Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Shadow Impulses


Taboos, depictions of extreme sensations, themes of losing control, hidden urges and desires unleashed, body parts exposed, gasps and screams…

 

Am I writing about sex? Not exactly. I am writing about the blend of fear and horror with sexuality and why we might like it – or at least fantastical performances of it. One of the famous places that this dynamic was played out for eager crowds was the Grand Guignal Theatre in Paris. Known for its naturalistic horror plays, the theatre ran from 1897 to 1962. Similar to our more current slasher films, the Grand Guignal blended sexual titillation with terror, and like our drive-ins, it had private booths for audience members who might be overcome with excitement.

 

So why do sex and fear get mixed together for entertainment throughout human history? All the way back to Oedipus we have enjoyed horrific tales of passion and punishment. Let’s be clear, real situations of human cruelty or violence are not entertaining to most of us who have empathy (however much the news media currently packages it as entertainment). But the fantastical and extreme offers something to our psyches that we humans seem to yearn for – a way to face and engage with the Shadow safely.

 

Sexual impulses and violent impulses have both been seen as outside our rational mind and been repressed by society, left to be explored in the dark without much guidance. And yet they both continue to feature prominently in human history. Both involve the body and witnessing the body in ways that are outside of the normal day to day experience. Sensations and reactions to pain and pleasure can be surprisingly close, both can sweep us away, take us over. Excitement and mild fear can feel very similar in the body too and make us feel deeply alive.

 

We are drawn to the Shadow, the risky edges of human existence. We have things to learn there and by engaging safely with the extremes of human experience we can bit more aware. Maybe for audience members, at Oedipus or the Grand Guignal, it was simply a matter of breaking one taboo, so we may as well break another. But maybe we all get something more out of visiting our edges. At least we keep doing it…Time to see what horror movie is on tonight.


Seduction Techniques Not Working For You?


This one is inspired by the classic horror film, The Bride of Frankenstein, and that epic scream face Elsa Lancaster made famous. The story is a sad one. Poor Frankenstein monster was lonely and the doctor created a bride for him. But once she was made and brought to life, seeing Frankie stumble and mumble at her apparently didn’t appeal. Cue, Scream. And classic horror movie destruction.

 

For us human folk, happily not in a horror movie, this dynamic can play out in more subtle ways. Sometimes our seduction skills are lacking or just in hiding. Like Frankie we attempt an awkward hand pat or grunt, “want to do it?”. And like the Bride, we can respond in less than kind ways. Rejection hurts, whether you are the only 2 monsters on the planet or not, and like Frankie rejection can make us feel, “she hates me”. So what can we learn from their sad tale?

 

It can be important to let our partner know that they may be appealing but the lackluster seduction routine is not. Talk about how you like sex to be initiated. I am not suggesting you expect flowers covering the bed or a striptease each time you have sex, but there may be some things that help to get your mind on sex and some things that hinder it. Be specific. Share with your partner what words turn you on and which ones don’t. What types of touch feel arousing? And, equally important, what types of touch turn you off? Do you need a bit of conversation before you engage sexually or maybe you prefer your partner to not be wearing the sweatshirt with baby spit up on it. Speak up, focus on what you like, while being upfront and non-blaming about what you don’t like so much.

 

And if you are just not in the mood, that is ok. But don’t’ scream or hiss in your partner’s general direction. Try saying something that lets them know you do want to connect with them sometime soon, just not right now. Really ask yourself, what would help me get in the mood? Could it be as simple as, “I think I need an hour to soak in the tub and relax and then we can connect”. Or maybe you know a night later this week will be better. Think of trying to include an addendum to each No. Try for a “Not now, but maybe…?”

 

If we can learn from the bride and avoid being unfriendly about it all and learn from Frankie and try just a little harder to be seductive, it will help keep everyone happy and connected.


Being Out...

This week we celebrated National Coming Out Day. This holiday was established in 1988 when the Gay Rights movement was very focused on the need for visibility. You may remember the slogan, “The Personal is Political”. It is true that the more people recognize the gay people in their lives, the more they see gay people as part of their community, the less prejudice we should see. I see positive changes here in my lifetime, for sure. But you may note how many years it really took for us to have openly gay celebrities, politicians, and public figures in the media on a regular basis. A lot of time has passed since 1988 and we are still growing our awareness. We are still developing safe space for sexual minorities to “come out”.

The conversation I would really love to see happen around National Coming Out Day is about how much coming out is actually a daily process. Yes, daily. Not at all a one time finish line one crosses. There are significant coming out moments in one’s life, with family or a potential romantic interest. But in truth, coming out has to be a constant choice involving assessment of whether or not one is in a safe place to show this aspect of one’s self. At each new class or job, will I mention my orientation here? Walking down a street, will I show my love for my partner here? Standing in a checkout line, will I get bad service or a bad attitude of we hold hands? Meeting a new landlord, neighbor, teacher, student… in many cases, a decision to share or not. A choice that can feel like protection, but can also feel like a burden.

In the past the metaphor of being in the closet was more relevant as many people had to live nearly entire lives hiding this piece of who they were, with few moments of getting to step out into the light so to speak. Now for many people the metaphor of armor may be more relevant, something that one must put on at certain times, heavy and constricting but also providing protection. The armor will not stop the pain of impact, but it may curtail severe damage. And it can be exhausting to have to carry it with you, heartbreaking and restricting to have to fit yourself into it yet again.

So in honor of National Coming Out Day this year, let’s acknowledge the ongoing nature of the risk taking that coming out involves and  the subtleties of sharing who we are and the relationships that are important to us. Let’s come together to send energy to our friends and neighbors or ourselves for staying strong while having to continually assess if it is safe to be open. Let’s do our part by not assuming heterosexuality and thereby quietly crowding out other relationships and perspectives. Let’s be sure to honor that coming out is a part of a life, not an event that can be encompassed in a day. And let’s hope that by National Coming Out Day next year, things are even better and there are less and less days when the armor is needed.


Pain or Intense Sensation?

When I am teaching professionals about being open to and aware of the broad spectrum of the kink community, I often feel people’s discomfort or struggle to understand pain play in sex. For those not so inclined, this can seem contrary to what they are hoping for in their sex experiences. But for others, the sweet intensity of being taken to a physical edge is incredibly exciting.

Most of our experiences of pain come without our consent, with lots of unknowns attached. These experiences of pain involve fear as well, fear of what is happening to us, fear of how long the pain will last, fear of the pain getting worse, fear of our lives changing because of this pain, fear of losing control. This type of pain feels like damage is being done to us. And it is out of our control, something that is happening to us and all we can do is try to tolerate it as we wish for it to stop.

Pain without fear is something else entirely. Within a sexual exploration, if done appropriately, everything is done completely within the context of choice. In receiving pain or intense sensation, you first choose a partner you can trust to stop if you ask, to go slow enough for you to take in the sensation and track your responses and edges, and who is there to give you something you want. You know sensation will stop of fade when you need it to and so have a freedom to experience it differently.

Let me put it in a sensual, but non-sexual context. When I studied deep tissue massage, I got to experience people digging in to just about every part of my body. Sometimes this caused pain, more pain than I had yet experienced at that point in my life. Strong fingers reaching in to get underneath your Achilles tendon – this is a special kind of pain, trust me. But I was never afraid, so I was able to feel the intensity, breathe, and open to it. And I knew that if it got too intense I could say, “stop” and it would. This ability to open to the sensation without fear blew my mind. And I learned to love the clear focus this provided me, totally in the moment, and the shift in my mood, energy, and awareness that came with it.

Some of you may have experiences of intense sensation that appeal to you, times when you could note the difference between fearful pain and exciting intensity. You may never choose to bring this into your sexual exploration, or maybe you will. Either way, maybe this understanding will help you be more aware of a range of sensation play, including pain, that can be available to each of us.


Passion Wanted, Apply Within

If you are like a lot of people, you want to know “What is the one thing people most want in a lover?”  So I will answer, based on the many hours I have spent as a sex therapist talking to people about their wishes and desires, and it may surprise you.

The most common thing I hear people wanting from a sex partner, of any gender variation, age, commitment history…, is for their partner to be enthusiastic and to want to be having sex with them. That’s right, enthusiasm, happy willingness, passion. Seems simple enough. We want to feel wanted. We want to share something with someone who is enjoying themselves. I hear many sexual details and accoutrements that people want as well, more anal, less anal, a spanking now and then, to keep the heels on …lots of variations of things that would be nice to try. But the foundational piece for most people is to feel that their partner is into it, into them, and happy to spend time being sexual together.

Sadly, there are lots of ways our individual enthusiasm for sex can wane. Dissatisfactions, arguments, frustrations, new body pains, exhaustion, shame, self doubt, and on and on. And lack of enthusiasm will kill passion in a relationship fast than anything else (unless you are with a bully and that is no good). These externals can decrease enthusiasm, sure. But truly, passion is an internal job.

You can find your passionate person inside at any point in life. It involves listening to yourself, feeling your body sensations, giving yourself time and space to relax and enjoy many aspects of life without rushing on to the next thing. It involves being curious and communicating your curiosity, ideas, fantasies, and discoveries, just to see where they might take you. It involves tending to what is inside of you, which is where you will find lots of important information, not least of which being - what excites you. Oh, and also important…clear out any old stuff telling you that you have to play it cool, that passion is disgraceful, that you should be ashamed to want. Clear it out! Make room to be passionate.

Then show it. This is key. Don t assume your partner knows you like that. Appreciate them by giving them some solid clues. You don’t have to perform porn style, just be genuinely enthusiastic. What might happen, is you turn yourself on even more. Enthusiasm feeds itself. Imagine with each touch and kiss and thrust, saying with your body (or your words, that’s fun too), “Yes”. That’s how your blow your lover’s mind. And your own.


Intimacy Does Not Equal Great Sex

 

It happened again. I was in a second session with a young couple who have been struggling with uncomfortable and dissatisfying sex together. They were confused by what was happening in their shared sexuality, as many couples are, and frustrated because they didn’t know how to fix it themselves. Then they told me that their last couple’s therapist had advised them that if they built enough intimacy and emotional closeness their sexual issues would “take care of themselves”. AHHHH!!! Let me explain why this makes my head explode.

 

First, you should know that many (most?) psychotherapists out there have very limited understanding of the amazing vastness of human sexuality. Also psychotherapists and the field of psychology have been victim and perpetrators of sexual discriminations and basic close-mindedness and puritanical values for years. This is horrible and I am striving to do my part to change this for the field. But the point is, it is not an uncommon stance in psychology to say attachment and intimacy = happy sexual compatibility. As a sex therapist who has helped many people navigate their own complicated sexual desire, I know this is simply not true. As a human being who has had my own journey with love and sex and human closeness, I know this is not true. So why are therapists still saying it?

 

To claim that intimacy automatically leads to sexual compatibility disregards several key aspects of sex – one, it presumes that everyone is generally turned on by anyone they form a close relationship to; an argument that I think can only be made in a blatantly heteronormative mainframe that disregards what we have learned and should understand about sexual orientation and the limits of our desire. We simply cannot force desire where there isn’t one and attempts to shift desire to an “appropriate” partner are often disastrous. Two, this argument conflates all variations of human closeness into romantic sexual partnership, something that may be entertaining on soap operas but is quite limiting in real life. I am close to many people, in many different ways, and I do not have sexual desire for many of them. In fact with many people I develop a closeness that negates any sexual feelings, when someone begins to feel like family or a sibling for example.

 

Third, saying that intimacy and emotional closeness leads to sexual satisfaction ignores the variations of desire and how important they can be to our happiness. Most therapists who encourage couples to ignore clear sexual incompatibilities expect their clients to eventually adhere to a basic vanilla sex life – great for some, but deeply dissatisfying for others. This model privileges loving, eye-gazing, comfortable sex over other forms of sexual expression and connection. Loving and trusting your partner doesn’t mean that you both are going to be into restraints or submission play. Loving and trusting your partner also doesn’t mean you can easily give those things up. And being able to deep conversations and feel intimate doesn’t necessarily mean you do a great job talking about the subtleties and emotional vulnerabilities of sex and what you want. Not to mention that the therapist in question may have their own squeamishness and resistances to talking about sexual details and would just like to lump it all into one vanilla blur.

 

The reason psychotherapists who equate intimacy with sex irritate me so much is that I can see how clients get shamed by this. They feel ashamed that their love is not enough to naturally give them satisfying sex. They feel ashamed because they have desires that their partner can’t fulfill and they are being told that is unimportant in the bigger picture of emotional closeness. They feel ashamed because they are made to doubt their own desires yet again. This is not fair. The bad news is not all people who love each other are going to be great sexual matches. There is still plenty to explore in how to be and stay in relationship within that reality, but you need a support person who will go into those intricacies with you. The good news is your desire for something different than someone else is not something you have to ignore. At least not with me.

 

What Do Humans Look Like?

 

I recently watched an old movie starring James Caan. Quite a manly man, he was clearly the rough and tough sex symbol for the movie. In it there is a scene in which he has his shirt off. This is a hairy man, chest hair, back hair, all displayed proudly as he cleans his manly wounds in the mirror, the camera inviting us to admire him, to desire him. What struck me as I was watching was that I will never see this in movies or TV now – body hair has become such a taboo, we just don’t see how a natural human body might look.

 

Whether you like body hair or not, I think it is important that we take a moment to acknowledge the path we are going down in censuring its existence out of our lives. An up and coming male actor now would have to wax his chest and back to even get an audition, much less a part. And a woman with any body hair at all – the horror! And what we see becomes more and more constrained to one version of the human body, an adapted, smooth, youthful image.

 

Body hair for humans is a sign that one had passed puberty and has the sexual maturity that implies. It protects our skin and genitals from the external environment. And it may collect scents that signal to our unconscious sexual desire and possibly even compatibility of a partner. Pubic hair for women can increase clitoral stimulation during intercourse as the light tugging on it spreads to the network of clitoral nerves under the surface of the skin.

 

Trends are one thing, they come and go and embrace variety and change from one generation to the next. But completely rewriting, or re-imaging, how humans look by erasing certain natural variations is something different. Already most children probably have no idea that women also grow hair on their legs and underarms; they just have never seen that represented. Before we surrender completely to a world in which hairless bodies are the only bodies we see or even imagine, we might want to remind ourselves that sexiness comes in all kinds of surprising packages. Viva la difference!

 

Just Sitting Here Wanting To Have Sex - Or Not

 

Desire can be a mysterious thing. We can’t simply conjure it or focus it exactly where we want it. Such that, many people feel confused and frustrated by their own desire levels or patterns. Now sex researcher and psychologist, Meredith Chivers has added some important research to the picture and a name for something many people never even knew they had – responsive desire.

 

The traditional model of sexual desire told us that we would all naturally walk around thinking about sex and wanting to have it – spontaneous desire. This version of the desire story requires very little external stimulation, it feels internally motivated or bodily motivated (being horny) and inspires a person to initiate or seek out sex, or at least be excited about it. Many of us have experienced this type or desire. This model of desire is “I want to have sex irregardless of my environment or current situation.”

 

Responsive desire, which Chivers research ascribes to women – although what I know about sex at this point, is that it would be silly of us to think that anything will remain in its neat little box of gender or whatever – is desire that is stirred by first getting sexually aroused. This type of desire is dependent on the environment and what is currently going on. This notion of desire really changes perspectives on “normal” desire patterns.  

 

To be clear, this is not another sex expert saying, “Hey, women need more foreplay to enjoy sex.” Hopefully we have already covered that. That enlightened notion is addressing arousal and the fact that women’s bodies have a fairly complex arousal system and it can take more time to get fully cooking, but has always assumed desire to have sex was already present. The conversation around responsive desire is that some women may not feel like having sex at all until they get started and begin to be physically aroused. Desire that follows arousal. That is a new perspective.

 

This does not mean that women should be pressured into having sex they don’t want because they will warm up to it! Actively not wanting sex is different than feeling neutral or ambivalent. It does mean that some women may want to experiment with going ahead with otherwise appealing sex with an appealing partner, even if they are not feeling super turned on by the idea at the moment because the desire may build with the physical arousal. And for people who are wanting to increase their desire for sex, many of them will be best served by increasing their exposure to arousing stimulation, erotica, massages, dancing close, kisses, porn, all kinds of sensual pleasure. Build pleasure and desire may come (not to get too Field of Dreams on you).

 

Responsive Desire is a bit tricky and we certainly have more to learn. It will require that we listen to the subtleties of wanting and openness to sex. But for anyone who has ever leaned back into the pillows to let the sweat dry and thought, “Wow, I didn’t think I was that into it before we started but I am so glad we did that! Why do I keep forgetting that I enjoy sex so much!”, Responsive desire may help you understand yourself a bit better.

 

Warning : Hazardous To Your Sex LIfe

 

I had a thought the other day – how many people in America right now have never sat and watched a sunrise or sunset? I’ll bet the number would make me sad.

 

I read recently that the Chinese pictograph for “busy” is made up of the characters for “heart” and “killing”. Take that in for a moment (if you have one to spare). At this point in time, in the culture I live in, I believe that the trance of busyness is one of the most hazardous things to a happy sex life. There is little space for our hearts to fill with wonder, for our bodies to rest and replenish, for our minds to clear, for our sexual energy to build. I see clients everyday who are exhausted, believing that the solution is adding more to their days. They look at me with hope that I can help them find a way to squeeze in some satisfying sex.

 

The thing is, most often, what needs to happen first is to really look at your daily schedules and get serious about what you truly want to be included in each day. There is a point where increasing our velocity is just not possible and adding one more thing to the “improve my life” list not feasible. But we are told again and again that there is more we should be doing, more we can be doing, more, more, more. And at some point, the only sane response is to reorient and say, “I can’t do it all”. This is not failure, this is sanity.

 

Do you want more sex in your life? Then you will need to make time to not only have sex but to allow yourself to be relaxed and happy enough to be inspired to have sex. You may have to make choices about what you no longer want to spend your time doing. Let some things go. Don’t let yourself forget that this is important. Rest is valuable. Spaciousness is invigorating. Connection requires being present to each other.

 

Contemplative Thomas Merton wrote, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” As you hear the siren song of “Do More”, be sure to ask yourself, “what might be harmed, in myself or my relationships or health, if I add this to my list. Some things that you want more of may come from doing less.

 

Talking Dirty

 

Have you tried talking dirty to a partner? Think of your imagination and your voice as fun sex toys that you always have with you, cost nothing, and don’t require a trip, virtual or otherwise, to the sex store. You just need to be brave enough to bring it out. If you are a little nervous to try, here are some tips:

 

Take a breath – You know that squeaky, croaky voice thing that happens when you seem to run out of air while talking – not sexy. Start by taking a slow breath, there is no rush. You will feel calmer and, as a bonus, no pubescent voice cracking. Oh, and laughter is a great way to get yourself breathing.

 

Picture it in your mind – Your words will come more easily and be more juicy if you let yourself form images in your mind. As they used to say in writing class, “no turn on for the writer, no turn on for the reader”, Wait, that wasn’t quite what they said…Well, anyway, use your imagination to turn yourself on and it will be more fun all around.

 

Try different perspectives – Some of you will love telling a sexy tale from a first person perspective, what you want to do to a partner, what you imagine being done to you. But some of you will have more fun talking about imaginary other people, which can go anywhere from what the naughty neighbors are doing next door to what Marie Antoinette got up to. I suggest you try shifting it up and see what stokes your fantasy creation best.

 

Do it in the dark – Phone sex works for people for a lot of reasons, but a major one is removing the pressure of being seen. Just letting yourself be a voice in the dark, lets you both close your eyes and indulge in imagining. No one can see you blush and you can still touch, get in close and whisper so your breath brushes your partner’s ears or neck.

 

Have a safe word – Yes, even for talking sexy it is good to have safe boundaries. Each of our fantasy realms are different with borders that are in scary territory for some people. If you really want to get into talk as turn-on, it can help to establish some turn-offs first. Get a sense of what is off limits (possibilities might be talking about people you actually know, adult/child scenes, violence or humiliation, describing your partner’s body as different than it actually is or…). People’s limits are different when it comes to fantasy, but we still have our limits. 

 

No pressure to do – Remember that just because you get hot thinking about it, that doesn’t mean you want to do it. Talk about this with your partner ahead of time so there is no misunderstanding. Fantasy is fantasy; part of the fun is to go out to the edges. Just promise to let them know what you DO want to actually do when that time comes. Maybe promise to tell them in exquisite detail…