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’ are nothing of the sort: they’re just a description of how the patient is suffering, with no properly identified cause, and no effective treatment.

 

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 the 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 like an 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 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.

 

And, it seems this can be addressed in a receptive way – the client lying on the massage table and receiving agreed touch – but also, in a relational way. 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 emphasise 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 fulfilment. Chronic, unexplained pain is one of these obstacles. Let me see if I can help you.

 

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 body, stuck on at the pubic bone like volatile plasticine, with the scrotum underneath, and made up of two parts:the glands or the 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 dichotomise 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.

 

 I’ll write more about this, but would strongly recommend a brilliant book by R. Louis Schultz “Out In The Open – The Complete Male Pelvis”

 

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, we can teach you things which are helpful. If you’re a man, we can help you with premature ejaculation. If you’re a woman, we can help you with genital numbness. We can help with lots of things.

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.

In my experience, I can work with a client and get them into an orgasmic state quite easily, but something is still 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 in The Daily Mail 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.

Imagine you own a string of fitness studios. Things aren’t going well. You’re on the verge of bankruptcy. In desperation, you sack your advertising agency and look for a new one. Someone recommends a new agency with an unusual name: The Tourette’s Agency. You go to see them. There’s a lot of swearing going on in their offices, because it’s cutting edge. You speak to the head guy, who tells you he’ll save your business with a winning message, and to come back in a week.

A week later you go back. There’s still a lot of swearing, but in different languages this time. The guy proudly produces the message. This is what it says:

“ Come to our gym right now if you don’t want to have a heart attack, you fat bastard”

Absurd, isn’t it? But in a slightly more subtle way, workshops for couples take exactly the same approach. They tell you that you can recapture the magic. They tell you that with their help you can relight the fire.

Except, what do you think? What I would think is: “If I go to this, everyone will know that my fire has gone out. My magic has left the building”. Would you go? I don’t think so.

When my dear friend and sex coach Alison Pilling set up her business, she called it Sex School For Grownups. It’s a witty name, but it expresses a truth. Nobody teaches us how to be good at sex and intimacy, particularly within long term relationships. And that lets couples down. Then they get blamed if they divorce. But the blame lies elsewhere, with a society that blithely assumes that sex is “natural”, whatever that means, and if things aren’t going well for you, you’re to blame.

In our work, we don’t peddle nonsense about rediscovering the magic or “spicing up your sex life.’ We start from a position that everyone is trying their best, and it’s part of human nature to get stuck, to have an incomplete understanding, to experience difficulty in knowing, far less saying, what we want. So what we do is to provide different perspectives.

What would it be like if you extended your sense of what’s possible? What if you were given some tips about communication? What would it be like if you were given exercises where each of you could explore different aspects of yourselves? What would it be like if you consciously decided in any intimate encounter who was giving and who was receiving? What if you could take it in turns to initiate and be led. What if the responsibility for pleasure was shared equally between two human beings and you had a greater sense of hat that might encompass?

Alison and I love and respect couples, and we want to support them, to help them flourish, not condemn them as broken and then claim to fix them.

In our Glasgow workshop recently, we were so happy to work with three couples who really cared for each other. We just gave them things they could try, like giving a wonderful singer new songs. And to watch these couples trying these things out was wonderful for us. The energy they showed was exactly the same as meditators: present, embodied, connected, loving. It takes courage to try new things, to adopt unconventional ways of seeing and to step off a sex conveyor belt based on little more than old expectations and hearsay.

We really want to keep working together. We plan various ways. One way is to take a small number of couples, no more than four or five, away to somewhere nice for a couple of days, and share what we know, giving the couple plenty of time to relax, to experiment, to converse with us, to make that cable which connects one heart to the other stronger, not by fixing the fractures, but by increasing the strands.

” The soul feels unsafe in a frightened body. The Bodywork is to breath courage into the frightened body, to feel pleasure in its own edges again. It is a way of preparing the body to be a home for the soul again”

( Mehdi Darvish 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, because 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.

This is still quite a new approach for me, and I’ll write further on it in due course.

When my first Zen teacher, Nancy Amphoux visited me for the last time, nearly thirty years ago, she was suffering a recurrence of the cancer which would kill her a year later. Although she could feel it eating away at her bones, she wouldn’t take painkillers while she was teaching, because she felt that her temporary pain was insignificant compared to the risk of imparting error to her students due to befuddling sedatives. I remember talking to her in my living room. We were both standing up. She was behind me. I was pontificating about something or other, when I was suddenly aware of her launching herself towards me, flying through the air, legs first, grasping my hips with her legs. Her response to her impending death was joyful, playful exuberance.

I’ve always been frightened. For years I disguised it with my intellect, my studied vagueness, my capacity for distracting myself, but more recently I have been able to see it plainly. And because of that, I can see other things more clearly: the courage and generosity of my teachers.

Other than my dear teacher Michael Eido Luetchford, who gave me Zen transmission, all my teachers have been women, particularly in the fields of sexuality and dance. And I think this isn’t an accident because in my experience, generally, there’s a crucial difference between men and women teachers. Men tend to want to share their knowledge and wisdom. Women share themselves: how it is to be them, and what they have learnt and understood through that. And because that is so, with these teachers, I haven’t learnt how to become like them. I’ve learnt how to become myself.

In that spirit, I honour my teachers not by copying them, but by doing my best to be completely open to them, to take it all in, and then carry on with this mixture of them and me in as open hearted a way as is possible. To follow and honour them, not by repeating them, but to understand and express how each human heart is transformed by another. So something both new and not-new can arise.

And through my wish to honour my teachers, it appears, from the outside, that I diverge from them. My zen teaching is nothing like Eido. In fact, it often sounds contradictory, but I don’t think it is. It is like dancing with someone. Both persons are unbalanced, but in their unbalance, they create a greater balance, a dynamic one, which can move through time. Not like an object, or an institution, but like a person.

And for the same reason, although I deeply respect and love my tantra teacher, Hilly Spenceley, I don’t want to teach her structures, brilliant though they are. I want to hold them in my heart and then birth something from myself. Likewise, I feel that while I have engaged – and continue to engage – in a deep way with Betty Martin and her Wheel Of Consent teachings, I don’t want to become a certified member of her School. Not because I disrespect her, but because I love her.

Our teachers don’t want us to walk through the world wearing a mask of their face. They want us to take off our masks. They don’t want us to have confidence because we carry their certificate in our hand. They want us to open our hand.

And our heart.

 

How should we touch? 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

 

I lost my virginity to a nice woman at an 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.

 

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 sex coach and Bodyworker, and 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 healing 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.

 

 

 

 

Real Tantric Massage

 

One of my friends worked in the sex industry for a while, and she once gave me the menu for the place where she worked. It was very specific. It went something like:

Massage £x

Topless Massage £x + a

Nude Massage £x + b

 

And so on. If the same place is still in business, it will probably be offering “Tantric Massage”, and what it means by that is that the [male] customer will get a cursory massage, focused on his genitals which ends with a happy ending; ejaculation. The [female] practitioner will probably be naked.

 

In this context, ‘Tantra’ simply means ‘pricier’, but essentially it’s still the same as the purchase of a sexual service has always been: The customer pays for a familiar experience, and [hopefully] gets that experience.

 

And that’s absolutely ok, but it’s a pity, because it’s a travesty of what real tantric massage is, and it’s one of the reasons why we don’t use the term; whilst we do genital and anal massage [although we remain clothed], we come from a different position, a position of love, expansion and shared exploration.

 

We’re not offering to give you what you already know: we’re offering to help you open up to what you don’t know: that’s the difference. And it’s a big difference.

 

So if you want something familiar, we’re not the ones for you. But if you want to explore and expand…

 

Hello

Learning with love and sex coaching takes many directions

Many of us are interested in increasing our sexual desire and learning to please our partner more.  Shouldn’t this just be easy and fun, and be a positive change, you would think so wouldn’t you?

Going through from Glasgow to Edinburgh at 6.00 on Saturday morning I am struck by my reaction to getting a new car that would save me money and support me in developing a new practice that I love.  It is dismay!  I had grown used to being carried into town and home again by the train driver.  All I had to do was turn up and I could sleep on early and late journeys and study and reflect during the rest.

Now I would have to concentrate on working out new controls and navigate the whole journey.  I would have to avoid bad drivers, make calculations about extra time for bad weather and road works.  I would be sitting in traffic jams and trying to avoid those pesky traffic cameras.  All this seemed like stress and anxiety to me!  I didn’t know the route in and I missed my comfy old executive saloon car with the roomy boot!  So I drove in the first few times at the maximum speed limit, hands clenching the steering wheel hard when I hit difficult situations and road conditions.

A month later I marvel at all the self-induced stress.   My response to the new is rather perfectionist.  How do I do it right?  What problems could come up that I can avoid or be prepared for by planning in advance?  How can I make this new situation work best for me?  Like many people my approach to the new is not the childish glee of a child with a new toy but starts with adult worry.

Relaxing and reconnecting

When it comes to changing our sex and love lives we can interrupt those habits of stressing when trying something new. It can be as simple as relaxing and reconnecting with the original nature of our bodies. Taking this approach gives opportunities to find easy and enjoyable ways to learn new things that you can practice at home and in your relationships.

John’s attitude to driving a new car is exactly opposite to mine and reflects a large part of the dynamics of our relationship.  He just rolls up and drives off gloriously oblivious of anything that could go wrong.  And we both get there!! Each of us can be impervious to the other’s good driving points and loudly indignant if our partner ‘helpfully’ suggests any driving hints (or forgets to help when navigating in John’s case!)  How we navigate these differences is what gives surprise, challenge, energy and sometimes joy to our partnership.

The joys of sailing

Still driving, I started to wonder what type of car would describe my sex life and to see how it has varied over the years from a low-slung speedy roadster to a regal Bentley and all points in between.  I have discovered the joys of sailing along at only 60 mph on the motorway.  Then my mind can be happily engaged with things of interest rather than on overtaking and the racer tailgating me in the outside lane.  I have found that in an older model I can turn off and go down side roads where I will see new landscape and arrive in a different frame of mind.  And when I’m feeling wicked I don’t need to worry about the paintwork so much when I am making a cheeky manoeuvre!

When an Aston Martin was my dream car I couldn’t image many other choices.  Happily, every make and model of car has its surprises and detours and as I navigate the different stages of my life, energy and interests I appreciate the slow as well as the fast.

So I wonder, what sort of car would best describe your sex life right now and what type of journeys do you usually take?  What would you change if you could be a different model and what type of roads and scenery would you enjoy in your life if you had the choice?  Maybe you do.

Image: Paul Bica Nature’s Painting (Flickr)