(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. 

 

I gave a brief Introduction yesterday to The Wheel Of Consent for Glasgow’s Embodiment Circle. This is a lovely group of practitioners who are all concerned with the body, in its widest sense. So, we had a shiatsu practitioner, a qi gong teacher, a contact improvisation teacher, amongst others.

it was a chance for me to try things out for the two daylong workshops I’m giving at The Wee Retreat in November: a day long Wheel Of Consent Workshop on 16 November, and a workshop for Couples, which I’m running with my friend and fellow Sex Coach Alison Pilling on 24 November, who will be in Glasgow anyway to compère The Glasgow Sex Lectures at the CCA the previous evening.

One of the fundamentals of The Wheel Of Consent is an exercise called a The Three Minute Game. In this game, people pair up, and take turns to ask the other a question. This question is either:

”How would you like to touch me?”

or

”How would you like to be touched?”

The other then answers the question by saying, for example “ I’d like to stroke your hair”, and, subject to clarification and – critically: it is The Wheel Of Consent – informed by a consent which is positive, enthusiastic, in the moment and readily withdraw-able, the participants then engage in this for three minutes, then swop over.

The game is simplicity itself, but it’s also very deep. It challenges us to say what we actually want, rather than say what we ought to want, or what we feel won’t upset the other person, or what we feel is appropriate, because we can have confidence that the other person will say no if they can’t give their enthusiastic consent, and will tell us when that consent lapses.

But here’s the thing: what we ask for is obviously restricted to what we think is possible to ask for, and that in turn is restricted by limiting ideas that we have about what touch is and what it’s for, and more generally, what the body is, and what it’s for.

Something which Alison and I will do in our workshop for Couples is try to teach how to expand our touch vocabulary. We will talk about how to touch with different parts of the body ( the hair, the fingernails, the palm of the hand and so on), how to touch with a particular intention (nurturing, seductive, enquiring etc) and various other things, but I’ve recently come to think that there’s something more fundamental: when we restrict touch to being about body sensation alone ( and hence regard the body as being a kind of sensation machine) we miss something absolutely fundamental, not just in our intimate lives, but everywhere: the body is the soul. What I mean by that is that our body, all of it, is the repository of our dreams, our images, our feelings, our imaginings: everything. And touch is – or should be – one of the gateways to this vast world. And when we restrict our idea of touch to physical sensation alone, that’s when people sometimes go blank, claiming not to know what they want.

When I was working with Caffyn Jesse in Belfast the other week, it was clear – and this is one of the reasons why I’m so drawn to her work – that she’s had similar ideas, as one of her suggestions in a touch based exercise we were doing was for the person choosing touch to be able to say-

Touch me like-

Touch me as if-

You see the difference? It introduces infinite scope. I can ask for you to touch my cheek like an exultation of starlings. I could ask you to touch my chest as if you were a rhino proceeding carefully across thin ice. I can ask you to touch me like an alien incarnated in a body for the first time. I can ask you to touch me as if I am your mother, that you are seeing for the last time. Infinite.

I’ll explore these ideas further in the November workshops. If you’d like to explore them with me, come along.

Photo at station

Well, let’s ask a different question: if you were completely safe and completely honoured, what would you choose to explore?

Some people want to explore what it’s like just to rest in receiving, with no obligation to reciprocate.

Others feel disembodied, or only partially embodied, and want to explore the full range of their potential for bodily pleasure and sensation.

Some people want to recover a sense of themselves as sexual beings which they feel they’ve lost, perhaps due to having been in a long relationship, or having become a mother.

Others need help in opening themselves up to sexuality, perhaps because of difficult experiences when young, or significant life changes.

Some people find that sex therapy which is just talking isn’t enough for them.

Some people want to broaden their sense of what is possible.

Some people want to learn how to say yes, and how to say no. How to find out what they want, and how to ask for it.

Some people just want to talk, and not be judged.

My training is unusual, and broad. I have been immersed in tantra for 15 years with Shakti Tantra. I have trained in Sexological Bodywork. I have trained extensively in The Wheel Of Consent and other modalities. I am a practicing Buddhist who views sexual issues as a major part of avoidable unhappiness, and who treats his clients from a position of respect, empowerment and love.

I understand it is a big ask to step into this arena, and I am committed to try to make it easier. I am always happy to meet potential clients for a free and confidential discussion, without obligation, to see if we can fruitfully work together, or to have a Skype or telephone discussion.

As part of my psychotherapy training, I did a placement at the Tom Allen Centre in Glasgow.

One of my clients there was a man -let’s call him Nigel – with quite a few problems, among which was impotence. By the time I encountered him, he had been in therapy, off and on, for over 30 years. He was still my client when my placement ended.

I bumped into him on the train some time later, and I asked him if he was still going to Tom Allen. He told me it had closed down.

It hadn’t, so I imagined that he wasn’t able to go there anymore, and that a reason for that could be that the predominantly female therapists there felt uncomfortable with a man talking over his sexual issues. The shame he had was unlikely to be helped by their awkwardness.

Nigel’s 30 years of psychotherapy had not been of much use in helping him around his impotence issue. And neither had the doctors, who, when he was young, told him there was nothing wrong with him, and when he was older, that nothing could be done.

If Sexological Bodywork had existed when Nigel was younger, I think it likely that there would have been a different outcome, for several reasons.

The obvious one is that we are happy to work with the body. Particularly with sexual issues, it’s frequently futile to try to fix the body with the mind. You fix the body with the body, giving it different experiences to, in time, replace the earlier, traumatic ones.

The more subtle one is that we are happy to talk about all aspects of sex: how it is for the client, their experiences, their fears; everything. And also, to give information. To explain to people how their bodies work, to demonstrate that bodily and then explain to them how the bodies of others work.  It’s like the difference between telling some one about a day at the beach and actually being there yourself.

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!

In a recent blog, I talked about one way of opening out and revitalizing sexual fantasies, but there are other ways too.

 

One is a technique I learned from a wonderful friend and fellow practitioner in London, called Consensual Non Consent. It’s consensual because you agree boundaries with your partner beforehand, and you agree a safe word. If either of you don’t want to carry on, you say the safe word, and the game ends.

 

You work with a partner, and you take turns to imagine a scenario. In this scenario, one of you, the dominant one, has a sexual intent towards the other, but the other, the submissive one, is not (apparently) aware of it. The scenario is time limited and is relatively short. Ten minutes is a good length. You do this for ten minutes then switch roles.

 

You can imagine the type of thing. It might be a policeman, conducting an interrogation. Or a bossy doctor at a school medical examination. Or a Queen with a bracing sense of entitlement.

 

Adapted, it is a great addition to the possibilities a sex coach can offer.

 

And obviously, if I’m working with a client, we’re working solely with the client’s fantasies.

 

What scenarios would you have? If you were to imagine it for a moment, what would that be?  Would you be the ‘victim’ or the ‘perpetrator’? Would you be interested in trying both sides, or do you definitely prefer one role rather than the other one? What would the atmosphere be like in your scenario?

 

What’s the point?  Well, it’s expanding the field of sexual possibility, obviously, and it’s really helpful for people to get into their sense of playfulness, to lift the dead hand of puritan literalism and to lighten things up.  But the main thing is to try to find where the sexual charge is for you. For some people, it’s in the domination. For other people, it’s in the submission. But usually, it’s not quite as simple as that. What kind of domination works for you? What kind of submission? What feelings are brought out? It’s very illuminating.

 

Kink

 

You can see this kind of thing as an aspect of Kink. For most people, Kink means BDSM, which in turn means visions of ferrety men with bottomless leather trousers, people being spanked or whipped, and so on. For some people, this physical BDSM is fantastic, but for others, it has no charge at all, and seems formulaic and dull.  I’m in the latter camp.  I didn’t realize the field was much wider until I chanced upon Rose and Thorn, run by the wonderful Shakti Tantra, which is a kind of smorgasbord of kink. They give you a taster of everything.  I was unmoved by all the spanky stuff, but I really loved fantasy and role-play.  It was so sexy and such fun.

 

We are often stuck with one particular perspective with our sexuality.  A dominant attitude at the present time is for us is to think of sex as recreational.  So if we are given another perspective, say that sex can be devotional or spiritual, we might think that risible. But if we are just trapped at one or two points on the wheel of sexuality, it becomes boring and repetitive.  I’ll write more about the wheel of sexuality in due course.

One of the very best ways to explore any aspect of your sex life is away from the pressure of being with a partner.

The experience of discussing and exploring sex in an environment where you will never be judged – and where you have nothing to prove – can be transformative. All of a sudden, nothing is a taboo subject. Anything you felt you were fated to face alone can be shared with someone who can offer you expert guidance.

A world of possibility

With a coach, you can explore your peak sexual experiences and your anxieties, and understand them better. There is a whole world of possibility when it comes to sex. For your own body, and in your connections with other people. You get a safe space where you can just be curious.

A sex coach is not there to turn you on, or to give you something that you’re familiar with. It’s not a purchase. Sex coaching is not about relief or gratification per se. And it isn’t about the way you feel about your sex coach.

It’s about the way you feel about yourself.

Sex can be many different things to many different people. But learning about what we truly want from sex, learning how to communicate, learning what our partners want from sex, can be a liberating, life changing process. Sex coaching can be the catalyst that opens up a world of possibility and pleasure, as well as a fuller understanding of ourself and our joy.

If you Google anything to do with couples, you’re very likely to get Relate. They must spend a fortune on Internet advertising.

 

What you’re very likely to get at Relate is exercises in sensate focus. You may be encouraged to engage in some sensual activity with your partner – massage for example. And the idea is that you completely concentrate on what you’re doing and feeling, you don’t fret about whether or not you’re going to have sex. You just try and bring yourself back into your actual body experience.

 

The problem is, it often tends not to work. Couples often aren’t very interested in doing the exercises, and assume there’s nothing else that can be done for them.

 

We have a different approach.

 

Firstly, we think that over time, couples tend to get into a bit of a tangle. They tend to want to try and please each other. They aren’t in the habit of having conversations about what they want or like, and they very often confuse giving and taking.

 

Desire can be clearly explored

 

We work so that desire can be clearly explored and then spoken about, because that’s the starting point. What you would like to do? What you would like to have done to you?

 

Second, we think that couples need to rediscover themselves as sexual and sensual beings. So exploring your senses is a good place to start. But if you start with your partner, it’s difficult to be aware of what you feel, because your concerns and anxieties about your relationship tend to overwhelm what your body is feeling.

 

For both of these reasons, we will often start our work with couples with us giving erotic massage, as you can then become familiar with your pleasure again – people often don’t know and can’t say what they want – and then move onto untangling the intimate language of the relationship: how to give, how to receive, how to express what you want, how to say yes and no, and so on.

 

Couples who love each other, but who have got into a bit of a block and want to address that: you are our ideal clients.

Why choose sex coaching?

Why do people choose sex coaching to support their relationships? It may not be what you think. In our experience people often decide to explore their sex lives because they find they are dissatisfied or uncomfortable with an area of their life that they value. But for others it is just because they want more fun and play and new ideas.

Many people, like the two of us, go through different phases in their sex lives. Like all aspects of life there can be highs, lows and sometimes, just indifference! Life shifts like the pressures of a new baby, challenging work. Even weight gain and loss can change our feelings about our bodies and how much time and energy we have to give to them.

Reduce suffering in our lives through our bodies

Shouldn’t sex enhance our relationships? We are born with this capacity for pleasure and erotic tenderness and yet how often it can just feel out of reach. For John and me, the easiest place to reduce suffering in our lives is through our bodies. Our experience is that the body is the only place where life is actually lived, not in the imaginings of our minds. Because our bodies are our own, they are one place where we can choose to make changes that have an immediate impact.

We feel passionate about the simple routes to pleasure that can be opened up with appreciation and acceptance, of our own bodies and of our partners’. Our agenda is to support people who want to be free of assumptions and expectations of what sex ‘ought’ to feel like or ‘should’ accomplish. Instead of what you think is happening, what is happening? How can you shift your attention to expand your connection and pleasure?

Noticing feeling

So often people come to us with unrealistic beliefs that everyone else is enjoying an incredible sexual relationship that is being denied to them. Sometimes this is due to lack of confidence in their skills or way of communicating. At other times it is due to past experiences, physical issues or habits that undermine their pleasure. Often though, people seem to have wildly inflated assumptions about what ‘normal’ standards of sexual relating must be. Instead of noticing what feeling is available to them people are focused on what is not apparently happening. This way lies misery!

So a good starting place for exploring sexual relating is by focusing on the body’s sensations. Healthy sexual relationship is not about changing our minds but changing our experiences by paying attention to our bodies. If this sounds true to you why not take 5 minutes every day to really listen to your body. It could be in the bath or shower or slowing down to feel the air on your skin during a walk. Just starting to pay attention to your body can pay dividends down the line when you want to feel more satisfaction in intimate moments.