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!
One sexual question for lesbian couples is whether or not to incorporate penetration into their sexual play. This can become a couple’s issue, and sometimes a focus in sex therapy, if one person likes penetration and the other finds it upsetting.
Part of what we want to unpack with these couples is - what does a desire for penetration mean? Many times I find that the partner who doesn’t like penetration is worried that her partner is not happy or satisfied with her body, which does not have a penis to provide penetration. The desire for penetration gets conflated with a desire for men, or a penis. So the first thing to address is sexual identity being different than a list of preferred sexual activities. Craving a feeling of fullness in the vagina, g-spot stimulation, pressure against sensitive vaginal walls, none of these imply a sexual orientation or an attraction to one type of person. After all there are many hetero women out there who do not find penetration to be the thing that gets them off. And there are many lesbian, or other-identified lovers of women, who do. So letting enjoyment of penetration be a sexual attribute rather than a defining feature of sexual orientation is important.
Secondly we want to talk about options for penetrative play. For some lesbian women, a strap on and thrusting style penetration is just too reminiscent of hetero-play and it is a turn-off. But there are lots of other ways to include penetration (for all couples). There are ball style toys that can be inserted and provide internal pressure which can be exciting, but don’t resemble a penis. Toys designed for g-spot stimulation are different than a traditional dildo and can be used with your hand or inserted and then intensified by rocking hips or rubbing against a partner. Of course fingers or hands are great for penetration and can be combined with vibrators, tongues, etc.
As usual, the key is communication. If one person likes something that the other person is uncomfortable with, talk about it. What makes it uncomfortable? What makes it hot for the other person? Go slow and stay connected while you try new things. There are lots of ways to pleasure someone and they have chosen to try them with you. Cheers to that!
Imagine for a moment that when you grew up you went to worship in a place that had on its walls images of people engaging in sex acts, humans with humans, humans with deities, all depicted as sacred.
Imagine being taught in your temple or church that the gift of sexual pleasure is something to be honored and that learning to pleasure your partner is an important adult responsibility.
Imagine in studying your sacred text you openly discussed the section that uses sexual desire and expression as a metaphor for love between humans and God.
Imagine it being common for spaces of worship to have statues and icons of human bodies with exaggerated genitals and breasts, to be celebrated and honored.
Imagine if your worship included dancing - real sweaty, hip shaking, undulating dancing - and your grandma, your baby cousin, and your priest were all there dancing and sweating next to you.
Now I am not suggesting that it should have been this way for you. Each person’s connection to their religious or spiritual practice is unique. And I am not suggesting that these are cultural models that are better than others, I believe life is too complicated to make sweeping statements like that. But these are models that exist and I think it is valuable to consider different perspectives and how they might impact us and our beliefs about our sexual selves. What it might have been like to have your sexuality interconnected with the sacred? Is this something you can imagine? Is it something you want?
Many of us have experienced a disconnection between the body and its sexuality and the spiritual and sacred. And of course, many of us have been wounded by expressions of faith that exclude or deny realities of sexuality. Many people are trying to find ways to reconnect those elements of life. Some people have had transcendent moments while being sexual that have surprised them, moments of feeling deeply connected to something bigger than themselves. Some have felt awe for the human body and for the depth of desire. Some are yearning for something different, even if it is just in the way we feel and experience our self. In yearning, I think it is helpful to engage with wondering. What if? What if I saw this differently? Can I be curious about how other people see it? So what if you let yourself imagine, not to find an answer but just to open up the questions and possibilities? What might that open up in you?
Blondes, Brunettes, Gingers. Bears, Twinks, Dykes, Femmes. Clean Cut, Thick, Skinny, BBW, MILFs, GILFs, Androgynous. Many of us find ourselves drawn sexually to a particular look in partners. Luckily human tastes vary greatly so truly everyone will have a few admirers. But still, the concept of a type can make people uncomfortable. Is it ok to have a type? What does desire consist of? When does a type become a fetish? What about love, can it overcome a type, should it?
It’s probably pretty uncommon for someone to really not have a type at all. If asked to imagine a fantasy partner most people will have some set of attributes that frequently come to mind. But many of us have also found ourselves attracted to someone that at first glance we might not have thought would draw us in and our desire patterns shifted to include this person, maybe the way they move, or smell, or the way we feel when we are with them. There are so many components to desire; it is rare that it can be defined clearly.
And how we become attracted to the people or characteristics we are attracted to is largely a mystery. There are elements that are innate to us, elements that may be based on early memories, partners who imprinted us with positive or negative feelings, tendencies to be attracted to difference or to the familiar, all kinds of factors. It may be important to ask ourselves about our types to clarify if they are based on stereotypes about character –which may largely turn out to not be true about individuals. If you are drawn to bad boys because you think they will show you a secret soft side or asian women because in your fantasies they are submissive, you are probably in for some frustration and some angry partners. The fantasies themselves are not a problem, so long as you are aware that real people in the real world may not play these fantasies out just the way you imagined it.
And what if you have a distinctive feature that some people are searching out sexually? Does that change the nature of how you think of their bond with you? For example, if you are visibly disabled, there are people who specifically are looking for disabled partners. Does this feel ok to you? How do you assess if someone is fetishing an element of your look or body? Would you feel differently if the person is looking specifically for someone with large breasts? Why or why not? I believe some of our concern about distinctive types that people may be drawn to is based in discrimination against variations to the “normal” sexual model. If a big beautiful woman wonders how anyone can be attracted to her because she believes she is not the right kind of sexy, then she will question partners who openly seek out women with large bodies.
But even if we have come to peace with our own characteristics that people see initially, not many people want to feel that their partner picked them strictly for a physical characteristic, especially for one they have no control over. And some of these attributes we may age out of or may change over the course of our life. So people looking for long-term partnerships may be worried that sexual desire will disappear with changes in the way they look. We want people to be strongly attracted to us sexually, to love our attributes, but we also want to be seen as unique. Some flexibility in our attraction patterns will probably serve us well. Fine tuning our ability to recognize our own signs of physical desire is important too and may allow us to be surprised about who or what turns us on. So many beautiful people out there, keep your eyes and mind open.
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.
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?
The other day I was sitting at a food stand waiting for my lunch, when a little boy came up to show me his superhero outfit. It was quite nice and so I appreciated it, watched him run up and down a ramp superhero fast. He let me know right away however that he was not a superhero, he was just a boy. Followed by, “I am a boy, not a girl”. His mom seemed a bit embarrassed about this and she said, almost apologetically, that she wasn’t sure why but he had been stating this lately – that he is a boy and not a girl.
As someone who has studied developmental psychology, I knew right away why he has been saying this lately and it is not necessarily that he had been getting any external pressure or flack about gender roles. He was probably about 4 or 5, exactly the age when our minds are rapidly figuring out how to be safe and competent in the world around us. One of the first ways it does this is to categorize. Our minds ability to put things into categories quickly is a critical survival mechanism, and one we share with animals although our categories go much wider. We need to remember quickly how to assess edible/not edible, friend/foe, safe/dangerous. As this little guy showed, we also assess for other categories, adult/child, superhero/regular human, girl/boy. So a focus on binary categories at pre-school age is very common. It is not a sign of future discrimination or rigid thinking. It is a way this little human is trying to protect himself, where do I fit in? What is expected of me? What can and can’t I do?
What is not normal or necessary is to expect ourselves to stay in this categorizing mindset. As we grow and develop we are able to expand containers of categories, add new and more complex options, and even to see and think outside these boxes all together. Even at 5 years old, children are able to grasp diversity within people and things. They can understand that the categories don’t always fit neatly, just as they can understand and are actively learning that the rules are different in different settings. They get exposed to people and things that contradict what they learned before and their definitions and options expand. The human mind is able to contain vast diversity, almost unlimited options – just as humanity does. So why are we so often relying on old containers that we could have outgrown in elementary school? Why are we still talking about people as though there are only two options for gender? Why is our language for the way we represent who we are still limited to “I am a boy, I am not a girl”? Why don’t we use the full limits of our minds more often?
So I appreciate the developmental place this little boy (self identified) was in. I see how we need to think this way for a period of time as we grow. But I also look forward to the time when he is able and encouraged to think outside those boxes. When he realizes he can define himself in any number of ways - maybe he needs to make up a new word to fully represent a gender or other aspects of who he is. I look forward to the time we all can do this. Who knows, maybe he will also figure out soon the ways in which he can be a superhero while also just a boy.