The Vagina Does Not Exist

(the transcript of my talk at The Manchester Sex Lectures, 26/10/22)


My first zen teacher looked at me and asked “ What is it that lifts up the world? What stops it from collapsing?”


I couldn’t answer him. I have never been able to answer him.


I’m a Somatic Sex Therapist and Tantra practitioner, based in Glasgow. I work primarily with women and couples. 


I’m the co-founder of The School Of Conscious Touch, which teaches people how to work professionally with sexuality in a way which is heartful and authentic to their nature.


So what’s with the title ‘ The vagina does not exist’? 


If you’re a man, you might say “Of course the vagina exists. I know where the G spot is”


 If you’re a woman, you might say “ When I’m having sex with a guy, it seems the vagina is often the only thing that exists. Not my vulva. Not the rest of my body”


But what if I’m serious? Then you’ll think “I’m not giving  my money to this guy for his so-called ‘training’.


You’ll think “He’s like someone who knocks on my door one winter evening, interrupting the telly, wild eyed, telling me the Earth is flat. 


And it’s true. I’m going to tell you that the Earth is flat.


That you think the Earth is flat


That you think the vagina does not exist.


Close your eyes. Imagine a vast magnificent palace, filled with space and light. Its walls are made of silk. There are multitudes of people, but they are still. Intricate and beautiful sounds fill the tremulous air. There are wonderful and vast tapestries. When looked at, or touched, they change and deepen. Everything pulses in vividness. You hear, at the limit of your hearing, voices, not yet discernible in meaning.


‘The Imaginal Realm’ was a term coined by the French thinker Henri Corbin. He created it because he wanted to distinguish it from the imaginary, the imagination. It wasn’t some subjective mental state. It was a real and important part of human existence.


He was an Islamic scholar, so his interest was primarily in religious visions, but I think the Imaginal Realm applies to all aspects of our lives, including the sexual.


It is the flesh of the world. It brings together that which language separates. If it disappears, the world is just stuff: stuff to know, stuff to use.


It’s real. Not in the way this lectern is real, but in the way that love is real.


Everything that can be expressed is real.


What is it that lifts the world up? What stops it from collapsing?


When I started to work with women, I noticed they would usually explain their issue in terms of arousal, or more usually, lack of arousal. 


And they’d explain their experience with me in the same language of arousal. 


They’d say that I was the only person who had found their G spot, even if I had been nowhere near it. And by ‘arousal’ they meant, ‘If you keep doing that, I’m going to have an orgasm’. 


The funny thing is, the word ‘arousal’ has only had this sexual connotation since around 1900, a year after Freud wrote The Interpretation Of Dreams. Before that, it had the more general meaning ‘to waken up’. To rouse myself from a dream, or to be aroused from it. And if I was aroused, I could experience everything. But from this point on, arousal

 was about orgasm. And this contraction of our sexuality around a biological model, a quasi machine of needs and drives, was the logical endpoint of the Enlightenment, which shattered the wholeness of Being into bite sized chunks.


– bite sized in more ways than one – 


 And which banished the Imaginal from the world. 


We’ve remained in Freud’s dream – or nightmare – ever since.


Arousal, in the narrow modern sense of sexual arousal, is almost always how both men and women talk, and think, because that’s how the culture talks and thinks. And this ‘Arousal’ has the sole destination, achieved or not, of orgasm. Any train we get on goes to the same place. It’s just a pity it keeps breaking down.


All this follows the classic pattern of taking Male experience, simplifying it to the point of idiocy, applying it to women then blaming and pathologizing them when they fall short. And – the brilliant thing – getting women to think there’s something wrong with them.


It is as if a demon caught the fourteen year old Freud masturbating, and cast those teenage boy assumptions, like a shroud, over all the generations.


 It blocks the light.


And in my tantric work, for the first ten years, I was caught up in a tacit understanding that arousal leading to orgasm was the point of women’s sexuality work with me, because that was generally how they’d frame it. They’d not had an orgasm, or not for a long time, and wanted to have one.  I’d be better than the guy impatiently fumbling around in the dark for the magic button of the G spot, like a drunk trying to find his keys. 


Find their keys.


Different in quality, but not in aim.


But my experience – not my thinking, that came later – my experience gradually changed.


Specifically, I started to notice a lot of things that I couldn’t fit within the framework of arousal. Rather than encountering the vagina as a something to be done-to, I started to see it as a someone, or, more precisely, as someones, a multitude of persons – the multitude in the palace – each with their own intelligence, their own wish to be seen, to express, to experience, to share, to change, to live.


And sometimes, in a complementary way, I experienced the vagina like a continually transforming landscape – the tapestries in the palace –  each form giving way to something deeper.


In Sexological Bodywork, we were taught that the body existed in two states, the unaroused and the aroused, but my experience was that the body was fluid, it had an infinity of states.


If I’d taken those experiences seriously, I’d have noticed a similarity with what other tantra practitioners had said to me when I worked with them; something like:


I felt arousal rising in me, and it was like a fork in the road. I had the choice of letting that become fully sexual, going on to orgasm, or going in a different direction’


But, I thought my experiences were peculiar to me, and I tended to disregard them. I didn’t ask what the ‘different direction’ was. I didn’t ask what the ‘fork in the road’ was.


What lifts up the world? What stops it from collapsing?


Earlier this year, in a kind of miracle, I was contacted by Scotland’s most experienced tantra practitioner, Lynn Paterson, who wanted to form a small group of tantra people to meet regularly, exchange and share. There were only three of us at first. There’s more now.


And that changed everything.


 I could no longer dismiss my experiences, or what the person experiencing touch had said, as ‘subjective’, because they were common to the three of us. 


So for example, after one of our sessions, the person being touched wrote:


“I realised during our last session that there’s no going back. I had awakening after awakening. Release and purging that left me in bed for days. I had the deepest meditations I’ve ever experienced. I’ve met my archetypal femininity. My desire to be worshipped in the tray of my hips was realised. For the walls of my dark caves to be massaged while I crawl through them in my mind. I approached the altar of my cervix and lifted the veil to converse with pure energy, and free fall into the limitless void of infinite possibilities, without fear. Stable but with no solid ground. Beyond that, I cannot explain”


The Imaginal is the flesh of the world.


Alongside this, I helped form The School Of Conscious Touch. This was the brainchild of Katrina Clark, a sexuality practitioner in Aberdeen. Kat is a warm, intuitive and mature practitioner with a particular expertise in the menopause. My deepening alliance with her has been tremendously helpful in giving me confidence that these experiences aren’t just subjective whimsy on my part, they reveal something important.


And one day Kat told me her view that a woman has two bodies: the sexual body and the erotic body.


The sexual body is our usual understanding. There’s genital arousal, it builds, it’s primarily energetic, it leads to orgasm and discharge.


The erotic body is different. It’s  the fork in the road. This often involves powerful and vivid visions, feelings of dynamic wholeness within the self and between the self and the world, energy fields reaching beyond the physical body, and spiritual insight.


And a few days after she told me this, it all came together.


“What is it that lifts up the world? What stops it from collapsing? Into data? Into manipulation?


I had never been able to answer this. 


Until now.


Suddenly, I was able to see how the Erotic Body mapped onto the aliveness of the world, which vividly came into view. The world wasn’t lumps of stuff for my use: everything was expressing and exerting itself, in a dynamic alive whole.


Sexuality wasn’t about feeling one thing. It was about feeling everything.


Feeling with everything.


What conclusions can we draw from this?


The narrow one is that our orgasm focused approach to sex is not optimal – to put it mildly – for many women. The Erotic Body and The Sexual Body are not separate. They blend into one another. The palace has many doors. If one is stuck, another is available.


 You’re not broken just because you can’t fit yourself into something too small for you.


But the broader one is that The Erotic Body is our way out of the sense of fragmentation and pointlessness which is the consequence of that shattering of the wholeness of being which the Scientific Revolution brought about, which we are as unconscious of as fish are of water. Except, all these years, we have been drowning within a collapsing ocean, as if in a dream. Freud’s dream.


From which, together, now, we can rouse ourselves.


What is the relationship between orgasm and emotion?

When my dad died, 22 years ago, I felt emotionally blocked. I was upset, but I couldn’t cry.

I’d recently split up with my girlfriend, but because she was a very kind and generous person, when she heard about my loss she wanted to comfort me. And as we were having sex, I remained aware of my emotional disconnection, but vividly remember that when I reached orgasm, a wave of grief, like electricity, jolted through me, and I cried out, then started sobbing.

That’s often how people think – if at all – about the connection between orgasm and our emotions. Orgasm disinhibits us, so emotion can come flooding out. But – so the view goes – emotion doesn’t have any impact on whether we orgasm or not: that’s a matter of arousal, which is physical and energetic, not emotional.

But I wonder if we have it precisely wrong.

When I work with people who have issues with orgasm, what’s most apparent is their focus on orgasm as the goal of sexual pleasure. And the tragic consequence of this is that they often experience neither. So my focus when I work with them is to take them out of this self defeating future orientation, and start feeling more what’s actually going on in their body. In this way they can relax into pleasurable experience, and within that experience, they can find arousal and orgasm. I don’t ask them to have a particular focus on what they’re feeling emotionally, although that’s part of it. I’m equally interested in what they’re experiencing imaginatively, or somatically.

Before I do the bodywork part of a session, I discuss with the client how they are feeling and what they would like from the session, and afterwards they will say what they experienced and noticed, but often, the prior talking part can be quite brief.

I recently met with a client who wanted to talk quite a lot before we started, and I fretted I wouldn’t be able to give her a long enough bodywork session. To my surprise however – and her greater surprise – quite soon into the bodywork, she had an orgasm.

When we reflected on it afterwards, we agreed that the difference between that and prior sessions was that this time, in our talking, for the first time, she’d been freely emotional, and felt completely accepted by me in her emotionality, in all its ebbs and flows, its sometimes abrupt changes and transformations. And because I accepted that, she could accept it too.

And I wondered if that was a more general issue: we repress, censor or modify our emotions because we think they’re not welcome. And that’s because they weren’t. But the effect of that is to suppress our aliveness, which has a major effect on our capacity to orgasm.

Let me use an example from my own life: my mum is a naturally optimistic, outgoing person. I’m not; I’m quite moody and sensitive. When I was like that as a child, it was obvious that my mum would have preferred me, understandably, to be happy, so I came to view my own nature as problematic, and suppressed it. But, of course, you can never be someone else, you can only be a more cramped version of yourself.

It took me a long time to understand that my sensitivity, far from being something to be sidestepped or covered over, was an essential part of who I am.

I think a lot of us have known something similar. Our emotions go from something natural to something that we need to monitor, adjust and modify, and that has a double effect. The first, which is clear from psychotherapy, is that we become distanced from our emotions. The second – and less noticed – is that we become distanced from our body, because our experience is all of a piece: if there is a something in my experience, I will experience it in thought, in imagination, in feeling and in my body, and all these are different aspects of the one experience. 

And that explains something that has always puzzled me: people who are freely emotional don’t seem to have an issue with not being able to orgasm.

And in turn, that suggests a way of working with the emotions. We don’t regard them as irrelevant to whether we can orgasm or not, we regard them as central, because the repression of any one part of us is a repression of the spontaneous functioning of all the other parts too. And just as we would have learned, when little, that certain emotions were not ok by a signal from [usually] a parent, and so they then became not ok to us, we can reverse the process: in your session with me, I can welcome your emotions, whatever they are, and, gradually you can welcome them too, and then something in you can become relaxed, yet enlivened at the same time.






What makes a massage Tantric? There are a number of elements, but these are the essential ones:

  • a lot of us have had massages which, although they might be done by someone with a lot of anatomical skill and experience,  somehow just touches our body. It don’t touch us. A tantric massage is touch which is in loving service to you as a person through your body, in all your uniqueness. Because this is so, every tantric massage is unique. ‘Tantric Massage’ is often a euphemism used by sex workers towards male clients, where it is understood to mean a very cursory touching of the body generally, swiftly leading to genital touch with the understood aim of orgasm. A real tantric massage is not like that. It may  involve genital or other intimate touch, that’s up to you, but there’s no aim. It’s not about evoking a particular response from you. It’s about deep connection, both between the giver and the receiver, and within the receiver. When you receive a tantric massage, you are completely accepted, and so can be completely accepting of yourself: everything you feel, everything you experience, is valid.
  • the giver of the touch is entirely in loving service to you, but in a particular way. Obviously, anyone could be in service to you too. Not to be funny about it, that’s the essence of capitalism. You want – or believe you want – something, a price is agreed, then that something is done. But this is very different. The giver of the massage is in service to you in the moment, is in deep communication with you through your body. And that allows something new to happen. Giving a tantric massage is an act of devotional love.
  • there will be a ceremonial holding of some sort. This varies amongst practitioners. The pre-eminent tantric massage practitioner in Scotland, Lynn Paterson [she’s in my Links page] has quite an elaborate ritual before the massage, I have very little, but the intention is the same, to create a sacred space where the giver is completely safe and completely accepted, and all experience is welcome
  • the giver will not sexually interact with you. The touch is just one-way and will be within the boundaries agreed at the start of the session. If you don’t want intimate touch at the start of the session, you don’t get to change your mind during it, because there needs to be a safe container. Practice varies among practitioners, some remain clothed and some don’t. But my practice has always been to remain clothed throughout the session.
  • the receiver is completely present and open to the touch, and does not have a specific goal, but is encouraged to have an intention. For example, to feel more, to be more embodied, to be open to whatever arises, and so on. It’s the opposite of the false “tantric massage”: there isn’t something to get, and because of this you can experience yourself in all your aspects: sensual, energetic, erotic, fluid, limitless
  • the essence is Yin, not Yang.Yang touch is what we’re generally familiar with. It is goal directed. It is intended to bring about a particular effect. It is focused on increasing arousal. As arousal increases, the touch is liable to get stronger and faster. The touch is very focused on the place of arousal, and tends to ignore the rest of the body, and the rest of the experience. It’s the kind of touch we’re liable to unthinkingly acquire when we first learn masturbation as kids, anxious about being discovered. Yin touch -tantric touch – is completely different. The aim is expansion and opening; spaciousness and exquisite feeling. And within all of that, pleasure and arousal occur, but arousal isn’t the point. With Yang touch, over time people tend to need more to get the same outcome. They feel they need to break through a glass ceiling, or force themselves over the finishing line. Yin touch isn’t like that at all. It is like creating a vast and changing land of pleasurable receptivity, which gets larger and deeper and more vivid the more you allow yourself to just be there, and which is characterised by wonder and surprise. I call this The Erotic Body, and there’s a link to my October Sex Lectures talk on the Homepage, where I discuss this more.
  • You might also be interested in ‘Tantric Massage For Women’, which you can read here.

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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:


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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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