In my work with women, there are some persistent themes, but the most persistent – and the saddest – is the belief of so many women that there’s something wrong with them.

That “wrongness” seems to originate with an awareness that our society’s idea of what heterosexual sex should be doesn’t wholly work for them.

they’re not that satisfied by intercourse some or all of the time

or with some or all of the other familiar sexual practices 

These women will often manifest strange phenomena during lovemaking. Their vaginal muscles might tighten up. They may get annoyed or agitated when their clitoris is touched. They may notice persistent feelings of irritation, frustration and resentment.

And they think that they just need to be touched differently. Or more ‘expertly’. Or slower. Or softer. For some women, that is what’s needed, but for others, that’s not it at all.

I now think that the problem lies with what we think sexuality is: that it’s physical, it’s an appetite, it’s natural. And that’s an idea that doesn’t work for many women, because it’s incomplete.

It’s sex as seen through the eyes of an intellectually challenged adolescent boy. Which sadly is getting more prevalent than ever, thanks to the ubiquity of internet porn.

In my embodiment work with women pre-lockdown, I thought that to connect with their sexuality, the most important thing was to create an atmosphere of safety, relaxation, connection and open, non goal orientated inquiry. If that could be achieved, then pleasurable sexuality would emerge naturally. And most of the time it did.

However, with a minority of clients, something else happened. Either the arousal would arise, but only up to a certain point, as if hitting a glass ceiling. Or alongside feelings of arousal would arise dissonant feelings like irritation or dissociation, which sabotaged it. Or, there seemed little response at all.

All this was doubly frustrating and disheartening for the women, because it seemed to replicate negative experiences they had had in their romantic relationships, which fed back into negative judgments of themselves.

When lockdown came along, I had to find alternative ways of working, and one of those was to run telephone or audio only Zoom sessions where my client was relaxed, usually blindfolded, and we worked with a concentrated focus on the breath and body, deepening the sense of the body, getting beyond appearances, how she thought she looked, and much more on what she felt. Having access to this internal world, it became obvious that the women I worked with in this way had very different ways of configuring and imagining it.

I realised that was the missing part that I had not understood before. I had not managed to satisfactorily engage with some of my clients in bodywork with them, because their sexuality was broader and more holistic than I had thought.

I list three of them here. Not because there are only three, obviously, but because I want to show that thinking of sexuality in these broader ways potentially frees the person from feelings of shame, inadequacy and failure. It gives them a sexual identity which belongs to them, and so gives the chance to articulate that. Critically to be able to say to herself, “I’m not broken, I’m unique“. And then to articulate that to others, making the creation of future sexual experiences which would deeply satisfying and meaningful a realistic possibility. “If I can explain me to me, then I can explain me to you”.

The World

In this perspective, rather than getting somewhere, the focus is on seeing, deepening and enlivening what is already here. If we pay careful attention, a world comes into view. If we just rest our hand on another person, for example, at first, all we will feel is surface. But after a little while, we start to experience the person in a different way. Specifically, the touch acquires depth. And with that depth comes enlivenment. Everything becomes more vivid. Not as something we need to acquire, to go towards, but as something which is always there, if we give attention to it. And with that enlivenment, the world of the body can also acquire texture and shape: mountains, rivers, flowers, birds, everything interacting, but with a sense of timelessness, or as if time has slowed down so much that it is as if the air has become thick and sweet. And out of that sense, without being willed, sexual arousal arises naturally, like a distant earthquake, gradually approaching. What is characteristic of this world is description.

The Ensemble

Here, there is a sense that the interior world, the world of the body and the imagination, contains a number of different characters, who interact together. Some of these characters may be parts of the body who can have a voice, and some may represent qualities, such as playfulness or courage. Some may represent people. These characters have the capacity to reflect upon themselves and this interior world, and change and develop. What is characteristic of this world is dialogue and changing perspectives.

The Magical Being

In this mode, the person often has a sense of switching genders in some way, of acquiring sexual traits which belong to the other gender, of making love to themselves or to someone very like them, and similar phenomena. This can often give rise to anxiety, because it seems so contrary to our usual way of seeing. Which is odd, because most of us would accept as a truism that we all have both feminine and masculine aspects. What is characteristic of this world is dynamic interplay.

 

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According to the NHS website, 1 in 6 women are affected by chronic pelvic pain. That’s an extraordinary statistic. A lot of the time, doctors can identify the cause. But that still leaves many many cases of unexplained, long term pain. And, you start to realise that quite a lot of ‘diagnoses’ of pelvic pain are nothing of the sort: often, ‘diagnoses’ of vaginismus or vulvodynia are just a description of how the patient is suffering, with no properly identified cause, and no effective treatment. If you had persistent headaches, it wouldn’t help if you were ‘diagnosed’ with ‘sore head syndrome’

 

Why isn’t this a national scandal?

 

What, if anything, can people like me do to help?

 

From my perspective, pain is a form of communication: it has an intelligence. This is obviously true when there is a clear cause of the pain. If I have a pain in my foot, I’m alerted to the possibility of something bad, a shard of glass being there, for example, and so can take steps to remove it. I imagine that’s uncontroversial.

 

But also, if the body is experiencing something it doesn’t like, it will communicate that in a number of ways. If, for instance, someone is acting sexually towards me, and I don’t like it, I will experience a number of emotions: fear, anger, disgust. But I may not be able to express these emotions, or expressing them may be ineffective, because of the situation. Perhaps the abuser is more powerful than me. So what does my body do then? Well, it might simply become numb. Or it might develop a pain response. So if, for instance, I don’t want to have sex with my partner but can’t say so, and feel I ought to want it, it might be the intelligent, albeit unconscious, choice to manifest pain. Then what I don’t want might not happen, and I won’t get blamed, or feel guilty.

 

Whether or not you think it absurd, it has been my actual experience in Bodywork that unexplained body pain is often layered. There is the pain, as it were, on the surface. But underneath that is very often something else, almost always a disagreeable emotion. And associated with that emotion is a story. And once all of that comes out, the pain sometimes goes away. But even if it doesn’t, the relationship with the pain changes. The sufferer sees that it’s an aspect of their intelligence, rather than a brute punisher. And that helps to restore autonomy and enquiry.

 

‘Anhedonia’ is the inability to feel pleasure. And I think that many of us have it, in the sense both that we lack a sense of ease and joy in our simple embodiment, and also that our ability to feel sexual joy – the sensation, the expression, the connection with another – is seriously compromised.

 

And, it is particularly present with people who feel chronic pelvic pain. The dial is set between neutral and painful. So, with Bodywork, if we can also find pleasure in the body, that again changes our sense of ourselves. We’re not a malfunctioning machine, but a human being, capable of feeling a whole range of things, good and bad. That restores our soul to us.

 

In my work, I find it helpful to designate three ways in which I work with the client. Two of these ways are familiar; Talking and Bodywork, but the third area I think is very important, particularly with clients who have suffered trauma or have difficulties engaging  with another. I call it the Experimental. Essentially, this is a mode where the client and I co-create relational exercises which emphasises connection, agency and self empowerment. I’ll write about this tripartite structure separately, but for present purposes, the Experimental mode puts the client in a more active – and activated – position.

 

So, we breathe and move vitality and choice back into the body, and with that, the possibility of pleasure experienced as dynamic and chosen, rather than the more simple receptivity of touch on the massage table. And again, that restores our soul to us. Why? Because we aren’t experiencing pleasure as something outside which is given to us, but something arising within us, in all its inarticulate intelligence.

 

Physical and emotional pleasure is a fundamental aspect of our dignity and joy as human beings. We all deserve – at least sometimes – to feel happy and brave and open and delighted. Although I’m a Sex Therapist, my work isn’t really about sex as such. It’s about attending to the obstacles we experience to happiness, joy and fulfillment. Chronic, unexplained pain is one of these obstacles. Let me see if I can help you.

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It’s one of the truisms of sexuality that women’s sexuality is elusive, and men’s is obvious. It’s obvious, because -presumably – an erection is conspicuously obvious. It’s obvious, because the point of an erection – surely –  is to ejaculate. So it’s ‘blindingly obvious’ that men’s sexuality is about ejaculation. And so from there, we imagine the penis to be in a somewhat detached relationship from the rest of the male body, stuck on at the pubic bone like volatile plasticine, with the scrotum underneath, and made up of two parts: the glands/head, where the action is, and the visible rest of it, which doesn’t seem to do or feel much.

 

Almost all of this isn’t true. Did you know, for instance, that one third of the penis isn’t visible? it isn’t hidden away in some mysterious place, it’s plainly there, but nobody talks about it. Specifically, it runs down the centre of the scrotum underneath the skin and attaches to the pelvic floor, and it’s very sensitive. But, it seems, nobody talks about it  because of the assumptions I’ve just detailed. Prior to tumescence, you can’t really feel it, and after tumescence, well, the circus has headed north.

 

Why does this matter?

 

If our focus is on (mistaken) anatomy rather than what we feel, we are much more inclined to dicotomise men and women’s experience. Or we are likely to seize upon mistaken analogies, thinking, for example, of the clitoris as being like the penis, rather than thinking of both as each being part of a much larger whole, which enables us to understand both sets of genital systems as being remarkably similar. Not in terms of appearance obviously, which is trivial, but in terms of what they can experience, because the nerve connections – what makes us feel what we feel – are essentially the same.

 

We are also in our assumptions very likely to think of male sexuality in binary terms: there’s either an exuberant tumescence or there isn’t, whereas if we expand the area of pleasure then we also – crucially – expand the palette of pleasure, which in turn integrates our sexuality both with our feelings, and also with the rest of our lives. The body is full of feeling: it’s not like a machine which is either turned on or off, there is a whole spectrum of feeling sensation. If men can be engaged with prostate pleasure, that obviously helps, because they can experience something happening to them internally, but without an expansion of pleasure into the whole area between the glands and the prostate, the man is like an anaesthetised person, who feels sensation in his head and his feet, but everywhere in between is numb.

In my work with women who want to learn how to touch men, I emphasise this largely unknown greater structure, and how a knowledge of how to touch all these areas opens a man up to whole areas of feeling which have little to do with whether he ejaculates or not. And that in turn changes sex from being about performance and orgasm to being about heartful connection.

In a limited field, I would strongly recommend you read a brilliant book about male anatomy by R. Louis Schultz: “Out In The Open – The Complete Male Pelvis”

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I talked to my Zen Group the other week about the language we use when we talk about the body. In that context, I noted that in ordinary language, we tend to use the word “body” to refer to the body below the neck, and the word “head” to refer to the neck (along some unspecified boundary) and above. And we identify ourselves with our ‘head’ rather than our ‘body’, viewing the body as a vehicle, or, better, a recalcitrant servant, who refuses to do what he’s told.

Until our body breaks down due to ill health or age, or both, the part of the body for which our servant is maximally unco-operative is usually our genitals, who resolutely won’t do what we wish them to do.

And so you come and see someone like me. But here’s the kicker: it’s not physical. Of course, I can teach you things which are helpful. If you’re a man, I can help you with premature ejaculation. If you’re a woman, I can help you with genital numbness. I can help with many concerns.

But just as a therapist can do something about your neurosis but can’t teach you spontaneity and joy, an approach solely based on the body – as we normally conceive it -has significant limitations.

It’s a wonderful thing to work with a client and get them into an orgasmic state, but something can still be missing. What is that something?

An example: Quite early on, I remember working with a woman and during the session, she became very orgasmic. After a while, this became too much for her, and she asked me to stop. She then just rested on the massage table. I understood that what was needed was for me to lie on the table with her, holding her. When we were talking after the session, she said “What was that amazing technique you were using?I felt so much?” I thought she was referring to the bodywork part of her session, but she corrected me and said, no, it was afterwards, when we were both lying on the table.

This is the amazing ‘technique’: connection, heartfulness, love.

Another time, I was working with a very sexually active man, who couldn’t get erect other than by progressively greater physical stimulus. A lot of people are like that. They touch themselves accidentally as children and get aroused, but over time the effect fades, so the touch has to be harder, faster, stronger, and eventually, it only gets you part of the way, and then, not at all.

I touched this man’s genitals as I would have touched a wounded person, forced into servitude and injured and hurt by that: touching with respect, enquiry, tenderness.

Each part of us is all of us.

Bear this in mind when you next read an article  about vaginal massage, or you read about techniques on how to be a better lover: it isn’t that it’s wrong, or not useful, but it’s incomplete.

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” The soul feels unsafe in a frightened body. The Bodywork is to breath courage into the frightened body, to restore pleasure and to make the body a home for the soul again”

(Mehdi  Yahya, with thanks to Caffyn Jesse)

The first time I came across trauma in a visceral way was about thirty years ago. I was a young lawyer. A client had just been telling me about appalling abuse she had suffered as a child, and suddenly became very upset. I reflexively put my hand on her hand to comfort her, and it was as if I’d given her an electric shock. I immediately withdrew my hand, unsure what to do.

When the body has experienced something which makes it feel radically unsafe, two responses to touch are common: startle and freeze.

It seemed obvious to me when I started out in this work that, in Bodywork, the key to untangling the trauma was to re-empower the body, to give it agency again. So, I would agree with the client exactly what we were going to do, maintain constant dialogue, tell the client what I was going to do before I did it, (and then, not to do it without specific consent), be very aware if the client was going to zone out, and so on.

I don’t think that working in this way is wrong, but I think it’s incomplete, because it places insufficient weight on relationship and active autonomy: the client doesn’t just need to reduce the grip of historically based fear, they need to actualise their capacity for active relationship and joy. There’s a difference between the body feeling safe and the body feeling pleasure, joy and connection. The first is necessary for the second, but not sufficient. I think I thought that if the body is free from fear, it will find its own way to joy, but I now think that isn’t necessarily so.

To this end, I’ve been working in a much more flexible, client-led, experimental way, enabling the client to decide when there’s contact and when there isn’t, and the form which that contact will take.

For example, the client might want to embrace, but feel anxious about what sort of touch they will receive. A way round this is to allow the client to lead the touch, and for the practitioner simply to mirror that, at first in the physical movements and then, as confidence builds, in the intent which informs the touch. The client is always in control, and can decide when they’ve had enough.

One client said to me that I was a surrogate. She didn’t mean that I was a sexual surrogate – I don’t have sex with clients or engage in sexual acts with them – but rather, in one of my modes of working,  I use my body and my intent for the benefit of the client. So, where a client’s body has been traumatised in an experience where they had no power, perhaps involving a man, that trauma can be gradually unravelled by an empowered and autonomous connection with me, and then the body, because it’s safe, can gradually feel pleasure and connection.

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How can we touch better? When I was a kid in the late sixties, watching Man From Uncle on the telly, the bit I liked best was Napoleon Solo going into an innocent looking basement shop in New York. He would casually press a few buttons on the back wall and then a door in the wall would open, revealing a completely different world.

Men are encouraged to believe that women’s sexuality is like that wall. All they need to do is find out where the buttons are, and they can be Napoleon Solo too.

So, they’re eagerly receptive for material that will enable them to make a woman ejaculate, or find their g spot, or their third gate.

I say they’re mistaken. Why?

Four reasons:

First, Touch which is future orientated isn’t good touch. If I’m touching you to produce an effect, you’re going to know that. If you sense me thinking “is she there yet?”, you won’t be able to relax. In fact, you may feel somewhat irritated. You may feel somewhat done to.

Second, there isn’t a secret inner world. Our eroticism is completely available to us, and those who love us. It isn’t hidden at all. There aren’t silos of pleasure in an otherwise numb world. The world of the body is completely alive. All of it.

Third, good touch is heartful, not technical. When people tell me they don’t know how they want to be touched, that arises from the deficient notion that touching is just something my body does to your body. But that’s not so. I touch you with my heart, through my body. If we can include the palette of emotions, touch is never repetitive, because it’s always expressing ourselves at this moment.

Look how animals are, how comfortable and easily affectionate they are with each other. Yes, we’re different because we have tools and artifacts and self consciousness, but our intimate connection with all beings remains. And those species developments needn’t determine our nature. When we’re assembling a watch we need to be technical. When we’re expressing ourselves, we don’t.

And lastly, we don’t want to be manipulated. We want to be adored. Lusted after. Be the ravished summer orchard for the hungry hordes. All that stuff:

simple

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Cuddle Party

How did you lose your virginity? What was it like?

I lost mine to a nice woman in HR at the office party when I was 25.  I was working in a huge antiquated office, like the House Of Usher. I worked up in an eyrie. She worked down in the basement with people who rarely saw the sun (it was Glasgow; few of us did). When I first saw her, I was holding a brass door handle, and my first idle thought was that someone must have wired it up as a practical joke, as I felt what I assumed was an electric shock.  Completely out of character, I took her by the hand and led her to one of the partner’s rooms, where we did the deed on an uncomfortable nylon carpet.

I suppose a lot of men have had similar experiences. It just comes as such a relief. You don’t assess the quality of the sex, you’re just glad to say to yourself you’re normal. Although in my case that would have been a bit of a stretch. For women on the other side, the experience can often be distinctly disheartening.

The funny thing was, that didn’t open up a path for me of carefree sexuality. I don’t think I had sex again for another 5 years, and this lingering sense of there being something wrong eventually took me into therapy when I was 29. The therapy itself didn’t do much, but suddenly, a year or so into the therapy, I suddenly started having sex with a lot of people, I assume to give me something to talk to my therapist about, who had significant shortcomings as a conversationalist.

Much later in my life, I became a somatic sex therapist. One of the reasons for this was that I didn’t want people to go through the many years of confusion and unhappiness I did. There isn’t much we can do about many aspects of the human condition: we get ill, we die, the people we love die, horrible things happen for no reason, but we can do something about sexual unhappiness. The tragedy is, we don’t know we can. But we can.

I started with my virginity recollection, firstly because I’m aware that many people’s reaction to the sex they’ve had is “Is that all there is?”. And also, that many of us have an anxiety or shame around sexuality which may stop us having any encounters at all.

I particularly want to work with people like that, because in helping them I also feel that I’m healing myself: my younger, frightened self.

And second, because the idea of “losing your virginity” has a particularly masculine perspective. I wonder if it might be more helpful to think of the significant, inaugural thing as being not the particular configuration of our body with another, but rather, the quality of what we feel.

Redefining the experience of ‘losing my virginity’

So: a modest proposal. Let’s re-define losing one’s virginity as having a significant body feeling in the presence of another. It may well be an orgasm, but it needn’t be. I may then have lost my virginity with the ‘electric shock’. You in a different way. So we’re all like a million spots of light in a dark erotic sky. And fuck normal.

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