So what is “embodied consent,” anyway?

For the past few weeks, I have been posting about different aspects of the workshop I will be giving this weekend at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference, which is called “Embodied Consent: Finding Your Yes, No, and Maybe.” But what is it, exactly, that I mean by “embodied consent”?

It’s an interesting question, really. As with so much concerning Rubenfeld Synergy work, the answer is more complex than one might think. The search for meaning leads to various threads, which weave in various directions, which then branch and form new patterns, until you’ve got a really weird-looking meaning-sweater.

When I really boil it down, though, I believe the answer is this: Embodied consent is a dynamic, conscious, living form of consent, an ongoing conversation between the parties engaged in whatever requires it. It means paying attention – to your own body’s signals and to those of the person you are interacting with. And it means doing so continually – never letting things shift to autopilot.

Now, this might not sound like very much fun. Especially for those who are into kink and BDSM, and are deliberately playing with ideas of consent and giving over / taking on control, having to be constantly aware of consent in every moment could seem like a chore. But I like to think of it the way I think of partner dancing: much of the time, there is a leader, and there is a follower. In order for the dance to go well, both parties must always be aware of where the other is, maintaining a connection, and thinking several steps ahead. For those practiced in this art, it becomes automatic. For those less practiced, for partners who are not at the same skill level, or for partners new to one another, more consciousness and continual awareness is required.

I look forward to seeing you Sunday morning, if you’ll be there. Otherwise, let me know if you’d like me to teach this workshop at your organization!

 

So what is "embodied consent," anyway?

For the past few weeks, I have been posting about different aspects of the workshop I will be giving this weekend at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference, which is called “Embodied Consent: Finding Your Yes, No, and Maybe.” But what is it, exactly, that I mean by “embodied consent”?

It’s an interesting question, really. As with so much concerning Rubenfeld Synergy work, the answer is more complex than one might think. The search for meaning leads to various threads, which weave in various directions, which then branch and form new patterns, until you’ve got a really weird-looking meaning-sweater.

When I really boil it down, though, I believe the answer is this: Embodied consent is a dynamic, conscious, living form of consent, an ongoing conversation between the parties engaged in whatever requires it. It means paying attention – to your own body’s signals and to those of the person you are interacting with. And it means doing so continually – never letting things shift to autopilot.

Now, this might not sound like very much fun. Especially for those who are into kink and BDSM, and are deliberately playing with ideas of consent and giving over / taking on control, having to be constantly aware of consent in every moment could seem like a chore. But I like to think of it the way I think of partner dancing: much of the time, there is a leader, and there is a follower. In order for the dance to go well, both parties must always be aware of where the other is, maintaining a connection, and thinking several steps ahead. For those practiced in this art, it becomes automatic. For those less practiced, for partners who are not at the same skill level, or for partners new to one another, more consciousness and continual awareness is required.

I look forward to seeing you Sunday morning, if you’ll be there. Otherwise, let me know if you’d like me to teach this workshop at your organization!

So what is “embodied consent,” anyway?

For the past few weeks, I have been posting about different aspects of the workshop I will be giving this weekend at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference, which is called “Embodied Consent: Finding Your Yes, No, and Maybe.” But what is it, exactly, that I mean by “embodied consent”?

It’s an interesting question, really. As with so much concerning Rubenfeld Synergy work, the answer is more complex than one might think. The search for meaning leads to various threads, which weave in various directions, which then branch and form new patterns, until you’ve got a really weird-looking meaning-sweater.

When I really boil it down, though, I believe the answer is this: Embodied consent is a dynamic, conscious, living form of consent, an ongoing conversation between the parties engaged in whatever requires it. It means paying attention – to your own body’s signals and to those of the person you are interacting with. And it means doing so continually – never letting things shift to autopilot.

Now, this might not sound like very much fun. Especially for those who are into kink and BDSM, and are deliberately playing with ideas of consent and giving over / taking on control, having to be constantly aware of consent in every moment could seem like a chore. But I like to think of it the way I think of partner dancing: much of the time, there is a leader, and there is a follower. In order for the dance to go well, both parties must always be aware of where the other is, maintaining a connection, and thinking several steps ahead. For those practiced in this art, it becomes automatic. For those less practiced, for partners who are not at the same skill level, or for partners new to one another, more consciousness and continual awareness is required.

I look forward to seeing you Sunday morning, if you’ll be there. Otherwise, let me know if you’d like me to teach this workshop at your organization!

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.

Embodied Consent Workshop at the Wicked Women Conference

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I am pleased to announce that I will once again be giving a class at Bound in Boston’s Wicked Women event this year, over the Columbus Day weekend in October. This will be a revival and revision of the class I did last year with Sam at Safety Beyond Safewords, but I’ll be doing it on my own this time. I’m hoping to dig more deeply into the attendees’ own signs and signals, and overall make the class even more participatory and simpler. (Last year we tried to cover way too much material in 90 minutes.)

This year, the convention will also be a whole weekend rather than a single day, which is nice. I’m looking forward to helping more people understand their own and their partners’ yeses, noes and maybes.

I hope you’ll join us!

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.

Cultivating a consent culture

by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy PoirrierI 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.

People into BDSM no longer considered mentally ill. Well it’s about time.

As reported by The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the makers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the DSM, has released its new edition (DSM-5).  In previous editions, paraphilias – a catch-all term for “unusual” sexual desires falling under the umbrella of fetishes, BDSM, or kink – were basically considered mental illnesses.

In the new edition, the Manual is making a distinction “between atypical human behavior and behavior that causes mental distress to a person or makes the person a serious threat to the psychological and physical well-being of other individuals.”

This strikes me as quite a step forward, and I’m pleased with the psychological community for finally starting to look at the wide panoply of sexual and gender expression among human beings and seeing that sometimes – perhaps even most of the time – it’s simply not a problem.

Now, in order for these types of desires to be classified as mental disorders, they have to meet several criteria.  Besides having desires that are considered out of the ordinary, these desires must cause the person to:

feel personal distress about their interest, not merely distress resulting from society’s disapproval; [emphasis mine] or

have a sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.

What this means for my own clients as well as for kinky people everywhere – especially kinky parents who, historically, have been involved in custody disputes resulting in their children being taken from them – is spectacular.

The DSM-5 also distinguishes between sexual interests and sexual disorders.  The disorders currently defined under the DSM-5 are: exhibitionistic disorder, fetishistic disorder, frotteuristic disorder, pedophilic disorder, sexual masochism disorder, sexual sadism disorder, transvestic disorder, and voyeuristic disorder. However, any of these may be an interest in a healthy person, rather than a mental illness.

For example, a person may be an exhibitionist, but not have exhibitionistic disorder: a condition that causes her significant shame, guilt, anxiety, personal distress and adverse effects on her life, or causes harm to others.  A person may have masochistic sexual interests: i.e., he might get sexual arousal out of being hurt.  But that doesn’t mean he has sexual masochism disorder, which might mean he desires pain that causes him significant permanent injury, or that he seeks it out in ways that violate the desires and consent of others.

The one exception is pedophiliac disorder, whose clinical definition remains essentially the same as that in the DSM-4.  Having such desires, even if they are not acted upon, is still considered a mental illness, as it falls under the category of “desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.”  They have simply changed the name from “pedophilia” to “pedophiliac disorder” in order to maintain consistency.

I have complicated opinions about this last point, but I will save it for another post.  For today, I just want to express my happiness that what are simply unusual sexual desires and practices (and honestly, I think our culture is showing more and more that they’re not as unusual as we think…) have been officially de-pathologized.

 

 

People into BDSM no longer considered mentally ill. Well it's about time.

As reported by The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the makers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the DSM, has released its new edition (DSM-5).  In previous editions, paraphilias – a catch-all term for “unusual” sexual desires falling under the umbrella of fetishes, BDSM, or kink – were basically considered mental illnesses.

In the new edition, the Manual is making a distinction “between atypical human behavior and behavior that causes mental distress to a person or makes the person a serious threat to the psychological and physical well-being of other individuals.”

This strikes me as quite a step forward, and I’m pleased with the psychological community for finally starting to look at the wide panoply of sexual and gender expression among human beings and seeing that sometimes – perhaps even most of the time – it’s simply not a problem.

Now, in order for these types of desires to be classified as mental disorders, they have to meet several criteria.  Besides having desires that are considered out of the ordinary, these desires must cause the person to:

feel personal distress about their interest, not merely distress resulting from society’s disapproval; [emphasis mine] or

have a sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.

What this means for my own clients as well as for kinky people everywhere – especially kinky parents who, historically, have been involved in custody disputes resulting in their children being taken from them – is spectacular.

The DSM-5 also distinguishes between sexual interests and sexual disorders.  The disorders currently defined under the DSM-5 are: exhibitionistic disorder, fetishistic disorder, frotteuristic disorder, pedophilic disorder, sexual masochism disorder, sexual sadism disorder, transvestic disorder, and voyeuristic disorder. However, any of these may be an interest in a healthy person, rather than a mental illness.

For example, a person may be an exhibitionist, but not have exhibitionistic disorder: a condition that causes her significant shame, guilt, anxiety, personal distress and adverse effects on her life, or causes harm to others.  A person may have masochistic sexual interests: i.e., he might get sexual arousal out of being hurt.  But that doesn’t mean he has sexual masochism disorder, which might mean he desires pain that causes him significant permanent injury, or that he seeks it out in ways that violate the desires and consent of others.

The one exception is pedophiliac disorder, whose clinical definition remains essentially the same as that in the DSM-4.  Having such desires, even if they are not acted upon, is still considered a mental illness, as it falls under the category of “desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.”  They have simply changed the name from “pedophilia” to “pedophiliac disorder” in order to maintain consistency.

I have complicated opinions about this last point, but I will save it for another post.  For today, I just want to express my happiness that what are simply unusual sexual desires and practices (and honestly, I think our culture is showing more and more that they’re not as unusual as we think…) have been officially de-pathologized.