One of the conspicuous disadvantages to our peculiarly limited notion that heterosexual sex is – other than appetisers- orgasm focused  intercourse is that it frequently places women in a double bind.

 

That bind is something like:

 

“ He always wants to enter me before I’m ready. Knowing that means I can’t relax, because I know that anything else we’re doing, no matter if I like it or not, is a warmup for intercourse. And once that starts, I can’t relax into the experience, because I’m always monitoring myself to see if I’m going to orgasm, because if I don’t, he’ll be disappointed”

 

And even in self pleasuring, those ideas come into play, because they’re so pervasive. So, you might be having a nice experience, get aroused, have a clitoral orgasm, then be disappointed when your vagina is resistant, or unresponsive, and think there might be something wrong with you.

 

The upshot is that the vagina is often thought of in negative terms:

 

  • It’s resistant
  • It’s not experiencing what it should be experiencing
  • Touch there is uncomfortable rather than joyful
  • There is  something wrong with me

 

Everyone gangs up against the vagina. It’s like a door that won’t open properly, or a surly, unco-operative underling : if only it would do what it’s supposed to do!

 

Underling? Well, ok…What about changing “it” to “she”:

 

“If only she’d do what she’s supposed to do!”

 

Which leads to

 

“ If only she’d want to do what she’s supposed to do!”

 

Then, perhaps to

 

“ What does she want to do?”

 

Which changes everything. If we stop thinking of the vagina as a ‘something’ which, inexplicably, isn’t working as it should, to thinking of her as a person, that changes everything. Why?

 

Because it makes touch relational. It makes touch like a dialogue, or like a dance, rather than someone trying to get a machine to start, if only they could press the right button. And because it’s relational, it can bring up all the past experience of touch, the hurt and disappointment that might be a part of that,  to be expressed then let go.

 

From my perspective, we carry all our experience in our body. So, the body is always expecting the next thing that it’s used to. If that next thing isn’t welcome, then relaxed, responsive, present focused pleasure is impossible. So, what’s required is to recover the sovereignty of the body, so nothing happens which you don’t want, and nothing continues which you don’t like. Then the body can relax into the present. That’s really what my work is about. So, intimate touch isn’t your body being touched, it’s you being touched, through your body. And then, all the distinctions fall away, because being touched anywhere is being touched everywhere.

 

How do people like myself work with clients who have sexual issues?

 

It’s an important point, because until it’s clarified, many people who would benefit from working with a sexuality professional are unlikely to seriously consider it.

 

My guess is that most people can’t imagine the ways of working with a sex therapist like me: is it talking? Are they naked? Will I be touching their genitals? Am I teaching them how to touch their own, or their partner’s genitals? Will it be safe?   

 

All of these things may happen, but apart from the first (and the last – safety is my number one concern), they aren’t a major part of my work. To understand why that is so, I need to explain my perspective.

 

The more I work with clients, the more I am confirmed in my belief that most people are in a state of chronic tension, which is a major obstacle to them feeling the moment to moment, pleasurable aliveness of their bodies.

 

This chronic tension leaves them, unsurprisingly, with a limited, tension based view of sexuality: it’s about the genitals, it’s about performance and it’s about release. Somehow being able to temporarily ignore the chronic and general habitual tension through tension-based sexual activity, later discharged through orgasm, leading to an all too fleeting sense of relaxation and release.

 

In contrast, I believe that sexuality is all about relaxation, not tension. It’s not about fixing anything. It’s coming to understand how we block our own aliveness. When we relax, we can feel the pleasurable, responsive aliveness of the body, and when we can feel that, then more identifiably sexual feelings arise naturally.

 

So for me, the critical question with a client is: how can I help them relax?

 

Well firstly, through agency and choice. When I do Bodywork with a client, I ask them where they want to be touched. I tell them they can wear as much or as little clothing as they wish. I explain I am happy to touch them over their clothes, or over a blanket, or under a blanket. If the client is sensitive about their body being seen, I am happy to work with my eyes closed, or the lights off, or wearing an eye mask. The point is: they choose. That’s vitally important. Unless the client is empowered, we can’t go anywhere.

 

Second, I make it clear that I am in responsive service to the client. They decide where the touch is to go, and how that touch should be. We maintain a dialogue. We’re connected.

 

Here’s the thing: when clients feel relaxed and embodied and connected, very often, to their surprise, sexual feelings arise. They are both relaxed and aroused, which feels unusual at first, but which, after a while, is wonderful.

 

Sometimes, the client will have experienced trauma, which makes touch quite problematic, or it may be problematic for other reasons. In those cases, I encourage the client to freely experiment with me to find a way forward. One client found being touched while she was lying down quite triggering, so we experimented with other forms of touch: embracing at her request, dancing, and other relationally focused forms which proved empowering and enlivening for her.

 

And with the bulk of clients, there isn’t genital touch at all. It’s true that some clients wish to explore genital sensation, but most don’t feel it’s necessary, because they understand that what was really necessary was getting back in touch with their bodies. And once they did, the problems disappeared.

 

I have a very specific perspective on bodywork. I don’t touch the body. I touch the person, through the body. Each part is the whole. And, I don’t believe the body to be passive. I believe that wherever the body is touched, that part enters into a sort of unfolding dialogue with the touch, gradually uncovering layers: layers of tension and relaxation, layers of emotion, layers of memory. And because I believe this, I expect this. And so, it can happen.

 

So, working with me isn’t about me fixing you, but about you changing your perspective, and becoming more embodied.

 

Embodiment, Agency, Connection: it changes everything.

 

(Transcript of my talk at the CCA, Glasgow, 23/11/19, as part of The Glasgow Sex Lectures)

 

I have an unusual background for someone working in the field of sexuality: I was a divorce lawyer for more than 30 years. My office was about 800 yards from here.

 

In Scotland, you need to give a reason to get a divorce. You either need to have been living apart for a minimum period, or there needs to be behavioural grounds; essentially adultery or unreasonable behaviour: violence, drunkenness, general craziness. So we’d always need to establish that before going on to arguing about the house, or the money, or the children.

 

Once we had our reason for the breakdown, we didn’t need to enquire further.

 

But it became clear to me after a while that the behaviour we said caused the marriage to break down was – generally speaking – not the cause, but the consequence. The marriage had already broken down, due to something else.

 

And that something else was, almost always, the collapse in sexual intimacy between the partners. It was as if a mass of termites had eaten away the heart of the building, leaving the structure standing, but empty. And when one of the partners slammed the door on the way out, the whole structure collapsed. And often, with the other partner left inside, in turn collapsing into depression, alcoholism, loneliness.

 

Sometimes, rather than come to a divorce lawyer like me, the couple would seek marriage guidance counselling, or therapy. The main organisation in this field is Relate. What happens there?

 

Well, the clue is in the name. Although not explicitly stated, there is an assumption that if there are sexual issues in a relationship, then the cause of that must be something else, because sex is a natural urge, like hunger. Natural, and physical. So, you identify and resolve the non sexual issues in the relationship which are the cause, and sex will resume.

 

They will give you exercises in sensate focus, where you are encouraged to do non sexual but intimate things together, like massage. This may work sometimes, but often it doesn’t, because generally held notions of what sex is, and what it’s for, aren’t challenged.

 

This idea of sex being natural is often attached to a wistful nostalgia: how do you rekindle the flame? How do you get the magic back? 

 

That’s suspicious, because in  that regard, our intimate relationships are an anomaly. We don’t, for instance, wish long lasting friendships to become like they were when we first met.

 

I need to say this plainly: We’re wrong.

 

 Sex isn’t a natural urge, whatever that means, and our ideas about what sex is aren’t natural either. They are highly artificial and tightly constricted, almost as if the purpose is to cause the maximum amount of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

 

Psychotherapists aren’t allowed to touch their clients. But there is an emerging field of professionally trained people where touch is central, and one of the disciplines in that field is Sexological Bodywork, in which I trained in 2015, along with two of the other speakers tonight.

 

I first got involved in the field of sexuality in 2004, with the great tantra teacher Hilly Spenceley, the founder of Shakti Tantra and worked with a number of the tantra and sexuality schools in this country: Quodoushka, The Human Awareness Institute and others, so by the time I trained in Sexological Bodywork, I had a lot of knowledge and experience.

 

 But what I didn’t have was an overarching perspective, and specifically one which enabled me to work with couples, until I came across Donald  Mosher.

 

Mosher’s idea is simple but revolutionary: our normal understanding of sex is only one of three modes of sex. He calls these three modes Trance, Partner Engagement and Play.

 

What we generally think of as sex is the second one, Partner Engagement. It’s what I describe as Hollywood Sex: the partners are very engaged with each other, The sex is very connecting, orgasm is the goal, simultaneous orgasm the ideal. That’s what people think good sex is. Except, they’re not getting it. Everyone else is getting steak and chips, and they’re just getting a pie. The same pie, on the same plate. No wonder they want to tuck into someone else.

 

Consider the other two:

 

Trance is where you’re really absorbed in your own experience. The world drops away. Time disappears. You are totally relaxed and present. Except, if you think that sex is The Hollywood Model, you’ll think you’re being selfish. You’ll think you’re taking too much time. You’ll think you have to keep showing your appreciation. You’re thinking what you need to give in return. If you’re the giver and you don’t understand Trance, you’ll think your partner is bored.

 

Play is as it suggests: it’s role play, BDSM, power play, fantasy.

 

Hollywood Sex is like a romantic meal in a friendly restaurant. Trance is like a meal for connoisseurs: you want to savour the foie gras, not reassure the anxious waiter about the great service. Play is a custard pie fight. In costume.

 

Taking Mosher’s idea transformed my work with couples. I now understood that I could best work with couples in three interacting ways: embodiment, communication and variety.

 

Embodiment is the most important. Each partner needs to regain a sense of themselves as a sovereign sexual being. Often, the soft animal of the body is pinned beneath the concrete block of expectation and its twin, resentment. So I work with the body to reawaken and to free it, so the person can understand their range and capacity for pleasure and sensation.

 

And what I also do is to expand the sense of what is possible. When people say that they don’t know what they want, or they don’t want anything, that often means they don’t know what’s possible. They think it’s choosing between being touched in a particular way. But our body isn’t just the body of our flesh: it’s also the body of our dreams, of our memories, of our associations. So, I also encourage people to expand into these realms by asking

 

I would like you to touch me like….. you were saying goodbye to me

I would like you to touch me as if….. you were an angel, incarnated in a human body for the first time.

 

Understanding their own pleasure palette, I then teach the partners how to communicate, primarily using Betty Martin’s Wheel Of Consent. Michael, one of the other speakers tonight and I both did her Inaugural Practitioner Training, and he will speak on The Wheel in his talk, so I don’t need to speak about it here.

 

The third is Variety, the antidote to boredom and repetition.  Quodoushka, one of the tantra schools I mentioned earlier, has a concept called The Wheel Of Sexuality. The Wheel is like a compass.

 

. Each point of the compass marks a different region of sexuality. So, for instance, South is Innocence, West is Body, North is Agreement and East is Spirit. And there are the midpoints too. So NE is energetic practices, NW is power, SW is risk and SE is normal Sex. Normal for you.

 

And combining this with Mosher enables me to create an almost endless series of embodied exercises personal to the couple, which expand their ideas of what sex can be, redresses imbalances and, most importantly, gets them away from an unbalanced focus on intercourse and orgasm. 

 

For better or worse, we have built our society on the foundation of enduring sexual love. But we do little or nothing to nurture that, and the price is paid in diminished, unhappy lives for the partners involved.

 

And also by their children, who carry it on, like a dark stain that can never be entirely washed off.

 

If we were to change this, then we need to agree that couples need to be supported in their sexuality. Not to wait until they are at daggers drawn, because it’s too late by then, but as part of their ongoing relation and expansion. The way out of mediocre sex, which morphs to bad sex then no sex isn’t to freshen up the punchline, but to expand the language. It isn’t to burn down the restaurant and dine elsewhere. It isn’t even to replace the chef. It’s to learn how to cook yourself and your partner into something delicious, and always new. Bon appetit. 

 

 

 

It’s estimated that 1% of the population is asexual. ‘Asexuality’ is defined as the absence of sexual attraction to other people. How can a Somatic sex therapist help?

 

Firstly, by recognising that asexuality is a specific, legitimate orientation. It doesn’t mean that the asexual person is traumatised, or confused, or incomplete. Each of us is entitled to define our own identity.

 

Within that acceptance, which is counter to so many of the lazy assumptions of society, exploration can take place, free from the expectations of other people, and all the performative expectations of society.

 

Second, being asexual doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have sexual feelings. You may have, or you may not. Bodywork is a brilliant way to clarify and explore this, without pressure, and in an open spirit of acceptance, respect and enquiry.

 

Sexual attraction is a social construct. As the song goes: “One enchanted evening, you may see a stranger. You may see a stranger, across a crowded room. And somehow you know. You know even then..”

 

But what if we never have?  We might imagine we’re not sexual beings.  But what if we’re mistaken?

 

There is a set of related metaphors for sexual attraction and sexuality that is very powerful, because it’s never challenged.  It’s the idea that sexuality is like a hunger or [to mix it a bit] like a pressure cooker, or like a compulsion.  But -again – what if you’ve never felt like that?  Does that mean – heaven forfend – that you’re not ‘normal’?

 

Our society privileges relational sexuality, and reserves the winner’s plinth for romantic love,which in turn is thought of as centred on sexual intercourse and orgasm, but that’s not the only sexuality. There are at least two other kinds.

 

One other type of sexuality is trance. We are just very focused on what we are feeling. It isn’t relational, even if what we are feeling is brought about by touch from another. In a way, it’s our original sexuality, before we get attached to “what does this mean?” and “what am I supposed to do?”

 

Another type of sexuality is role play. The classic example is BDSM, where a lot of the activity doesn’t appear sexual at all, although it clearly is, but, really, it can be anything.

 

In the safe, boundaried and loving space provided by a Somatic sex therapist, these things can be tried out. You can get away from the need to conform to what you understand you should be, and explore the full field of who you are. And it’s really important to have that opportunity, free from the pressure and expectation of having to be ‘normal’

 

If you’re interested in reading further about Asexuality, ‘The Invisible Orientation’ by Julie Sondra Decker is a good place to start.

One of the clients I found most challenging when I started as a sex coach was a delightful young woman with cerebral palsy.  Let’s call her Rachel.

 

The challenge was threefold.

 

Firstly, there was a change in the normal way of setting up the contract.  I was contacted not by her, but by one of her carers, who sent me an email, as Rachel couldn’t type.  We set up a telephone call with the three of us (I’d normally have met up for a preliminary chat, but Rachel lived in Bolton, and I only visit the NW sporadically), and most of the conversation was with the carer, as Rachel seemed shy.

 

So, that was very unusual.  Normally the contact is just with the client, and it felt weird to have another person involved.

 

Second, because I try my best to be scrupulous about what I offer and what we agree to do each session, I really prefer to meet.  If that isn’t possible, I send a very detailed email outlining what we have discussed and agreed to do in the session.  But here, my correspondent wasn’t my client but her carer, so I was concerned that I would be going into a session without clear agreement.  What if her carer was doing something of her own bat, or was in some other way not acting in good faith?

 

And third, I was painfully aware that I hadn’t worked with a person with disabilities before, and I wouldn’t really know the extent of her disability until we met for our session.

 

In all of this, I was aware that I was reflecting some of the discomfort that our culture has with sex and disability.  The assumptions, often completely unconscious, that we have, include:

 

  • the unexamined idea that people with disabilities don’t have the same sexual needs as the rest of us

 

  • then the related idea that, somehow, the disabled are like children, and so, by extension, anyone like myself seeking to address their sexual needs is akin to a pedophile

 

  • and the strong idea that sexual matters should be private, and natural

 

Having at least some awareness of this reactivity, I tried to keep at the forefront of my mind, that I needed to see the person, not the disability.

 

Rachel had never had a sexual experience with a man, and this is what she wanted to explore.  The people around her were overwhelmingly female. She had a lot of experience of being ‘done to’ but none of receiving pleasure collaboratively and in dialogue.  So I decided that was where we would start.

 

I would have preferred if she had been able to make specific requests for our session, but as she didn’t – or, more probably, couldn’t.  So I structured the session by asking her permission each step of the way.  “Can I touch your face?”  “What does that touch feel like?”  “How could it be better?”  “This is what firmer/softer/slower/faster feels like, which do you prefer?”, and so on.  Sometimes, particularly for women, this dialogue can be annoying, as it can take them out of their felt experience, but here it felt absolutely the right thing to do.

 

It was necessarily slow, and in that slowness, a confident sexual person could gradually emerge.

 

It was a lovely session.

 

Where to go for sex and disability support

 

Rachel contacted me through a colleague in Liverpool who works with the Outsiders Trust (www.outsiders.org.uk).  They do wonderful work for people with disabilities. They offer a Facebook Clubhouse, local meet-ups and lunches, group chats and a Sex and Disability Helpline.  They also offer access to a wide range of therapists and workers in the sexual field.  More power to them!