As age-related self criticism (“I have so many wrinkles, I am so old, my body is changing…”) is on the rise in the US, I will share a fascinating research experiment with you. Harvard psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer wanted to study the effects of mind-set on our aging process. So she created a nostalgia summer camps of sorts. She took a group of elderly men to a retreat where they were exposed to cues reminding them of their youth, old newspapers, magazines, radio, music, etc. They were told to talk and interact as though they were back in the 1950s and young men. For one week they were invited to play at being young again.
And what happened? You could say magic happened, if you were so inclined. Dr. Langer conducted physical and mental testing on the men before and after the retreat. She found that the men had improvements in grip strength, healthy posture & gait, manual dexterity, memory, hearing & vision! Their bodies responded as though they were growing younger. And that was just in one week.
So before you decide that your best days are behind you, before you critique your looks, your sexual performance, your libido, your relationship, your self, consider who you are imagining yourself to be. Who is your mind telling you to be? Can you remind yourself of who you want to be? Do you need to listen to some hair metal or smell like pachouli? How would you have acted 10 years ago? What might happen if you deciding to play that part now? How might you approach your partner differently? How might you walk into the coffee bar differently? Care to try? Maybe your body will take you up on the invitation. In any case, I bet you will have fun.
Prevention Magazine, June 2013
Recently I was out with a new friend and I felt like I might be getting the vibe that this person was interested in me sexually. Since I am not available for a new sex partner at the moment, I wanted to address this clearly and quickly so there was no confusion, so I said something along the lines of, “just so you know I am only available to be non-sexual friends”. Now here’s where it got interesting. My friend became really flustered and started apologizing for offending me. Now I am fairly certain I did not appear offended, I wasn’t even blushing. Because I didn’t think anything bad had happened here.
But that is their reason I am writing about this – our culture has engrained in us beliefs that 1) sexual desire is bad and makes the recipient of it feel bad or dirty 2) unreturned sexual desire is offensive and embarrassing 3) the only reason to reject a sexual invitations is because the person doesn’t desire us and 4) if we can’t avoid feeling sexual desire we should at least pretend we don’t feel sexual desire for other people. But at the same time, we are somehow expected to find a partner out there in the world. It is just unclear how we are supposed to assess each other’s interest since we are certainly not supposed to talk about it directly. This is especially true between men and women where we have been shamed into an illusion that women are the unwilling victims of men’s sexual desire, incapable of speaking up or being proactive about what they do and do not want. So we play these games and we are all confused and feel unsafe and unsure.
It is important that we have a way to talk to each other directly about our yeses and nos. These conversations do not need to be embarrassing or demeaning – we have made them that way by pretending that sexual desire is not a part of normal life. We have made it that way by telling women that to assume someone is sexually attracted to you makes you egotistical and prideful which sets her up to wait quietly until a line is crossed so that she can then address it. And then we have made it so that men are made to feel that if they receive a “No thanks” they have already crossed a line and should feel bad and apologize while set them up with the burden that their desire has to be the firestarter; they have to take the lead. This is unfair to all of us.
So what if we had a belief that sexual desire and attraction are natural? What if it was not offensive for someone to express desire for you, what if it was a sweet thing, a compliment, a reflection of you in another’s eyes? What if we admitted, even celebrated, that we live in a world of attractive vibrant people and we will be drawn to many of them , some of whom we will engage with and many of whom we will not? What if we saw sex drives and attractions as an expression of vitality and life force rather than something dirty and demeaning? What if we could say Yes or No without any apologies necessary? I would like that better. In the meantime, good luck out there navigating the seas of sexual desire.
As a kink-friendly therapist I often get clients who come in kind of wide-eyed and shy who say, “I am into something kinky”. The underlying questions often attached to this is, “Does this have to change who I am/how I see myself? Are my relationship going to change? What does this mean about me?” As though we are not all some kind of shade of kinky. But I think we are.
Here’s the thing. It may seem like kinky is some category we slip into when we pass an invisible line in the bedsheets (or the costume store or phone line or backseat of the car…) But really most kinky behaviors have really mild forms that appeal to a lot of people. Where we draw a line and say something has slipped over into kinky now is completely subjective to the point of irrelevance. Who gets to decide where the kink line is? Is it going to be another of those, “kink is anything I don’t want to do” situations?
Have you ever included a blindfold in your sex life? Maybe you are a little bit into sensory deprivation, which is an element of some BDSM. Ever had sex in your car in a dark parking lot for fun? Maybe you are just a little bit into exhibitionism. Ever included whip cream or chocolate syrup in your sexual play? Maybe you are slightly into messy fun. Ever gotten turned on while watching a sex scene in a movie? Maybe you are a tiny bit of a voyeur. These are not scary suggestions. If we imagine kink as a spectrum where there is a range of less extreme and more extreme behaviors, we can see that we are all not so different from each other after all. The roots of these desires are in a lot of us. We each get to decide how far we each want to take it, what is the range of your turn-on before it becomes a turn-off. Kink is not a scary abyss that we fall off of, it is a spectrum of play and possibility. And where you land can mean about you whatever you decide it means.
If kinky is an identity that you want to embrace – go for it. There is a lot of empowerment to be had there and a lot of de-shaming, de-stigmatizing that you can do by claiming kinky as a part of your self. But let’s all be clear on some rules, we are all on the same spectrum and no one gets to set the line for someone else.
“To like myself means to be, literally, shameless, to be wanton in the pleasures of being inside a body…the way I’d felt as a child, before the world had interfered.” – Sallie Tisdale
Oh how we use shame in our culture. So much so that even the word shameless may make some of you uncomfortable with its implications of immorality, humiliation, even chaos. It is a word that has been turned against us as an insult. But really, what a wonderful state it would be to really be shameless, even for a few moments.
Think about how often in a day you have doubted yourself, rejected your body’s desires or criticized your own appetites. Think about how many times you have stopped a luxurious stretch that your body craved before it even happened. Or how often you turned away from the impulse to kiss someone, touch the curls in their hair, or lean into the solidness of a another human body. Do you even notice the moments anymore when something tastes so good you want to moan or exclaim about it? Do you notice when you body wants to rock, beating out its own rhythm? Have you shut out messages from your body that tell you “you are hungry for something”, whether that is food, touch, sex, rest, movement or any of the other options out there that could feed you? Notice how many times in a day you say No to yourself.
Now I am not suggesting that we could be healthier or happier if we always say Yes to our every desire or urge. But we could be happier if we didn’t feel shame for having urges at all. Shame may not serve us as well as we have been led to believe. We can still make choices about how we respond, what actions we take, what our long term priorities are, without needing shame to motivate us. It is more empowering to say to our self, “I know I want that, but I am going to choose to not have it right now so that I can ______fill in the benefit___” Rather than saying, “I am horrible for even wanting that, I am going to pretend I never has that urge and tuck it away somewhere to remind me of how bad I am”. And as we become more at home with our shameless nature, we may find that many of those desires and urges can be fulfilled after all. There are a lot of small and large pleasures out there waiting for you, if you are shameless enough to let yourself have them. Aren’t you curious to find out what they are?
I hope some of you took part in the happy celebrations this past week after the Supreme court ruled to nullify the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman and to validate the right of all of us to choose to marry the person we love. There are, last count I saw, 1138 Federal rights given to married couples in the US, so there is a lot at stake for many families, and a lot to celebrate.
It was a tight vote, 5-4, and the court chose to not make their own decision regarding California’s case challenging the state’s federal court decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional so they passed up this opportunity to protect the right to gay marriage throughout the country. Still, this is historic and has opened doors to gay and lesbian couples to now have their commitments, families, identities, and love honored in the ways straight people have been able to for hundreds of years.
Another story with less coverage also gave me hope this week and I want you to know about it. Alan Chambers, president of Exodus Christian Ministry group one of the most influential groups in the ex-gay movement, has announced that he has closed Exodus. Not only has he shut down this organization, he has openly spoken out, apologizing for the harm Exodus has done. For 37 years this group, and several others, have been selling people the idea that “reparative therapy”, usually a series of painful and/or shaming aversion techniques, and prayer will turn people straight. In 2009 the American Psychological Association made a clear statement that reparative therapy does not work, is in fact harmful and that being gay is a natural thing and not something that needs to be changed. Still groups like Exodus kept going. For Alan Chambers to come forward now and say he was wrong, that he has caused unnecessary trauma, is powerful. It will not change the horrible experiences that many people went through because of reparative therapy, but Chambers apology may change some minds in the Christian community that looked up to him, the people who Chambers now described as, “imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical”.
To read Chambers full apology go to http://exodusinternational.org/2013/06/i-am-sorry/
So it is a time for celebration. It is also a time to recognize that tides do turn and even our enemies can sometimes hear us if we keep talking to them. As we continue to fight for equality and compassion around the world, it is also perhaps important for us to ask ourselves if our own hatred or fear are getting in the way of us moving forward in the way we know is right. To ask, if we have stopped talking to certain people, if we have given up on people’s ability to change, if we are doing our own demonizing. Maybe Alan Chambers can inspire us to ask ourselves, are we willing to forgive – when appropriate - and start a new era? Are we willing to let our hate change, disappear, make space for something new?