall wellness. From improving your relationship with your partner(s), to easing the embarrassment you may sometimes feel when going for your smear test or STI check-ups, communication really is key.
If you're in need of a little help, spend time reading and listening to sexual wellness blogs and podcasts (Sexual Wellness Sessions with Kate Moyle, F**cks Given with Come Curious, Doing It! with Hannah Witton to name a few...) where people speak openly about sexual wellness topics. Hearing others openly discuss these topics can help alleviate any feelings of shame in discussing your own sexual wellness problems and experiences. Allow their conversations to spur you on to engage with others about sexual wellness and, before you know it, you won't be able to stop saying the word ‘vagina’.
Every vulva and vagina will respond to different things and have different needs
Vaginas and vulvas are pretty amazing - they give intense pleasure, cause pain, and literally give life - so it's important to give them a place in your sexual self-care routine to learn about what they want and need (quick anatomy lesson: the vagina is sometimes used as a term for a the whole pelvic area, but it's technically only the muscular canal that runs from the cervix to the outside of the body - the outer parts that you can see, including the labia, urethra, clitoris, and vaginal opening, form the vulva).
Think about it, we spend a tonne of time and money on creams, serums and treatments for our faces, ensuring the ingredients are natural, non-toxic, and will leave us feeling as smooth as a baby's bottom, but we generally don't extend the same love and attention to our vaginas and vulvas. Everyone's different, so getting better acquainted with your intimate areas (this includes your boobs too) isn't just a good idea to help you get maximum pleasure from masturbation and sex, it's also so that you can easily spot the signs if something feels off.
You know those super-uncomfortable, tight knickers in the back of your drawer? It's time to toss them away and replace them with breathable underwear that's made from cotton or has a cotton crotch. Even better, go commando and ditch the undies at night. What about your favourite sex toy that's a little tricky to keep clean? Make the switch to a toy made from non-porous, body-safe materials like silicone, glass, stainless steel or ABS plastic. How about those nice smelling period products? Steer clear of any bogus products that promise to make you smell like a bed of roses - no one's vagina should smell like a bed of roses. Organic, unscented tampons and pads are your safest bet.
Knowledge is power as they say, and there's nothing more empowering than educating yourself on the materials and ingredients used in your sexual wellness products. That way, you can make more informed decisions for a healthy, happy vagina and vulva that's treated just as well as the skin on your face, if not better.
Sexual self-care: a summary
You might be thinking incorporating sexual self-care into your life is a case of ‘easier said than done’ and we totally understand that, but you don’t need to change everything about your life today to improve your sexual wellness. The best way to build healthy sexual self-care habits is slow and steady. Pick one thing you can practice doing better and focus on that for the next two to four weeks. Once you feel like you’re consistently improving that sexual self-care skill, pick a new one!
And remember, sexual self-care isn't selfish. Not one little bit. As Audre Lorde, who coined the term 'self-care' put it in her book of essays, Burst of Light, ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’
Words by Ellen Edwardson
Image credit: Pexels