Hugs, but only if you want them.

More and more articles lately on consent culture and how to raise a generation of people who are secure in their own bodily autonomy, and respect others’ as well. Here’s one I liked this week: Why I Will Never Tell My Daughter to Give You a Hug.

In short: forcing kids to hug and kiss or be hugged and kiss when they don’t want to is a seemingly innocent part of an overall culture where we’re made to believe that our bodies are not our own.

If there’s one thing I’d like every child on the planet to learn and internalize, it is this:

Your body is yours. It is your home, your best friend, and the physical instrument of your will and your heart. If someone violates it, that is wrong.

In my work with clients, I try to help them connect with that place in themselves where their bodies – which they may see as burdens, as betrayers, as sites of pain, as limiting lumps of clay – are in fact their healers, their guardians, their homes, and their places of possibility. Having and feeling control over when and how you are touched is a huge part of the process of bringing a body back together with the mind that inhabits it.

Contact me if this sounds like something you could use help with. I look forward to hearing from you.

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.

Two great videos about Rubenfeld Synergy Method

Since the Fourth of July weekend is coming up, I figured I’d blog a little early and leave you all with something inspiring to take you into it.

In case you haven’t seen them yet, here are two great videos put together by the Rubenfeld Synergy Training Institute. The first, What Is RSM?, was filmed at the Omega Institute while I was in the training, and features my teachers Noël Wight and Joe Weldon, plus Ilana Rubenfeld herself, talking about the work and demonstrating a little of it. The second, Why Befriend Your Body?, was filmed last year, led by another great teacher of mine, Theresa Pettersen-Chu, and features a bunch of clients talking about what Rubenfeld Synergy has done for them.

Both are pretty fabulous, and give a simple idea of what this work is all about. Give them a look – each is less than five minutes long!

 

Pain and pleasure as emotions

On a recent edition of Science Friday, I encountered an interview with neuroscientist Francis McGlone, whose research into touch-sensitive nerves has changed the landscape for how science understands touch in humans.

It was already known that there are what might be called fast nerves and slow nerves. The first carry sensation to the brain in milliseconds; these are the nerves that make you draw back when you touch a hot plate. The slower nerves carry the message over the course of several seconds: these are the nerves that process the burning sensation afterward.

What was a relatively new finding was that there are also slow nerves – called C fibers – associated with pleasant touch. These are known as C-tactile fibers, and convey what McGlone calls the emotional quality of touch.

When a person is stroked gently, these slow nerve fibers process the sensation as a feeling, transmitting to the brain a feeling of pleasure. These nerves, though, also work with the brain to interpret the feeling and put it in context: if someone you can’t stand is touching you, for example, the pleasant touch won’t be experienced as pleasant. Similarly, a painful sensation won’t be experienced as quite so painful when it’s in an expected or familiar context: for example, getting hair pulled out at the salon.

These slow nerve fibers, then, are the conduits that help our bodies translate the sensation of touch into an emotional experience of the world, from the breeze on our face to the sand between our toes to a reassuring touch on the shoulder.

A more detailed discussion of McGlone and others’ work in this arena is here, in an article from The Scientist.

What this research made me think of in the context of Rubenfeld Synergy was how developmentally, the type and amount of touch we receive as infants and children helps determine how our brains form socially.  In the above interview, McGlone calls the brain “a social organ,” and talks about how the earliest touch we receive helps us develop affectively. This, to me, points to how many people’s wiring gets crossed early on, and what is meant to be pleasant touch, received from inappropriate sources or in sexualized or otherwise inappropriate ways, may wire a person’s brain to perceive pleasant touch as unsafe or even painful.

One role that touching healers, like Synergists, can potentially play is in helping clients rewire their nervous systems to be able to receive pleasant touch, by exposing them to non-sexual, boundaried, gentle contact in a healing context. This is tricky and sensitive work, but I have hope for its healing properties.

Fostering consent culture – making touch safe for kids and adults

My friend and colleague Christine Kraemer wrote over at the Patheos website recently about how desperately kids need touch – not just for emotional development, but literally for biological development – and how that touch is being systematically taken away in many school environments and elsewhere. More and more, non-parent adults are not allowed to hug children, kids are not allowed to touch each other, and the entire culture of touch and kids has been boiled down to preventing sexual abuse.

But it turns out that if infants don’t receive enough touch, they can literally die. And even older children can experience developmental delays from lack of touch early on, and violence in teenagers has been correlated with neglect. In the attempt to protect our children from predators, we are contributing to a world where our children, deprived of touch, may grow up to become them.

In this culture, then, a shift needs to occur. One pathway in this direction is toward a consent culture: where asking permission to touch, and believing that each individual is the best judge of whether they want to receive it, is the norm. The more we cultivate this culture of consent, the more we make asking – and not just denying, but also granting! – permission the norm, the more safe touch we cultivate in the world.

Christine includes some great exercises for elementary aged kids in her post, to help practice asking, saying no, and saying yes. It reminded me a lot of this post of mine that was very popular some time back, describing kids playing with splashing in the pool. Both of these things make me wish that this topic was alive when I was a child – painfully shy, introverted, weird, and often picked on and touched in ways I didn’t want but had no tools to stop. The idea of touching other kids or being touched on purpose never even occurred to me, though I longed to belong to a group. I believe that teaching kids how to ask for touch, how to refuse it or accept it, and how to respect others’ boundaries and personal space could go a long way, not just toward getting people the touch they need to grow, but toward alleviating loneliness, shyness, and fear.

Go read.

Infants are sensitive to pleasant touch

The latest from the “but we knew that, right?” department: a study showing how infants process the sensation of “pleasant” touch – and how young they learn it.

Touch is critical to human development, and in fact, as my friend Christine Kraemer pointed out, most baby mammals will die without it. Much writing has been done on the topic of the crucial role of touch in bonding, healthy development, and general emotional and social health. But it’s always nice to see more detailed studies like these, that begin to examine the mechanisms by which these things work.

Of greatest interest to me was the following quote. For context, the researchers were brushing the infants’ skin with a paintbrush:

Interestingly, infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. That is, the more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.

This brings powerfully to mind the relationship between the synergist and the client in an RSM session, and how the energy and mood of the synergist communicates through to the client through touch, and vice versa. It’s also remarkable to me that this happened in the research even though the caregivers weren’t touching the infants directly.

Think about what it’s like to be near someone who is warm and calm and welcoming, and then think about what it’s like to be around someone high-strung, nervous, or angry. Mood is contagious, and touch amplifies it. This research seems to show, at least by correlation, that sensitivity can also be contagious.

Read it here.

 

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.

The Classic Sequence: First touch at the feet

feet
I seem to have left behind this series, describing the progression of the so-called Classic Sequence of moves in Rubenfeld Synergy, quite some time ago, and I’m not entirely sure why.  Therefore, I am taking this moment to continue it.  Please click the above link for a list of moves that I’ve written about thus far: the first touch at the head, and the head roll.

The next place (or, at times, the first place) the Synergist makes contact with the client in this sequence is at their feet.  The client is lying face-up on the table, and there is a wealth of information to be gained just by the position of the client’s feet while lying in that position.  Many people’s feet tend to fall away from each other to the side, due to the natural rotation of the hip.  However, sometimes one foot will be farther over than the other, or one will be pointing straight up while the other falls out to the left.  Sometimes, both feet will be sticking straight up, and some people keep their legs very close together.  Occasionally a person’s feet will be very pointed, with the toes pointing toward the opposite wall rather than toward the ceiling.  In these opening moves of a session, a Synergist will often walk around the table, observing body position and making a mental note of it.

Again, these things don’t necessarily “mean something;”  the point of RSM is not to diagnose illness or present a rigid framework for bodily signifiers.  Rather, this scan prior to contact is a way of seeing what sense comes up for us.  People’s feet can be very expressive: is this person nervous and tentative?  Open and free?  Do their legs and feet give the impression of strength, or fragility?  Are the feet relaxed or tense?  Is the client holding them in place or letting them fall where they will?

My teacher Noël Wight loves feet, because to her they provide so much data.  I’ve watched her spend nearly an entire session at someone’s feet, while that person, wrung with emotion and remembered trauma, found her emotional footing.  This is a huge part of how we work with feet: our feet are where we make contact with the earth, and say volumes about how we stand in the world.  Our language reflects this: we speak of getting swept off our feet, getting back on our feet, standing on our own two feet, and having cold feet.  We stand up for ourselves and stand down from a conflict.  We take a stand and won’t stand for it any longer; we can’t stand it when someone pushes us too far.  We decide when we’re going to walk out, and when to run away.  We dance around issues and jump for joy.  Our heads may be in the clouds, but it’s important to know we have our feet on the ground.

And so the first contact here is as important as the first contact at the head, and I often will start there with a client, if the first touch at the head feels too invasive.  We use a light touch on the tops of the feet, often called a “butterfly touch.”  This is a second hello: connecting the highest point of the human body to the lowest point, and getting a sense of how connected the client is to their own full length.

There tends to be much to be noticed in the feet during this contact.  On the physical level, it is a chance to get a somatic sense of the client’s feet: are they dense? heavy? fragile? strong?  Small or large?  Relaxed or tight?  Energetically, I also tend to get a lot of sensation here: I feel a sense of the client subtly pulling their legs up toward themselves, or I feel a wave of relaxation, or alertness.  Sometimes it will feel like a pulse starts in the legs, or a tingling, or some other things that I can only describe as the client “turning on,” their awareness heightening.  Sometimes the client feels that my hands are very warm, sometimes, cool.  Sometimes the touch brings up memories, like one client who warmly remembered her father rubbing her feet when she was little.  Some clients notice sensation differences, like the feeling of one leg being longer, or heavier, or “stuck,” or wanting to dance.

The feet, in short, tend to be the place where the conversation with the body really picks up.

Next time: the “windshield wiper” move.

 

Working with Sexuality: Decoupling touch and sex

In a previous post, I mentioned how often, especially for men, touch can be linked up in their bodies with sex.  In our current society, unfortunately, we have a disordered relationship to touch.  When we are tiny children, if we are lucky, our parents and other caregivers touch us all the time.  We are carried, cuddled, rocked and patted.  But as we get older, we are touched less and less.  I remember very well when my father stopped carrying me in to bed when I would fall asleep in the car on the way home.  It felt like a terrible loss.  And in many of today’s schools, children aren’t allowed to hug each other, and teachers mustn’t touch the children at all if they can help it.

Once kids hit puberty, it’s true that touch can become complicated.  A whole new dimension is added to what touch might mean.  But prohibiting kids from touching altogether doesn’t allow them to develop the appropriate judgment and boundaries for determining what kind of touch feels safe and right to them, from whom, and at what time.

And once people are adults, the relationship with touch shifts yet again.  Women more often have access to casual, friendly touch with other women, but some do not, and as people get older and separate into isolated, nuclear family units, cuddle piles of friends tend to disappear, if they ever existed.  For men, this tends to be even more true: from puberty onward, or even earlier, boys are taught to tamp down sensitivity, to be tough, to not seek or need affection, and to play sports – the team variants of which are the only allowable outlet for men to touch each other.  (Have you ever watched a football game on TV and seen the incredible amount of butt-patting and hugging that goes on in addition to the tackling?)  As a large proportion of men and women enter exclusive relationships, get married, and have kids, their only source of loving touch comes in one of two ways: through intimate contact with their partner, or through loving contact with their small children – in the most literal way, a natural extension of that sexuality.

Never mind all of the incredible health benefits touch has been shown to have.  Even without the research, it’s fairly obvious: we are tribal monkeys at root, and what we do constantly to feel safe, comfortable, and right with ourselves and each other is to touch.  And the fact that our culture is so disconnected from that says volumes about our current sicknesses, pathologies and screwed-up behaviors as a society.

So it’s not at all surprising that when some people reach the table – whether it’s with a massage therapist, an energy healer, or a Rubenfeld Synergist, the loving, nonjudgmental touch they receive often triggers sexual feelings.  After all, there aren’t a lot of other contexts for receiving gentle, loving touch as an adult.  For women, this can be terrifying: a married woman may feel that she is being unfaithful, or that she is having inappropriate feelings, or that the healer is touching her inappropriately.  For men, it can be terrifying, too, or they – more often – may turn to inappropriate expressions of those feelings toward the healer.  For anyone, it can be confusing, can arouse feelings of shame or guilt or both, or can tap into memories of sexual abuse or incest.  For all of these reasons, touch can be like a match to dynamite, and treating it with the utmost respect is vital to the success of any treatment involving touch.

The truth continues, though, that what has happened to the body remains in the body, and must be healed in the body, as well.  Whatever trauma, abuse, neglect, memory, feeling, or story resides in the person I am touching, that thing must be eventually brought forth, and the trauma decoupled from the experience of receiving loving, non-sexual touch.  Unfortunately or not, the only cure for that is the touch itself: receiving, acclimating, and learning, little by little, that touch can be okay, that touch can be relaxing, that touch can be loving without it being about sex, that touch doesn’t have to demand anything from you, lead to anything else, hurt you, arouse you, wound you.  That you own your body, and that you can decide when and how it is touched, and by whom.

That decoupling may also be called a kind of re-pairing: taking apart allows for another kind of putting together, so that a client can pair up touch and love, touch and solace, touch and peace, instead of touch and pain, touch and sex, touch and demands.  Giving clients more options for how they might experience touch is incredibly healing, and opens up more options in their lives as well.

Working with Sexuality: Arousal in session

There are a number of issues that come about when working with clients around sexuality, and there are a few that are especially relevant to Rubenfeld Synergy, as it involves touch.  The most obvious of these is a client becoming sexually aroused during a session.

During the second year of my training, I began to see practice clients.  We were doing very basic sessions: practicing the somatic moves, doing some basic verbal interventions (“what do you notice,” etc.).

One of my practice clients was a youngish man; I’ll call him Carl.  He was quiet and nervous, and didn’t seem to know what he was doing there, exactly.  I could tell immediately that I needed to take care with him.  There was something more going on with him than he was telling me, but at the time, I wasn’t experienced enough to press before proceeding.

Whenever I did moves involving the hip, he would tell me that it was making him excited.  There were a lot of apologies and embarrassment involved, and I did my best to dispel his shame while making it clear that what we were doing here wasn’t sexual.  But of course, it was sexual: for him.  At the time, my mentor advised me to just acknowledge the arousal, let him know it was okay as something that was in the room, and for now, to avoid hip moves.  I was fairly new and wasn’t ready to go down the road of what the arousal might mean.

After a couple of sessions, Carl decided to stop, as the arousal part was distracting and distressing to him, and was also getting in the way of progressing my own education.

Since then, I’ve had a few clients who respond this way, particularly men.  There is a lot going on here: sometimes men are just not used to receiving gentle, loving touch in anything other than a sexual way.  Men don’t get touched in adulthood as much as women tend to, and for an adult man, touch often equals sex.  Educating men about this fact has proved to be helpful; many a thoughtful nod and relieved sigh has followed my voicing of this.  With one client, it recently became clear that part of what he was dealing with was a submissive sexual nature, and because that’s what his current work is around, lying on a table and being touched by a woman who is standing above him evokes those feelings.  In that instance, acknowledgement is still the first answer: I have him talk about what’s happening, and I choose in the moment either to delve or to redirect, to ground him in the now or let him explore what’s going on in his head.  The important thing is that the arousal not be discarded, dismissed, or forbidden, as if it weren’t a natural part of human experience, or part of how people experience emotion in their bodies.

Because arousal is something that can accompany many different emotions.  Sometimes, it is simply about pleasure: gentle contact can trigger arousal that goes along with the pleasure of being touched.  When acknowledged in a matter-of-fact, accepting way, this arousal often dissipates and proves unimportant to the session.  In other cases, arousal can accompany fear: sex and death, as Freud knew, are closely linked.  Finding where that fear leads can be a valid path for getting to the root of an issue for a client.  And arousal can be linked to shame, as a client remembers being scolded for masturbating, or trying on his mother’s clothes, or having sex with her boyfriend as a teenager, or being gay.  The body remembers the arousal as well as the emotion that accompanied or followed it, and links them together.

In this same way, arousal can also be linked to trauma.  Years after I stopped seeing Carl, he wrote me to tell me that our sessions had led him to go into traditional therapy, and working there, he recovered memories of being sexually abused as a young teen.  The assaults had happened with him lying down, while an adult touched him.  At first I felt appalled and horrified that I hadn’t seen it, and worried I might have retraumatized him.  But he assured me that actually, the work we’d done was what allowed him to begin to remember, and thus, to heal.  Had I been fully trained and credentialed at the time, I might have been able to follow the thread of his arousal to those memories, and help him heal directly.  As it is, I’m happy I was just able to be with it, non-judgmentally, so he could begin to experience what his body was telling him.

Being present with arousal in therapeutic settings can be tricky for any number of reasons, which I’ll go into in other posts.  But when appropriate boundaries can be maintained, allowing that response – which, after all, is just another signal from our bodies, like pain or tension or warmth – can bring great rewards.