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

 

The challenge was threefold.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It was a lovely session.

 

Where to go for sex and disability support

 

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

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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According to the NHS website “it’s not fully understood why the condition (vaginismus) happens. Factors can include: thinking the vagina is too small, negative sexual thoughts, previous sexual abuse or unwelcome telepathic interference from The Evil Fish Of Planet Thargon”.

Ok, I made that last one up, but really: what’s the matter with these people? Isn’t it obvious why it happens: the vagina has had unwelcome or painful experiences, and doesn’t want to have any more.

And it’s not just women.  Sometimes gay men have a similar response with their anus, and for the same reason. The body wants to protect itself.

And once that urge to protect against touch is there, is it really the best approach to talk about it?  Surely it’s obvious: if the body is responding to bad experience, the best way out is to give it a good experience.

What would that look like?

In my work with women and men, what I’ve noticed is that if there’s been unwelcome touch to a part of the body, the vagina say, then touch won’t be felt there at all, it will just be numb. Then, there will be a feeling of physical discomfort, burning, for example.  And after that, there will be an emotional response, often a feeling of irritation. Sometimes the order is different.

Once all of these feelings have been given voice, the body can then experience something different. But the residue of the bad experiences has to come out first.  This will only happen when the touch is loving, respectful and responsive to the body.  And there needs to be full trust and full dialogue between the giver and the receiver.

The work is slow, but it is very heartful.

The most important thing is to create a process where the body can move from feeling powerless, tense and fearfully anticipating what’s about to happen to one where it is relaxed, present focused, empowered and able to feel what it feels.

And it isn’t just unwelcome touch from another that’s been experienced. Often, that unwelcome touch can come from ourselves, and our ideas of what our bodies should be doing and feeling. In my experience, people often think that their genitals should feel arousal in response to touch, and if they don’t, or don’t feel enough, the touch needs to be stronger and faster. And that sets up a vicious cycle, where we never quite get where we want to go. The solution to this isn’t to get the body aroused, but to get the body relaxed, and from there, arousal will naturally follow. It doesn’t need to be forced.

We can’t just jump from numbness to pleasure and arousal.  We have to re-experience with our body and with our whole being, what caused the trauma in the first place, but in a space which gives the receiver power, autonomy and direction, and which is lovingly relational.  We do not need to dwell in the pain.  With loving support it is possible to release the effects of the past and move on.

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In the Woody Allan film ‘Manhattan’, a female character says “I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind”

The joke derives from Freud’s idea that clitoral orgasms were immature and masculine, and that the mature woman should confine herself to vaginal orgasms.

Why Freud felt entitled to pontificate about woman’s genitals without being the possessor of any is far from clear. But many men since have felt a similar entitlement.

Strong similarities

Fortunately, we’ve moved on, specifically, we’re much clearer on the structure of the nervous system. And that clarity enables us to see strong similarities between male and female experiences of orgasm.

The clitoral orgasm is connected to the pudendal nerve. How can a man know what that’s like? Easy. The glands of the penis are connected to the same nerve.

The vaginal, or g spot orgasm is connected to the pelvic nerve. This is the same nerve that connects to the deep structure of the penis.

The cervix orgasm is connected to the hypogastric nerve. Both this nerve and the pudendal nerve are connected to the male prostate.

Lastly, the enigmatic Vagus nerve is connected to the uterus orgasm. In men, researchers aren’t yet sure, but I discovered it by accident during my sexological bodywork training when one of my colleagues located it as part of the pelvic floor, near the root of the penis. The sensation was felt in the head, like stimulation of the prostate, but at the side of the head. Corresponding with the vagus nerve’s upper positioning, rather than the middle of the head.

The similarity between male and female orgasmic experience has been overlooked, I think, for two reasons. One is the confusion between male ejaculation and male orgasm, which are actually distinct. But the main one is the insulting disinterest that the medical profession has historically had to women’s bodies and women’s pleasure.

 

Seeing these strong similarities will, I hope be a way of enabling all of us, women and men, to understand our common human inheritance of pleasure.

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One of my friends is an acupuncturist, and she told me that increasing numbers of women – overbusy women – were coming to her with fertility issues.  One way she treats these women is to increase their receptivity and their heart connection.  She imagined that couples trying to have a baby thought of intercourse as a means to an end, a necessity, rather than in terms of pleasure and connection. She thought if I could work with these type of clients, they could re-learn to receive, to feel, to experience, and not be so caught up in the goal of conception. And that would help them conceive, because this approach had been successful for her clients.

Another friend is a student midwife. She wanted to write a dissertation about sexual arousal while giving birth, but found that the literature is silent on it. It’s as if the two are in entirely separate categories.

A third friend is a physiotherapist working in the NHS. Her speciality is working with women who have problems with their pelvic floor. She can touch the women, obviously, but is absolutely forbidden to talk about pleasure. ‘Healing’ and ‘Pleasure’ are considered completely separate.

This division and ‘scientific’ approach is all very weird, because pleasure, anatomy, conception and birth are all intimately connected.

Why?

Because pleasure is the proof of our bodies – of ourselves – working properly. Pain, or numbness, is what happens when there’s something wrong. It’s simple.

The erectile tissue in the vagina that becomes engorged during sexual pleasure has a double function. It protects the vagina during intercourse, and it protects the vagina when the baby’s coming out. It’s the same engorgement, so you’d think it would be the same pleasure response. And some women do say that giving birth is the most erotic experience they’ve ever had. And that’s in a society which completely disconnects the two.

It often seems to be the case that women who have difficulties in conceiving are often quite driven, high achieving type A personalities who find it hard to relax and pleasurably receive, and for whom sex can often be a frustrating experience. And in their self pleasure, they are likely to use a vibrator, possibly on the highest setting. In other words, they have a habitual tension, which is overcome by the greater, pleasurable sensation of the vibrator, and the temporary release.

I believe that this habitual tension is a major inhibitor to becoming pregnant. It’s nothing to do with the mechanics, a lot of the time. Despite this, couples spend a fortune on fertility treatment, which generally doesn’t work.

So if a key to pregnancy is becoming more relaxed, how do you go about it?

There are two options.

The first is to receive bodywork from me. The purpose of this is to relax the body back into its natural, pleasurable state, which, I believe, will make conception easier.

The second option, either if you don’t like the idea of intimate bodywork, or if you’re nowhere near Glasgow, is to consult me by video call with your partner. I can then, adapting the more general work I do with couples, give you exercises to carry out together in your own time which will foster pleasure, connection and receptivity. We then meet  afterwards to review and adjust these exercises, and add new ones. Sessions are an hour, and the process will take between 5 and 10 sessions.

It doesn’t seem a big leap to suggest that pleasure, far from being a side effect is, thankfully, central to our functioning.  But if we’re stressed and our body is tense, which is where most of us habitually are, then we won’t feel this normal natural bodily pleasure, and our functioning will be impaired.. That stress and tension can be attended to, relatively easily and inexpensively, and when it is, your natural capacity for easy bodily pleasure can be restored. And pleasure makes it easier for our bodies to work as they should. Which includes you becoming pregnant.

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Lots of people think that erotic touch needs to be high energy. If a lot of sexual energy isn’t flowing, so goes the idea, then the touch isn’t working. I don’t think that’s true, and actually I would argue it’s positively harmful.

 

I say this because if you scratch beneath the surface of this idea, we find the further idea that our sexuality can be explained in a primarily energetic on/off button kind of way. If I stroke your face, you might feel all sorts of things: energetic, emotional, connective. But somehow that doesn’t apply to the genitals, which are thought of in quite a functional way: are they “working” or not? We then think of our sexuality as something separate from us: our genitals are like a slave that we can order about. But sometimes, the slave will protest.

 

I have thought about this when working with clients who have reported feelings of genital numbness. This seems quite widespread, particularly among women, and I think it’s misunderstood.

 

I don’t think that numbness means that the body isn’t working properly and needs fixing. Through working with a number of women, I’ve come to the view that numbness, particularly genital or vaginal numbness, is the body’s response to being touched in a way it doesn’t like. And the solution is to work with the client to uncover the feelings underneath the numbness, and allow those feelings to be expressed.

 

Learning to feel again

 

One client felt that she was quite constricted, and when she had attempted sex, it had been painful. She felt both numb, and anxious about sex.

 

We agreed to focus on very soft, gentle touch. We agreed where and how she would be touched, so there would be no surprises. And we agreed to stay in dialogue throughout: she would tell me what she was feeling from moment to moment. This was a very slow process, as you might imagine, but as we carried on, it became clear to the client that she did have sensation, that she wasn’t numb in the physical sense at all, but that she was emotionally indifferent to the sensation she was feeling. Telling herself she was “numb” closed off any inquiry. Realizing this, she remembered that she would always feel anxious at the prospect of being penetrated.

 

Another client, who also reported feeling numb, when we worked together, again in the same slow way, actually experienced physical discomfort, then irritation, then both gradually disappeared. Her body’s reaction to touch it didn’t like had been expressed, and so didn’t need to stay, covered over by “numbness”.

 

We all came into the world with a love to be touched. But when we’re touched in a way we don’t like, there’s a reaction, and that reaction can get stuck in our bodies. To return to the analogy of the slave, if she can express herself, and be heard, and discover what she loves, then everything changes.

If you’d like to explore further, you can contact me here

You can read more of my approach here