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.
cue sound of storm outside....
I love this time of year. I like to be scared, in that mostly safe kind of way. I cannot stop smiling as I make my way through haunted houses and plot for months on how to creep the trick-or-treaters out. But that is me. Creepy horror movies are not for everyone. I have friends who do not find glimpsing my life-size rubber zombie baby behind a door funny at all.
But maybe this season’s spookiness is actually doing us a favor. Studies have found that our libidos apparently do enjoy a little scare. A study done in the 1970s by Arthur Aron & Don Dutton found that mild risky situations make men feel more attracted to a female stranger. Online games or scary movies that have mild stress involved give us boosts of both adrenaline and endorphins. The enthusiasm and focus of adrenaline and the pleasure–taking relaxation of endorphins seem like a good mix for sex drive, right? And in fact, this chemical release can boost sex drive and increase arousal and put many of us in the mood. We, humans, have a history of blending the thrills of scary stories and the thrills of sex- from the original tragedies in Greece featuring gouging out eyeballs and other punishments, to the private boxes at the turn of the century horror theater the Grand Guignol, to the monster movies of the drive-ins.
Then we must consider the simple benefits of huddling together on the couch, clutching each other in scary moments, the close contact of hiding your face in someone’s chest. Oh, and in the category of random facts --- apparently 83% of Americans rated rainy nights the best time to have sex (Trojan’s Degrees of Pleasure Study (2010) so enjoy the creepy sound of the storm outside. Why not let the excitement of the season stoke your arousal.
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?
Do you feel changed by another person’s sexual energy or by interactions with past partners? Sometimes I hear people use language about their sexual experiences like, “I gave it up” or “I feel dirty from having sex with him/her”. What would this mean to you? What are you giving the other person when you are sexual with them? What part of yourself are you sharing? Do you believe something changes in you or about you after being sexual with someone? What about when you are sexual with yourself, masturbating and/or fantasizing?
How can you find your own baseline or ground after being sexual with someone else? If people are attracted to you or have sexual thoughts about you, can you stand your ground and feel confident in your own ability to choose to engage or not? Or do you feel swayed by others sexual desire to a point where it is hard to keep track of yourself? If someone else wants you, do you feel obligated or infringed upon? On the other hand, do you feel that you are only desirable when you are being desired by someone else? Is your sexuality based on reacting or responding to your partners? Truly claiming your body and your sexuality can mean separating what is your energy and desire from what is someone else’s. It can be filling yourself with your own vibrant energy so that you can actively meet someone else’s energy without being overwhelmed by it. It is knowing what you want. Think of a time when your sexuality felt truly self motivated; what was that like for you?
I invite you to journal about these questions. There is no right or wrong answer to come to, but it is valuable to see clearly how you feel about these things. These are great topics to explore in therapy too. If you are a Northern Californian local, you can come see me in my private practice in Capitola, CA. If you are in another area, you can reach out to me for referrals.