A tattooed sex therapist from one of the most liberal towns in California meets a group of African priests and nuns…does this sound like a set up for a SNL skit? Actually tomorrow I travel to Kenya to do just that. I am meeting a dedicated group of nuns and priests who have been training for 8 months to provide psycho-spiritual counseling to fellow clergy throughout Africa. And we are going to talk about sex.
Sex is more than the behaviors someone enjoys. It is easy to disregard that in our focus on who does what, with whom, and how often. Researching celibacy, as I prepare to work with this group of people committed to celibate life, has taken me back to the roots of sexuality in a sense. It has reminded me that our primary sexual relationship is the one we have with ourselves, full of desires and sensations, longing to connect, fears, physical hungers, questions. Even without actively engaging sexually, we all have full and complex internal sex lives. And we have since we were born.
So can celibacy and sex therapy go together? I believe they can, and should. Sex therapy can allow someone to be more aware of their sexual energy as it moves and changes. It can reduce shame about being a sexual being so that a person has more energy to focus on utilizing sexual energy in a positive way in line with their perspective. It can deepen the conversation with our body and open new possibilities for responding to excitement or discomfort. It can reduce denial and therefore empower future actions. It can allow us to incorporate sexuality into the bigger picture of who a person is and wants to be.
I’ll admit I hadn’t given much thought to celibacy as an aspect of sexuality. I am very happy I have been invited to do so now and look forward to learning more from my students in Kenya. I honor that ultimately a healthy sex life is one in which each person feels they can make choices that are right for them, defined by their own integrity. The richness of any of those life choices comes from being aware and awake to oneself, day by day. There is always so much to learn.
What would the media like us to believe about women’s sexual confidence? I see a lot of messaging out there designed to convince us that American women are getting more and more sexually bold, empowered, and creative. Call it the Sex & the City affect or the Miley Cyrus affect, if you like. What we see are stories about how we are increasingly more sexually liberated and daring. We see feminist empowerment portrayed as the right to be unabashedly sexy (you can twerk if you want to!). But, in reality, for many people these public displays of sex seem to be making them feel more inhibited rather than less.
Take for example a recent comparison of sex questionnaires, from 2 very mainstream media publications, Glamour and Mademoiselle, looking at people’s answers from 1993 and 2013. Sure, there was some great news about women receiving more oral sex than before and more women have used a sex toy. But it also showed that 48% of the women questioned felt that men enjoy sex more than women, a sharp rise from the 33% who said that in 1993. So, all the talk about women’s increasing sexual ownership and desire are not translating to people’s actual bedrooms. And here is one potential reason, the surveys also showed that 73% of women now said that they would enjoy sex more if they lost weight! This number is staggeringly sad on its own, but even more dismaying in relation to the survey results from 1993 in which only 39% of women said this. Suggesting, in relation to body image empowerment is declining.
It is a good thing to like the way you look and to feel comfortable in your own body. But let’s be clear, there is not a lot that 20 extra pounds of fat can do to decrease your sexual pleasure – except for what your mind does with it. Sure being obese may limit some positions. Being out of shape may limit your endurance. But sex can still be fun. Orgasms will still feel good. And, the part that is clearly the hardest for people to accept – your partner can still desire you, think you are hot, and enjoy the privilege of interacting with your body. The fact that so many women are linking weight loss to their ability to enjoy sex speaks to the cruelty and arbitrariness of our minds. You can decide that you only have the right to enjoy sultry, uninhibited sex if you look like an airbrushed advertisement. You can turn off desire by allowing critical voices free rein in your head. You can doubt your partner’s touch or belittle their passion while with you. You can hold out for impossible standards while your body does its natural thing and ages. But it is such a waste.
I share with the mass media a desire to tell a story of sexual liberation. I just acknowledge that there is still a battle people need to fight in their own minds to really liberate themselves, and so many of us are losing it. And the cost is denying something that is natural, that we don’t have to purchase or earn, that always belongs to us – the pleasure our body can take in sexual stimulation.
Does this topic hit a nerve? Consider joining Melissa’s upcoming women’s group, Aligning With Your Body
While holding a pose in yoga class, time stretching out, muscles quivering, I heard my yoga teacher say, “It takes a lot of courage to be still”. Now, she was talking about physical stillness and staying at the limit of your stretch and the strength it can require to not move out of the sensation, to not run away or say, “I’ve had enough”. But of course I thought about the clients and the people I know who sometimes succumb to the self doubt that comes with those moments in life of being still.
Much of our life is structured around the next steps. We go from grade to grade, we go from promotion to promotion. We are expected to go from dating to going steady, to engaged to married, parenthood...We learn to take comfort in knowing the next step, the thing we are supposed to be working toward. So what happens when there is no next step, when instead there is satisfaction? Rather than a happy sigh of relief, many people feel a gnawing sense of disquiet. How can it be ok to relate to friends, “not much has changed, thanks for asking”? Status quo happiness can make us very uncomfortable.
During this post holiday time when your life and schedule return to normal, it can be great to challenge yourself to notice how you respond to stillness in your life. If you focused a little less on changing or progressing would there be more time for enjoying? Does stillness gets labeled as boredom or laziness? What do you do when the project becomes maintaining what is working? Do you ever feel like you have to have something to fix or that you are yearning for the excitement that comes from disrupting the stable? How do you register growth without external milestones?
In long term relationships there will be times of relative stillness. Times when there is little to report, no status updates to be made. In some ways, happy relationships are fairly private because there seems like there is not much to say. “We are great, happy”. It might be interesting to develop new ways to talk about being deeply satisfied. Maybe let a slow and genuine smile communicate for you. Life will be full of change again, no doubt. There will be times when you will have to strive for change, where there are clear mile-markers to hit as you go. If for the moment you are still and content, have the courage to be still and see what subtle lessons are there for you.