Sensuality Is More Than Sexuality

James Baldwin, the towering black writer, can widen your comprehension of things you thought you understood. Take the word sensual.

The essayist and activist wrote this in The Fire Next Time:

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

Baldwin feared for those who are unable to “renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.”

At times he found such renewal in his black community of the ’50s and ’60s, a quality “of zest and joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster. … a freedom that was close to love.”

He observed this characteristic at “church suppers and outings … where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about the (white) man. We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”

Baldwin is talking about being in touch with all emotions and all five senses. A thing natural and unstudied.

He noticed this in unself-consciousness, in losing oneself to the sound and feel and texture of things. We see it in a gifted athlete’s abandon and grace as he speeds toward a distant, perhaps catchable ball and the same young man’s sense of muscular weariness after expending all his energy at the game’s end.

You needn’t search far for these experiences. One can reach down and claw up a clump of earth on a rainy day. The fragrance is the aroma of life and the potential for regeneration.

The sensual is at hand in rejoicing over birdsong and the concentrated, savoring, unrushed consumption of a tasty meal. It is there without charge in a subtle perfume evoking the skin of someone you love and the heartache when you are distant from her.

The songs that quicken us access the hidden truth we know of ourselves and in ourselves. When we say we are “moved” by an event, we should remember this: movement speaks to the urgency of the body to do what it was made for.

Sensuality inhabits the morning light of the bluest skies and the coyness of a shy smile. You recognize the sensual in the goosebumps of a homecoming where everyone waits for you – when you and they know of their incompleteness without you.

Perhaps you’ve found sensuality in poetry recited in hoped-for words from the right voice or a father’s protective arm around your shoulder. The mutual grip of his handshake would do as well. Your senses are engaged in each of these.

We give away too much of this in a cloud of unawareness. Routine and habit kill our aliveness to the world. Now is a moment to attend to our forgotten contact with nature outside of us and our nature inside of us.

Traps we call custom and convention interfere with showing our emotional response to the sensory corporeal world. We make sure no one sees our openness and sensitivity to the planet’s pulse, lest we become ashamed.

Concern about the opinion of others is necessary for civility, but causes us to hide anything the group might question. Religion’s focus on the sin of the erotic, for all that institution’s civilizing effects, inhibited mankind by comparison with our freer mammalian cousins.

One can find the possibility of the sensual in walking instead of riding in cars, in the buoyant life of the ocean’s salt rather than the antiseptic backyard or public pool. The computer screen offers digits and electric communication, but not the enlivening smell and slipperiness of sweat.

Weather makes no difference to our senses. Each season and atmospheric change presents its own physical gifts. Sensuality is not buttoned up or closed down, but the drumming heart of our essence, no matter the forecast.

Even in a time of limitation and disease, you can discover the reason you want to live in photos, melodies, and trees. No wonder children love fingerpainting. They don’t care how their art turns out so much as how the paint feels in their hands. They remain more at one with their bodies, joys, and sorrows than many of us.

Reawaken yourself.

All you need is in you.

All of the photographs are the work of the extraordinary Laura Hedien, reproduced with her generous permission: The first was taken at Wasatch Mountains, Utah. The second image depicts the Bobby Sock Area of Yellowstone National Park. The final picture shows The Milky Way and a Southwest, USA Arch. The single painting comes from Wikimedia Commons. It is Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life with Ham, Lobster, and Fruit, c. 1653.

21 thoughts on “Sensuality Is More Than Sexuality


    Beyond belief, I am so grateful (a word I normally hate) to have found you and this blog. Your writing is so evocative and thought-provoking on all levels. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise and your heart. This one goes to my therapist. You said this better than I ever could, and you have helped me realize the traps in which I reside.


  2. Later today, I plan on preparing and kneading whole wheat Kaiser Rolls and I will think of this article while doing so, especially since I have to knead the dough for 20 minutes. Since I am usually not so focused on the task of kneading, I become impatient with the 20 minutes and will stop early, after 10. To live life so aware of the senses is something I would find delightful and would love to accomplish…at least a little bit. Focus on this as if it were meditation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Yes, I think such focus is helpful and it is hard. We are a distracted people. At other times and places in human history, probably much less so. For all we’ve gained, we can now only do our best to retrieve the losses in such acts as your kneading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That whole post was like one big poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. gb fragmented gumdrops

    I’ve been having a really hard time with PTSD and DID lately. I told my therapist about these issues – in an email and during our online sessions. I forgot what it was like to ground, to be focused in the moment (especially during my scholarly studies), and to be able to concentrate. I had to skim over what you eloquently wrote, Dr. S., for the talk of “sex” is as challenging as this pandemic is to me now – for some odd and unknown reasons. In my therapy, I’ve learned how to ground again – but just a little. The more I ground, the more I feel my emotions and some of my five senses, and the more I am reminded of the pain and am feeling the PTSD symptoms come to the surface – almost instantaneous these days. It is difficult for me to be “sensual,” however that word is defined. It is difficult for me to work through the pain. It is difficult for me to deal with the here-and-now. But the struggle of that Black man resonated with me. The strength of that Black man is something I admired reading about – though I could barely pay attention to the words, if I understood them correctly, that is. My strength is waning and almost non-existent. My alternate personalities surfaced again – just when I though that we were integrated or at least integrating in our own way. I fear my disclosure to my therapist about all of these things may have made our relationship worse, and I disclosed even this fear, too. I have no idea what therapy will be like on Tuesday. I look forward to it, and I am scared of it. I don’t want to lose my therapist, or the relationship I thought I was building with her. I don’t want to lose the mental health I thought I was working toward, but it seems like I’m getting worse and every tool is being undone in my life because of this stupid pandemic. I feel floaty, and the world and myself feel unreal. I don’t feel human anymore. I have a hard time feeling any of the five senses. Everything seems so distal, so far from reach. I wonder if I will disappear into the blur that I’m sensing. I wonder if this will ever end. I wonder if I can bear feeling again. I wonder if I will still be present at all, or if I will lose time when it all comes crashing down. I fear it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      It will end, but no one can predict the date. Don’t wait for it to end. You’ve had a setback, but this is the nature of treatment for DID and PTSD. Therapists – the good ones – don’t see your challenges as a permanent defeat for either you or themselves. Good luck on Tuesday.

      Liked by 2 people

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you, Dr. Stein. I have a good therapist. I see her online every week. I am dealing with the same fears over and over again, no matter how many weeks have passed where my therapist has given me similar advice, or reminds me of my catastrophizing. It’s hard not to though; the media is replete with such catastrophe – and some REAL, CONCRETE catastrophe (not all news are lies or sensationalized; most reporters do report what is given to them, so the messenger shouldn’t be knocked down when the sources are the ones either sensationalizing it or whistleblowing – all of which are catastrophes in and of themselves). I’d rather err on the side of caution like many scientists have asked us to do, regardless of what politicians and their diehard followers say. For my own peace of mind and safety and *survival*, I’d rather wait until it is over – either with a cure or with a vaccine or with a treatment plan that offers a near-100% chance of recovery for at-risk individuals (i.e., the death rates go down dramatically). I’ve been switching a lot. I catch it almost always after or during the switch. This process sucks. The timing of this pandemic sucked. If I were in a better place and already established, I wouldn’t be suffering as much. It’s as if there’s an entity that wants the “weak” to die off from earth. It feels like war against minorities. That’s what this feels like, and the political vitriol, polarization, and divides are all reinforcers of their death wishes for people like me.


      • drgeraldstein

        Best to take in the media in small doses. Also, some news sources are reliable, some not – some almost state-run propaganda. None of this is consoling. You can only do what you can. Sometimes survival is, by itself, heroic.

        Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you, Dr. Stein! My therapist suggested something similarly – regarding the reduction of my time reading COVID-19-related news. I try to avoid it, but it was getting really tough to ignoring it lately. I’m also not sure how to check on state-run propaganda; I’m hearing about it the first time through you. Is there a website or something that can help me differentiate between a good news source and a not-so-good one? So far, I’m subscribed to name-brand ones like MSN, NBC, ABC (I think), CNN, Washington Post (I think, unless I got sick of the subscribe ads), and then “local” news to my area (which may be what you are referring to). For COVID-19 updates, I look to the Department of Health and Human Services for the area/state in which I live, as well as CDC, the WHO (even though that’s now controversial), and the national Department of Health and Human Services. I also look to updates from our Mayor and our Governor, to understand the different phases, etc., even though I don’t get out at all – literally. –Your last statement, “Sometimes survival is, by itself, heroic,” is really uplifting and encouraging. –Thank you! Here I was thinking it was a weakness, a disability, a mental illness. Nevertheless, for those of us wise and/or lucky enough to survive anything, for that matter, is heroic in its own right – come to think of it. We get to live and learn and tell the tale and be part of the solution for the future, I would hope. I’m disabled and mentally ill, so there’s no denying that. I just need to do what I can to maintain and survive; this is where I live. If I can find some grounding tools to help me, or some really strong comforting skills to quell my anxieties, I’d be happy in those moments – and free for at least a moment from my mental illness. I wish there were a pill, but there is no cure for PTSD or DID – just management. It comes back, it seems. I honestly never thought I’d ever live through a pandemic. I didn’t even believe it would arrive in the U.S. when they announced it back in January. I honestly thought that our country would have that all under control, that we were the crème de la crème in science, medicine, epidemiology, higher education at the professional level, technology, e-commerce, and business (especially in terms of manufacturing and having enough PPE, life-sustaining tools, and hazmat-like gear as well as other pandemic-based resources). I believed in that hype, and the hype about our Department of Defense in terms of Intelligence, anti-bioterrorism and related issues (such as pandemic prevention), and scientific clandestine operations. I had no idea we were lacking in ALL AREAS, which is why we are at the lead of having the MOST INCIDENCES of COVID-19, as well as the MOST DEATHS of COVID-19. That statistic alone, even when controlling for all the multi-national and multi-cultural differences in their data collections, saddens me – and freaks me out. Not to mention the potential for unethical research probabilities when utilizing experimental drugs on special populations such as veterans. Even though there are claims that veterans and other persons on Medicaid, etc., are asked (or their family members are asked), I wonder under WHAT CONDITIONS those questions are asked and how those questions are manipulated (e.g., asking during the stage of dying – as opposed to earlier when symptoms are not so critical – if the patient can try this experimental drug – “or else, no treatment”; or something to that effect). No one seems to be accountable in these areas of “research” to find a viable treatment for COVID-19. There needs to be an “internal affairs” or “Office of the Inspector General” or “ombudsman” to investigate the ethical practices of the ways in which special populations are being asked the questions, and when, and how, and the other terms to the informed consent that should be there. It saddens me how many deaths have to continue to occur for them to finally say that there is enough statistical significance to halt the use of an experimental medication or procedure?! It saddens me how many minorities are lab rats “for the cause.” It baffles me how far behind our educational system is in this country, and the funding for it and its related research. It upsets me how many medical staff are dying as well, due to lack of PPE, lack of training, or both. Everyone suffers. I never expected any of this. I trusted our government and our scientists. But now, I’ve lost my trust in everyone – literally. It’s taken me all my strength to even trust you, this blog, my therapist, my doctors (from a telehealth distance), my landlord, my neighbors, and my family and close friends. I’m having hard time with people who think it is okay to allow deaths that could otherwise be presentable, and to see me as a dispensable option for a death risk. It hurts me to think that people literally wouldn’t care if I lived or died – and such people would be in positions of power – like doctors – to make that decision based on my “value” to their standards of care during a pandemic. I guarantee you that if all of us on your blog had COVID-19 and there were limited amounts of ventilators, beds, etc., I’d be the first one to be told to stay at home to “ride it out” – i.e., “die at home alone.” I’m not that valuable, given my history and current diagnoses and social status (I’m disabled, don’t work, so therefore I’m not a strong member of society to them). I never felt so insulted and hurt by society, by our own healthcare system. It’s hard to trust any of my doctors or the ER now. That distrust from the top down makes me paranoid, makes me go into survival mode, and makes me hide out until depression finally gets me. I’m trying to trust in a system that is completely untrustworthy – so many lies! It’s hard. It hurts. And I lack value to most people. 😦


    • A big hug to you, GB! My heart goes out to you during this awful time and I hope you can find your way out of this situation. You are a very smart and strong woman, and may only good things come your way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you, Nancy! I’m in therapy. I’m just having a hard time with all of this. Thank you for your wishes for me. I hope you are doing well and remain healthy and in good spirits.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I just saw your response in my WordPress feed, GBF from over a week ago. Sorry I did not respond sooner…I am very new to WordPress and did not notice the notification.

        Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        No worries, Nancy. Hope you are doing well these days! 🙂 Thank you for responding now.

        Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      The news and information sources you list, to the best of my knowledge, can be relied on to report the truth. WHO is getting a bad rap from those in government who wish to shift blame for their policy failuers to someone else.

      No news source, no scientist, no human is perfect. Making an honest mistake is different than attempting to mislead. Unfortunately, there are many people who, when they have encountered multiple instances of dishonesty, give up on the human race and choose to distrust everyone.

      It is challenging to sift through human encounters and to be able to tell who is trustworthy and who is not. Everyone makes mistakes and gets disappointed in life. Nonetheless, it is unsatisfying to live in a bunker, where everyone is seen as an enemy.

      The best any of us can do is to learn what distinguishes those people who are trying to be decent humans and those who wish to use others purely as an objectified instrumentality to further their own interests. You are smart. The task of discernment of those who are imperfect but decent from those who are wolves disguised in sheeps’ clothing is not usually an impossible one, but a requirement of safeguarding ourselves and the human race. We can only keep at it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you – again! 🙂 As a person with a history of interpersonal trauma, it is hard for me to trust people in general – or to even trust myself. In this day and age, it is even more challenging. Polarization has confused me, though I do tend to believe in the severity of COVID-19 and its potential phases. The WHO seems to offer a lot of good advice that is easy to read, which sometimes parallels the CDC, but not always; sometimes the WHO states the facts where the CDC does not, primarily because the WHO is not governed the same as the CDC. For example, the WHO recently stated that there is NO DRUG that has been scientifically approved for preventing or treating COVID-19 (they mentioned that there are experimental drugs, but they have not been proven, and it is dangerous to assume so). I tend to believe the WHO more than any other source these days, only because they seem to have a global concern, whereas our nation has a more national concern at this point in time.

        It’s hard for me to tell who is misleading from those who are making honest mistakes sometimes, especially when it comes to the data being broadcast these days. Is the media to trust, or the source for which the media obtained their information, or both? Has the media been censored in any way by the government? There are many questions that have gone unanswered, which leads many people to make up their own minds about what is factual and whom to trust. As such, it is also easy for people to concoct their own conspiracy theories and then spread those lies as political propaganda.

        Our country is so divided right now, it’s scary. There are people saying really harmful stuff online. There are also threats we read about – either in the news or sometimes in the comments, before the moderators had a chance to catch and delete them. It’s not a happy world right now.

        My differnt parts want to take over, but we need to work together. I haven’t gotten that far in therapy with my current therapist, but I recall from therapists in the past that I had to work with my system via internal family systems dialogue and find a safe consensus. Right now, the only safe consensus is for us to stay put indoors and to self-isolate with a certain amount of creature comforts. As far as trust is concerned, my brain is all over the place, but we are more in line with trusting science over any political leader at this point. Trusting medicine (like doctors) is tricky, however, since it comprises elements of both science and politics, though I’m sure science has some elements of politics as well. Because I’m a veteran seeking care at the VA, I am nervous about trusting them without first having an advance directive/living will, which is hard to obtain according to their requisites and forms. I plan to figure it out though. I would like to trust my treatment team, but I’m avoiding any in-person visits at this time.

        I do trust you and some people here. 🙂 It helps to know that there’s good advice and comforting words. I worry about all of us, and I hope that we can all get past this with some laughter and relief. I don’t want to lose anyone I know in my life. Many of my parts are sad and scared. They grew attached to certain things and people. They are having a hard time. I feel it and hear it on the inside.


  5. Beautifully said. Hope you and your family are all well. Fran



  6. Beautiful post, Dr. Stein. I learned the secret of being sensual, as you describe so well in your article, while living in Brazil. The conservative American is not accustomed to such spontaneity of “showing our emotional response to the sensory corporeal world.” Men found me appealing or too emotional. Women expressed shock or disdain. I learned to adapt to my new environment.

    You say: “One can find the possibility of the sensual in walking instead of riding in cars…” The Brazilian song, “Garota de Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema) by Tom Jobim (music) and Vinicius de Moraes (lyrics), oozes with sensuality.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. drgeraldstein

    Thank you for the opportunity to learn a bit more about Brazilian culture, Rosaliene. Baldwin has much more to say about the negative consequences of the North American white’s limitations in sensuality and spontaneity, both to his disadvantage and, he believed, to the disadvantage of blacks. I do love “The Girl from Ipanema.” It seems to me that the original artist, Astrud Gilberto, cannot be matched despite all those who came after her to sing it.

    Liked by 1 person

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