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Self Pleasuring & the Science of Self Touch

(plus a commonly asked question: is masturbation a sin?)

When people come to me for therapeutic work – e.g. they feel they may have ED, PE, FSD – I let them know that self pleasuring* can be an important part of healing, where pleasure feels blocked. If someone feels willing to engage with this teaching, it creates an important foundation for change.

When I give touch in sessions, it has specific therapeutic or pleasurable (depending on the session) intent. There is an important side benefit to receiving touch from others, which is often not spoken of. Receiving touch can expand our inner maps of sensation, which we can then draw on when touching ourself (or others) in the future.

In our touch deprived society – all good touch is an education.

Self pleasuring: embodiment, ownership, agency

But because self pleasuring is still often shrouded in shame or indifference, it needs to be actively signposted in my work. Many of us hand over good touch to others, whether lovers or experts. That is why I make the benefits of self pleasuring so explicit, as a way towards the wisdom and expertise inherent in your own body and being.

*New* Skype Self Pleasuring Course >>

For instance during an opening embodiment meditation in my erotic / sensual massage sessions, I invite people to hold their clothed genitals. I sometimes call this a “genital handshake” – guys might smile and find this cheeky! But a moment of contact given full attention, reveals a great deal about the quality of relational space there. So I ask them to notice “is the handshake friendly, warm, familiar – or distant, blank, unfamiliar?”

For non therapeutic erotic massage work, I am there to serve pleasure and not explore someones personal or relationship history. However this one simple process gives me a sense of someones levels of embodiment. Because even “just” serving pleasure, requires great skill to do it well. As I said above, all good touch – especially intimate touch – is an education. During this moment I might additionally say something like:

“This is your body, your pleasure, there is no need for you to tolerate or endure any kind of touch you don’t want to receive today. So as you make contact with your genitals, see if you can contact a sense of agency which says – my body, my pleasure”.

Actively cultivating a sense of agency in the people that we give touch to – this is SO essential in the work that I do. And because body ownership and agency is SO important in healthy sexuality, this study below really excited me. Because its conclusion is that self touch increases a sense of body ownership, more than touch from others.

The science of self touch

The study that excited me today is called “Voluntary self-touch increases body ownership” and is published here http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01509/full in Frontiers in Psychology. Scroll to the bottom for a summary of it’s conclusions.

Previous studies have shown that touch we receive from others – “play[s] an important role in how the brain learns to construct a mental picture and an understanding of the body, which ultimately helps to create a coherent sense of self.”¹

This new study though, concludes that self touch increases our sense of body ownership even more than touch received from someone else. Thus ”self-touch may have a special role in the formation of our bodily self-representation” and they go on to say:

A fundamental aspect of the experience of the self is the sensation that we have a body (body ownership) and that we control the actions of that body (agency) Agency, the sense of control over one’s own actions, is thought to rely on integration of efferent and afferent sensorimotor information. A particular and relevant case in which body ownership and self-generated action interact is self-touch. Self-touch is thought to engender a basic form of self-awareness …

Consider what this and other touch studies show. Touch from others supports understanding our bodies, and developing a coherent sense of self. Those benefits are amplified when we actively touch our own self, and because we are active in self touch, we get to develop our sense of agency too.

The study pointed to is not about sexual self touch. It uses robotics and virtual reality to test the experimenters hypothesis through the rubber hand illusion, a scientific device used to test the foundations of self-consciousness.

The measures used to determine body ownership in this experiment were proprioceptive drift (where we believe our hand to be versus where it is) and a questionnaire eliciting the participants experiences. The results then all went through rigorous statistical analysis.

Extrapolating from the study a benefit of self pleasuring, is of course entirely speculative and not intended to demonstrate an evidence base. In making the leap I am drawing on anecdotal experience of working with peoples bodies and their sexuality. I don’t need science to support this experience or to validate clients own experiences either.

Cultivating body awareness and agency requires a deep listening to forms of intelligence, that we commonly don’t recognise or validate. However when anyone asks “why self pleasure”: what science has uncovered about touch, can offer compelling reasons to experiment and discover for oneself what is true.

Is masturbation a sin?

But I want to come back to the topic of developing a sense of ownership and agency through self touch. The studies conclusions are that active self touch, body ownership and a sense of agency are all interrelated. This is really important stuff.

I realise now it is why I have intuitively evolved a practice of inviting people to make contact with their own genitals in a session, before I touch them with my hands. I want to offer an embodied reminder of ownership and agency.

Google keyword tool no longer reveals precise figures which is a shame! But what it does show is that between 10K and 100K people per month sit down at their computers and ask google the question “is masturbation a sin”. That’s not as high as searches for viagra which sit in the 1-10M bracket for comparison – but still as google searches go it is pretty big.

I was raised Catholic, and the Catholic church has very strong views on masturbation. Here is an answer those questioners might come across, a summary and reflection on catechism teachings about masturbation as a mortal sin (i.e. the worst kind, up there with murder) http://www.beginningcatholic.com/catholic-teaching-on-masturbation

Here also is an article from the New York times asking “Sex abuse and the Catholic Church: Why is it still a Story?” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/20/insider/sex-abuse-and-the-catholic-church-why-is-it-still-a-story.html?_r=0

There are many complex systemic issues at play that have led to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. And in the study pointed to, the area “touched” (virtual reality was involved to create the measures needed) was the back of the left hand. However those caveats aside – please read again the conclusions researchers reached …² 

Extending the results of previous studies on active movements in shaping our sense of bodily self, our results highlight the role of the correspondence between efferent motor signals and afferent sensory inputs in building our sense of body ownership. Thus, self-touch may have a special role in the formation of our bodily self-representation.

… and consider that the Catholic Church prohibits a kind of touch which engenders body ownership and requires agency to express. And that these teachings apply to young people as their sexuality evolves throughout puberty. Consider also, that this same institution seemingly has great difficulty honouring body ownership and agency in this very same place. 

Recent studies have shown that one in ten young people report a distressing sexual problem http://www.southampton.ac.uk/psychology/news/2016/08/03-young-people-reporting-sexual-problems.page. Body ownership cultivated through self touch is a sense of agency learning zone: what are the consequences for young people entirely prohibited from self pleasuring? 

When I was twenty, I recall a catholic friend of mine telling me she was groped repeatedly by a tour guide, while her boyfriend looked in museum cabinets. Afterwards she chided her boyfriend “did you not see what was happening?” It took till my thirties and encountering Tantra, before the obvious question arose, one we both did not ask – “did you not tell him what was happening?”

Developing body ownership and agency within sexuality is an embodied skills set. Failing to teach this to our young people is a gross failure of duty, leaving them very vulnerable to outside agency. 

The Catholic education site pointed to considers masturbation “makes you less than fully human”. It considers it self centred, self indulgent, and a form of withholding from your spouse. Here are some another ways self pleasuring can play out in relationship:

Hey, I learned something really great about my pleasure today, I would love to share it with you so we can be closer.

I didn’t have an orgasm, I would love it if you held me while I self pleasure till I come, oh and while I do it can we gaze into one another’s eyes? I love you!

People often come to me saying “I want to learn to be a master at giving pleasure” and I say great, lets have a look at how you experience it in your own body. There is a strong correlation between being really embodied in our own pleasure, and being able to offer that gift to others.

It is not my contention that all self pleasuring is really good for us, any more than all the food we eat is healthy and wholesome.  Read in the notes below for pointers towards a holistic self pleasuring practice and if you want to know more, do get in touch!

Notes

*There are many ways to self pleasure! For my own unique teachings drawing on a range of modalities from Tantra to Breath Work see my *New* Skype Self Pleasuring Course>>

Self pleasuring as I see it is about being with ourself in pleasurable and considered ways, according our deeper needs of that moment. If we focus on “good technique” we will miss the point, just as we would as we would if we did this with a lover!

Therefore it is about learning to be truly intimate with ones own self. To begin this practice you might want to look at my other articles:

Tantric meditations – awaken sexual pleasure >>

Self love – a daily meditation>>

¹ Study led by Neuropsychoanalysis Centre Director Dr. Aikaterini (Katerina) Fotopoulou, University College London, and NPSA grantee Dr. Paul Mark Jenkinson of the Department of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire in the UK:

This study provides new evidence to support the existing idea that interoceptive signals, such as affective touch, play an important role in how the brain learns to construct a mental picture and an understanding of the body, which ultimately helps to create a coherent sense of self.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-10/nf-asl100813.php

² Voluntary self-touch increases body ownership

In a series of three studies using a novel robotic setup we have shown that active self-touch induces higher illusory ownership over a virtual hand as measured by subjective explicit, as well as objective implicit measures. Higher illusory self-touch was induced for both somatic and visual variants of the RHI, indicating that it is not dependent on visual feedback. Extending the results of previous studies on active movements in shaping our sense of bodily self (Tsakiris et al., 2006; Dummer et al., 2009; Kammers et al., 2009; Kalckert and Ehrsson, 2012; Suzuki et al., 2013), our results highlight the role of the correspondence between efferent motor signals and afferent sensory inputs in building our sense of body ownership. Thus, self-touch may have a special role in the formation of our bodily self-representation.

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01509/full

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