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?
Ahhhh, that new love or lust feeling. The euphoria, the tingles, the butterflies, the nights you can stay up talking and making love, no need to sleep. The sense that you have met the One, that nothing else matters, that this is what you have been looking for.
Researcher Helen Fisher studied people in early stages of love and she found that the incredible rush of new love is reflected or created, depending on your philosophy, by shifts in our brain chemistry. That’s right we are actually experiencing changes in brain chemistry – increased dopamine and norephinephrine in particular. New relationships light up the pleasure centers of the brain, including what are known as the addiction-like drives in the brain meaning the drive to get MORE of that as soon as possible. These parts of our brains give us more energy, they can cause us to maintain focused attention and an intense yearning for the recent source of our pleasure. During this early phase of attraction people find that they need less sleep, have strong emotions, may experience intrusive thinking about the person they are drawn to, find it hard to focus on normal daily tasks, and have a heightened sex drive.
All of this allows us, and indeed encourages us, to form stronger attachments. It helps us to fall in love deeply and to place our attention and energy on nurturing a new relationship. However, this brain state also can cause us to see our new partner in a slightly imbalanced light. You know that feeling, when you adore everything about them, even their faults are quirky and adorable. You may also recognize the feeling that can come later when you wonder how you ever thought that habit was cute and the character traits that once charmed you now get on your last nerve. Also tricky, in new relationship energy we are so drawn to attach to this new partner that problems and conflicts may only serve to heighten our drive to be with them. Romeo and Juliet never got past new relationship energy.
So maybe new relationship energy is not in the best mind space for decision-making or long term planning. It is not crazy however. This phase of relationship is a gift, one that opens us up to another person in a way that is non-rational. But love and attachment are not at their foundation about reason. Still, reason and clear judgment are good for creating a life we can enjoy and feel good about. Helen Fisher’s research also found that at some point our brain activity changes again and we are better able to process our emotions and consider other important elements in our life again. We also lose that supernatural ability to go without sleep, have sex anywhere at any time, and to see our partner as perfection embodied. Oh well.
Don’t be afraid of new relationship energy, just be aware of it. Ride this wave and know you will eventually be back on shore, hopefully with a solid attachment to your new partner and also the ability to see the big picture.
Referenced : Fisher, Helen (2004) Why We Love : the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love
Compersion is a term used in the polyamory community meaning to be happy seeing or thinking about your partner getting sexual pleasure with someone else. This is a challenging concept for a lot of people and you may find you had an immediate – What?*%?? No Way! kind of response. That’s ok. Just stick with me for a moment to visit this idea.
We have accepted a cultural model that tells us that jealousy, especially sexual jealousy, is natural. Certainly for many of us jealousy has felt unavoidable and we see representations of it featured heavily in entertainment, music, reality TV. So it may be surprising to a lot of people to find that anthropologists have found many cultures, throughout history, where sexual jealousy was not common. In fact, in some communities people would consider a gesture of jealousy to be intrusive, unwelcome and disrespectful, rather than an act of love or passion as it is represented in our culture. Often these different mindsets seemed based around beliefs that sex is natural, love, affection, and sex are abundant and freely given, and that people are not in competition for limited resources or limited love.
So what if sexual jealousy is a learned mindset not a condition of being of human? What does that mean for you today? Well, maybe nothing.
Or maybe it means you get a bit curious about your own jealousy and where it comes from. Maybe you decide to explore the edges of jealousy and see if there are any shifts in how you feel. Maybe on the edges of your old jealousy there is room to be happy when your partner gets a lift from being flirted with at the coffee counter. Maybe there is room for looking forward to the nights your partner goes out dancing with friends and comes home filled up with sexy, playful energy from the full pulsing dancefloor. Maybe it becomes less scary to talk about your crushes or people you are attracted to or less painful to hear about past sexual relationships. Maybe you get more comfortable with your unexpected fantasies of seeing your partner play with someone else. And maybe the boundaries of your jealousy do not change at all, but maybe you have just explored them consciously a little more. Maybe you have more clarity about why your edges are there.
I believe it is good to know we have options. Compersion is an option. Knowing that other people experience compersion allows you to see that changing your relationship to jealousy is an option.
Ryan, C & Jetha, C. (2010) Sex at Dawn : How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships. New York :Harper Perennial.
So often we approach our relationship to our body from a place of judgment and striving. We look at our body from the perspective of an external critic – how does my body look, what size does it fit into, how is it performing? But our body has so much more to offer us, if we approach it with different eyes, a different mind. So today I invite you to approach your body more like a poet or like an adventurer of the senses. Explore your body in a new creative way. Believe that it really is worthy of odes, sonnets, time and attention. Think of this as an imaginative scavenger hunt…
What part of your body has the texture of a rose petal just unfurled? What place on your body crackles like lightening? Where are you cool and smooth like a pebble polished by river water? Where does your body flicker like beating wings? Where do you feel like a dandelion waiting for a breath to be blown apart? What part of your body could be best described as sweet like candy? What part of your body would be described as salty like the inside of a shell?
What kind of touch would polish your body to a shine like it was preparing a sacred altar? How would you touch yourself like a shadow of a cloud on a sunny day? How can you touch yourself like ice cream dripping down the side of a cone? What kind of touch feels like bubbling water in a fountain? If your touch left trails of colored paint on your body, what designs would you make?
What else do you find when you truly explore? Who do you want to share these discoveries with?
Take a moment to sit down and let your day and the to-do list fall away. Let yourself be aware of your body, all parts of it, from your head down to your hard working feet. As you allow you attention to settle briefly on each part of your body, notice how you feel when you notice each part. Now take a moment to place your attention on your genitals. Without censoring too much or trying too hard, let 3 words come to mind to describe your genitals. Write these words down and look at them for a moment How do you feel about the words you chose? What do they say about your relationship to your genitals? to your sexual body in general? Are there judgments in the words you chose? Do you want to change them?
Take a few more minutes with the words you chose themselves. Do they have other meanings or associations for you? What else would you describe using those words? What do they remind you of? You may even want to take some time to draw images to go with those words.
Now shift you attention to your genitals again. Let that part of you body receive your full attention for a moment. I know this will seem wacky, but go with me here...Write a letter from your genitals to yourself. What would this incredible part of your body want to say to you? What would your genitals say about how you have taken care of them? What would they ask from you in taking care of them in the future? What do they want you to know about your self and your sexuality?
This can be a surprising and enlightening exercise, and it can bring up painful feelings and thoughts about our natural bodies. Remember that we can change, we can unfold new elements of our selves. Seek support if this feels overwhelming or daunting. It is never to late to have a different relationship with your body.
Recently there was a tiny article in the news about a middle school principal banning girls from wearing strapless dresses to the school dance because they “distract boys”. Parents at the school are protesting and I think they should, for several reasons. I also think this story says a lot about the ways we as a society go wrong in addressing adolescent sexuality.
First question of course is – what are the boys supposed to be focusing on at a school dance? I mean truly, what are they distracted from that is so important? Should they be finely honing their dance moves? Memorizing song lyrics? Part of what is maddening about this story, is that the principal seems to have missed the point of a school dance in the first place. We are supposed to be distracted by our fellow students, we are supposed to learn to dance and flirt and get flustered by mutual and not so mutual attractions. This is not about troublesome distractions, this is about pretending that adolescents are not going to actually be interested in each other’s bodies or sex.
The next piece of this that disturbs me is this: if boys are not supposed to be distracted in this way, how will they ever learn to handle the sexual distractions that are around them all the time? I believe that one of the important tasks we (all of us, boy and girls) are to learn in adolescence is how to handle our own sexual energy and desires, while respecting others boundaries and appropriate social settings. Even if adults could manage to create an environment in which teenage boys were not distracted by people they were attracted to, who would this serve? Certainly not their future partners. Not the boys themselves. We need to learn that our sexual energy and desire is not an overwhelming force over which we have no control. We have to learn to be distracted and still function. And we have to learn to not blame our distraction on the externals, other people, cute girls, etc, but to own that we have choices in the way we behave and to some extent in where we focus our mind and thoughts.
And then there is the piece that many parents at this school complained about, which is the implication that girls, by the way they dress, behave, look, should mediate the boys’ sexuality. This is a dangerous implication that has shown its ugly head in rape cases and sexual harassment cases for years. If only women can carry the burden of repressing our sexual natures, then we would be safe from the consequences, and perhaps the freedoms, of sexuality. This outdated sexist model has got to go. Now.
We are all responsible for our own sexual behaviors. It can be a challenge sometimes, no doubt. We are surrounded by a big juicy, sexy world with lots of distractions. Learning how to navigate in that world is valuable and we need to support kids, and adults, in how to do that with grace, respect, and also excitement and passion. Invite sexual distraction – without it the world would be a much less alive place.
I got to go and see Natalie Goldberg speak recently. She is a teacher and artist who has linked creative writing into a Zen practice. Her guidance has been a gift to writers around the world who need to be reminded to just sit down and write, to release editing and judgment, and to actually observe the world around you and write what is present and real to you.
She said something about the concept of having a “practice” that really struck a bell inside of me. She said the Zen concept of having a practice is not about improving. You actually don’t sit down to practice to get better. It is not about striving to be at the next level. You practice because you committed to practice. She said – and this really shook me – you practice to just feel and be where you are NOW because you believe what you are doing is valuable in itself. I started thinking about all the things I had been encouraged to practice throughout my life and how it always seemed that the reason I was doing it was so that I would get better. And I thought about the pressure of that kind of practice and how it so often stopped me from really appreciating and settling in to what I was doing at the moment.
It is the American way to strive. We are a self-improvement minded (some could say obsessed) nation. We are rarely encouraged to do something just for fun anymore; things almost always have to include a reason why something is good for us. We are a country of people who deeply believe we can and should do better.
What does this have to do with sex? Well, I was thinking about this constant focus on doing better, doing more, reaching the next level and I realized this is something people do to their sexuality as well. If the expectation is that our sex lives – with one partner, multiple partners or ourselves - will get progressively hotter, more intense, with better performances each time, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Even worse though, if we are focusing on taking it to some new level, we are often missing what is actually happening in the moment. “Practicing” so we can perform better can take us away from pleasure. Sometimes it could be helpful to just have the sex we are actually having in an awake and accepting frame of mind.
We are not taught to think in terms of “good enough” in America. And some of you are probably feeling a bit betrayed for me to even suggest that we not strive for better sex all of the time. To be clear, I think people’s sex lives can get more and more satisfying as we grow and I think we can try new things, learn new skills, and have more fun and more orgasms. I wouldn’t be in the field unless I believed in those things. However, I also believe that a lot of people are dismissing good sexual experiences because they think they should be having some other kind of sexual experience. And a lot of couples feel like they are failing because they haven’t tried something new lately. So how about this as an experiment – What if you approached sex and/or masturbation like a zen-practice just one time? Make a commitment to be present for it, to let go of trying to increase the velocity or intensity, to really try and be aware of where you are at that time. What if you engaged in sex this one time because you believe it is important and valuable, even if it never reaches some new level? What if you believed that the sexual experience, just as you are having it, had something valuable to show you?
A common confession/concern that people share with me at public talks, usually talking in a hushed voice, is this, “I had the most amazing lover but for various reasons we broke up. How do I enjoy sex now after being with someone so good? I feel like the best sex of my life is behind me”. I have a lot of compassion for the yearning and nostalgia in this question. Sexual memories can be incredibly precious and they also make us want more – more of that passion, pleasure, closeness, riskiness, whatever felt magical in that moment.
The sad thing is that we have been taught to think about sex this way, as something that someone does to us or for us. We have been given the idea of the “great lover” who can play our bodies like an instrument and single-handedly (although most likely utilizing both hands, I would guess) creating an amazing sex experience. Now I agree, there are people that have sexual presence, sexual intelligence and, yes, sexual skills. And it can be really fun to share a sexual experience with these people. However, a good sexual experience between two or more people is co-created. We have to give ourselves credit – “wow, I had this amazing sexual relationship and learned new things about my body and pleasure. Now I am sexually on fire and know what I want and desire”.
So how do you enjoy sex now, after the best sex ever? Not by recreating it or giving all the credit to your past lover. You enjoy sex now by owning your part in the pleasure you have. You introduce new partners to your body, saying what you like and what feels good. You let fantasies feed you and you also let yourself be open to new surprises. But most of all, you look to yourself – who were you when you were with that past partner? How did you interact – were you more free, more naughty, more trusting? Did you express yourself in a new way? Did you move differently? Did you stop critiquing and give yourself over to the experience since you believed they would make it good? Do those things now, with new lovers. Practice by yourself by remembering what it was like and focusing on you. Bring that side of you to sex in the future. It may take time to open up to new partners; it may even feel awkward at first. But the best sex you ever had was when you became the person having mindblowing sex. That person is still there. It was your creation, not a past lover’s.