The possibility of forming romantic and sexual relationships is a primary concern of those diagnosed with genital herpes. Overwhelmed with worry about a future with another, the sexual relationship that we have with ourselves is often forgotten.
Showing yourself love, especially sexual love, after a herpes diagnosis, is not an easy task. I often referred to myself as a ghost, trapped in a body that I felt was no longer mine to claim - a body ruled by a constant stream of questions and lacking confidence, full of despair, disappointment, and defeat. Love of another, myself, and my body, seemed to be impossible goals.
As time passed, I became open to releasing that ghost. It did not happen overnight, but slowly, I rekindled my sexual relationship with myself.
What is masturbation, anyway?
Masturbation is loosely defined by Merriam Webster as the “erotic stimulation especially of one’s own genital area.” Rightfully so, as masturbation is what I consider to be a personal evolution of the sexual self. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to love yourself. As time passes and we accumulate new experiences, our sexual scripts and repertoires may change and expand.
Masturbation is not a behavior that suddenly appears during puberty; there is actually documentation of its originations in the womb, and in early childhood. Upon entering adolescence, we develop an increased awareness of what such behaviors mean to us, and how we choose to integrate them, if at all, into our sexual lives.
According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (2010), most Americans have experimented with masturbation, with 67 to 94 percent of men admitting to masturbating at least once in their lives, and 43 to 85 percent of women. Despite the seemingly limitless amounts of slang terms and phrases synonymous with masturbation, it is important to note that not everyone partakes.
Masturbation may be only one of many sexual behaviors that constitute our sexual identities, but there are limitless possibilities in your exploration and participation. Herpes can very much be a beginning of a new sexual self if you give yourself permission to release your ghosts.
Erotica and pornography
After herpes diagnosis, sex may be one of the last activities that you desire or feel that you can participate in. Exposing yourself to literature and pornography may be a good way to gauge how you feel about your sexual self-expression after herpes. How do you feel? Are you aroused? Are you craving someone or something? Are your desires the same as they were before? Being able to answer questions such as these are important foundational pieces to your sexual journey.
For those who may not yet feel comfortable or worthy of physically touching yourself, toys may be a great introduction into post-herpes masturbation. Toys, such as vibrators, dildos, prostate massagers, and more, allow you to still feel and achieve pleasure, but keep a distance between you and your body. Although this mindset may not be ideal for long-term practice, it is one that greatly assisted me on my journey to rediscovering my sexual identity.
For those involved with a partner(s) on your journey to self-love, mutual masturbation may be a transitional script to feeling more comfortable in your body and with your partner. Whether you’re caressing one another or touching yourselves, experiment with different textures, body parts, and maybe even incorporate some of the suggestions above into your play.
These are just a few of the strategies I employed when navigating my post-herpes sexuality. My journey was introspective and open to change over time, but not everyone’s will reflect that attitude. There may be expected resistance, defeat, and frustrations along the way to sexual expression and pleasure, but know that releasing your ghost is possible.
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Emily Depasse is a Philly-based writer, yogi, and aspiring sex therapist who intertwines her creative spark with holistic health, fitness, and sexual wellness. She received her BA in Gender and Sexuality Studies in 2015 and is currently working on her MSW and MEd Human Sexuality. Her research interests include sexually transmitted infections and the role that female body image plays in shaping sexual experiences. Follow Emily on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to her personal blog.