My ancestors told me there is no healing without justice.
So what is justice?
I will never live in a body untouched by sexual violence. No matter how much healing I do, no matter how much I practice embodiment, practice erotic liberation, practice boundaries and consent, I will never, never live in a body that has not endured things no body should have to endure.
This body holds multiple truths. It holds the truth that I am grateful for who I am, and would not be different. And it holds the question of who would I be, had those acts of violation never occurred?
In this latest wave of the sexual trauma healing process, I have questioned what healing is, and if it is even possible to do.
How can I be with what is, while I also move toward healing? How do I accept and also change? How do I accept what has happened, that this is the body I live in, and how do I also change my body to be one of strength and ease?
I long for steady, quiet power that is embodied and just. I long for the wide view, the acceptance that healing happens in degrees, that some wounds take more than one lifetime to heal, and that is okay. I long for acceptance of the degrees of healing I have accomplished, rather than the constant presence of all that remains unhealed.
Here’s what I believe about healing: two things are required. Acknowledgment, and justice.
Wounds cannot heal fully without these two medicines. They can partially heal, and heal enough for those of us bearing them to be able to survive, do good work even. And yet they remain painful, though clean.
What is acknowledgment?
Everything that happened to me happened to me.
This has been my mantra for months. It’s taken so much work to even get here, to be able to say this.
There is space in me to acknowledge the entirety of my experience. The childhood sexual abuse, the incest, the spousal rape, the transgenerational transmission of sexual trauma that I carry from my ancestors. Everything that happened to us, happened to us.
There is a starkness in this acknowledgment that feels clean.
And part of the acknowledgment is knowing that justice will be what I make it.
There is no justice that can make what happened unhappen. There is no way to ever answer the question of who I would be without these violations. What is, is, and sometimes that makes my stomach wrench and my skin crawl, and sometimes there is a quiet widening into the fullness of my embodied form, that this is a source of great power for me.
Acknowledgment as a practice is personally challenging, and culturally almost impossible. Denial has been a steady friend, but one who rarely returns what it borrows: my memories. I want all of me back.
I’m ready to open all of the doors of all the locked nightmare rooms, because I deserve to have all of me. And all of me deserves to belong. And fuck that familial pattern of turning attention away from the wound, hoping it will go away. It hasn’t, and I’m not passing it on.
The practice of turning my attention to the wounds, to truly see the monster that is my father, the trainwreck that is my uncle, and the rapist that is my once beloved and now ex-husband and father of my children.
Even as I identify these men I worry: what ramifications will I face for breaking silence? What further violence is heading my way?
To acknowledge the existence and brutal impact of these three men is to acknowledge my own powerlessness.
The ownership, possessiveness and disregard all three had for my personhood, even as they loved me. The dismissal of my dignity as a human being who deserves choice. The invasion of my body, even when I voiced my choice. The blatant lack of care any one of them had for the impact they would create in my body, my relationships, my capacity to trust, my capacity for pleasure and erotic freedom, and even my ability to feel love, the giving and receiving of love.
How many times have I asked my sweet partner “Are you loving me right now? How do you know?” because I cannot feel it.
Can you look at this, dad, uncle, husband? Can you merely see, without turning away, what you have done? I bear witness, those things happened. Can you bear the load of your transgression without collapsing into worthlessness or aggression? Was your dignity lost when you violated mine?
Acknowledging that these men took what was not theirs to take, and gave not one fuck while doing it breaks my heart so completely that it is difficult to imagine repair is indeed possible.
Acknowledgment is expensive, because it means examining my role, my silence, my terror, my anxiety.
At least I’ve broken free of this terrible idea that somehow I could have been complicit. I was not complicit, in anything other than my own survival, fuck you very much.
The feeling of powerlessness is beyond unbearable. To acknowledge these perpetrators is to acknowledge that this is a true thing in the world: humans violate other humans and don’t give a damn. And there is no ‘justice system’ in the world that could ever undo the harm. Ever.
I am sick as I write these words. And I write them in honor of my ancestor, burned alive by her husband. I write them in honor of my mother. I write them in honor of my own sweet self, who has survived the ashy trauma-filled wasteland of these violations. I write these words in honor of my children, so they may be free of these abusive patterns. And I write these words in honor of the black heart of innocence, the rose that grows from the bombed-out rubble. My heart.
What is justice?
Justice is not some state that can be cosmically, karmically achieved. It’s not legal punishment for perpetrators. It’s not retribution. It’s not forgiveness, nor denial, nor being competent in spite of my past.
Writing this is me providing justice for me. In doing so, I claim rank among all victims of sexual violence who blessedly will never understand the impulse and follow through to perpetrate sexual harm intentionally upon another.
Justice is getting to be soft instead of brittle.
Justice is marrying my sweet partner with all of our cherished chosen family in witness, in a sacred grove in the California hills.
Justice is professional success.
Justice is creating financial well-being and security for myself.
Justice is a sexuality I inhabit exactly how I want.
Justice is choosing movement and dance.
Justice is vulnerably opening again and again to receive support from my deeplings.
Justice is choosing transparency about what happened to me.
Justice is my 13-year-old child understanding transgenerational trauma, and naming my role in healing it in our bloodlines.
Justice is knowing without a doubt I belong to my loving ancestors, and feeling that when I die, they will welcome me home.
None of these things alone is justice. But when I put them all together, and I hold the weight of the life I live against the violations that occurred, I see that there is some balance here.
Somehow I thought justice would be more assertive, louder, more definite or more precise.
I thought finding justice would be about the righting of wrongs. The undoing of harm. But it’s not, because it cannot be. What is, is.
Instead I find justice in the quieter moments of my life. The moments when I can accept the goodness I have.
Justice finally is how I place my attention on love, the feeling of it, the giving it, and the receiving it.
I get to feel worthy of love. I get to be here. I get to be well in all the ways.
This is my justice.
Triggers are powerful
Sexual aversion is a powerful somatic strategy for protecting oneself from unwanted sexual contact. In short, sexual aversion is a trigger state. Triggers arise from experiences in our past in which our capacity in that moment to cope was overwhelmed. Triggers are, in effect, our brains and bodies caught in the past, although it can seem like the catalyst is in the present. Triggers always exist for a good reason, even if they have outlived their usefulness.
Our triggers can ask us to live small lives as we try to avoid being triggered. Sexual aversion is a trigger that can very much inhibit our expression of our sexuality. Shifting any somatic trigger is a process that requires commitment, attention, learning new skills, and practice.
It can become challenging when you want to have sexual contact with a partner and aversion is present. It is important to remember that the aversion has a reason for existing, and it comes from a wise place.
Impact on partners
Dealing with sexual aversion can have painful impact on you and your partner. It’s common for partners to feel rejected. It’s also common in couples dealing with sexual aversion for sex to become an area of high conflict, whether spoken or unspoken.
As with any somatic change, shifting sexual aversion requires a commitment of both partners to practicing a new narrative, new behaviors, and new choices. This means that both partners commit to finding a way through sexual aversion, together. It means that if as the partner of someone dealing with sexual aversion, if you feel rejected and shut down, you commit to your own work of tending those parts of you that are needing love and care.
What is healing?
Rather than expecting sexual aversion to go away as part of a healing process, success entails learning to work collaboratively with your body, allowing all of the sensations, emotions and experiences to exist, without judgment.
Exploring the trigger of aversion in a safe, supported and structured manner can help shift the experience, with practice and over time. When healing trauma, it’s important to learn how to stay within a a neurological window of tolerance. This means finding the sweet spot in between your own neurological edges of not-enough and too-much activation. This is where somatic learning can happen.
Before beginning an in-depth exploration of a somatic trigger, it is helpful to establish the new narrative that you are shifting towards. This is called a commitment. A commitment is a powerfully-worded truth, written in the present tense, that names the somatic shape you are consciously creating. It is worthwhile to take the necessary time to create the most potent commitment.
For example, in the case of sexual aversion, a potential deisred shift might be having more choice and freedom in terms of your sexual expression. A possible commitment might be “I am a commitment to freedom in my sexuality.” Using the phrasing “I am a commitment to…” creates an embodied statement. The commitment statement becomes the new narrative you get to practice.
As part of the commitment process, it is crucial to know why you are doing what you are doing. This is the “for the sake of what”. In this case, it might sound like “For the sake of freedom, I am a commitment to self-compassion for my aversion trigger.”
Lastly, the conditions of satisfaction are worth enumerating. “For the sake of freedom, I am a commitment to self-compassionate exploration of my aversion trigger. I will know I have achieved this when I am consistently kind to myself when I feel averse, and allow myself the full range of my humanity.”
Practices to explore and shift aversion
After you create the new narrative, the next step is to consider the practices that support the new narrative. Triggers make us feel like we have no choice, and it is powerful to begin to reclaim our choice as a practice.
One choice might be how we engage with ourselves around our aversion trigger. Do we speak harshly to ourselves? Do we blame our partners? Do you give yourself permission to make a decision based on the amount of bandwidth you have in the moment? Do you move towards or away from the trigger?
The great thing about aversion is having opportunities to try different practices, notice what happens, and collect data. The following is a collection of practices and choices you can experiment with when your sexual aversion trigger gets tripped!
Acknowledge what is
Acknowledge what is happening, preferably out loud, perhaps even to your partner. Acknowledging what is is a powerful practice of being with truth. Shame often tries to silence this needed acknowledgment. Having an agreement with your partner ahead of time that you will share with them when you feel the aversion trigger can help them take it less personally, and be more available for loving support and connection.
Often people with sexual aversion have had experiences with unwanted sexual contact. Re-establishing personal boundaries and an internal, felt sense of safety is absolutely necessary.
Being safe means having the capacity to act on one’s own behalf. Safety is an internal felt experience that folks with trauma rarely have as embodied experience. Part of the return to sexual sovereignty is coming to trust that respect for one’s own boundaries will be honored. Choosing to not participate in unwanted sexual contact affirms a sense of self-trust.
As the skill of saying no is practiced and learned over time, while learning there may be mistakes. It’s possible to start a sexual activity feeling a yes, and then have that change, but not be able to extricate oneself from the situation. In this case, it is important afterwards to acknowledge what happened, and one’s role in it, with deep compassion for the learning process. Self-compassion is deep safety.
Make a choice
Make a choice about the best way to take care of yourself, right now. That may mean leaving the situation. That may mean getting curious about your experience. The choice you make depends on how resourced you feel in that moment, and how willing you are to do the work at that moment. Realizing you do have choice is powerful, in and of itself.
If you choose to take care of yourself by leaving the situation, follow your impulse of what will establish a sense of safety. How can you act on your own behalf? Acknowledge the power of that choice, and honor the setting of a physical spatial boundary. Track what happens somatically as you come back to center. What physical sensations do you note?
Support the contraction
If you choose to take care of yourself by getting curious about what happens next, start by supporting the contraction. Supporting the contraction means physically, emotionally and energetically giving yourself permission for what is. This may mean tensing the muscles of your body where you feel something happening, or moving your body into a protected shape.
Stay with the contraction as long as is necessary, or as is interesting. Pay close attention to what is happening inside. The practice of somatic awareness means learning to place your attention on the inside experience of your body. This is a crucial embodiment practice.
As you support the contraction, you may begin to lean into the physical sensations you are experiencing. You may choose to name each, and express it aloud. You can also note emotions that may be present. If there are any stories that come, note these as well. Be on the lookout for the guardian emotions like anger and rage. Pay particular attention to the deeper emotions such as grief, powerlessness, and helplessness, naming each.
Staying present with yourself, affirming that whatever is being felt is just fine to feel. It’s interesting to pay attention to how our nervous systems return to regulation after being disregulated. It’s interesting to note how we come back into our bodies if we have disassociated. All of this is important somatic information; there’s no way to do it wrong. It just is.
Practice the new narrative
It’s also useful to practice the new narrative when you are not triggered. This can mean saying it to yourself, writing it down and putting it places where you see it, or any other creative means of reinforcing. Practicing when not triggered can support remembering the new narrative when you are triggered.
Practices using your imagination can be powerful. An advanced practice is to practice feeling attraction and desire for your partner, when they are not present. Start by placing your attention on your own body, noticing what you are feeling. Finding a place inside that feels neutral or positive is a good place to anchor. Allowing your attention to be on your own genitals, noticing what you feel or don’t feel.
Next, pendulate your attention to an imaginal gesture/thought/movement involving your partner. Finding the right gesture or thought is important: find something that is positive, and has a slight erotic charge. It could be something you are doing to them, or that they are doing to you. Importantly, Pay attention to staying well within your window of tolerance as you safely explore erotic content involving your partner in your imagination. With this practice, it is very important to not force or bully yourself into making anything happen.
Move your attention back and forth between your own body, and the imaginal erotic thought concerning your partner. Notice what happens. There is no “right” outcome from this practice, just allowing yourself to imagine your attraction and desire, while noticing what happens in your body, and staying safe, all at the same time.
Ultimately, it takes time and practice to shift deep-seated somatic responses. It can feel like no progress is happening, which can frustrate you even further. A wise teacher said “To change everything, start anywhere.” I recommend keeping a log or journal of what you try and experience each time you find yourself in the midst of your trigger. Remembering to do even one thing differently can begin to shift the entire system. In reflecting on the experience in your journal, you can acknowledge the work you did, thus validating your practice.
Get professional somatic support
Additionally, having skilled and compassionate support is helpful. Erotic coaches, guides and even wise friends can assist you as you direct your somatic education. “In its purity, somatic education is self-initiated and self-controlled. However, somatic education has emerged during the twentieth century as a procedure whereby this internalized learning process is initiated by a teacher who stimulates and guides the learner through a sensory-motor process of physiological change,” writes Thomas Hanna in Clinical Somatic Education.
Lastly, seeking expressions of sexuality that feel good to you and your partners. Often, when sexual energy is blocked in one area, like a river it finds its way around the obstacle. Where are you creatively expressing? Where are you sensuously enjoying? Working in collaboration with sexual triggers can require great creativity.
It’s a both-and approach: choosing not to live as small as the trigger requires, and simultaneously honoring the current truth and capacity of the body. It’s also true that we all limit ourselves with our habits and beliefs about what we define as sex. Can you and your partner be a team in exploring creative outlets for sexuality, that may look really different than either of you imagined?
- Create a somatic commitment statement, complete with for-the-sake-of-what and conditions of satisfaction.
- Acknowledge and name what’s happening as soon as you become aware
- Honor your own boundaries: Choose to not engage in unwanted sexual contact
- Honor what’s working: where are you expressing your sexuality?
- When triggered, assess your capacity in that moment, and make a choice about how to best take care of yourself
- Notice sensations and emotions as they emerge whatever you choose
- Offer yourself kindness and compassion for the experience
- Keep a log of your practice experiences
- Have support for your somatic learning
- Be available for surprising expressions of sexuality between you and your partner that might not fit in the box of what you thought sex was!
If you or someone you love is experiencing sexual aversion, help is available. Feel free to reach out to me at http://www.emancipating-sexuality.com for support.
*I want to acknowledge the work of Meredith Broome, and Joseph Kramer, in informing this post.
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.
Can you welcome yourself home to your sweet body?
2015 has been an ass-kicking year, for me and for many folks I know. “Relentless” is the word a friend used recently. When life is hard, and every day is a struggle just to get through, sexuality often gets relegated to the back burner. Our attention is scattered; our desire is seemingly non-existent. We may not think we have the time, energy or emotional bandwidth for deep erotic connection, with ourselves or others.
During these times, sex may be the last thing we want to do. Our masturbation becomes purely functional, or doesn’t happen at all. Actually living and feeling inside our bodies when we are suffering may be unbearable. And so we leave: we disassociate, check out, numb out, distract ourselves. We pretend that our sexuality isn’t hugely important. We forget.
While all of these coping strategies offer us the ability to just get through whatever the hard thing is, there is also a hidden somatic cost associated with them. The more we are absent from our own felt sense, our own sensations, the less we actually feel. Our capacity TO feel becomes limited. And even once the hard time has passed (as they always do) we are then left with diminished feeling and sensation. Joy becomes something that others feel, not us. Pleasure is elusive.
I’m curious about a loving cultural reframe. What if we experienced our bodies as a refuge? What if our sense of safety was held within, and we could choose to find a sense of embrace inside? What if sexuality was a space of home, of welcome? If we could nourish our hearts through feeling pleasure? What if, when our hearts were bruised and tired, we brought loving touch to ourselves?
Trauma tells us that we are broken beyond repair. That we are unworthy of love and pleasure. That the only safety is somewhere else, never here, now. Trauma tells us that suffering is our due, that swimming and muddling through the quagmire of our brokenness is the ‘real’ work. We believe we just can’t get this body thing right. This is not the way things are supposed to be. We are not damaged goods.
Who or what is served by all of your struggles against embodiment?
Imagine for a moment if there was a small dial, behind your left ear. You could just reach up, and change that channel of loyal suffering. Instead, you could choose the channel “I live in this body. It is my home.” And when things get so fucked up and hurty, and you are overwhelmed with it all, you find your fingers, rising of their own accord to that tiny place. Suddenly, breath fills your lungs, your belly. Your awareness drops down through the tissues and organs of your body. You feel your sex, resting and open and alive.
Your hands move down your body and find the places you know well, or the places you are only now discovering. The secret places of joy, where your body belongs to you and you alone. And your touch is that of an old, familiar lover, bringing care and adoration.
Is sexual liberation possible in this lifetime? Yes. If I commit myself to its practice, each and every day. If, when I forget my true work of freeing myself from all of my internalized oppression, I remember to touch myself and whisper “I am worthy of my love” and “I am safe in here.”
What do you think? If you’re curious about these ideas, please leave a comment below.
I emailed this week with a young man living in Northern Europe. He was curious about his sexuality, and because of a physical disability, did not have much experience. Because of his location, he did not have much access to sexuality support. He had found me on the internet and reached out so bravely, across the many miles that separate us.
We exchanged several emails, and had set up an appointment time to meet via video conferencing. He was clear about what he wanted to work on. In a confirmation email, I reflected back to him what I heard him saying he wanted. He had asked me what my suggestions were, and I suggested a particular way we might work together.
The next email I received was him cancelling our appointment. He wrote that actually he was learning all that he needed via watching videos, and no longer required my services. “Hmmm.” I thought. Usually, when things are going well with new clients and we are moving towards our first session, it’s normal for them to have some fear that comes up. Sometimes they write to me and confess their worries. But rarely at this stage do folks cancel.
What was going on? My intuition said that fear, repression and shame were at work. That this young man got hit hard with some shame backlash when I reflected his desires back to him. I was invested in working with this person; his commitment to prioritizing his sexuality in spite of the tremendous obstacles he is facing had earned my respect.
I wrote back, and asked him if shame and fear were present for him, and if that was why he had changed his mind. I asked him to be in touch if he ever decided that he really couldn’t learn everything he needed to know about sex from watching videos. His response staggered me. He wrote that he had realized that his priority was to get his life in order. That he had spent enough time working on his sexuality for now, and it was going to take at least ten years to get his life situated, and at that time he might again focus on sexuality. And that he doubted very much he’d ever be in touch.
A strong belief I hold in this work is that we must live in the bodies that we have, right now. That sensation and feeling aren’t something that ‘someday’ are welcome, once the body we have is right, once the situation we have is right, once the partner we have is right. Sensation and feeling are the currency of being human; we must be diligent in our pursuit of the experience of actually living in our bodies.
There are so many reasons to not feel, to disassociate, to leave or forget or numb this experience of the human body. Choosing not to feel is always a viable choice. However, it is a choice that comes at a price, and one of which we want to be very aware. When we choose numbness over pain, or denial over reality, when we turn it down or push it down or drown it out or anesthetize, when we leave our bodies… the price we then pay is in how difficult it is to return, once we are ready. It is possible, of course, to return to sensation and feeling and pleasure. I am living proof. But oh the time it takes… and the effort. It can be quite daunting to return to embodied life when we’ve been away. And ten years???
Trauma is real. And for every step we’ve taken away from our deepest knowing and feeling of ourselves, that is one step we must take when we return. 10,000 steps going away = 10,000 steps coming home. (By step I mean energetic movement away from our core, and please forgive the ableist language.)
We don’t even know what we don’t know. We don’t know what we don’t feel. If we numbed out at a young age, the amount of sensation we feel is our ‘normal.’ We may not even consider that there is more to feel, more to know. We may conclude our sexual situation is “good enough.”
I feel so hurty-in-my-heart about shame and the ways it impacts our ability to feel and be close. I so wish I had a magick pill to send to that young man. I wish him all the best, and I send him the knowing that eventually, Eros DOES call us home. A thing is not cooked until it is, and no one’s process can be rushed. And yet. The quiet suffering of sexual repression on this planet is a constant dull roar in my ear. I cannot forget. I am in service to Eros emancipated. And this is a prayer, that the road be open and easy as we all move away from shame, and towards erotic wholeness.
If this resonates with you, please leave a comment below.
Listen to a participant talk about the power of communal erotic learning.
By Marcus, a participant in the “Geography of Pleasure” workshop.
After the last day of the workshop, I was driving home meditatively, feeling the edges of my being. Not clicking from one radio station to the next, and blasting my senses with distracting stimuli. I wanted to allow myself to feel.
When I arrived at my place of residence, I thought, ‘I am home.’ I was feeling in my body and holding myself in a pleasant, nonjudgmental observation. My awareness of self was for once not about boundary patrol against shame, fear, or violation.
Two days before, I arrived at the workshop space in a daze, overwhelmed by the feeling of being around other people. I had become so used to the security of isolation and shutting down before I could be rejected. Alone, I could (unsuccessfully) pretend that I was all the things I wished I could be, and remove myself from reminders of failures and inadequacies.
I tried to relax into the comfortable seating, dim lamp lights, and the circle of anxious strangers, only to find myself comparing my body to others and listing off all the ways I lacked qualities that I admired in others and so wished for myself. The expression of trans masculinity became ever so in focus. I began to irrationally perceive my body to be physically smaller and smaller and uglier and uglier, as I unrealistically assumed perfection and invulnerability in others.
Though it was my intention to stay and not run or hide, my body sure wanted to run as we began to take turns speaking in the first of many circles. I was suddenly morbidly afraid of looking and sounding funny, and not being taken seriously. Amazingly, these divisive views between myself and others were gradually broken down, in a way I never thought was capable… I will now attempt to describe some of my most groundbreaking workshop moments.
This scared me a lot, as I have long experienced this as mutual invasion of private space. While it is a common expression of wanting to know and be known, sustained eye contact was something I only normally used within the following contexts: romantic interest, aggressive challenging, or conversations. I felt extremely exposed because it was as if I were ‘caught’ seeking an inappropriate level of closeness. There was little excuse for me to stop looking, because the activity did not allow for typical distractions. It was very unsettling to feel that emotional nakedness that I reserved for almost no one. By the end of the workshop, I no longer felt such reservations once I understood seeing and being seen to not be a threat. Instead, it can feel so loving and fulfilling!
When I allowed my body to observe and be observed, I was overcome by the emotions of others and the energy of the room. When I felt loving, gentle gazes caressing my body’s surfaces, I realized the toxicity of my self-directed gaze. I never extended to myself the same kind of understanding and acceptance I aspired to give others.
Moving to music felt awkward. I was confronted by my body’s lifelong reluctance to express itself. Interacting with space around me felt dangerous compared to stillness, which felt so safe and contained. My initial line of thinking was that I don’t know how best to move, so I might as well not.
Though I had a blindfold on, I still felt a critical gaze upon me, the kind that has long held my arms down, my torso stiff, and my legs frozen. Then I realized no one was laughing, and others were similarly focused on their own movements. I had nobody to apologize to for my movements, as no one could see. This activity allowed me to ponder the following questions. What am I holding back from, when there is no one to please but myself? What is possible of myself, when no consequence will arise from honoring my impulses?
It was difficult to surrender, and I don’t think I fully could yet, but I willed my mind to allow my body to interpret the music how it pleased. I allowed myself to enact my varying emotions: playfulness, exploration, loneliness, calm. To stand and shuffle and wave and swagger and sit the way the music called my body to do.
Healing another, watching the healing of others, and receiving my own healing all were magical moments. It was when shame, anger, and grief looked startlingly beautiful in all their ugliness. When I realized we needn’t harden against it all. We could all face and absorb the immense shame and trust that our existence would not be smashed to smithereens.
For me, the ritual felt like bones being reset, and being allowed to heal with alignment and clarity. I had to dig really deep, because I had buried so much of my shame. Entering the circle forced me to verbalize what was holding me back from the happiness and pleasure in life that I desire. I found, and released fears, inadequacies, and traumas that my body was holding despite my amnesia.
Eros field trip
(NOTE: Eros is a men’s bath house (very trans-inclusive) in San Francisco that generously donated admission for anyone in the class who wanted to go and check it out on Saturday night.)
I had reservations about going to a men’s sex space as a straight man with no prior inclinations towards having sex with men. But, I am really glad I went, as it was exciting to explore a new space with unfamiliar dynamics, all while feeling so safe because my amazing friends from the workshop were around!
I discovered I was actually physically desirable to some individuals, and the context of the men’s space really made me feel validated as a man. (Though I do worry about assumptions being made, based on my body type.) I also realized I still have some work to do about feeling ok and not guilty when enforcing my boundaries.
I did not discover any desire for sexual interaction with other men, but I now yearn for more access to intimate men’s spaces. This hasn’t really been open to me as a straight man, and I have, for a long time, adopted a normatively competitive gaze towards other men. For me this has fostered more feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and jealousy.
We were invited to sway to nautical music while imagining ourselves to be bull kelp. The idea of being rooted and just o.k. with my existence while swaying with the movement of the water was strangely profound. When we were invited to return to feeling the edges of our bodies, I could not help but weep from the sensation of viewing myself with non-judgment and comfort. It shook me to observe how long my body has been deprived of my love, and how long I have gone without noticing!
I appreciated both lessons on the chest and the genitals and the fact that they were presented in dysphoria-reducing language. I have had some bottom surgeries, and am eager to understand my genitals. Tissues have now been rearranged, rendering some parts more accessible, and others less or not at all.
Despite having pored through countless anatomy articles and diagrams, I learned a new term and site of pleasure: the perineal sponge! This knowledge has helped me gain a better understanding of how to best stimulate the nerves that I thought were no longer accessible.
I felt extremely soothed, and so grateful feeling the love and care of the two people working together to bring me the release from muscle tension I desired. They were eager to comply, and I grew in my comfort to be able to ask for how I wanted to be pleased. For once, I experienced the joy of trusting another’s desire to please me. It was liberating to not feel guilty or burdensome
My body felt extremely honored by their touch, and I had never known that comfort and love could accompany such vulnerability. Who knew that exposure doesn’t need to be just about shame and embarrassment and instead could feel so delicious and freeing? I didn’t.
The Circle Holds Us
We took turns in a circle being held and holding one another, before everyone stepped backwards together towards the center of the circle. How amazing it felt to be this stable entity of love, so unyielding in its solid hold of me, despite how fragile we may each feel in so many moments of our lives. In this moment I knew I was not the scared person I was on Friday who was eager to shut out the intrusive presence of others. Instead, I leaned into the warmth of our bodies, the life of our collective breaths, the energies of trans masculine brethren with whom I felt an unmatched closeness.
Culmination and Integration
This workshop was such a highlight of my life after so much anguish and pain. I have rarely cried so much and been so deeply moved. There was a ‘before workshop’ era of my life, and now the ‘after workshop’ time is only beginning. I left with the profound understanding that there are truly greater possibilities for really knowing others in a way that facilitates the closeness and healing that I so desire, yet have always been so afraid of.
After saying many goodbyes, I entered the elevator, alone. The loneliness was momentarily terrifying. I was so sad to leave the space, because the world outside will never be nearly so safe, with facilitators actively shaping healing vibes. But even as I return to my real life, where my physical and emotional boundaries are continually tested, I recharge and revive when I think of being in that circle of bodies, holding and being held. Even now, my heart is still overflowing with love for our capacity to heal so much pain. I revel in the memory of that circle.
(The following is a Guest Post by Roman Rimer, describing his experiences at the Geography of Pleasure: Embodiment for Trans Guys workshop. Enjoy! ~ Pavini)
After the Geography of Pleasure workshop I was able to talk about the experience ad nauseam, maybe even brag a little bit, to my inquiring cis-gender friends. Finally, a place where I felt at home.
When it came time to write about what feelings came up all the words I piece together seem slightly off, empty. Perhaps this goes back to the adage that writing is the loneliest profession. By contrast, participating in a workshop with family members you never knew you had, feels to be quite the opposite. Feeling part of a larger group is huge, especially if it doesn’t happen often.
Warm, safe spaces exist everywhere; they’re just not always open to everybody. My first impression when I entered the space was that I was welcome, and not just because I was helping other people sign in. Often I feel I have had to be on guard, even when I am in familiar places with people I know. Quite often those most “comfortable” elements in my life have at points turned threatening. When I find myself in a new space, I am safe. I do not have to worry about where I will go next and I can be fully present.
There are too many themes covered in the workshop to fully process, and I’m sure with time a few moments will pop up when I am least expecting it; perhaps they will provide guidance for that particular moment and it will make sense.
A concrete reminder for me was how important human touch can be. Well-meaning touch is not always easy to come by, consent is only occasionally addressed, and at moments in my life I have wanted to fully separate from my body. I imagine if we were taught at a young age to establish and respect boundaries, how the human race could start to heal itself. Even when in relationship(s) I constantly crave human touch and to receive it in such a loving way as it was in the workshop was a much-needed gift.
I enjoyed the exercises in which we were placed in smaller groups, either two or three of us. In one we allowed the other person to touch us, told them where, how much pressure to apply. In the groups of three we asked our partners to remove article(s) of clothing. It was something that on the surface so simple, yet while enacting it felt incredibly empowering.
The actions that many take for granted, are usually much more weighted with trans folks. Perhaps it was because we all knew what it was like, maybe the safety quashed all fears. From talking with other folks I identified that I, too, have felt my body at times was stolen from me, misidentified, physically harmed, attacked with words.
Us transfolks must love our bodies more than anyone could understand, we have held on to our bodies through everything. And what a better way to treat our bodies than to allow them the tenderness from others?
I’d forgotten how satisfying it was to be around ones brethren. While it wasn’t my first time with a group of solely trans-masculine folks, it was the first time in a while.
I’d imagine for many trans folks we’re constantly surrounded by cis people, often well-meaning, but still for lack of a better word, at times, horrible. I constantly find myself in a teaching role, as I find that tends to be one of the more hopeful ways to reach out to people. Being able to talk about my relationship with my body and not take on that role, is something I really value.
Though most of us were meeting one another for the very first time, I felt as though we’d known each other forever. Coming from different walks of life, different generations, family dynamics, occupations, we fit together like puzzle pieces, the individuals so strong yet together creating something even more magnificent than us all individually.
“The space was sacred there’s no doubt about it. I could feel the spirits of our transancestors and those who have yet to be born, all there with us. Those who have been silenced helped give me the strength to speak. It was as though as soon as we formed a circle a spark was lit, igniting an everlasting flame, warm enough for all of us.”
The workshop the previous three days was a mindfuck in the best way possible. Imagine, always feeling like an outsider, feeling misunderstood, always wary of how much to disclose (if at all), the idea that many people might not get it, or their reactions could be harmful, even dangerous. And suddenly I was in a place where not only was it safe to share, but it was encouraged, and others spoke their truths, let their fears out into the air. Suddenly, I felt less ashamed of my own struggles.
Often I feel as eager to cover up as I am to shed my layers. Growing up in the States, feeling ashamed of my body, nudity, sex. While it was never hard for me to find my voice, it was always hard for me to trust it. The workshop provided the trust, part from within the community and building it within ourselves.
The day after the workshop I had an improv class. I was still recovering, emotionally. Thoughts zoomed across my mind. How comfortable I’d felt, while battling through recurring memories of trauma over and over again. In class there were about fifteen of us and I looked around thought, holy fuck, I’m the only trans person here. Improv is known for “gender role reversal” if anything this drama therapy helped me figure out my identity. Though I’d known most of these folks for months, and was out as trans to maybe a third of them, I instantly missed my kin. Though it was only in my mind, I felt I stuck out as the lone trans thumb, and I instantly missed those bonds I’d just formed.
I like the idea that everyone is trans, only some of us have realized it. Perhaps this meeting was for those of us with the courage to move forward. After feeling shamed by the medical community, by family, friends, all these aspects of my life I could trace back to deciding to live openly and authentically. Once I came out I couldn’t quite go back. And as exhausting as I am by the constant teaching, It’s worth it. All the people about to have kids, for all the people who may not have given transphobia a second thought.
Nothing has made me happier than the friends who have since given birth acknowledging gender can very much be placed on children before they are ready to express who they are and they need to check their own beliefs before imposing them on their children. And to meet other trans folks at this workshop who were parents themselves gave me quite a lot of faith in the next generation.
And while it may take cis-gender people a while to catch on, I believe it’s possible. Once they get close enough to our fire, they will see the warmth, the camaraderie that elevates us all once we accept ourselves, and by proxy each other.
I mentioned the importance of a warm space and there is no way I could omit the hot food. It might not seem like much to some, but I am always grateful to have a hot meal in a warm space. I still feel quite privileged even with trauma I’ve endured. Since transitioning my housing situation has been more uncertain than not. It’s all connected.
And while I would never give it up, or change anything, it’s clear the price I’ve paid to live an authentic life. To not have basic needs met, or at least a given, I’ve put myself at risk. Knowing where I will be at a certain time, knowing I will be fed – is a huge thing. It shouldn’t be and everyone should always have these basics covered, but by seeing once more how “outsiders” or rather, folks who don’t subscribe to a certain, limited way of being, exist, my empathy has grown and flooded from me. It’s easy to see we’re not alone.
To know that although we went through this all alone, we were finally able to be there with each other. There’s something that only we can give each other. And that was remarkable. The scariest part is in thinking that we are all alone. The Geography of Pleasure workshop proved nothing could be further from the truth.
~ by Roman Rimer
I dip my pen into the blood of my heart, and begin to chronicle the myriad of thoughts, sensations, feelings, body epiphanies and erotic somatic learning that happened this past weekend.
It is only now, four days out, that I can bring myself to write of the beauty, the heartbreak, the joy, the community and the exquisite pain that was the first Geography of Pleasure: Embodiment for Trans Guys workshop.
Here’s what I notice: my heart aching mightily with the openness we created together. I find my heart expanding into love and joy, and contracting into fear and anxiety, in a regular pattern. I find I want the rawness and intensity of the workshop space in my everyday life. It is hard to return to dishes, kids, and regular life.
How can I describe how the electricity in the room as we smashed paradigm after paradigm? How to write of the power of claiming our rightful erotic space, as humans who live on a trans-masculine spectrum? How can I describe the utter suffering that the people in this circle have endured, that has impacted every aspect of their lives? And how can I describe the fierceness and righteousness of watching the erotic call each of us home to our bodies, just as they are in this moment?
Truly, I cannot.
But what I can describe is the feeling of success I have as a facilitator of a crucible that created demonstrable transformation for participants. People looked different when they left. They felt different. They felt like their context around pleasure, their bodies and their relationships had shifted so much that it was difficult to articulate. They spoke again and again of feeling a sense of safety that they had never in their lives felt.
I knew the workshop was going to be potent, but I really had absolutely no idea to what degree we would change everything.
One of my favorite reflections comes from workshop participant Jun C:
“I came in feeling like I had nothing to offer. I now feel like I have everything to give.
“I feel like I finally found the kind of community and connection with other trans-masculine people that I’ve been looking for that I couldn’t find for so long.
“I had initial reservations coming in (didn’t we all?) I thought there was a very likely possibility that it was going to be some hokey new age-y type thing that usually strikes me as being disingenuous, devoid of real substance, with a false type of enlightenment. I don’t know yet how to articulate the sparkle magic that happened, but I’m so glad I was there.”
This workshop arose from a vision I had of a room of trans-masculine people, working together to banish shame, craft community, and communally welcome into our bodies the pleasure that heals trauma, brings sensation to numbness, and replaces fear with joy. And this bold vision actually happened.
As a facilitator, my heart grew larger and larger with each story, each sharing, each time I sobbed with the hurt we have all borne. The scars I saw this weekend, (and I saw many,) denote a strength and a resilience, a determination to live in our bodies and to be truly ALIVE, without apology.
Perhaps I will write in greater depth about the specifics of what we did, but for now, I am basking in the delight of a heart full of passion for continuing and growing this work. We have already been invited to Portland, New Mexico, Toronto, Minneapolis and the UK. You’ll be able to track our progress at http://www.geographyofpleasure.com. I’ll be posting participant written reflections on my blog, as well as spoken reflections on our website and youtube. Stay tuned!
Our dream is for every trans-masculine person in the world has access to pleasure and embodiment, in the body they are in, RIGHT NOW!
When they write the rejection letters, why can’t they just say “Thank you, we’ve chosen another proposal.”
There’s always the bit about how many awesome proposals they received, how it was excruciating painful to choose (as if I care) and how truly, truly amazing my proposal is. How they look forward to seeing my work out in the world. And in the really stellar rejection letters, they find a way to ask for my continued support for their project.
So far this year I’ve received ten rejection letters, for a variety of projects, including conference proposals, writing contests and performance proposals. Each proposal I’ve submitted has taken hours upon hours of work to conceive, articulate, edit, answer all of the questions, and gather submission materials. Each one has been a dream, a calling forth of something important into being, only to let that dream slip away, perhaps to be reborn in a different form, or perhaps not.
With each rejection, the sting has been less. I won’t say it’s stopped.
I really, really wanted to create that performance piece about the circus freak show: the fat lady, the bearded lady, the half-man, half-woman, and the sexuality of each. It would be a powerful reclaiming of the fetishized, for purposes of validating our own eroticism.
But. “When the Fat Bearded Lady Sings Subterfuge” is not to be, at least not this summer.
With every proposal, and also with every rejection, I feel I stand at a bifurcation point: one path leading one way, another leading to a completely different destination. Taking the path marked “Reject” leads somewhere, often to somewhere unexpected and enlivening.
Creating meaningful content is not a challenge for me. I have ideas all day, every day. The challenge is to curate the ideas, discern which ones will further not only my work, but the issues that I stand for. Faith seems to be the only means by which to understand the mystery of why this project, this idea, and why now. Or why not. I am choosing to engage with the various selection committees as a divinatory process. The Hand of God, tapping my creative efforts that best serve my people.
The generative force behind all of my ideas is erotic.
It is inarguably the tide of Eros, churning within the moving rivers of my body. Each idea is a desire born of an embodied longing, bubbling up. These things, they want to be born, they yearn to manifest. They crowd around, like impatient spirits waiting to reincarnate.
When I answer the call of a particular desire, the ebullient and effervescent delight which courses through my body is sublime. Merely putting the words onto paper is sometimes orgasmic. Letting them then go off into the world, to be petted and stroked and sometimes mauled by complete strangers is oddly liberating. They are not mine alone, anymore. They belong to us, to our species. What is our medicine today, this week, this decade? What beauty, what insight do we need to ensure our collective survival?
Sometimes the desires are resilient. Tough, with bouncy edges. Sometimes they are tender, and become easily cracked and disheartened.
Sometimes, when I send an especially beloved desire out into the world, it has the quality of reaching out to touch an achingly desired potential lover, for the very first time.
That moment when you don’t know if your touch will be welcomed. That fragile, heartbreaking pause between your gesture, and their acceptance when the entirety of your self-esteem is up for grabs.
I’m practicing trust in my creative process, when I send those ones out, that the rejection I face will not damage me. That the burn of Eros will be fed by the ashes of rejection, and honed into an ever-clearer flame of yearning and expression.
It is a terrible-wonderful thing, to put one’s heart on public display, time and time again, for critique and judgment. The not-good-enough trolls stand just at the edge of that autonomous zone, waiting for my transgressive heart to cross the border into the land called self-doubt.
But wait! Ding, you’ve got mail! What’s this? A call for submissions for a new zine on fat acceptance? A film contest exploring marginalized sexuality?
Sorry trolls, not today. I’ve got the work of desire, burning down the house.
P.S. Geography of Pleasure: Embodiment for Trans Guys is happening 2/21-23 in San Francisco.
Perhaps you thought, “OK, so then I’m going to increase my capacity for feeling pleasure and expand my sexuality.”
Indeed, how does one expand into feeling more pleasure, if one has already accepted that the limits of our pleasure capacity are inflexibly where they are?
Or worse yet, what if we have don’t realize that the limits to our capacity for feeling pleasure are ones that we ourselves have created?
Before we consider the question of how to increase our capacity for pleasure, let us first acknowledge our diminished capability to enjoy the fullness of our human sexuality. Let us ground into the historical contexts of how we have ended up here.
Throughout my blog, I have often written of my own experiments as I attempt to expand my erotic self and broaden my capacity for pleasure. I write of my own experiences for a number of reasons, mainly because I trust personally people who walk their talk. Therefore, my integrity compels me to be transparent about my process. Blogging keeps me accountable to my chosen course towards erotic wholeness. Importantly, transparently blogging about my sexuality helps hold my shame at bay.
Ironically, the shame of not being or having the sexual self we know or imagine is possible can actually be enough to block us from seeking that self. Therefore, it is crucial to the sexual wellbeing of the planet that we begin to break silence about our shame. That people with marginalized identities also claim sexuality. Through sharing our erotic journeys, we not only give ourselves permission, but also model and give each other permission to seek authentic sexual expression.
When I started exploring my erotic nature, I was optimistic, but guardedly so. Perhaps there was more to my sexuality than I was experiencing. I had a vague sense of missing out on something, but assumed (incorrectly) that the experience I was having was the extent of the experience I could have. I thought the sex that I had, though limited and at times non-existent, was good enough. Plainly put, I settled for the experience I had and tried to wrap my sexuality around it. I did not try to expand the experience to meet the edges of my sexuality.
After all, I had read enough about women’s sexuality to know a few things (or so I thought.) I knew that that many women didn’t masturbate. Many women didn’t orgasm during penis-vagina intercourse. Many women didn’t have more than one orgasm. Many women didn’t even orgasm at all. Since I was capable of coming a couple times when I had penis-vagina intercourse, and I masturbated, I was doing better than many women.
I set my own sexual bar super low.
What were some things I was missing from my sexuality?
- Play and Exploration and edge-pushing
- Desire and Fantasy
- Transcendent sexuality and sex magick
- Embodiment, sensate focus and being present during sex
- Freedom for fantasy during sex and Freedom for all kinds of fantasies
- Exploring different turn-ons
- Toys, different positions and mixing up the patterns of sexual encounters
- Gender play and different sexual partners
- Anal explorations
- Knowledge of my anatomy
- Squirting and Kegels
- Breath, movement and sound
- Ecstatic sexual encounters and meeting the Divine during sex
- Awareness of erotic energy, and ability to work with it
- Kink, BDSM and power exchange
- Communal erotic encounters
- Allowing sex to crack open my heart
- Full Body orgasms, G-spot orgasms and orgasmic spaces beyond the clittoral
- Acceptance for my kinks and turn-ons
Shit, that’s a whole lot of missing!
The most interesting thing is that I really believed I was doing good! I ACCEPTED that the limits of my sexuality were real.
Barnaby Barratt, a psychotherapist, sex therapist, sex educator and tantric facilitator, implores that, “Our sexuality encompasses everything about our embodiment. It is our sensual and erotic connectedness with all that is around us. It is the medium of our alignment or misalignment with the universe, the grounding of our being-in-the-world.”
Why do we accept for our sexuality something that is less than perfect alignment with the universe? How did it come to be that I accepted those limits?
While most of us probably feel some degree of shame about where we are in our sexual expression, it turns out there are actually a number of really excellent reasons why we are where we are.
Here’s the crux of it: Our sexuality is informed by a complete paradox. Ubiquitous in the United States are both blatant sexualization and blanket sexual repression. We all encounter examples of both of these hundreds of times each day.
Sexually Explicit or Implicit Advertising
Oh Hi, Sex-Sells Advertising! The earliest known use of sex in advertising was in 1871, by the Pearl Tobacco brand. The advertising featured a naked girl on the package. Since then, sex has been a powerful advertising tool used to sell almost everything. And it works, too, since we are hard- wired to respond to sexual connotations.
We actually even respond to messages that only imply sex, meaning advertisers merely have to access the part of our brain that recognizes sexual messaging. According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, average American adults are exposed to approximately 650 advertising messages each day.
We live in a society that is completely sex obsessed,
and simultaneously completely sex-phobic.
Pervasive Sex Negativity
In juxtaposition to the images above, consider the following:
- Abstinence-only sex education is still going strong. Since 1998, over $1.5 billion in state and federal funds has been allocated for these abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs.
- The wide acceptance of ‘sex-addiction,’ as a real disease, although sexual addiction was rejected for inclusion in the DSM-5 and it is widely disputed.
- Porn is often vilified. (While secretly consumed in epic proportions; 12% of all websites are porn-related)
- BDSM activity, even where clearly consensual, can be and frequently is prosecuted under state criminal laws dealing with assault, aggravated assault, sexual assault or sexual abuse.
- It was a mere ten years ago in 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court (in a 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas) struck down the Texas same-sex sodomy law, ruling that private sexual conduct is protected by the liberty rights implicit in the United States Constitution. (This decision finally invalidated all state sodomy laws and meant that same-sex sex couldn’t be prosecuted.)
Receiving these contradictory messages can be disastrous in our search for authentic erotic expression. On top of that, layer the traumas, stories, shame, abuse and bad sex many of us have had, and it’s a recipe for sexual shut-down. Seen through this lens, the fact that we can feel any pleasure at all is quite remarkable!
“Many of us tell ourselves that “sex is not all that important to me,” and then we immerse ourselves in substitutive activities. We plunge into all manner of heartless addictions, or we become preoccupied with policing the sex lives of others. We even lose our awareness of how disconnected we have become from our sensuality. We no longer recognizer our own inhibition, nor do we see its roots in our unconscious shame and guilt.” ~Barnaby B. Barratt
Those who do attempt to cultivate an authentic erotic experience often find themselves facing strong societal prohibitions. However, when we turn our attention to that quiet, internal voice that compels us towards wholeness, we know we must question the limits we currently accept as immutable.
Sometimes we are required to accept things on faith. Take leaps of thinking and believing that are unsubstantiated in our lived experience. Sometimes, we just have to believe there is more, and set off it search of it, hoping we will find it. I had to leap into the void of giving up my sexual limits, (without having any proof I would get something better,) before I was able to start consciously evolving my own erotic experience
I started this post with the thought “Okay, then I’m going to increase my capacity for feeling pleasure and expanding my sexuality.” That is indeed the topic. Stay tuned for further thoughts. And until next week, I invite you to do one thing: consider that perhaps the current limitations of your sexuality will be different in the future. Perhaps something deep inside hears the truth of this next statement:
Without a doubt, there is more for you to feel.
A teacher told me once that we get to make three major descents into the Underworld of our lives. Perhaps, at the outer edge of age in this body, I will delineate in that way. But for now, every visit to Persephone’s Land counts. And it feels important to say it publicly that this is where I have been.
It’s the time of year for it; that spiraling, labyrinthine walk into the depths of the heart and mind. Our mythology calls for it, as the days grow shorter here in the Northern Hemisphere. We get a little freaked about that still, and fill our time with lights and shopping to stave off what lurks in that darkness. We celebrate the return of the Sun/Son.
Another teacher said to trust the re-emergence. This feels true; I give myself permission for the journey, because I know I can come back. And come back with treasure. Today I want to share with you a little of those jewels… tis the season, right?
Descent can look like this for me; a quieting and slowing of external engagements. Moving away from my connections and contacts in the outer world, to focus my gaze on my inner landscape. To do the bare minimum of work, housework, connecting with others. I spend time in bed, cocooned in warmth. I take a lot of baths. I don’t return phone calls or emails. I miss commitments or bail on them. I don’t reach out for support, or let anybody know what’s going on. This year, because of all the somatic awareness I’ve been working so hard to develop, I was also blessed with the guidance of my body. My body was all about releasing trauma.
While trauma held in the body may seem like a mysterious, looming and unbeatable foe, it is my experience that once accessed, it can quickly move through the body towards release. The more you’ve got, the longer the release process will take, but it’s do-able. The thing about it is that even if you’ve dealt with the issue that caused it in the first place in talk therapy, and it’s no longer a trigger, the trauma can still be there stored in the tissues of the body. It’s gotta come out. In my studies of Somatic Experiencing, one of the best ways to help it release is to shake the body vigorously.
My body guided me through the process, and it was indeed a bit messy, but end result is emergence, so stay tuned for that. Not only emergence, but coming back with a new level of embodiment and understanding. This time, part of my process included a sleep disorder. Night after night, I awoke ten to fifteen times. I would wake with a start, be fully alert, and in my body feel something like urgency. After trying all the usual stuff people try for sleeping, and nothing working, and with exhaustion and sleep deprivation impacting my life, I started shaking. It was more like feeling compelled to it; I would wake, stand, and shake my entire body for several minutes, and then feel the discharge and be able to quickly return to sleep. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Night after night, for six weeks or so. It was pretty brutal.
The other component that was happening was a lot of moral inventory taking. Looking deeply within to determine the accountability I have in one of the relationships that created much of the trauma. And here’s where the treasures come in. Although I didn’t feel like a victim, I was pretty in love with my blame story. And I learned that blame is a hook, that it always attaches to a victim story at the other end. Blaming and victiming are always about power.
I learned that I get to choose my hooks, and I can learn to release them. (It’s a lot of work!) Family of origin is full of hooks. Relationships are full of hooks. To be free and untethered, I have to remove those hooks.
Removing the hooks is about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a verb, not a noun. It’s an active process of sending good or neutral thoughts and energy to the person you are working with forgiving. Every time the story replays, noticing it and gently removing the hook. Finding compassion for the hooks, and the way they keep us connected, albeit dysfunctionally. Loving the body and the Self enough to risk unhooking. Seeing what the relationship is beyond the hooks.
I think there are other hooks besides blame as well. A working definition of a “hook” would be any situation that blocks our highest consciousness, and keeps us trapped in stories of hurt, anger or fear.
(I realize this is long and rambly, and I’m not going to edit it very much for the realness factor.)
The shift for me into re-emergence came in the hot water of Sierra Hot Springs, where I’ve had several life-altering revelations over the years. You might want to go there if you haven’t. It’s this: I could choose to forgive. Just let it go. Be like “Yeah, okay, that was hard, and I lived through it.” I could choose to recognize that we are all hanging on by a thread, and doing our very best, and no one is EVER going to be able to get it right. We are all fucked up, human, imperfect and yet it’s okay. That that person is just another struggling human, not the Dark Lord. There was this moment in my body where I GOT it on a somatic level, what just letting go would feel like. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m much closer than I was before.
And that was kind of it. I released a bunch of trauma. I did a shitload of moral inventory. I got on a body level the connection between blaming and victiming. I had a revelation about forgiveness. And now I’m back online.
I re-emerge to find: There are shifts in that particular relationship already. I have more space in my body for new things. My dreams are powerful again. I’m having more pleasure in my body. Magick is happening all around me. My friends are annoyed with me. I feel excited about the end of the world, and the birthing of the new one.
I pray my explanation of my process serves you in some small way. Blessings on the return of the Light, and Safe Home on your own inner journeying.