by Aisha Mirza
Earlier this year I made a pact with a friend that each time we felt moved to do something nice for someone else, we’d also do something nice for ourselves. Admitting that, I feel a type of shame, a kind of bullying voice inside my head saying, ‘oh, wow, you’re such a martyr babe, why don’t you just give yourself a blowjob while you’re at it?’ I know that voice, whose intimate familiarity functions as a block to self love by mocking the idea that I have done anything to deserve it. It’s an old story, a learned belief that intentional self love is in some way selfish or self-indulgent and therefore grotesque. This shame is the love language of internalised colonisation, homophobia, transphobia and market economy ideals that value productivity and output above everything. Work, but do not acknowledge the toll. Give, but do not feel pleasure. Hurt, but do not ask why. I’m interested in breaking that cycle.
The truth is, I made the pact because I was falling in love and could feel myself losing my head. I was becoming that version of myself who just wants to give it all away in the name of true queer devotion, who forgets that intensity is not love, and that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one with yourself. We’ve all been that urgent creature, encouraging people to drink from our empty wells. I wanted to get ahead of it this time, to slow down, to stop and smell the flowers I’d picked for myself, actually.
My existing skepticism around self-love discourse (part self-sabotage and part a distaste for the neoliberal repackaging of self-love as something you can buy and are completely, individually responsible for) was tested by the latest edition of Feeld Talks, dedicated to this topic. Bringing to my attention that May is Masturbation month, Lola Jean, a pro-domme and champion squirter explained that if masturbation doesn’t resonate comfortably as an expression of self-love, then you can ‘replace it with anything that feels good’. This was also reiterated by Lorrae Jo Bradbury, founder of Slutty Girl Problems, who started out by saying that genitalia is not the be all and end all of pleasure and sexuality.‘ I felt seen. Maybe through self touch, you are able to explore, expand your sexual imagination and find out what you like. Maybe you knock one out here and there to regulate your mental health. Maybe masturbation for you is writing erotica or eating a pear really, really slowly.
This insight reminded me of an Erotic Mapping workshop I took recently with Black Fly Zine, a sexual health collective centring sex positivity and well-being for black people and PoC. We were encouraged to deconstruct what the erotic means for us by recalling the last time we felt joy – whether it was kneading bread, sending a detailed sext about butt play, standing by the sea or saying ‘no’. We were encouraged to create our own heaven on earth: what does it look like? What does it smell like? Is my skin soft or scaly? Do I breathe fire or ice? How do I wish to be held if I am to be held at all? I was reminded that celibacy is a valid form of sexual pleasure and health, that in fact some of the most healing work can happen through giving oneself space, returning to foundations and building the sexual existence that makes sense to us.
A couple of weeks after we made the pact, my friend had questions. Like,‘I get the idea but is the thing you do for yourself the same as the thing you’ve done for someone else? Are the gifts equally weighted? What about verbal affirmations? I give those out a lot but am still kind of struggling to do so with myself. And what about sex? The sex I have with myself is a fraction of the quality and effort that I put in with a lover!‘
I empathise. In the same way that not all dates with other people are going to feel mind-blowing all the time, sometimes you’re going to find yourself kind of boring and gross and that’s fine too. Letting yourself do or not do whatever feels truly good with no judgement or expectation is, I suppose, exactly what self love is. We agree that our pact, and the process of learning how to be nice to yourself, should ideally not be a stress-inducing one, and decide to set low expectations for any solo dates going forward. We promise to be kind to ourselves, even if we spend them obsessing about a crush, how much we hate ourselves, or compulsively eating Bombay mix while listening to the Hercules soundtrack. Sometimes sex can feel like an obligation, and so can wider ideas around self love and pleasure, but trying to overachieve in being nice to yourself probably defeats the purpose.
As I think deeper about the various blocks to practicing self-love and pleasure, I accept that guilt plays a part. The question, ‘who gets to love themselves‘ is on my mind. As exemplified by me and my friend’s efforts, understanding what feels good and how to access it takes a bit of time and space, a bit of supported curiosity, a bit of work. It requires sitting with yourself long enough to actually do it. I think about the people I know who can’t give themselves that gift, who are too frightened to, and I feel bad. This is addressed during the Feeld Talk by sexuality doula Ev’Yan Whitney who reminds us that learning to love yourself is very personal work that is not devoid of ancestral, cultural and intergenerational traumas. It can feel heavy, but it can also be a liberation. As Ev’Yan says, ‘do your sexual healing with the intention that you’re also doing it for your ancestors‘ and in that moment it’s clear that the pact I made to keep myself nourished, was not just with my friend, and with myself, but was with everyone who has come before me and everyone who will come after.