The Beauty of Sexological Bodywork
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: October 21, 2021
Photo courtesy of Kalei Raher
Sexological bodywork is a healing modality that sits at the intersection of erotic and therapeutic touch. It’s one approach to getting to know your body’s sexual responses in an authentic way. “We’re taught to think more about how sex looks instead of how it feels,” erotic wholeness coach Darshana Avila says. “We turn all of that on its head in a sexological bodywork session and focus on your felt sense. What is it like in your body?”
Avila is trained in sexological bodywork, the Somatica Method, and intimacy coaching. Over the years, she’s used those tools and more to develop a holistic approach to what she felt clients—and she herself—needed most. It’s called erotic wholeness. “I place the emphasis on the erotic more than the sexual in my work, because that is more honoring of who we are as whole creatures, not just sexual beings,” she says. “We’re more than that. And when all of these parts of us are lit up and included and resourced, we are happier, our relationships are better, and we do good things in the world. Everything spirals out from there.”
It’s one of those things you might have to see to believe: You can watch Avila work with a couple on our Netflix show Sex, Love & goop. Here, she shares more about sexological bodywork, erotic wholeness, and the tools for both we can access at home.
A Q&A with Darshana Avila
Sexological bodywork, which is also referred to as somatic sex education, is a practice that is erotic and therapeutic in nature, and is designed to support people in having a truly empowered relationship to their bodies and their eroticism. It’s not only about receiving sensual or sexual touch, though that can certainly be a big focus and is what people often associate with this work. It’s also about taking a very deeply embodied approach to getting to know your body’s sexual response, your pathways to pleasure, and what truly satisfies you. Others seek our somatic sex education to remedy pain or dysfunction in their bodies, particularly pelvis and genitals, and to work with whatever blocks might be in the way of fully enjoying their intimate lives. It’s also a fantastic modality to empower your voice by first getting clear in what you need and want and then learning how to communicate your desires and boundaries confidently and in a connective way. It’s all about making room for the authentic expression of your eroticism.
So many of us are carrying shame, negative conditioning, and a lot of suppression when it comes to our sexuality. Particularly if you identify and/or have been acculturated as a woman, there’s a lot of people-pleasing that can go on—certainly where sex is concerned. We’re often shown examples of sex that are highly performative, whether we’re talking about mainstream heteronormative porn or pop culture representations that show women as objects for men’s pleasure. We’re taught to think more about how sex looks instead of how it feels. We turn all of that on its head in a sexological bodywork session and focus on your felt sense: What is it like in your body when you’re touched this way versus that way? What is it like in your heart as you’re having different experiences? How does it feel when you focus on your authentic expression rather than playing a role? This is what truly matters and is where the transformation and healing happen.
A sexological bodywork session is a space for getting to know more about what lights you up and what the potential pathways to pleasure are for you. It’s also for people who are recovering. Sometimes it’s birth-related injuries. Sometimes there’s been illness or surgery or different things happening in the body. There might be a million reasons why somebody seeks it out from a more medical or therapeutic lens, but that’s by no means the only reason.
In my practice, I work more with people who are interested in understanding more about their pleasure and accessing what feels like an untapped well of potential in their erotic lives.
It varies. Different people come for different reasons, and so they need different things. For most of my offerings, I make available the possibility of having an introductory session with me so that we can get to know each other, feel things out, and see if it feels like the right connection. Because it’s very intimate work, and at the end of the day, I don’t want somebody signing on to work with me for months if they don’t genuinely like me or feel safe with me—and I, them. We are creating an authentic intimate relationship together that is the foundation for everything that’s going to happen in the session space. From there, I usually work with people for a minimum of three months, with some variation occasionally, depending upon the reason why.
And I have many clients who have been working with me for years. They’re not necessarily having sexological bodywork sessions every single time, because erotic wholeness encompasses a lot of different ways that we might cultivate this relationship and support someone in having a robust and satisfying intimate life.
As an erotic wholeness coach, my focus is on supporting women and couples in embodying the full scope of their erotic potential. What I often say is that we are erotic by nature, but we are whole by choice. What I mean by that is that we are living in a culture and in a time that does not support us in fully expressing ourselves as sexual, sensual, creative, vibrant creatures—which is what we are. That’s our very nature, but we have to choose it because it goes against the grain of so much of our cultural conditioning and the ways that we live. My work is about helping people tap into the power and the presence of the erotic within themselves so that they can live fully turned on and on purpose and have pleasure-filled lives.
As far as a little taste of a foundational Erotic Wholeness practice, here is a simple one I put to use constantly for myself and I also guide others in: Place a hand on your heart and place your other hand on either your low belly or over your genitals. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself, “What am I noticing?”
It’s that pause that we can give ourselves, the sacredness of slowing down and genuinely paying attention, that can make a tremendous difference in every aspect of our lives and certainly in our sex. It can happen when you are actively engaging with somebody else in an intimate context; it can happen at any moment as you’re moving through your day. Take the time to check in.
Where am I right now? How am I feeling? What am I sensing? What am I needing? Those are not questions we often ask ourselves because we’re so busy getting things done and living up to expectations and meeting deadlines and worrying about the appearance of things. This practice is the opposite of being concerned with how things look. It’s about learning to tune in to what it feels like to be in your body and learning to let the wisdom of your body and your heart guide you in your decision-making and in your relating and inspire you from there.
I am definitely a fan of sex toys, and I’m definitely a fan of having as many of them as you desire and can afford and all the things. The more paths to pleasure that you find available to you, the better.
Some people say, “Oh, if you use a vibrator, it desensitizes you, or it’ll make it harder for you to orgasm with your partner without one.” The reality is that different bodies respond in different ways. Yet there are certain things we know to be true, one of which is that for most vulva-bearing bodies, having an orgasm with a vibrator is reliable about 90 percent of the time. And having an orgasm through a partnered sexual encounter that involves penetration and doesn’t involve clitoral stimulation happens roughly 30 percent of the time.
So the odds are pretty clear here. You’re more likely to experience that quality of pleasure if you’re using toys. That being said, we don’t have to be so goal-oriented—an orgasm is not the only definition of satisfying sex. What I encourage is: Whatever toys you’re using—be they vibrators, be they dildos, sensation toys, anything at all that is introducing new dimensions into your sexual experience—if it makes you happy, if it feels good, that is a big giant fuck yes.
We also need to get rid of the shame or the embarrassment that many people feel around saying, “Hey, I would like to use a toy because it gives me pleasure” and worrying that we’re going to somehow insult our partners. That says more about the fragility of a partner than it does about you being too needy or being strange or whatever the warped beliefs might be that we’re carrying around. Instead let’s normalize toys, tools and other experience-enhancing equipment as a gift to our sex lives, regardless of our gender or orientation. And let’s normalize being passionate advocates for getting all the pleasure we can (and our partners getting it, too!)
What I encourage is to hold it all as an experiment. Try things out, be curious, see what you like, see what you don’t like, use what works for you, and let go of what doesn’t.
Erotic wholeness is based on three pillars: It’s somatically oriented, it’s trauma-informed, and it’s nature-based.
I include the work of nature- and soul-based exploration as a third pillar of erotic wholeness because most of us are taught to place ourselves above and outside of the web of life. And that’s not accurate. We are an integral part of this web of life that is more than just human. We have a deep longing to belong—and as modern humans, we usually look to connections with other people and romantic partnership—to satisfy all of that longing. That’s setting ourselves up for a lot of heartache. We could feel so much more satisfied if we looked beyond human relationships to nature and the world around us.
My own journey has included a deep immersion into the work of soulcraft and the Animas Valley Institute, which has informed and inspired much of my orientation toward being an erotic human in a more-than-human-world and understanding the need for wholeness as essential to our thriving—individually and collectively.
The Association of Certified Sexological Bodyworkers has a directory. The reason I am a sexological bodyworker and why I’m such a big fan of this work is that we have a professional code of ethics that we are beholden to. The code of ethics is designed, more than anything, to bring a sense of integrity and safety to the space in how we work with our clients. And unfortunately, a lot of people have had traumatizing experiences working with other practitioners who don’t necessarily have that foundation. So checking out the directory for sexological bodyworkers is where I always encourage somebody to start.
It is the kind of thing where you might find somebody who you like the sound of working with, but let’s say they aren’t in your area or their practice is full. I always encourage people to just ask, “Hey, do you have any referrals?” Word of mouth is valuable. Almost everyone I consult with says something like “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know that this existed. I didn’t know this was an option.” More and more, as people receive the benefits and see the merits of this work, awareness of it grows and we nurture a sex-positive culture. Just talking about it is a way to learn more, because you never know who’s had an experience that might be valuable for you or who you might help by sharing about your own experience.
Knowing that people are going to read this who might not have access, for many reasons, to working one-on-one with me or somebody with similar skill sets, it’s important to make clear that private sessions are not the only pathThis work, for me, is about spreading a message that inspires and empowers people of all genders, of all body types, of all sexual orientations, to know that there is more to experience from your erotic nature than what most of us have been told is the “right way” or the “normal way” to do things.
Just explore. Experiment. I want to encourage people to have faith in the belief that they are more than what we see depicted in pop culture or in the poor excuse for sex education that most of us get. There is so much more to be experienced through our bodies, through our hearts, and through our intimate lives and relationships.
If you’re looking to explore more about erotic wholeness and receive guidance from me, I offer a few different ways for that to happen that aren’t private sessions, since there are only so many of those to go around:
You can check out my Self-Guided Journeys, which are really beautiful experiential dives into some of the conversations, practices, and exercises that I use in both my personal and professional life.
There’s Turned On: Igniting your Best Sex, which is designed for couples to take together, at any stage of relationship, to get you talking and touching with greater intimacy, authenticity, and clarity than ever, which is essential to having really great sex together over time.
And The Erotic Wholeness Toolkit: Your Guide to Intimacy, Pleasure, and Everyday Magic Practices is for anyone who wants a collection of diverse ways to drop into their bodies more, slow down and ground when needed, stir things up and activate when wanted, and inhabit their erotic nature with more ease. So often we use the words sexuality and eroticism synonymously, but they’re not the same thing, and this is really about connecting your Eros—your sensual, creative, vibrant, deep feeling and sexual nature, and I share some of my favorite ways to do that.
There’s also my free e-book, Touch Yourself: An Inspiration Guide to Mindful Masturbation Meditation and events like The Yoniverse & The Universe Moon Circles that invite you into the power of self-love and self-touch rituals. The e-book gives you so many ways to practice self-intimacy that are not your garden-variety get-off-quick. And the moon circles are really about the power of ritual, sisterhood, and the sacredness of our erotic bodies.
Darshana Avila is nurturing a culture of erotic wholeness. As a nationally recognized speaker, coach, and facilitator, Avila supports women and couples in exploring and reshaping their relationships to intimacy, sex, and eroticism. Her unique style of somatic sex and intimacy coaching weaves together a trauma-informed, nature-based, justice-oriented approach, inviting more presence, pleasure, and passion into the lives and relationships of those she guides.