Finding your yes, no, and maybe, part 1: No

In anticipation of the talk I’m giving the weekend of October 10 at Wicked Women, I want to write some posts that lay groundwork for the concepts I’ll be working with in that talk.

The first of these is the very simple idea that saying no is hard.

In last year’s talk, Sam and I started with a great exercise that involved people asking each other for a kiss, and being required to say no. We then checked in with how it felt for people, both to say no and to hear no. The responses were powerful, especially for a controlled situation, with low stakes, where everyone already knew they were going to have to say, and hear, no. The foreknowledge and low stakes didn’t stop people from finding the refusal difficult, the rejection, disappointing.

Research performed around the turn of the millenium in Britain showed pretty clearly that saying no, even to ordinary things, is a disfavored behavior in our culture. A paper on conversational analysis, cited here by the fantastic Yes Means Yes blog, showed that even people turning down a non-sexual dinner invitation from a friend tended to soften their refusals, to pause, hesitate, hedge, placate, and explain rather than actually admitting that they didn’t want to.

It is built into our culture to avoid saying no; this makes imprecations to “just say no” nearly absurd. Think about how hard it can be to even hang up on a telemarketer or close the door on a fundraiser, let alone tell someone you like that you can’t meet them for lunch. Escalate that to telling someone you might want to sleep with at some point – or that you’ve had sex with a hundred times before! – that no, actually, you don’t want to have sex with them right now, and you begin to see the elaborate language we have built around refusal. We don’t want to seem prudish, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to put ourselves in danger, or appear arrogant by refusing before something is even offered.

Perhaps even more important, though, is the fact that for most of us, these softened hedged rejections are entirely clear. We know what these refusals sound like, and look like, and so pushing past them tends to be a matter of will rather than a missed communication. What this indicates, sadly, is what we already know if we think about it: very few rapes occur because of misunderstandings or lack of clear rejections. They occur because a small subset of men repeatedly look for cracks in those soft nos, and apply leverage until they can “wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

But those people are not whom I’m addressing, here. I’m looking at people in communities where, while there are certainly a fair share of predators, most people are trying very hard to do things right.  People want to be “game” and try new things. People want to push past their own boundaries, and sometimes don’t even know what those boundaries are yet. People with well-established boundaries find their boundaries shifting depending on who they’re with, where they are, how many years have passed. And people are playing deliberately with power dynamics, where the person running the scene is highly responsible for their partner’s safety. It’s very easy to say, “Establish a safeword, negotiate in advance, know your limits,” and so on. It’s harder to know what to do when a scene becomes more intense than you signed up for, or when someone is suffering in silence out of pride, or when what you thought you negotiated turns out to be something else entirely, or when you are trying to deliberately push limits and go farther than you have before.

Add to this the social awkwardness that tends to permeate the geeky community (which overlaps mightily with kink and other alternative sexualities), and signals may not be as absolutely clear as was previously thought. “No” becomes not just difficult to say, but difficult to locate and identify in yourself.

Part of this talk will be about returning to the messages of the body, to get more clarity on what “No” feels like, and how to communicate it – and hear it – better.

Working with love

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Given that I work with individuals most of the time and my work tends to involve a massage table and touch, it’s probably hard to imagine how I work with couples or groups. But given that I also sometimes work with sexuality, I do sometimes have the occasion to work with couples who need help sorting out their relationships.

If there’s one thing I’ve observed about relationships, it’s the same thing I’ve learned about individuals: awareness heals. When a person becomes aware of one’s own habits – not just intellectually, in that “Yeah, I know I do that…” kind of way, but in a visceral, slowed-down, embodied way that allows them to notice it as it is happening, that is what can effect real change. When a person can feel a familiar emotion arising, and begins to ready the familiar reaction: the snipe in anger at your partner’s comment, the defensive posture, the eyeroll of contempt – and stop, feel the emotion move through, breathe, and make a different choice…that’s when true communication can occur.

Another thing I’ve learned from the training and used since: change happens in the relationship. What does this mean? Simply that what was wounded between two people, can only be healed in a relational context. Neither wounding nor healing happens in a vacuum. Sometimes, the wound has to be healed with a surrogate, like a therapist or other healer, or a friend, or another partner. If a relationship is abusive, for example, the abused partner will need to seek healing elsewhere than in that relationship. But it is still most likely that healing will occur with the help of another person, just as repeated wounding will often happen when an abused person enters another relationship. Those wounds happened in relationship, and express themselves again in relationship.

The best-case scenario is when the wounds incurred during a relationship can be healed within that same relationship, bringing wholeness and depth to that relationship’s story. When I work with couples, this is what I endeavor to do. As with all of my work, I help them tune in to their bodies: their posture, their breath, their physical sensations. I help them locate their feelings in their bodies, and often, this brings emotions to the surface, allowing them some release. I notice their gestural language, how they sit in the room, how they look or don’t look at each other. If and when it seems appropriate, I help them use touch to make contact with each other, to talk openly, to invite vulnerability. Most of all, I want to help them become aware of the patterns that have gotten to this place, find them in their bodies, and find a way to move out of them into something unfamiliar, unhabituated. To get in touch with each other in a new way, the way that is about what is true now, and what is possible, rather than about how they hurt each other in the past.

If traditional couples therapy hasn’t been working for you, please feel free to contact me, and dare to find a new relationship with someone you’ve known for years.

“It should not take everything you have to turn down someone’s offer for sex.”

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

"It should not take everything you have to turn down someone’s offer for sex."

This article today struck me as important enough to post about here, touching as it does on consent culture, rape apologism, and most importantly, the clarity that we need to have with ourselves and others if we are ever to move beyond blaming victims and demonizing perpetrators to a model of restorative justice.

Highlights, and things I especially picked out because they speak to what happens to us when our bodies are under threat of violation:

If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.

I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.

Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.

Framing acts of molestation and assault as things that either do or do not count as if it were a bad call in a game of tag (“that doesn’t count! I wasn’t done counting to ten!”) is a troubling — and worse, ineffective — way of discussing rape. It shifts the conversation from “how can we prevent this from happening again?” and “what would justice look like in this situation?” to “how can I make sure that what I did doesn’t fall under the category of ‘it counts’?”

If you stop at shame — if the last thing you mention doing after molesting a younger child is how you spent the evening “crying in the water” — you have not atoned. You have not done right to make up for having done wrong.

Read the whole amazingly good article here.

Come see me give a talk on embodied consent

yes-238371_1280On Saturday, September 27, my colleague Sam of Safety Beyond Safewords and I will be giving a talk at Wicked Women, the latest iteration of the Bound in Boston conference.

Our talk will combine Sam’s expertise as a clinical social worker with mine as a synergist and body nerd to help kinksters listen to the messages of their own and their partners’ bodies more effectively, in order to get a more nuanced and accurate picture of ongoing, enthusiastic consent in scene contexts. Of course, getting a better sense of what true, enthusiastic consent looks and feels like is an important skill for many contexts outside of kink as well!

Here’s a full class description. I hope you can join us!

Moving Beyond the Stoplight: Creative Negotiation and Embodied Consent

Lead by: Kamela, Sam
Format: Lecture
Minimum experience level: Everyone

Most of us know, at least intellectually, the importance of communicating limits and establishing ongoing consent. But even for seasoned players, limits can be hard to define, and consent can be tricky to navigate. Limits may vary from partner to partner. A submissive may not want to “wimp out” in a public play space or let her master down. A rope bottom may worry that by pointing out the pinching in his armpit, he’ll stop an otherwise hot scene. Edge players, experimenting with pushing limits, may have a hard time knowing when things are really “okay,” and when they are causing themselves or a partner harm. Negotiations and safewords, in short, are frequently not enough.

This class looks at ways to address those times when limits come in shades of gray. We will talk about how both bottoms and tops can facilitate communication that is not only clear, but also keeps the energy flowing between play partners. We will also practice listening to the messages our own and our partners’ bodies are conveying, to get a better understanding of what is pushing a limit safely, and what is crossing a boundary. Practical exercises in navigating personal space, touch, self-monitoring, eye contact, and creative communication will help you connect to your body’s innate wisdom, so your scenes – and in-scene relationships – can be healthier, happier, and hotter.

Bring: A daring and open heart.

Some middle ground for treating pedophiles?

This week on Medium, a long article went around that told the story of a 16-year-old boy who realized that he was sexually attracted to young children. Rather than demonizing such non-offending pedophiles, the article follows his efforts not only to stop himself from hurting children, but to help others like him.

The pressure not to seek help in these young pedophiles is extremely strong. Mandatory reporting in this country can land people who have never hurt a child and who want desperately not to in jail. Many therapists do not have any frame of reference for dealing with these sorts of desires, which are more prevalent than many realize.

Some time ago, I wrote about the changes in the DSM-V that de-pathologized BDSM and other types of kinky desires and behavior, with the exception of pedophilia, for which there is really no acceptable outlet. This article gives me a little hope that for those afflicted with these terrible desires, there may be a way out that does not involve harming kids.

Warning that this article contains some disturbing descriptions and deals with an incredibly troubling subject.

You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?

Cultivating a consent culture

by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

I was reading Psychology Today’s recent article, The Power of No, this morning, and it got me thinking about a question that haunts alternative sexuality communities, or should.

The question is this: in a world where we accept the feminist precept that rape culture exists – which needless to say, I do – how do people – especially men – negotiate consent responsibly? And in particular: what can good men – men who do not want to contribute to this culture, but also want healthy, fulfilling sex lives – do?

In the mainstream world, women have been speaking up about phenomena like Schrödinger’s Rapist: the idea that anyone a woman meets may sexually assault her, and she is best served by behaving as if he will until she knows otherwise. With rape culture being what it is – an environment where men are often subtly or overtly taught to feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where women are taught that being nice is more important than protecting your boundaries – it’s not just difficult for women to say no, or for men to hear and respect it.  It’s equally difficult for women to say yes, and mean it. The larger culture around sexuality in this country doesn’t teach us how to say, and hear, no, or how to hear, or say, yes.  It teaches us to make moves, use lines, seduce, talk people into bed – or to accelerate sexually without getting a further green light.  It teaches us to resist, or be coy, or play hard to get so we won’t be labeled sluts.  Men who refuse to participate in these dangerous games become “nice guys” – many of whom wind up not behaving so nicely; women get trapped into a virgin/whore dichotomy, where their choice to say yes or no depends on how they want to be regarded, not on what they actually want.

In such an environment, is it any surprise that people don’t feel like they have any agency with regard to their own desires, their own bodies?

Groups such as polyamorous, queer, and BDSM communities, as well as other touch- and sex-positive groups, are under extra pressure to make sure that their members negotiate consent and boundaries well, because the frequency of initiating contact is so much higher than in the mainstream, monogamous world.  While these groups are by no means immune from abuse, rape, and other violations of bodily autonomy, they are places where people are deliberately practicing the skills of negotiating consent, all the time.

In my experience, the result of this practice, and the self-policing that communities like this tend to do, is incredibly beneficial. In the most obvious sense, it gives people the opportunity to practice saying no fairly often, and saying it in ways that minimize a sense of rejection.  It also gives people practice hearing ‘no,’ and responding to it in a respectful way.  Moreover, though, it gives people practice saying and hearing ‘yes’: an option that is impossible in a world where it is never clear whether your ‘no’ will be respected.  In the best of these types of communities, the need to frequently negotiate sexual and romantic boundaries provides a kind of laboratory space for people to experiment with agency, specificity, and desire: yes, you may touch me here, but not there.  Yes, I’d like to do this with you, but not that.  Yes, I’d like to be this to you, but I can’t be that for you. Someone else will have to fill that need.

In the best of circumstances, this kind of environment helps teach the men in it that asking is okay, so long as it’s done without pressure and so long as a ‘no’ is met with immediate, respectful backing off.  In turn, this teaches women that such a thing is not only possible, but the norm – which makes it safer for her to say ‘yes.’

What would it be like, I began to wonder as I thought about this, if all kids were taught early on how to negotiate specific, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent? If our culture wasn’t so afraid of, and screwed up about, sexuality that we could talk about it openly enough to exercise it healthily? What if “How To Say, and Hear, No – And Yes” were a required class for every college freshman? What if people who are not, and will never be, involved in alternative sexuality communities had some other means of practicing these essential skills so that they could flirt, date, have sex, live together, get married and raise kids in a way that involved conscious, clear, joyful choice?

If you wonder about this too, and want help finding your own boundaries and agency, contact me for a consultation.

Come see me give a talk on embodied consent

yes-238371_1280On Saturday, September 27, my colleague Sam of Safety Beyond Safewords and I will be giving a talk at Wicked Women, the latest iteration of the Bound in Boston conference.

Our talk will combine Sam’s expertise as a clinical social worker with mine as a synergist and body nerd to help kinksters listen to the messages of their own and their partners’ bodies more effectively, in order to get a more nuanced and accurate picture of ongoing, enthusiastic consent in scene contexts. Of course, getting a better sense of what true, enthusiastic consent looks and feels like is an important skill for many contexts outside of kink as well!

Here’s a full class description. I hope you can join us!

Moving Beyond the Stoplight: Creative Negotiation and Embodied Consent

Lead by: Kamela, Sam
Format: Lecture
Minimum experience level: Everyone

Most of us know, at least intellectually, the importance of communicating limits and establishing ongoing consent. But even for seasoned players, limits can be hard to define, and consent can be tricky to navigate. Limits may vary from partner to partner. A submissive may not want to “wimp out” in a public play space or let her master down. A rope bottom may worry that by pointing out the pinching in his armpit, he’ll stop an otherwise hot scene. Edge players, experimenting with pushing limits, may have a hard time knowing when things are really “okay,” and when they are causing themselves or a partner harm. Negotiations and safewords, in short, are frequently not enough.

This class looks at ways to address those times when limits come in shades of gray. We will talk about how both bottoms and tops can facilitate communication that is not only clear, but also keeps the energy flowing between play partners. We will also practice listening to the messages our own and our partners’ bodies are conveying, to get a better understanding of what is pushing a limit safely, and what is crossing a boundary. Practical exercises in navigating personal space, touch, self-monitoring, eye contact, and creative communication will help you connect to your body’s innate wisdom, so your scenes – and in-scene relationships – can be healthier, happier, and hotter.

Bring: A daring and open heart.

It’s spring. Sex for everyone! (Except people who don’t want it!)

Because why not?

Hello, lovely readers! Yesterday was the first day of spring.  And with spring in the air, folks’ thoughts tend to turn to friskiness.

As a person who helps those who are struggling with body, sexuality and gender issues, one of the things that is clear is that there are not nearly enough images in the media of people demonstrating something other than standard, mainstream sexuality. While images of gay couples are becoming more and more common, the vast, vast majority of images in the media that depict sexuality show people who are white, able-bodied, straight, thin, and performing traditional masculinity or femininity based on their biological sex only.

With that in mind, and with the caveat that clicking these links will take you very firmly into Not Safe For Work territory, I wanted to share two links that I discovered this week that made me want to celebrate.

First, a Buzzfeed link, of all things.  Last week, this collection of boudoir images caught my eye. Not because I particularly enjoy looking at boudoir images: they are usually the most vapid and objectifying form of traditional feminine sexuality that I can imagine.  But these, advertised only as “impossibly sexy,” also contain a multitude of body types and skin colors, without making any mention of either. This mainstream presentation of larger women – and smaller ones! – as equally sexy was lovely to see, and sparked a conversation elsewhere.

In the course of that conversation, another friend pointed me to a Tumblr (this one is really not safe for work) containing words, images, and thoughts about all different kinds of sexuality and gender: queer, disabled, trans, asexual, cross-dressing, happily kinky – basically the whole gamut.  Named Sex Is Not The Enemy, the Tumblr seeks to bust open what people think about what is sexy, and more importantly, to bring sexuality – which is, after all, a huge part of what it means to be human – out of the shadows and shame and into the light – for everyone.

Highlights for me: a picture of a beautiful, proud, post-mastectomy naked woman; a set of paired photographs of people of varying body types posing to look beautiful, then posing unflatteringly on purpose; this adorable shot of an old gay couple (one of them is 100!) celebrating the anniversary of Stonewall.

A note that many of these images are far more graphic than the ones I’ve described, and may be in danger of changing the way you think about how people love.  You have been warned.

Happy Spring, everyone.

 

It's spring. Sex for everyone! (Except people who don't want it!)

Because why not?

Hello, lovely readers! Yesterday was the first day of spring.  And with spring in the air, folks’ thoughts tend to turn to friskiness.

As a person who helps those who are struggling with body, sexuality and gender issues, one of the things that is clear is that there are not nearly enough images in the media of people demonstrating something other than standard, mainstream sexuality. While images of gay couples are becoming more and more common, the vast, vast majority of images in the media that depict sexuality show people who are white, able-bodied, straight, thin, and performing traditional masculinity or femininity based on their biological sex only.

With that in mind, and with the caveat that clicking these links will take you very firmly into Not Safe For Work territory, I wanted to share two links that I discovered this week that made me want to celebrate.

First, a Buzzfeed link, of all things.  Last week, this collection of boudoir images caught my eye. Not because I particularly enjoy looking at boudoir images: they are usually the most vapid and objectifying form of traditional feminine sexuality that I can imagine.  But these, advertised only as “impossibly sexy,” also contain a multitude of body types and skin colors, without making any mention of either. This mainstream presentation of larger women – and smaller ones! – as equally sexy was lovely to see, and sparked a conversation elsewhere.

In the course of that conversation, another friend pointed me to a Tumblr (this one is really not safe for work) containing words, images, and thoughts about all different kinds of sexuality and gender: queer, disabled, trans, asexual, cross-dressing, happily kinky – basically the whole gamut.  Named Sex Is Not The Enemy, the Tumblr seeks to bust open what people think about what is sexy, and more importantly, to bring sexuality – which is, after all, a huge part of what it means to be human – out of the shadows and shame and into the light – for everyone.

Highlights for me: a picture of a beautiful, proud, post-mastectomy naked woman; a set of paired photographs of people of varying body types posing to look beautiful, then posing unflatteringly on purpose; this adorable shot of an old gay couple (one of them is 100!) celebrating the anniversary of Stonewall.

A note that many of these images are far more graphic than the ones I’ve described, and may be in danger of changing the way you think about how people love.  You have been warned.

Happy Spring, everyone.