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.