Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Mommy Will You Marry Me?

  I love you SOOOO much.

 

Our first attachments are to our caregivers. This is a unique form of love, with need and safety and deep power differentials, that will impact us our entire life. It is also one of the first relationships were we begin to “practice” with a child’s mind the idea of romance, and its connection to love. Children learn by playing, enacting scenarios and seeing how it feels. This can be empowering even though the play is “not real” as the child imagines that they could handle themselves in that scenario.

 

It is very common for children around age 4 to 6 to develop crushes on adults in their life, more commonly a parent. This can be an icky and awkward phase for the parent who is the focus of their attention since it feels very inappropriate. Children in this stage may profess their love, get jealous of the parent’s partner, ask for extra attention, and even try to kiss the parent the way they saw in cartoons. For the child’s development though it is entirely appropriate to imagine and pretend and to get information from adult’s responses. It makes sense for a child to try these new possibilities out with someone they love, look up to and feel safe with, so they are actually making a good choice in play partner. It is helpful if adults are calm and kind about this phase (remember it will pass soon enough). Gently saying something like, “I love you too, so much. You are my beautiful little boy. But romantic love, when people get married or kiss passionately or XYZ, happens between two people who are close in age. So I will be with an adult, like me. And you will eventually find someone your age to be with. And you and I get to love each other as mommy and son and that is a really special love”.

 

What can happen, in large part because most adults have a healthy internal taboo against sex with children, is that adults overreact to a child’s natural style of learning – experimentation and play practice. Children may get shamed or unintentionally scared by an adult’s negative reaction. It is important to set firm boundaries as the adult about how you do and don’t want to be touched and also about the limits of your relationship (as true with children as with other adults, right?). There is no need to scold or punish a child for having their version of a crush, in fact this could cause them to feel uncomfortable or to doubt those feelings when they arise later in life. There is also no need to encourage the feelings and adults should be careful that they are not using the child’s affection to manipulate the child’s behavior or to create triangles or alliances in the family. Just remember that the child is trying on adult roles, not having adult feelings.

 

This is the same age that many kids will play house, acting out family dynamics, patterns, and habits in ways that can be dismaying or adorable to those being mimicked. Adults are role models, even when we are not aware of it, and children look to us for guidance on how to do this thing called life. They are taught early on, in fairytales and stories, TV shows, and magazine covers in the checkout line, that romantic love is something to be desired. One of the crucial things they seek to learn from us is how to love and be loved. Let’s strive to show them love can be kind, understanding, and unconditional but also with clear boundaries. Not a bad thing to  remind ourselves of too.

 

Sexual Independence

 

  Declaring Sexual Independence

 

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – including sexual liberty and happiness.

To be truly sexually independent we…

 

*Must have available to us accurate information about sexuality, sexual options, and our bodies

 

*Must be free from employers, politicians, or other people in power denying us the right or ability to decide what to do about our own sexual health

 

*Should be able to present ourselves, regardless of gender identity, which genitals we have, sexual orientation, age, or other characteristic, in a way that feels genuine and true to us, without fears of discrimination or harassment

 

* Should be able to talk to professionals who are non-biased and sex-positive and who will support us in making decisions for ourselves

 

*Should be able to explore our unique paths to sexual pleasure and desire

 

*Will value our sexual relationship with our self and feel free to give it time and attention 

 

*Need to advocate for and expect privacy and protection in our sexual lives, with an understanding that our sexual history or images of us should not be shared without our consent

 

*Deserve sexual relationships that are free from coercion, bullying, or shaming

 

*Have the freedom to create relationship structures and agreements that are right for us and our partners

 

*Address openly the inevitable changes in our self, our body, our relationships, and our sexual needs and desires

 

*Approach sexuality with joy and creativity knowing that there are unlimited ways to play and connect

 

*Will respect other people vigilantly and allow them to make choices that are right for them

 

*Must work to understand ourselves so we can communicate clearly with other people and take responsibility for our own choices

 

 

 

 

 

Discarded : Information About Foreskin

 Welcome to the world, little one

One of the first sexual interventions a parent makes for a child is the decision to circumcise or not. And, as with many future sexual interventions, the parents may not have the best or most accurate information. We have been seriously misinformed about the foreskin. Many of us grew up thinking it was an unimportant, inconsequential flap of skin. But, generally speaking, our bodies don’t work that way, right? Think about it – how many other body parts do we just figure we can do without?

The foreskin actually has several purposes. First it represents 25-50% of the skin of the penis and is full of nerve endings. The most sensitive nerve endings of the penis are in a ring on the inner foreskin which are stimulated by stretch and movement. The foreskin is a double layer skin system with the inner layer containing glands that produce fluid to keep the penis protected and slippery. The soft internal layer also provides some immune protection with plasma cells, which secrete antibodies, and pathogen-killing enzymes. The foreskin protects the sensitive head of the penis when it is unerect. Without the foreskin the skin of the penis toughens up a bit as it is exposed to more friction through daily life. The foreskin also maintains lubrication and decreases friction during penetrative intercourse by bunching at the opening of the vagina. This could also provide more stimulation of the vulva.

This may be unwelcome information to you, either because you have chosen to circumcise a child or because you yourself were circumcised. But I think it is important to have accurate information about our bodies, including all body parts. There has been confusing information about health risks associated with keeping the foreskin but even in the face of those questions not one world health association actually recommends routine circumcision. In America we are more familiar with the look of a circumcised penis, although that will be changing as our circumcision rates are dropping. The CDC reports that in 2009 68% of US baby boys were not circumcised. Globally the rate of boys left intact is 70 -80%. Religious considerations are a family’s to consider and weigh, but weight them with complete information in mind.

If you are a man who has been circumcised you may feel some grief or anger about this decision that was made for you before you could choose for yourself. You may feel sadness about the unknowns, what might have been with your foreskin intact. It is difficult to compare the experience of a man uncircumcised since birth with a man who was circumcised. The best response is to grieve as you need to and to love your body as it is today. Remember there is much joy and pleasure to be had as you explore what works for you and your body.

 Welcome to the World, little one

 

"Kill Your Darlings"

  Are you risking what you need to?

 

I came upon this piece of advice for writers, originally from William Faulkner, and it has stuck with me throughout the month. Its emotional resonance can be quite scary. It sounds like the kind of advice you don’t want to take. And, indeed, it asks a lot of you. But I think it represents a vulnerable truth that applies to intimate relationships.

 

For writers, this applies on one level to the idea that to create emotional truth and tension, you need to be willing for any character, even the most beloved, to die. It also means you should not rely on tricks or themes that have worked for you before. Don’t write what you want to write, don’t let ego lead; write what is true, what organically needs to happen in the story.

 

This is just as relevant in sustaining intimate relationships. No, I am not advocating violence against your lovers. Nor am I suggesting that you abandon the people of things you love. But I think to sustain true intimate connection, we have to be willing to let things die or transform. We cannot rely on the old way of doing things. We cannot take anything for granted. The way you had amazing sex 2 years ago may not be working now. The person you got to know 5 years ago is different today.

 

Sometimes we can hold on and protect something we love so tightly, that we stop taking the risks we need to take to keep it alive. Oh, it might be going through the motions. There can be a kind of deadness or numbness that comes from desperately loving something so much we don’t want to rock the boat. But to be fully vibrantly alive we need to take risks. We need to have the difficult conversations, take the fearful step of hearing a new truth from an old love. We want to have faith in our long term connections and often faith is warranted. But we shouldn’t let that make us lazy or fool ourselves into thinking that all the questions are answered and doubt or confusion or change will never visit again.

 

 

Just as writers must stay true to their story, we must stay true to our relationships by being aware that everything can end, that everyone has lights and shadows, that change is inevitable. It is committing to aliveness to stop overreliance on past gifts and to risk whatever needs to be given and received now. It is scary. I have a lot of empathy for the couples I see in therapy who are in that frightening and disorienting stage of needing to kill their darlings, their story of their partner and the way things were going to go, to access something new. But that something new is almost always more alive, more honest, more intimate. Maybe for therapy the quote should be – Kill your darlings, so that you can stay alive to what it here for you now.

 

Dating Profile : Tech Savvy, Sexually Responsible

  Less awkward with an app?

 

My generation came of age during the start of the AIDs crisis and we were taught to fear the consequences of STDs. We sat through school assemblies with spunky speakers in brightly colored oversize T-shirts who told us to ask our partners if they had been tested. They gave us scripts and role plays for asking a partner to wear a condom but little guidance about the conversation about STD testing. But hey, we were responsible kids, not slackers when it came to sex, a lot of us did ask partners for HIV tests and maybe for other STDs as well. But few of us found a way to be comfortable or casual about this conversation.

I just learned about a new app for exactly that conversation. Silly me, of course there’s an app for that! It’s a smart concept. Hula hosts and protects consumers STD information which can be downloaded from your healthcare provider to the site. It provides Yelp type reviews and contact info for testing facilities in your area. But the part that could change people’s dating experiences is that you can give someone a code to visit your profile and verify your STD status. So no more, “yeah, I got tested months ago, no worries”, no more wondering if someone really did get tested or how long ago. If you decide you want to take the step of being fluid bonded (sharing sexual fluids, not safe sex) with someone, you have an easy and effective way to responsibly take that step together.

My hope for something like this app is that it makes checking STD status a normal part of the sexual interaction and dating cycle. People dating now cannot deny the reality of STDs. The CDC estimates that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year in this country, half among young people ages 15–24. It is a part of the sexual landscape and awareness is part of sexual responsibility. We need to find ways to make this less awkward, to normalize safer sex and the steps to take before deciding to share fluids. Can you imagine a time in which during the sexual buildup of a relationship or a hookup someone says, “U make me hot. txt me your STD profile. J”. Whether this sounds scary or sad or brilliant to you, it is a part of the modern dating reality. Anything we can do to make this conversation easier is important.

 

Sexual Taboos : Sex & Menstruation

Don't abstain for Aunt Flo's sake

 

Put two things that people rarely talk openly about together – sex and menstruation – and what do you get? A lot of myths, exaggerations, unexamined worries, and questions..and a lot of people not talking about what they are doing. Despite old cultural taboos about the nastiness of menstrual blood, a woman having her period is  perfectly viable and healthy sexual partner. Some women suffer considerably while menstruating, for others it is a mild annoyance and they would be happy to engage in sex play during their bleeding time. An overview of all studies done on sexual desire and sexual activity levels and menstrual cycles (up to 1980) found mostly variations. Some studies found peaks at mid-cycle, some pre-menstrually, some during menstruation, post menstruation. (Schreiner-Engel, 1980). So once again, everyone is different. If you or your partner are one of the ones who feel desire during her period, not to worry, you get a thumbs up for all kinds of play.

Not only is sex during menstruation not bad for you, it may have some benefits. Orgasm can be a great way to relieve menstrual cramps and headaches, so that can be a good reason to invite a partner to play with you even while bleeding. Of course is you are feeling shy, orgasms from masturbation work just as well. A really interesting study (Meaddough et al, 2002) found that women who had sex and orgasms during their menstruation were less likely to develop endometriosis than women who rarely had sex during their period. This may have something to do with the uterus’ role during orgasm. Uterine contractions that happen during orgasm actually change direction based on the phase of the menstrual cycle. This is amazing to me. Mid-cycle when a woman is most fertile the uterine contractions pull semen up towards the uterus. But during menstruation the contractions serve to expel material out of the vagina. This can also cause your period to last fewer days as the blood gets expelled more quickly.  I find this fascinating fact out in Mary Roach’s Bonk.

Fresh menstrual blood is a normal body fluid and is not going to hurt you. It is fine to get it on thighs, penises, hands, etc. It is even fine to engage in oral sex with someone who is menstruating. Of course, if the woman menstruating is carrying an STD or HIV her menstrual blood can transmit this. So practice safer sex, as always. Otherwise, your main concern is messiness. You can shower first, make gently wiping each other down with warm washcloths part of the play, have sex in the shower (use lube!), or just put down towels or old sheets and clean up after. But there is no need to be afraid of your body or your body’s natural cycles. If you feel desire and you want to act on it, go for it.

 

The Right To Be Seen

  

Now I know we need to take what the media calls “outrage” with a grain of salt, but I had to look into the outrage people are expressing over Lena Dunham’s choice to show her naked body repeatedly in her show Girls. Indeed people are outraged. They are outraged that Lena Dunham is inviting us to see her perfectly normal, not perfect or digitally perfected, woman’s body. They are outraged that she presents her character as someone whom people find beautiful, sexy and desirable seemingly irregardless of her non-Playboy model status. Not only are they not comfortable with this minor depiction of reality in our entertainment, there are some people who are intimating that Ms Dunham doesn’t have a right to show her body in this way. - This makes me outraged.  

 

One of the major voices in this attack on Lena Dunham and her supposed gall in showing her body is the often offensive Howard Stern. OK, he refers to her as “little fat chick” repeatedly, what did we expect from Howard Stern? We have not come a long way, baby, in relation to people feeling like they can critique women’s bodies. But when he links choosing to watch a show that exposes him to Lena Dunham’s body with “rape” because “I don’t want to see that” we all have taken a turn into deeply disturbing and oppressive territory. And sadly, he is not the only voice out there suggesting that Ms Dunham has somehow overstepped her bounds by appearing naked.

Let’s break this down. Assuming a consensual adult setting, are we willing to entertain the idea that only certain people have a right to show their bodies? In what context – in art, entertainment, porn? What about on beaches? Can someone claim to be offended by a fat person in a bathing suit? Do we need to earn the right to show our body by meeting a certain standard? How far do we take this? Does it only apply to celebrities? Are we suggesting that now artists must meet a weight requirement, that directors agree to only use actors who conform to an established standard? Will we institute a new sort of Hayes code that censors body images rather than morally objectionably content? If the majority prefers to see people of a certain body type should we mandate photo-shopping of all public photos? How many people have to decide that Christina Hendricks’ curves are disgusting rather than hot to draw a line? Would Marilyn Monroe’s pregnant body in Some Like It Hot be sell-able nowadays? Do we no longer make any room for diverse representations of the desirable? 

 

Have we really come to place culturally where a normal body is treated as not fit for the public view? Signs point to yes, at least for one vocal group on the internet. And for the many, many women who feel that their own body flaws are cause for shame and exclude them from owning their own version of sexy. This censorship is already happening internally in every inner voice that says, “I can’t be seen in a bathing suit, We need to keep the lights off so my partner doesn’t see my thighs…” In that case, then I guess Lena Dunham is offering us much more than a chance to see her bare her body in the service of story-telling, she is offering us a much needed reality check.

We Need a Body to Feel

The Thinker

On a long drive I was listening to a public radio conversation amongst scientists about the possibility of creating truly intelligent computer “minds” and whether or not a computer could develop feelings. This was inspired by the recent movies Her and Transcendence, both featuring computers who develop or upload personalities that can interact with humans. This brings up interesting questions about what is consciousness and what we need to feel connection with another. But what surprised me was the complete absence of any mention of the body itself and its role in our emotions.

I am not a neuroscientist; I am a psychotherapist. From all that I know and have witnessed in human’s emotional lives, I do not believe we could ever create a computer personality that can have feelings. Why do I say this? Because feelings involve physical sensation. Hence FEEL-ings. We are so attuned to our fleeting physical shifts throughout our day that many of us don’t even consciously register them anymore. But what we know from scientists who look at our emotional responses, the experience and expression of emotion uses several parts of our nervous system all working incredibly quickly and sometimes, seamlessly. But if we could slow the emotion creation down, what we most often would find is that 1) first there is an external cue that we register to in a split second, so quickly that we are sometimes unaware of the cue itself (I fumble my change while getting my morning coffee) 2) we have a non-voluntary physiological reaction; our body responds in a way that we can feel (the muscles in my arms and hands tense, I get a burst of focus, my stomach contracts, I blush) 3) our neocortex is mobilized to make sense of the body response, this is when an emotion is assigned to the feeling within our mind (those sensations feel to me like embarrassment)  4) then our neocortex references social norms and meanings of this emotion and enables us to decide how to behave (I notice that the barista didn’t seem to care, this has happened before, no big deal, I can let it go) . All of this happens within seconds. But the feeling of emotion begins when our body responds.

Now as a therapist, I am also aware that what we think affects how we feel. What we focus on shapes our perceptions of the world and our responses to it. We can indeed think ourselves into a bad mood; we have all done it. But in that case the thought is the original cue, an internal one rather than an external one. The feeling state will still be based on a physical response, and our subsequent interpretation of it.  Our body is the source of our emotional life. It is integral to our unique responses, our desires, our sense of connection to others. I believe our body allows us to feel the way we feel about people or situations through a complex flow of sensations and chemistry. Without a complete nervous system and the ability to experience sensation, I believe a computer mind could generate preferences, maybe even a pattern of enjoyment. But not love, not sadness, not anger, not longing or lust. For those I believe we need a body. Are you listening to yours?

 

Kegels are for Everyone!

 

These muscles could use a workout

 

I am writing in praise of Kegels, the pelvic floor “exercises” that can improve just about anyone’s sex life. When we think of our sexual body parts, mostly people think of the penis, vagina, vulva. But in actuality our genitals are surrounded and supported by the very important pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor muscles contract as a part of orgasm in both men and women. Strong contractions of these muscles can be felt by partners if you are engaging in penetrative sex and a taut vaginal canal can improve sensation for both people involved. Men who want to have multiple orgasms train themselves to contract their pelvic floor muscles on command. And people say that their orgasms become more intense as they strengthen these muscles.

 

Like in other areas of the body, muscles that are too tense limit us and limit sensation, muscles that are too weak limit our control and movement and, in the case of pelvic floor muscles, limit our orgasmic ability. If a muscle stays weak for too long it can atrophy. But, again as with other muscles in our body, we can always train the muscles to make them healthier.  What we want is a balanced healthy set of muscles that we feel we have some control of and connection to. Note that balance includes being able to relax these muscles as well. Sometimes chronic tension in the pelvic floor muscles can contribute to sexual pain and learning to release the muscles brings relief.

 

So how do we do Kegels? The great thing is you can do them anytime, anywhere. No one will notice. One way people can get familiar with these muscles is to try and stop your stream of urine. You will instinctually use your pelvic floor muscles to clamp down on the flow. That isn’t am especially fun way to practice, but try it if you feel unsure about how to access these muscles. To practice Kegels, you think about the floor of your pelvis – the area between the vaginal open and the anus or between the scrotum and the anus – and imagine pulling that area upward into your body. It is a small movement. Try doing several small pulses and then hold the contraction for a longer time. As you get more control you can play with contracting more to the front of your body, then more to the back or contracting in time to music. Always remember the release portion too though. And ideally you want to not use your buttocks or thigh muscles to do this, so work on keeping those areas of your body relaxed.

 

Still wondering if you are doing it right? You can see the muscles contract. Those of you with a vulva will need a handmirror or you can insert a finger and feel the muscles contract if they are strong enough. Those of you with a penis can make the penis twitch, easier to see with an erection, or you can insert a finger into your rectum to feel a contraction. Keep trying, you will get it.

 

Each time you do a Kegel, contract and release, a rush of blood flows into the tissue. This will keep the tissue healthy and in women it will also increase lubrication, so Kegels are also a great way to warm your body up for sex. Fair warning, doing Kegels will increase your sex drive. They can be a great way to use commuting time but you may arrive at your destination with sex on your mind. Enjoy.

 

 

Is masturbation instinctual?

 I never had this sign fully explained to me.

 

The classroom in Uganda had cement walls and all the doors and windows open because it was hot. This let some chickens into the classroom which I had gotten used to. My highly intelligent and driven students were there getting their Master’s degrees in Psychology. We were having a tense morning, having conversations about cultural sexual norms and myths about masturbation. One of my students said, almost in passing, “America brought masturbation to Africa”. Now I admit, part of me, the hot, tired, kind of punchy with culture shock part, felt a bit delighted by this statement and wanted to make some jokes like, “wow, an export that we can be proud of” or some such. But I knew we were talking about something deeper - what we believe is natural sexual behavior.

Now the thing that was funny about this for me was that my perspective on masturbation was so different. I see it as a natural part of human behavior, not invented or exported or even necessarily taught. I believe that with this highly sensitive body that we are born with, it is natural to explore it. It is normal to find those super sensitive, nerve rich places and it is normal to want to touch them sometimes. Sex researcher Kinsey described masturbation as instinctual human behavior. Young kids touch themselves without being taught to do so. Adults with evolving sexual desire will find that masturbation can relieve internal and physical pressure. All over the world in all kinds of cultural settings people masturbate, though they may not tell anyone about it. I believe that without any cultural influence one way or another people will find masturbation for themselves. They may not get creative about it but they will do it. (And as far as creativity goes, there is a rich history of sex toys that goes way back.)

For all the concerns about masturbation, and they have been intense, research has been unable to document any health or psychological damage from common masturbation habits. (Like all other behaviors, masturbation can be done compulsively but this is not a common outcome of masturbating). In fact, many studies have found benefits associated with orgasms, which for many people may be most easily reached through masturbation at least at some periods in their life.  In our class in Uganda, we were able to reach some agreement and what I might call respect for the possible benefits of masturbation, even in a cultural model that only wants to acknowledge heterosexual partnered procreative sex as “normal” sex. Together we honored the gifts of masturbation such as, a release of sexual tension that may allow someone to make other sexual choices more clearly, a way to learn how your own body works so you can take more pleasure in sex with a partner, a strategy to re-learn arousal patterns and help to relieve sexual pain patterns.

I doubt any of my students in Uganda are going to endorse masturbation and that is ok. But I think they were able to see that it doesn’t need to be feared and that the instinct to masturbate may come from some healthy internal drives, rather than of from external perverting influences. Masturbation, like other sexual behaviors, is a choice we have, a personal choice. Nothing to be afraid of.

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