As the world became more unpredictable last year, we retreated into our homes, and for some, deep into the bedroom. High up there on our Google searches, alongside recipes for banana bread and Dalgona coffee, were vibrators, which saw an 11 per cent spike or 1.1 million online searches in 2020 according to data analytics firm, Spate.
“Social isolation has taught us how we miss touching each other as touch forms human connection on many levels,” says Isabella Burstin, co-founder of sex positivity brand, Xes Products. “Whether it be a handshake, a hug or a comforting hand on the shoulder, touch provides a comforting and grounding experience between two people, often in a non-sexual way. There is research that explains that touch helps to form relationships, builds trust and can indicate safety. Touch can relieve stress and trigger the release of oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone.”
For clinical sexologist, Dr Srilatha of Singapore’s Olive Branch Counselling, human touch means mutual trust, dependence and bonding. Beyond the tactile, it communicates emotional support and counters feelings of stress, anxiety, fear or loneliness.
Touch, especially for unattached singles whose dating lives had come to a grinding halt due to social distancing, was off limits for many in 2020. With anxiety on the rise, and COVID-19 guidelines such as that of New York City’s Department of Health’s stating that “you are your safest sex partner”, we needed release. Whether we were needing to de-stress, or just had a lot of sudden downtime for—ahem—recreational activities, orgasms seemed to be a remedy to the volatility caused by the pandemic. Cocooned in our safe spaces, the promise of an orgasm offered a moment to self-soothe and block out the world. A chance to soar, albeit momentarily, in a year of being grounded. A way to slow down long enough to reconnect with the self and experience la petite mort.
Overcoming sexual stigmas through self-care
Desire, arousal, pleasure and satisfaction don’t just apply within the context of partnered sex, and that’s where self-intimacy comes in.
“It’s not exactly a secret that masturbation is amazing and should be an essential part of self-care,” shares Dr Amina Sugimoto, founder of Asian femtech company, Fermata, which empowers women through sex-positive products such as vibrators, menstrual cups and fertility technology solutions. “When we orgasm, our brains release a whole host of feel-good chemicals that offer a state of calm and well-being.”
Masturbation and orgasms specifically relieve stress, ease pain, release sleep-inducing chemicals and regulate mood, with the body awash in the neurochemical, oxytocin, with every orgasm.
“Studies indicate stress relief or relaxation, mood elevation and better sleep related to the endogenous endorphin release,” says Srilatha. “The accompanying orgasm, as a neurovascular response, aids in improving genital blood flow and pelvic-floor muscle tone.” She is also quick to point out the other upsides: it liberates us from the possibility of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. For individuals, “it helps to improve self-esteem and/or body image; in a coupled relationship, it may enhance sexual and marital satisfaction”.
“Masturbation and using sex toys provide many physical and mental health benefits,” explains Burstin. Other holistic benefits accessed through self-pleasure include a deeper understanding of our bodies which, in turn, bolsters our self-confidence and self-esteem.
So why is the act of self-pleasure rarely discussed in Asia? Historically viewed as sinful, unhealthy or indulgent, Sugimoto says “the current move to normalise and advocate masturbation [by women] is a reaction against the prevailing views of past generations”.
Making masturbation more inclusive with femtech
“The sex industry is on a swing from a male-centric vice industry to a female-centric wellness industry,” shares Alexandra Fine, founder of sex toy company, Dame. “Sex is becoming a more public part of everyday conversation, which helps shed light on high-quality products within the industry. Beyond that, the rise of technological advancements in the space have helped demonstrate that these products are just as intricate and thoughtfully made as those in any other category.”
Fine, who earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology with a concentration in sex therapy from Columbia University, explains: “I think more people are beginning to see how sexual pleasure and pleasure products are just part of our general health and wellness experience. Sexual wellness affects both physical and mental wellness, and physical and mental wellness affect sexual wellness. We experience all of these within our bodies, which means that they’re all a deeply ingrained part of who we each are. The more we can acknowledge the overall impact of sexual wellness, or the lack thereof, the more satisfied we’ll continue to be as humans.”
“Society has started to understand that humans are sexual beings by nature and that pleasure and being able to express your sexuality is a human right,” says Burstin, who draws from her background in occupational therapy to inform her product curation at Xes Products. “Everyone regardless of age, gender or ability should have the opportunity to explore their sexual desires, needs, cravings and fantasies. As more people begin to understand this, sexual wellness can begin to be considered as restorative self-care.”
Whether you’re new to exploring your body or are looking to love yourself on a deeper level, you can officially count self-touch as a healthy, healing facet of your self-care ritual.