I’ve been on a mission since getting a divorce a few years ago. The assignment? To learn more about my own sexuality and what the potential of a robust, resilient eroticism might look like—both for me in relationship to myself as well as in relationship to others. When I saw The Verdant Collective, a woman’s organization devoted to nurturing erotic intelligence, was offering a four-week class in “Reclaiming Erotic Pleasure,” I was all in.
The class syllabus included “pleasure as an act of liberation,” “the role of the nervous system to determine our capacity for embodiment,” “the differences between sensation and pleasure,” and “reexamining our earliest narratives around nourishment to reclaim our belonging.” It would be taught by three teachers, all of them certified somatic sex educators. I was not interested in taking the class because of any lack of erotic pleasure, but rather because I was already feeling safe and satiated. I was curious to go deeper, to discover my own erotic pleasure range and continuum. Here’s what happened.
Week 1: Defining the Erotic
First up on the agenda was freeing up the definition of erotic. Leaning heavily on an essay written by the late Audre Lorde, an influential African American poet and essayist, the teachers—Alyssa Morin, Christiane Pelmas, and Chris Muse—redefined the erotic as belonging, pleasure, creative energy, and a place of deep intelligence and power. The idea is that the erotic pleasure runs through everything—it’s what enlivens us, whether it is grief of bliss or everything in between.
Like most people, I had relegated the erotic to kink, pornography, and risqué sexual behavior. I did not think of it as a storehouse of embodied spirituality, a way to be responsible to myself in the deepest sense. Then, I read this expanded definition of the erotic: “Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, or examining an idea.”
This loosened up me up—and lit me up. I began to see the erotic pleasure as a way of life, not just a way of sex. Everything became juicier: food was tastier, friendships dearer, yoga more sensual.
Related: How to Explore Your Sexuality
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My homework for the first week was to engage in an erotic pleasure practice—it could be a walk, basking in the sun, savoring a meal, or a night with friends—while integrating the redefinitions of the erotic. The goal? To have an experience that reconnects me to my belonging and interconnectedness.
I decided to play with this one night with my boyfriend. I applied Foria, the TBC-laced arousal oil, which felt so good but made the actual climaxing more difficult. Poor Evan’s tongue was licked out, his fingers tired too. So there I was, filled with golden October Sunday morning light, languid on the bed with my red lace bra, and Evan not sure of what next, not willing to admit defeat. I suggested he play his guitar so I wouldn’t feel so self-conscious as I touched myself in front of him. It wasn’t easy for me to masturbate in front of someone; it felt like a private act.
Then an actual magical thing happened. Evan started in on the vibrato and falsetto and other vocalizations and as his vocal cords vibrated, my pelvis floor relaxed, as if he was turning my touching into song. Soon, there was no more try—there was only scat and holler, a gush of release, a note hitting its fullness, two cathedrals of pleasure opening their roofs.
Week 2: Learning the Pendulum of Desire
The next week’s agenda explored ways to pendulate between extremes of sensation. Through guided meditation, I learned to zoom in and out of desire, flaming my sense of wanting, then almost snuffing it out. The meditation also included cues to finding the attuned, centered middle—a.k.a. the comfort zone.
Morin, who led this section, gently prompted us to move into the edges of desire, where there was a sense of safety but also the excitement of the unknown. Muse made an important distinction that sensation itself is actually neutral; it’s on us whether we associate danger or curiosity to the sensations we experience, which also impacts how well we can tolerate the sensations. Each of us has a unique nervous system patterning that determines how we self-regulate. “Where we are predisposed to go when we don’t feel safe is key to our search for a more embodied relationship to erotic pleasure,” says Muse. The task is to strengthen our capacity to feel interconnected—a felt sense of belonging—and resourced enough to take risks.
The teachers referred to this feeling of open but completely engaged attention as the learning zone, a state of awareness that holds the possibility for radical growth. Morin described the Learning Zone as “the space where just-enough unknown combines with just-enough safety, making us present and available to a wider range of feelings and experiences.” Go too far above the learning zone and we find ourselves in a state of fear, with its accompanying posse of hyper arousal, fight or flight, freeze, and disassociation. Go too far below the learning zone and we find boredom, atrophy, and detachment.
During the Zoom class, Pelmas expanded on what boredom can signify, especially for women. “Boredom can come from being starved,” she said. “It arises as a result not of being unsafe, but of being unfed. We’ve gone so long not getting what we need, we don’t know what to ask for, our partners don’t know what to give us, and our sense of expectation keeps dwindling. We find ourselves listless and unable to be curious about what we want. Boredom, which we might experience as numbness, can represent an adult failure to thrive.”
The exercise in pendulation was geared toward moving nimbly between up regulation and down regulation to get a fuller range of sensation and erotic pleasure
possibilities. Stretching from comfort zone to learning and back again helps us create heightened arousal, relax into it, and allow the arousal to spread throughout our bodies.
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Experiment with shutting down and amplifying an emotion, such as grief or excitement, desire or disgust. Play with your edges and notice what happens when you go from comfort into learning. Can you breathe into the experience and stay with it?
This second class landed on my birthday, and I experienced a lot of sadness—typical for me around my birthday. I played with exaggerating the sadness, then minimizing it, and then getting curious about it, seeing what would happen if I fully entered the sadness and its accompanying narrative. I could sense the engulfment of the feeling and how it entwined with my sense of self, but also glimmers of a more spacious, free-floating awareness. Laced with breathing room, I could see how even sadness could be an erotic state, a home for life force, a space I could alchemize, embody, articulate, and ultimately share. I was not alone in this. By meeting the sadness without shame, I experienced a cherished sense of belonging to myself in a new way.
Week 3: Uncovering the Role of the Imagination
As taught by the Verdant Collective, erotic guided meditations blend shamanic journeying with self-pleasure. As Esther Perel says, “sex isn’t something we do, it’s a place we go inside ourselves, or with another or others.” Many people, including myself, find it hard to access their sexual imagination. The teachers offered a practice to help us change that.
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This is an abbreviated version of a self-sensation practice in which you engage with your body as if it were (because, it absolutely is) a wild landscape, earthly terrain. This combines a version of deep imagery and journeying with self-pleasure.
Start by taking a few deep breaths, trying to fill your entire body with your breath and your intention. See if you can expand your core up, down, forward and backward, and to the sides all on the inhale, and relax on the exhale.
Take a few moments to greet your body. It can be so integrative to touch our entire bodies, just saying hello, and offering gratitude to our physical parts that do and are capable of so much.
Here’s the meditation:
Imagine your body as if were an ocean. Or perhaps over there, mountains, a marsh, a
desert, a forest. What happens as you experience your body in this way? Do you
approach it differently when it is held as a wild landscape? See if you can allow the possibility that your body might be speaking to you as you go. What does your hip bone have to say? Is your shoulder speaking in some way?
Play, explore, have fun, dance, move, breathe, follow sensation and/or pleasure, touch specific parts of your body you don’t normally touch. This is the meat of the practice. Occasionally revisit your intention throughout your practice, and follow the energy that’s happening in your body.
Once you feel complete (for now) spend a few minutes savoring. Lie in a comfortable position, resting your body, allowing the entirety of your experience to sink into your bones, tissues, and energetic body.
When I tried this exercise, it was difficult to get outside my normal patterns, like touching parts of my body I don’t normally touch. What I did end up experimenting with was vocalizing as I touched myself. My boyfriend makes beautiful vocalizations when I pleasure him, sounds that connect me to him and let me know that he enjoys my touch. I tend to be shy about my voice, only letting sound escape when I orgasm. But I gave myself permission to vocalize all the way through. I actually turned myself on, owning my pleasure, owning my voice, owning the voicing of that pleasure aloud.
Week 4: Absorbing the After Glow
For me, this class was about integrating the erotic into all aspects of my life. Anywhere the senses were involved—cooking, paddle boarding, cleaning, writing—the erotic was too. Arousal, and by extension the erotic, is nonlinear, although all too often we are programmed to think of it as a linear event that starts with desire and ends with orgasm. For many of us, peak arousal feels like a building that leads to a crescendo that then plummets us into an almost immediate relaxation or ending. Yet I had never consciously thought of the importance of integrating the after-orgasm, or that it has the potential to be the Savasana of sex.
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In 13 days of Erotic Wellness, a free, self-paced class offered by the Verdant Collective, one of the topics is “Pay attention to what happens after your orgasm.” I was intrigued by this, because although sometimes I did lay in reverie, or even fall asleep after orgasm, other times I casually shook it off and got down to the business of the day. The invitation was “to imagine that the orgasm is the doorway to the beginning, perhaps even the beginning. Like a doorway, or a threshold into another land. What if you let this moment be the focus, the ‘point’ of your endeavor, rather than the orgasm? With this shift in perspective, we become radically more available to the nourishment that is within and around us at all times.”
When I didn’t honor my afterglow, I had the hunch I was squandering something precious. The class made me more attuned to these hunches—and I was getting better at listening to my body speak. If it could talk, post orgasm, it would say: What’s the rush? Savor this languid paradox of being contentedly full but also deliciously emptied out.
Lying still after orgasm, breathing the release though my whole body, was a way to honor its inviolable mystery. After sex, I felt cocooned in deeper awareness of my embodiment, feeling the sweet residue of all the places that were still tingling, electric and alive. To reclaim erotic pleasure was to cherish its generous invitation of integration, to allow it to filter and seep and bleed through all facets of my earthly existence, and finally, to let it take root in the deepest aspect of my heart.