Power In Your Hands

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.

In anticipation of my talk on embodied consent in September, I’m going to writing a lot about consent in this space. I’m away until August 10, so for the next two entires, you’ll be getting reruns. Here’s an oldy but goody that practically went viral when I first posted it.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.

Can’t we do better?

What imprints do we receive as children?  When you were five, or six, or seven, what messages really stuck and taught you how people ought to treat each other, how you deserved to be treated, and what options you had for interaction with others?

I know for my part, I was teased a lot as a kid.  I was overly tall, overly smart, and overly quiet.  I was an only child, I moved a lot, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons on how to interact with kids my own age.  When I reported my tortures, I was told to ignore them because “they were just jealous.”  Even at six, I could tell that this was 1. patently untrue, and 2. totally useless to me in salving my pain.

A couple of pieces have crossed my path this week, too, about the power of adults to help kids negotiate consent with one another.  While one piece focused on how rape culture starts young, with the pernicious “boys will be boys” narrative, the other focused on the solution: how do we teach children to ask each other for consent, and to honor that consent?

I think it’s important that teasing and bullying be stopped by adults, and punished.  But I also wonder how much more we could do with teaching kids about how to ask each other permission, even for things they might initially think are definitely going to be a no?  “The ‘overarching attitudinal characteristic‘ of abusive men,” says Kate Elliott in the piece I linked above, “is entitlement.”  How much better might the world be – both for young people and for the adults they will become – if we taught kids to respect each other’s bodies at an early age?

As an illustration of this, I present this adorable story from my friend Kaz, who teaches swimming to kids at MIT.  It makes me wistful: I wonder what my childhood could have been like with a teacher like her, who not only called out bad behavior but sought to teach kids how to deal with each other like the little human beings they are.

Story below, in its entirety.

***

Ah teachable moments. Today I actually got to educate my kids about what consent is, in a completely non-sexual context. This one little boy, who’s totally the sort who will try to get attention any which way but how, splashed one of his classmates, right in the face.

Me: Hey, buddy, I saw what you did there. That’s hardly friendly. ::to the little girl in question:: You okay?

Little girl: Yeah, but now my eyes sting. (this happened when she had her goggles off)

Me: ::to the little boy:: That really wasn’t nice. Would you please apologize to her?

Little boy:: ::sheepishly cause he totally got caught:: I’m sorry.

Me: Now, that might have been okay if you had just asked her first.

Little boy:: What? ::stunned look on face::

Me: Splashing can be fun. Some people don’t mind being splashed as long as it’s their choice. But you have to ask. It’s called getting consent. It means that the thing you want to do is accepted by the other person, and isn’t a bad surprise. The other person may say, no. If that happens you can’t hassle them about it. You accept their no, but you may still ask other questions. For instance, you may ask if it’s okay to ask again at some other time. Regardless, other person may also say yes. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask. Plus, it can make things more fun.

Little boy: ::mind blown:: Really?

Me: Yup. Here, I’ll show you how it’s done. ::to little girl:: Hey. I really want to splash water in your face. Right now. Can I?

Little girl: No, thank you.

Me: Okay, then I won’t. Maybe some other time?

Little Girl: *giggling* Wait, I want you to ask me again.

Me: Okay. Hey, I’d still really like to splash water in your face. Can I?

Little Girl: Yes. As long as I get to splash back.

Me: Sounds great. Let’s! ::we splash one another and laugh about it::

For frame of reference these kids are around age 7. After I explained, they suddenly got much better about asking one another for consent about all sorts of things. “Hey, I’d like to go first this time (for dives) can I?” So on and so forth. It was kinda of mega awesome. I feel all spiffy.

 

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.

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.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.

Can’t we do better?

What imprints do we receive as children?  When you were five, or six, or seven, what messages really stuck and taught you how people ought to treat each other, how you deserved to be treated, and what options you had for interaction with others?

I know for my part, I was teased a lot as a kid.  I was overly tall, overly smart, and overly quiet.  I was an only child, I moved a lot, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons on how to interact with kids my own age.  When I reported my tortures, I was told to ignore them because “they were just jealous.”  Even at six, I could tell that this was 1. patently untrue, and 2. totally useless to me in salving my pain.

A couple of pieces have crossed my path this week, too, about the power of adults to help kids negotiate consent with one another.  While one piece focused on how rape culture starts young, with the pernicious “boys will be boys” narrative, the other focused on the solution: how do we teach children to ask each other for consent, and to honor that consent?

I think it’s important that teasing and bullying be stopped by adults, and punished.  But I also wonder how much more we could do with teaching kids about how to ask each other permission, even for things they might initially think are definitely going to be a no?  “The ‘overarching attitudinal characteristic‘ of abusive men,” says Kate Elliott in the piece I linked above, “is entitlement.”  How much better might the world be – both for young people and for the adults they will become – if we taught kids to respect each other’s bodies at an early age?

As an illustration of this, I present this adorable story from my friend Kaz, who teaches swimming to kids at MIT.  It makes me wistful: I wonder what my childhood could have been like with a teacher like her, who not only called out bad behavior but sought to teach kids how to deal with each other like the little human beings they are.

Story below, in its entirety.

***

Ah teachable moments. Today I actually got to educate my kids about what consent is, in a completely non-sexual context. This one little boy, who’s totally the sort who will try to get attention any which way but how, splashed one of his classmates, right in the face.

Me: Hey, buddy, I saw what you did there. That’s hardly friendly. ::to the little girl in question:: You okay?

Little girl: Yeah, but now my eyes sting. (this happened when she had her goggles off)

Me: ::to the little boy:: That really wasn’t nice. Would you please apologize to her?

Little boy:: ::sheepishly cause he totally got caught:: I’m sorry.

Me: Now, that might have been okay if you had just asked her first.

Little boy:: What? ::stunned look on face::

Me: Splashing can be fun. Some people don’t mind being splashed as long as it’s their choice. But you have to ask. It’s called getting consent. It means that the thing you want to do is accepted by the other person, and isn’t a bad surprise. The other person may say, no. If that happens you can’t hassle them about it. You accept their no, but you may still ask other questions. For instance, you may ask if it’s okay to ask again at some other time. Regardless, other person may also say yes. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask. Plus, it can make things more fun.

Little boy: ::mind blown:: Really?

Me: Yup. Here, I’ll show you how it’s done. ::to little girl:: Hey. I really want to splash water in your face. Right now. Can I?

Little girl: No, thank you.

Me: Okay, then I won’t. Maybe some other time?

Little Girl: *giggling* Wait, I want you to ask me again.

Me: Okay. Hey, I’d still really like to splash water in your face. Can I?

Little Girl: Yes. As long as I get to splash back.

Me: Sounds great. Let’s! ::we splash one another and laugh about it::

For frame of reference these kids are around age 7. After I explained, they suddenly got much better about asking one another for consent about all sorts of things. “Hey, I’d like to go first this time (for dives) can I?” So on and so forth. It was kinda of mega awesome. I feel all spiffy.

 

As promised, I’m beginning my series on the Classic Sequence of moves in a Rubenfeld Synergy session.  The first move is a gentle touch at the head, and in this post I’ll describe the quality of that touch, the reasons we do it, and what we’re attempting to determine from it.

A word on the first touch, to begin.  The first time a Synergist lays hands on a client is, of course, a moment that requires tremendous awareness of boundaries and a previous establishment of trust.  Even when I’ve been seeing a client for a long time, I will still always ask before the first touch.  Especially for clients who have experienced significant trauma, it is critical that the client have their safety continually reinforced, and part of this is placing the control of the session in their hands.  It may seem like overkill to some, but I’ve watched master Synergists repeatedly ask a demo client whether they may touch them, throughout the session – and I’ve watched the client visibly relax and appreciate the constant reaffirmation of consent.

The head, too, is a very intimate place to touch.  My hairdresser confided to me once that he felt that the reason people tend to talk so intimately with their hairdressers is because of the intimate contact with the head and neck, which rapidly evaporates a certain social barrier in a safe, understood way.  In RSM, it’s important to recall that many people coming into it aren’t familiar with how things are done, and so the extra time to adjust and extra requests for consent become extra important.

Once consent is established, the Synergist very gently approaches the client (who is lying face-up on the table), and places the fingertips of both hands at the base of the client’s skull.  The placement is right where the head meets the neck, called the occipital ridge.  This area is rich in nerves which connect to all points of the body.  For this reason, it is both a place that massage therapists and other bodyworkers address frequently, and a place where martial artists strike to cause immediate blackouts.  Point is, it’s a vulnerable spot, and a gentle touch there tends to “wake up” the nervous system.

The purpose of this touch is a kind of “saying hello” to the person; the goal is not to hang out there for a long time, but rather to establish contact, get a sense of what the person is experiencing as you make that contact, and then move on.  I personally find that this initial touch, for me, serves to either reinforce or establish what is going on with the client overall in this moment.  If a client is in a state of numbness, this touch may confirm for the Synergist that the client is feeling “nothing.”  If a client is relaxed, the touch will likely intensify that sensation as well as make the client more aware of it.  If a client is nervous, this touch may increase that sense of alert; sometimes, if I feel a client is fearful, I will go straight to the feet first, rather than the head, about which more later.

The point is, we are saying hello and touching people where most of them literally  live: in their heads.  The head is where many Westerners locate their sense of self, and beginning here honors this reality even as we are ultimately working to get clients to live from their whole bodies.

Next: the head roll.

Part of a series on the GROUND of RSM – a foundational acronym introduced by Joe Weldon and Noël Wight at the 17th Rubenfeld Synergy Training.

The second piece of our GROUND, after Gentleness, is Respect, which probably sounds pretty basic.  Again, though, these concepts are foundational: both literally and figuratively, they are the ground of our work.

Respect, in any kind of therapy or healing, should be obvious; the dignity and integrity of the patient or client must be upheld above all else.  The tremendous trust that clients tend to put in therapists makes this doubly the case; people are coming to us and telling us their most personal stories, and counting on us to be confidantes, healers and even mentors.  In Synergy, the trust is even more profound, as we also incorporate touch into our work.  There are reasons why touch has been expunged from most practice involving mental health: in the early days of psychotherapy, abuse was rampant.  Yet touch is one of the most profound pathways to healing, and lack of safe, boundaried, non-sexual touch is, I believe, one of our modern plagues.  Incorporating touch into counseling, then, requires an extra layer of respect.

When approaching a client to initiate touch, Synergists are trained to obtain verbal consent, not just once, but often throughout the session.  At times, especially as the Synergist and client get to know each other over several sessions, this constant checking in is no longer necessary, but for my own part, I still always ask consent for first contact at the beginning of a session.  Often, clients have experienced trauma, perhaps had their boundaries violated, their integrity blown apart.  One of the first steps to healing is according a client the respect that all human beings deserve.  Again, as with practicing gentleness, this can help a client begin to feel what it’s like when they are respected – a feeling they may not have had in a long time.

One of our main goals as Synergists is to help a person reach a place of integrity: a congruence of body, mind, emotions and spirit.  When a client who has been sexually abused, for example, feels that someone can both be totally respectful of his boundaries and offer loving, safe touch, he may begin to learn something new about how his body can receive touch without violation.  When a client who feels uncomfortable asks the Synergist to move away and she does, immediately and without question, that client can begin to feel that she can indeed have her boundaries respected.  Respect is perhaps the most important tool we can use to help restore integrity to our clients: to help them feel again that their bodies, minds, emotions and spirits belong to them.

Once it becomes clear that proper respect is present, the way opens for the next foundational concept: openness.