Question: My sex therapist is talking about solo sex as part of our work – but I only want to do things with my partner
This edition of the podcast we answered this question from a listener. First we emphasised – as always – that consent is the vital thing. We should never have to do anything we don’t want to do sexually, even if it’s suggested by a therapist or other professional.
Therapy should only ever give invitations to do things that might be helpful, there should never be a sense that we have to do any particular thing, for example as ‘homework’. Different things work for different people and at different times in their lives, and any good therapist should know this, as well as knowing that doing something non-self-consensual will make matters worse rather than better. Some therapists do see solo sex as ‘treatment’ for partnered sex. We would emphasise – as we often do on this podcast – that actually solo sex should also be seen as sex in its own right, and not simply a way of addressing issues in partnered sex (or the only way of doing this).
What are reasons that a therapist might suggest this? Why might it be worth considering? We explore how solo sex can help you to figure out what arousal feels like in your body, so that you can tell in other kinds of sex whether or not you are aroused, whether or not your body is keen for touch, penetration, or other kinds of stimulation. That’s really helpful when it comes to being present and consent. Solo sex can be particularly helpful for consent because we’re not doing it for anyone else – whereas it is really easy with partner sex to slip into performance or being for others. Solo sex can help us to learn what consent feels like in our bodies, and to demarcate what our own pleasure feels like separate from somebody else’s pleasure (because these can become quite interwoven for some people in partner sex).
There are many reasons that people might not want to do solo sex and that is absolutely okay. For example, many cultures have strong taboos around it – obvious when we consider myths and negative (and, we found, ablist) words relating to masturbation. We may choose to resist those taboos and we may not. It’s okay not to, and even if you do resist them, solo sex may still not feel good if we’ve grown up receiving such strong messages against it. Solo sex may also be triggering for some people from their early experiences, and we may just not like it – for example if we prefer the feeling of somebody else touching us to our own touch and/or if the main meaning of sex for us is connection and intimacy with another person or people.
Alternatives to solo sex which can be helpful in similar ways include:
- Other solo practices that aren’t physical touch but which we can learn similar things from, such as fantasy or sensual experiences (like bathing, sauna, stroking other parts of our body, self-massage, etc.)
- Other solo things that aren’t erotic – such as eating and drinking – where we can tune into our body and practice being present, self-consensual, and figuring out what we find pleasurable.
- Partnered practices with the pressure taken of, such as sex without the aim of penetration and/or orgasm, massage, sharing fantasies, and non-sexual practices such as sharing time together and other forms of intimacy, or clearing space between us by talking about any issues we have.
Speaking to therapists we point out that sex therapy can have rather a rigid template. It can be very goal focused assuming that regular PIV and orgasms are the thing to go for. Peggy Kleinplatz’s book ‘New Directions in Sex Therapy’ is recommended for a more diverse and embodied approach which takes the pressure off and finds what’s best for the person, rather than aiming for regular mediocre sex!
For clients, shopping around for a therapist who shares your way of seeing things is always a good idea. This video that MJ made with the Open University has some great ideas about this.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2018