Sex has always been my source of comfort. Any time I felt overwhelmed, it was there waiting for me, allowing me to feel in control. When I didn’t feel good about myself, I’d let the whispered encouragement of sexual partners fuel my self-esteem. When I couldn’t process the gravity of my depression or anxiety, I knew that sleeping with someone — whether that was a romantic partner or just someone I could stand enough for a quick lay — would calm my nerves.
And that worked for a while … until it didn’t. Even the most dependable of coping mechanisms didn’t stand a chance against the last 12 months. On paper, I was doing pretty well, considering everything going on in the world — I moved out of my parents’ home, started graduate school, and got out of an emotionally abusive relationship. But the transition to being entirely on my own, starting school in a pandemic, and being single after almost seven years brought about outbreaks of anxiety I couldn’t begin to process. Like clockwork, I looked to sex to put out the fires in my mind. For a while, having sex on my terms, as a sexual assault survivor, returned to me a sense of control. But by having sex with partners who weren’t interested in my personhood, I found that the very anxiety I was trying to avoid came back tenfold.
My therapist and I agreed that this was a cycle I had to try to escape — it was not one that would help me get through the rest of a year as tumultuous as 2021, let alone the rest of my life. This made me nervous. I was preparing myself for this to mean investing in a new journal, amping up my time in the gym, and steering clear of anything sexual. Then, my therapist suggested looking into “mindful masturbation.”
Mindful masturbation is all about reconnecting with yourself and focusing entirely on what makes you feel good. It encourages you to think of all of the things you want a partner to do to you and doing them to yourself. Sure, sounds nice, but when it had come to masturbating to relieve stress in the past, it never quite did the job the way sex did. It’s not like I didn’t have an extensive collection of sex toys that I made use of pretty often, it’s just that masturbation was something I did when I was extremely aroused and couldn’t get someone to come over fast enough. More than anything, it was an act of “what can I do to get myself to orgasm the fastest?” It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much I was depriving myself of — and how much I was relying on other people to feel alright.
On my therapist’s advice, I did some research of my own. My journey began by getting reacquainted with my naked body. I watched myself change in the mirror. I paid attention when I’d wash my body in the shower. I began sleeping without clothes to remind myself how sensitive my skin was to the feel of itself. Then, I ditched the toys. For the first time, I didn’t want machines and gadgets to be the driving force of my self-pleasure. I started using my hands, all over — I was exploring the entirety of my body and caressing places I knew I liked to be touched. I focused on sensations and what reactions my body had to the feel of itself. It was no longer a race to the big O but rather a slow, meandering ride, no destination in mind. What I had been relying on incompatible sexual partners to do for me, I was learning to provide for myself.
I started feeling the difference in other parts of my life, too. I hadn’t noticed how much validation I had sought out through my sexual interactions until I became the person providing it for myself. And the best part? There were no longer uncomfortable feelings to deal with after the fact. I’d have a moment to completely indulge in myself and relieve tension and then go about my day.
I haven’t had sex since I started mindfully masturbating this past summer. When I feel a wave of panic about my life or the state of the world, I don’t feel the urge to bury my stress in another person. And so when I do eventually decide to welcome another sexual partner, whether it’s someone I want to be with or someone I just want to share some time with, I know that I’ll be having sex because it’s what I really want to do — and not because I think I need to.