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Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

Guest Blogging: Body Image and Sexual Pleasure

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This week, my friend Gwendolyn Glover has asked me to guest-blog on her Web site, Little Miss Writer. Her theme for this month is people's relationships to their bodies, and she asked me to write about how I think a person's body image affects their capacity for sexual pleasure. I'm cross-posting my thoughts here and on Gwendolyn's blog.

There are three things that come to mind immediately when I think about our bodies and sex: first, our knowledge about our bodies; second, what types of bodies are portrayed as "sexy" in our society; and third, how our bodies perform.

As a sexuality educator, people's lack of information about the sexual parts of their own bodies really stands out to me. Women generally don't receive any formal education about the clitoris, the G-spot, or orgasm, since none of these things are "necessary" for reproduction, and education about reproduction is what passes for sex ed, if it's taught at all. Men may learn a little more about the basics of male orgasm, but they aren't taught that prostate stimulation, or anal play in general, can be pleasurable. Our education about our bodies focuses on reproduction, the "plumbing" of our internal organs, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. Imagine how different our approach to sex would be if we were taught about sexual response, orgasm, masturbation and sexually sensitive areas like the clitoris. Instead of perceiving our bodies as mysterious or shameful, we would have a much more organic and practical approach to pleasure.

When talking about body image and sexual pleasure, the most obvious topic to touch on is what types of bodies are portrayed as sexually desirable in mainstream media. At this point, I think a lot has already been written about the fact that mostly thin, hairless, unblemished, light-skinned people are presented to us as sexual beings in movies, television, magazines, pornography, video games and other media. I definitely believe that this causes those of us who don't fit this description to feel less than sexy and to question our desirability as sexual partners. Since self-acceptance and confidence are key to sexual pleasure, this narrow view of what is "sexy" and our acceptance of it definitely impacts our ability to feel comfortable in our bodies and enjoy sex.

The issue of sexual performance is probably the one that I receive the most questions about, either in the store, via my column or when I'm leading workshops. In some ways, this also relates back to media images: In either porn or mainstream movies and TV, it seems that men are always hard and women are always having screaming, squirting orgasms. Over the years, I've talked to so many people about premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, not being able to have an orgasm (or, often, requiring a very specific type of stimulation to have one), or pain during sex. Many of these are issues that we can work to improve; I would never say, for instance, that someone should settle for painful sex. However, the shame that accompanies these perceived failings of our bodies is often the hardest thing for people to deal with. Our bodies are fallible. Sometimes they don't behave as we would wish them to. But that doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you, or that you're a failure at sex. It just means that you're human and that you have to work with your body and understand it in order to experience sexual pleasure.

If there's one thing that I hope to do as a sexuality educator, it's to help people realize that their bodies are normal, and that there is a very wide range in what constitutes that normality. Whether your penis is bigger or smaller, whether you enjoy G-spot stimulation or question that the G-spot even exists, whether your clitoris is super-sensitive or requires jackhammer-level vibration to get you off, whether you're a man who loves receiving anal sex or whether you don't want anything coming near your butt, your body is normal. Accepting our bodies and desires as they are is key to sexual pleasure.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.

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