In these times, more than ever, our practices become what sustain and nourish our resiliency and our capacity to resist, without collapsing from fatigue. Our practices are our freedom; we choose where we place our valuable attention. Through practice, we become the artists of our own lives, refusing to subsist only on a diet of despair and powerlessness, instead practicing what deeply feeds us; joy, kindness, forgiveness, boundaries, pleasure.
Consciously choosing what we practice is how we liberate our lives, personally and collectively, from the tyranny of the over culture. It is my professional opinion that making certain our bodies are feeling pleasure is a radical act of resistance, and a necessary act of self-care.
Sexual liberation can be understood not as a state, but as a series of practices. Practices which support the commitment to freedom in one’s body, on one’s own terms. Choosing the erotic as a path to freedom takes tremendous courage, willingness to resist most of what you are told you should and should not do, feel, know and experience as a sexual being. Erotically liberating practices are countless, and wonderfully diverse; if the path of the erotic calls to you, choose one practice and follow it with avid curiosity as you discover what is true for you.
Here are five practices of sexual liberation, created for your delight and reflection. One does not need to do all, or any, of these practices while pursuing freedom. Any practice (no matter how small) repeated over time, can lead to big changes in your sexual freedom.
I do not invoke sexual liberation lightly; I understand that it is the path for some, and not all, and also timing is key. No judgement if this is not your path, or not your path right now. No judgement that the erotic is the best path. As Rumi wrote, “there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” But if practicing sexual liberation supports your wellness, my blessings on your practices!
Without further ado, practices that support Sexual Liberation.
Shamelessness: the practice of desiring, touching, and communicating with innocent abandon. Throwing off the repressive yoke of shame to embrace an inner attitude of freedom. How to practice: Notice when shame arrives knocking at the door. Usually, shame is attempting to control our speech, actions or requests. Once you notice that shame is in the house, imagine throwing it off of you. Shake yourself free (metaphorically, and even physically), take a big breath, and do or say the thing. You can name that you are feeling shame, and acting anyway. By practicing shamelessness, we free ourselves of the constriction of shame.
Lustiness: the practice of commitment to experience the world through the lens of lusty vigor. How to practice: Notice during the day when you have sexual feelings or thought. Perhaps someone hot crosses in front of you when you are stopped at a red light. Perhaps you wake feeling aroused. Once you notice the erotic stirring within you, bring your breath to it. Breathe into the feeling, and see if it wants to expand a little bit in your body. Allow yourself to slip into feeling lascivious. Instead of stopping lust when it happens, follow it for awhile and see where it leads.
Permission: the practice of wanting what I want. Allowing the space in my life to want new, surprising things. How to practice: To give yourself permission to do something, you have to first notice when desire for something arises. Perhaps the impulse towards something you want is quite brief, and the inhibition of the impulse occurs almost immediately. Start by paying attention to those small desires, those moments where your desire surprises you. Notice what happens in your body when your impulse, and then inhibition, arise. Now experiment with telling yourself you can have whatever it is, if you really want it. Notice what happens in your body when you do that! If what you want is within the realm of harming none, and brings you pleasure, try actually following through on giving yourself permission.
Celebration: the practice of celebrating sex, your body, body diversity by cultivating an attitude of raunchy joy, loud and raucous praise for the sensual and the sexual, and lip-smacking wonder and delight. How to practice: Savoring and Celebrating both require your attention. Talking with friends about the great sex you had last night, or praising your lover’s many delights out loud to them. You can cultivate gratitude for your erotic encounters, and remember them with relish and in detail in the day or so after they finish.
Erotic Self-confidence: the practice of moving your body and making moves on your playmate without fear of rejection. How to practice: Athletes often use the power of their imagination to practice winning the game or meet. They go into great detail, forming a neural pathway in their brain that has already HAD the experience they are preparing for. Erotic self-confidence is similar. You can practice ahead of time, in your imagination. Of course, an erotic encounter will go how it goes, but preparing your brain for a confident experience will help. Another part of practicing erotic self-confidence involves practicing feeling confident. This can be in any situation. You tune your internal channel to the “I am a sexy, confident beast.” And you practice feeling that, and believing it is true.
Choose one of these practice and try it out, if it brings you joy. Explore it to the edge. The practices of Sexual Liberation call you home, set you free, and nourish the revolution.
I’d love to hear about your erotic practices. What works? What have you explored? How does your erotic practice nourish you? Please leave a comment below! It makes me happy to hear from you.
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There are many exploratory erotic spaces that I want to be in. However, the specific spaces I want don’t usually exist. Often, that means I create them, because I want them to be in the world.
Recently, I created two very different erotic explorations, Transexy and Black Velvet. The events had very different intentions and different results. In reflecting and contrasting the two parties, I learned that my desire can’t be separated from my commitment to good body politics, and in fact, I’m turned ON by spaces that actively deconstruct the dominate narrative of attraction! Maybe you are too?!?
The first space I facilitated was Transexy: a sex party for transmasculine folks, many of whom had never attended a sex party. There were probably 50 people initially in the room, as I led us through a series of warm-up games. Games that help you know what you want in the moment, and communicate it clearly to your partner. Games that teach about boundaries and consent, as well as non-verbal negotiation.
You know, the type of sexy education we all should have gotten as teenagers, except we didn’t. And in this particular demographic there’s a higher percentage of folks dealing with really intense stuff than in the general population: dysphoria, shame, trauma, internalized transphobia, challenges receiving touch and having sex at all. So this party was a Big Fucking Deal. Just being naked together was an act of solidarity and revolution in a society that says trans bodies are fucked up, wrong, and that’s often best case.
The second space I facilitated was Black Velvet: a sex party in the dark for all different types of bodies, genders, sexual orientations, races, ages, body sizes, political affiliations. The only thing in these bodies had in common was that they were somehow connected to me or my fellow organizers, and we trust them. This party was held, from start to finish, in the complete darkness. Consent, boundaries, negotiation, desire… all without any sense of sight. Yep.
Black Velvet is an event that a friend and I conceived a few years ago, as we lamented over not getting to be gay males in the 1970’s pre-HIV sex scene. Dark rooms, also known as blackrooms or backrooms, were a common feature of gay bars, where anonymous sex can easily take place. We decided to create an erotic experiment that would recreate the dark room space:
Question: What happens erotically, between a group of people in a completely dark, anonymous, anything-goes-but-consent-is-required space?
Hypothesis: Participants will explore their own erotic desires, curiosities, hang ups, and boundaries, and will move beyond who they know themselves to be as erotic beings.
Having conducted one Black Velvet several years ago, I wanted a chance to go deeper into the experience, and am doing so this fall with a series of three by invite-only events. Last Saturday was the first of the three.
The practice of holding complexity
At the first party for transmasculine folks, I knew the space was radical. There were moments when the healing in the room was palpable. I looked around and could almost see shame constructs crashing through the floor, to be returned as power and pleasure in community. I knew without doubt how powerful and necessary this space was/is. I feel dedicated to continuing to create such spaces for folks with marginalized identities and bodies. And yet.
At one point, I looked around, and the bodies lying on the floor made a map of oppression. Central to the space were the young, white, able-bodied, thin more masculinized body with beauty privilege. Surrounding that central pile were groupings of folks with less desirability cred: the fat, the older, the disabled, POC, less masculine folks. I couldn’t see class status, but I’m sure it was also reflected in the space.
All of the privilege centralized, and upheld by the folks having to do the emotional labor of wrestling with their own self-worth and feelings of desirability. It broke my heart. And this map was somewhat my fault; I didn’t set up a critical space, or invite in the politics of desirability to be named and seen. I don’t think I even realized them so clearly, until this party.
Hey, where did my gender go?
At the second party, because of the absence of the visual, I have no idea if this map of oppression repeated itself. My sense is that it did not. It was a much smaller group, in a small space, and the edges of the space aren’t very far from the center. From the reports that participants submitted, there is no evidence to suggest this happened. While we can never erase oppression and desirability politics from our sex spaces, I’m curious if these become quieter factors when you just can’t see who you’re are messing around with.
Some racial features, and body size somewhat identifiable by touch, but in my experience, most touch started with limbs, where it was pretty impossible to discern the entirety of someone’s presentation. The space was designed to be scent-free, so that a participant with a disability around scent could participate, so again, that subverted some of the centralization of able-bodies, in terms of scent.
For at least a couple of the participants in Black Velvet, the absence of the visual was distracting from being connected to their arousal. I personally found the absence of the visual helped me to concentrate on what I was feeling and experiencing with each body I encountered. It’s interesting to me how the actual erotic energy feels with various folks.
I had significant erotic encounters with four different folks, and a variety of other encounters. Each time, the energy I share with my partners has a distinct quality. There is one person in particular who is running a low base note of Eros, and I lower my dial and feel the connection open like a slow, wide river… deep and sultry and timeless.
I know that I feel more desirable in the dark. I don’t worry about what the connection “means” or how I’m perceived, or if I’m wanted. It is clear that if someone is engaging with me, they want me. It really shuts up the dumb stories in my head about not being hot enough.
Of these two events, Black Velvet is the hotter erotic space for me. And in part, it’s because there has been some negation of the prevalent visual narrative that tells me who I’m supposed to be attracted to, and who is supposed to be attracted to me.
At Black Velvet, I found that I was attracted to all kinds of bodies in the dark. Bodies I would probably never engage with erotically were I able to see them, because they don’t go along with my narrative of who I am attracted to.
Yeah, but what’s this have to do with desirability?
Here’s the thing. We all think that our desires, who we want, what we want, is just mysterious magic. Like, isn’t it surprising that my desire trends towards everything that culture tells me is attractive?
While many may think of who we are attracted to as personal preference, those preferences are not developed in a vacuum. It’s impossible to separate one’s desires from the culture and society in which they were formed, so it’s important to think critically about it. ~Tristan
There’s this thing called sexual capital. The more you are what culture centralizes as “good, normal, beautiful” the more of this sexually currency you possess. You get to trade it for things like dates, being asked out, make-out sessions, getting laid, etc. Yeah, all the good stuff! The problem is, that just like in other forms of capitalism, some folks have more access to sexual capital than other folks do.
As an older, fat white person with sags and wrinkles and a weird gender presentation, I have less access than if I were younger, thinner, and conventionally hotter. I have more access to sexual capital because I facilitate erotic stuff frequently, and have experience with touch, boundaries, etc. Sexual capital isn’t good or bad, it just is. But sexual capital becomes bad when we refuse to acknowledge the impact it has in radical spaces designed for sexual exploration, especially on those with less access to it.
I had a heart-breaking conversation with one guy with less access to sexual capital at Transexy, who sat on the edges of the party. When I enquired if he wanted my help integrating in, he said simply “I’m waiting to be wanted.”
“this unwillingness to recognize how love, fucking and whom we find attractive is political. It’s like we, as a society, have created this whole untouchable area around intimacy in our lives – and perhaps the most important area – the area I think could use the most critique – leading to this massive resistance around analyzing any decisions relating to love and sex. You hear terms like “preference” or “love is love” or “you can’t help who you like” and the conversation stops there.” ~Hari Ziyad
I mean, of course privilege and centralization of certain bodies occurs in these spaces. It occurs everywhere, and why would we expect radical sex spaces to really be any different?? I always say that there are no safe spaces, spaces where we magically leave all our socialization at the door and show up pure and innocent in our desires. Nope. Never gonna happen. But we can start to create sexual spaces for exploration that deliberately hold a critical lens, and strive towards inclusivity.
Mia Mingus talks about moving toward the ugly. Ugly folks and those deemed less culturally desirable have just as much chance to be good at touching and connecting as folks who hold the beauty bundle, maybe even more, because they are working to gain sexual capital rather than having it handed to them.
I learn that for an erotic space to turn me on, it’s gotta be reflective of my politics. Erotic spaces that oppress, no matter how well-intentioned or revolutionary in their own way, just don’t get my nut off. In this post, I’m publically making a commitment to never holding sexualized spaces again that don’t have an active lens of critique and desire to deconstruct oppression, as opposed to reproduce it unconsciously.
Lemme say that one more time: I’m committed to creating revolutionary, erotic spaces for marginalized bodies and identities that hold a critical lens around sexual capital. I’m committed to bringing my work to people who think inclusivity is the hottest thing. And I am pretty certain that my politics can get even juicer, even bolder. That my personal and professional approach to sexual arousal that lifts people up can expand and evolve. Now THAT’S a hot erotic experiment.
In the dark
We are all desire
There is no age
No race or gender
In the dark
We are sweat
In the dark
We are delicious
If you like this, gimme some comment love below?
It’s good to talk about the nuances of a pleasure revolution, in particular for those of us with sexual trauma.
And yet pleasure can be complicated. Or maybe it always is.
What is pleasure? How do you know it when you feel it? What’s your capacity for staying with it? Can you bear it for hours? Do you let pleasure absorb deeply inside you, defining your embodied existence? Does pleasure validate your worthiness? Or, like most of us, do you gulp down the delicious meal, rush towards orgasm, or in other ways try to escape from feeling sustained pleasure?
I work with many folks with sexual trauma. I struggle to not let their heartbreaking stories become my normal; to allow myself to feel the impact of each and every violation of each client, without becoming swamped in despair.
The suck-ass truth is that for those of us with sexual trauma, we bear the burden of working through it. It’s not fair. It’s so not fair. And yet, without our own personal work navigating towards sexual freedom, we remain stuck in a sexuality that is not our full expression. And this is of course an okay choice, but it is not the one I nor my clients are making. We want pleasure.
I sit with my clients through the weeks and months and sometimes years as they fight for their right to feel pleasure, and as they build their capacity to stay with it
While listening, it raised a question I’ve been feeling into ever since. What is it to live in the world, completely dedicated to expressing the thing you are here to express? To give yourself completely to that thing? That even trembling with fear, flooded with overwhelm and suffering pain you just throw yourself into yourself, and pour yourself out again? To allow inspiration to have its way with you, and to focus focus focus your expression in the way that only you could ever do?
I am committed to developing my full erotic expression in this lifetime. There are moments when I am able to allow pleasure to completely ride me, moments when my body exists inside of me!
But more often are the complicated pleasure moments. The times I’m using my strategies to stay present, to explore what’s possible in this body in this moment. The days where my libido caught a train to Detroit, or I’m distracted by the books I need to read for my lit review. Or I’d rather just get off quick and nap, than do the work of feeling deep pleasure.
My erotic practice is about practice. My erotic practice is about Practice. Like learning to shape a voice made for rock and roll, or hone muscles that can powerlift heavy weight, or learning the art of feeling the trauma of my clients and letting it move through me instead of getting stuck, I am devoted to my art of subtle, nuanced erotic feeling.
This is my pleasure revolution; to develop sensitivity to sensation, to develop the capacity for feeling, in the face of trauma that says ‘No, don’t feel. You don’t deserve it!’ or ‘It’s not safe to feel that!’
Through practice I’ve learned to fuck harder when shame strikes. To remain soft and open to receiving pleasurable touch when tears come. To speak hard-to-say truths in the middle of beautiful moments. To continue erotic energy when my partner is triggered. To receive erotic energy while I’m triggered. To pause, reset, and continue. To explore how to hold pleasure for a long, long time, through all the bullshit that comes up.
Almost all of my clients long for easy pleasure. Pleasure without tears at the end, or having to stop in the middle. Pleasure that doesn’t require explaining to one’s partner that the reason they can’t touch your left thigh has nothing to do with them, but could they please try and not? Pleasure that is just simple. However, that’s not the hand they are holding. Instead , erotic expression involves work and practice and willingness to experience the grief/rage/anger/sadness/numbness, again and again beyond boredom, ad nauseum. Trauma legacy.
And yet. I’m not totally convinced that complicated, hard-earned pleasure isn’t just a tiny bit more worthwhile. I’m not actually convinced that ‘easy pleasure’ and ‘deep pleasure’ ever coexist. It’s a revolution because it’s an overturning of the false dichotomy of the ‘haves’ who get pleasure and the ‘have-nots’ who don’t. Pleasure for the People! Committing to full erotic expression after trauma is a seizing of personal power in the face of hegemony and shame.
That said, choosing full erotic expression as a trauma survivor takes the time it takes, and maybe that time is never. I’m not the pleasure police. It is a valid choice to focus self-expression in totally different arenas. There is no ‘should’ about feeling anything. Just choices about where we choose to place the limited resource of our attention. Living a life of hedonism and pleasure happens to be where I choose to rebel in the face of my trauma and upbringing.
Would I have committed my life to this personal and professional exploration of reclaiming pleasure without sexual trauma? I’ll never know, but I doubt it. My pleasure is earned, hard-won. It’s my art. It’s my practice. It’s my connection with self and partner and the Divine.
And truly, not today, but some days, pleasure really is effortless
If this speaks to you, please leave a comment below.
“I wish my body would just cooperate.” Mila says, deep frustration in her voice. “I’m having fantastic sex. Why can’t I cum?”
We’re sitting in my office, having a conversation we’ve had several times before. In fact, it’s a conversation I often have with my clients.
They are angry about something that their body is or is not doing, something that is preventing them from experiencing intimacy in the way they want. It might be not being able to come, or not being able to stay present during sex, or not being able to speak to tell their partner what feels good. Perhaps they physically block themselves from experiencing pleasure, or can only orgasm by themselves and never with a partner.
In every case, there is a disconnect between what the person wants and what is actually happening in their body.
What my clients usually come to understand is that there is a profound wisdom in the responses that our bodies have. These responses have developed over time, in reaction to the experiences we’ve had in our bodies. Our history is stored in our bodies.
“Is your body feeling safe enough to orgasm?” I ask Mila. Her eyes flicker away from mine, and her foot taps nervously, answering the question without words. She blurts out, “We’ve never processed our breakup.” Mila recently started sleeping with her ex-girlfriend of ten years ago, and is hopeful for a reconciliation.
“But that was so long ago. Why would it stop me from cumming now?” she asks. She doesn’t like my answer: “Your body remembers.”
Mila’s situation is not unusual. She’s processed the painful breakup in therapy. She understands what happened between them. She has mentally forgiven her lover for leaving her. But until our painful and traumatic experiences are processed on a somatic level, body symptoms persist.
Her mind has moved towards healing faster than her body. Her body is reminding her to be cautious, to take her time, to build emotional trust with her lover (probably including processing their breakup) before surrendering bodily control (i.e. having an orgasm.)
Part of becoming a skillful, well-integrated human means attending to all the parts of ourselves, especially those bits we avoid. Focusing our attention on our wounds with the intention of healing means acknowledging the adaptive survival mechanisms we have embodied. It means seeing how our bodies express old survival skills, even when our minds have decided that those skills are no longer relevant to our current situation.
“Healing trauma, rather than avoiding or managing it, is possible through a somatic approach. Many people try to “understand” what happened to them, or “put it behind them” but to truly feel at home and safe again, connected to yourself, others and place, takes healing the experience through your psycho-biology. The body remembers and will continue to react from trauma, until this is processed through the body/mind/spirit.” ~Staci Haines
In order to have the sexuality you want, your body must feel safe. If your mind and your body are at odds, there is no felt sense of safety.
What is safety?
A feeling on the inside, when I know I have the power to take action on my own behalf. Safety stems from knowing deep in our bodies that we can take skillful action to serve our needs.
How do I start to feel safe in my body?
Assuming that you are physically safe, beginning to practice a collaborative relationship between your mind and your body is where somatic healing starts. My body begins to feel like a safe place when:
- I make consistent, loving choices that support my needs for food, rest, companionship, movement and work.
- I am kind to myself inside my head, and stop thinking that I need to be mean to myself for motivation
- I give my body all the time it needs to reorient to a new way of being (as opposed to pushing my body to accept change on some predetermined timetable)
- I recognize that my body remembers and processes at a different (and usually slower) speed than my mind
- I take a systematic and somatic approach (as opposed to a cognitive one) to address and renegotiate trauma that is held in my bodily tissues
- I practice trusting the information that my body relates to my mind
- I believe that my body is deeply wise
- I give up my story of brokenness, and trade it in for one of healing and integration
- I recognize that muscular contraction in the body is valuable information, and that “Just relax” while well intended, misses the point.
- I allow my body to drive, rather than my cognition.
All of these tenets are available to you for free, right now.
And if having an embodied relationship with your body and your sexuality sounds fabulous to you and you’d like more support, hey, this is what I do. I help folks live pleasurably in their bodies and relationships. Drop me a note, and we’ll set up a time to chat and discuss how I can help.
When my kids and I moved into a 38-foot converted bus on a commune for a few years, we had 240 square feet of living space. My physical boundaries became tiny! All of my movements became tighter as my body adapted to living in a minuscule space. It took a couple of months of head-bumping and hip-bashing, but I learned to navigate precisely and efficiently within a very small radius.
When we left the bus and moved into a sprawling house in San Francisco, I noticed acutely the feeling of ‘too much space.’ I felt ill-confined, like I was wearing clothes that were way too big. I didn’t know how to fill that much space with my movement. Like a goldfish in a small bowl, my body had adapted to smaller physical boundaries Re-expanding my personal space was uncomfortable. It was a couple of months before I could walk down the middle of the hall, without pressing myself to the edge of the wall. My physical boundaries defined the way I experienced my life.
For many of us, our emotional boundaries, or lack thereof, define how we experience our partners and our relationships.
What are boundaries?
Basically, boundaries are the edges of our experience. Your skin is the boundary to your body. Your door is the boundary to your house. The amount of time you can stay at a family gathering and feel well is your emotional boundary.
Boundaries welcome in what we want in our lives, and keep out what we don’t want. They are a tool of discernment. They are a strategy we use to keep ourselves safer, and to tend our emotional well-being. Boundaries help us be adults, as we care for our desires and needs, and create the lives and relationships that serve our highest potential.
There are many different types of boundaries: physical, energetic, time, space, emotional, and sexual, among others. In order to understand boundaries, it’s important to know the sensations of having them in our bodies. It’s hard to know what we have not felt.
For example, babies love the sensation of being bundled: it makes them feel safe and contained. Adult boundaries can do the same for us.
The most important boundary any of us have is our capacity for saying “No.”
If you grew up in a reasonably well family, you learned that you could say “no” and still be loved and feel like you belong.
If you grew up in a household where saying “no” got you in trouble, or was ignored, or you survived an abusive or traumatic childhood, your most basic boundary was violated. You may have learned that it’s not safe to say no, or it’s futile because it doesn’t get honored anyway.
In my somatic sex therapy practice, I frequently meet couples who are close to ending their relationships. What often comes to light is that one or both of them do not really believe that they get to say “no” to their partner. They don’t believe that they get to stand up for their needs, even if their partner is unwilling or unable to meet those needs.
Someone may feel obligated to meet their partner’s requests, or go along with their partner’s desires, even if they don’t want that thing at all.
(Here’s where consent as a clear binary “yes” or “no” system becomes confusing. Because if you ask me to do something, and I don’t want to but I say yes anyway, because I don’t believe I can say ‘no’ to you, am I consenting?)
When boundary violations happen over and over, blame and resentment eventually build up. And it is resentment that, over time, sucks the lifeblood out of relationships.
As an adult in consensual relationship, when I do not say ‘no’ to what I do not want, I become complicit in the violation of my own boundaries. I am allowing my protective barrier to be breached, by not clearly refusing that which does not serve me. I get it; It’s so easy to wish that my partner could read my mind and honor boundaries I haven’t verbalized. And it’s unfair to expect partners to do this.
Part of being an emotionally-responsible adult is learning where your boundaries are, and verbally communicating them. It is also about doing the work of honoring everybody’s boundaries; your own, and those of your lovers, friends, parents, children, partners, co-workers etc. It is frequently easier to respect other’s stated boundaries than it is to verbalize our own.
It is fair to expect that adults with whom we share consensual relationship honor the boundaries we verbally state.
Chances are, if I set a verbal boundary, and someone disregards it again and again, my person-hood is not being well-held within that relationship. It is then my responsibility to take action that supports my well-being. It might not be the most popular opinion, but here it is: In adult, egalitarian relationships, your boundaries are yours to uphold. If someone isn’t respecting a boundary you have stated, it’s your job to protect yourself.
I know it would be nice to say your boundary once, and then everyone respects it in perpetuity. And the thing about boundaries is that we don’t just get to set them, and be done. They have to continually be reinforced. We have to be willing to stand up for our boundaries. We have to be willing to reinforce the consequences of violating our boundary. For example, “If you continue to touch me in that way, I will not have sex with you anymore.”
Often once we set a boundary, folks will initially, or periodically, need to “check” and make sure it’s still there. This is especially true with folks who struggle with their own boundaries; if you are willing to compromise yours, it can be validating for them. Especially in the beginning, folks can react to our setting of personal boundaries as an affront. As we carefully tend our boundary, they tend to shift their freak out, once they realize our boundary is there to stay.
Just like a farmer who has to tend to their fences so the cows don’t get out, tending to our boundaries is part of our mental hygiene.
In my experience, the best part about learning boundaries has been the sense of personal agency I feel. If I don’t like something that’s happening in a relationship, I can name it and either it changes, or I move away from it. Learning to have boundaries has set me free.
If you’d like to learn more about boundaries, like how to know where yours are, how to articulate them to your partner, and how to stay connected while doing so, I’m teaching a 3-part class starting this month for lesbian and queer couples. You can participate in-person in San Francisco. You can also participate virtually from anywhere. We’ll learn and practice boundary skills for connection, so that your relationship can thrive.
Last week, I suggested to my partner that they take a shower because I wanted to have sex before we went to sleep. Ari was tired, had to get up early, and was a bit resistant to my suggestion. I sidled up to him, all rubby-rubby-kissy-breathy and said that I believed he could find his way into feeling erotic with a little help. I wanted sex, after all. After a few minutes of this, he finally got up to take a shower, and as I lay in bed waiting for him, I realized that maybe my gentle pressure which I was framing as seduction wasn’t actually acknowledging his “no.”
When he returned, I asked him verbally if I had his consent to continue, and he said an enthusiastic “yes.” When I thought about this encounter later, I realized that a few years ago, I would have accepted his getting up as a tacit yes, and not worried too much about issues of consent. But because he’s been working hard at finding “no” and I’m working hard at listening for it, things are different now.
However, it made me realize how easy it is to assume consent, especially in a primary long-term-relationship. How easy it would be to violate boundaries, if I wasn’t carefully seeking them. How often I have probably assumed consent in the past, in absence of a verbal “no.” If it’s not a hard ‘no’ then it must be a ‘yes,’ right? It’s not violation if I participated, right?
Throughout our lives, I imagine that most of us have encounters we may later question. Did I consent? Did I get full consent? Because we’re not always clear what we want or what we don’t want, sometimes defining what was sexual violation, both for survivors and for perpetrators, can be murky. Our bodies can register trauma, even if our brains do not.
Recently, I’ve been exploring ancestral connections as a source of embodied wisdom and support, in particular how ancestors can inform resiliency and healing from sexual trauma, in individuals and in communities.
My ancestral research is ultimately in service of my dissertation. I’ve researched my own genealogy, scouring old records for information about my queer ancestors. I’ve attended family constellation workshops, read tons of books, and have been working to develop relationships with particular queer and trans ancestors (trancestors) in the creation of my new endeavor, The Embodiment Arts Collective.
Outside my office there are framed pictures of nine people who have passed through the veil, who were queer and trans rights and/or sexual liberation activists during their lives: Harvey Milk, James Broughton, Sylvia Rivera, Lou Sullivan, Alice B. Toklas, Leslie Feinberg, Larry Mitchell, Del Martin, and Chester Mainard. Each day I sing, pray, light candles, burn incense and talk to these fierce renegades who committed their lives to their passions.
Through developing these relationships with these particular ancestors, my goal is to create a container for healing for my clients here at EAC, that is supported by the physical, (space) the professional (my training) and the energetic (the unseen realms.) Okay, before you think I’ve been living in California WAYYYY too long, hear me out.
What are ancestors? Many cultures and traditions hold relationship with the dead as a crucial source of wisdom and knowledge. These are not traditions that I have learned as I grew up a white person of European descent, although I am convinced that ancestor worship is indeed a lost body of knowledge that my blood ancestors did participate in. Because it is lost, I am instead having to seek out resources and learning from outside sources, as well as listening deeply to my own intuition.
In the ways I am coming to understand matters of spirits, not all dead become ancestors. In order to become an ancestor, that person must be properly mourned at their death. They must also wish to return as a helpful guide, and have cleaned up any messes they made in their lives that “stick” to their spirit. Having been sexually violent is one such thing that can stick.
As soon as one steps foot into queer community, the impact of invisible yet culturally-sanctioned sexual violence and the ramifications of sexual trauma on the fabric of relationships and communities are striking.
For example, I hear frequently from my clients about sex they have had in the past that they weren’t totally into, but going along with it was the easier thing to do in the moment, for a host of reasons. What about the other person in this situation, the one that they’ve had sex with, who assumed consent? Does this make them sexual perpetrators? I’m starting to believe that since we live in a sexually violent culture, we all internalize some degree of sex as violence.
Just as in dominant culture, the same systemic oppressions of sexuality show up in queer culture. Butch-Femme violence. Fag misogyny. Violations of non-verbal consent in gay male cruising culture. Femme phobia. Slut-shaming. Unwelcome touch or verbal comments in environments designed for sexual exploration. Coercive sexual encounters between folks of all genders and orientations. As in my example above with my partner, sometimes situations that seem innocuous can contain subtle variations of consent violations that surprise us.
Another rift in the fabric of connection that I witness in some of my clients is how hard it can be to actually have physical intimacy and emotional intimacy with another person. When we have sexual experiences that we don’t want (whether we consent or not) trauma can get caught in our bodies, and manifest months, years, decades later when we try to connect intimately.
Sex and intimacy can become divorced from each other. Triggers around sex can yank us out of the present moment, and hurl us willy-nilly into feeling unsafe, terrified, frozen, furious. We can forget that the person we are with currently is not the person with whom those past experiences happened, and turn our blame onto our new partner.
The “trigger warnings” that are popping up on Facebook messages, email lists, social media are indicators of how close to the surface trauma resides, and to what lengths we will go to avoid feeling the feelings of helplessness and despair it engenders. Collective trauma is an ever-present reality.
Moving through the trauma that we hold individually and in community requires resiliency skills. How can sexual wounds of the living and the dead in our communities be healed? What is the role of the dead in supporting the living as we do our healing work?
So many questions!
- How can I (we) turn to the dead as a source of support for my (our) life and work?
- How can those who have passed help heal the wounds of sexual violation and trauma?
- How can those who have passed, and who committed sexual violation during their lifetimes, atone for their actions in a way that beneficially serves the present and future?
- How can sex-radical queers who have become allied ancestors be called on to support sexual healing for living queers?
- What impact does healing ancestral trauma caused by sexual violation have on current and future generations?
Samhain is a traditional Pagan holiday (also called “Halloween”) when the beloved dead are honored and remembered. Witches say “What is remembered, lives.” This year, in observance of Samhain, I am hosting an erotic ritual. Attendees are in full consent about their participation. The intention of this ritual is to raise erotic energy, and gift it to our dead and to our ancestors, those who wish to heal, and those that offer their support. If you feel called to this, drop me an email and I’ll let you know more.
I’ll be writing more on ancestral sexual connections in the weeks that follow.