On Friday, young people all over the world left school and took to the streets to protest climate change. They spoke fiercely and courageously about the climate emergency that we are now facing and demanded action. As I stood with my son in our little town I looked around at the loving faces of all of the parents there, standing humbly behind their children in silence, some with tears in their eyes as the young ones took the lead. I know that many were feeling what I was feeling. “How did we let things get here?” To me, this question translates to, “When did we forget that we are not separate from nature?”
For me, part of the answer to this question lies somewhere in the beautiful, messy, terrifying journey to erotic sovereignty and liberation that I am privileged to explore with my somatic sex education students.
Why eroticism? Why sexuality? Is there any other territory in the human landscape that is more wild, unpredictable, generative, life affirming or ripe with meaning as our sexuality? Is there any territory more feared, controlled, shamed and vilified? If we are looking to weave together the severed threads of our wildness back into belonging with the wildness of nature, I suggest we start here.
In her essay Uses of the Erotic, The Erotic as Power, Audre Lourde says, “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.” If we allow ourselves to stay numb to the aliveness in our own inner wilderness and shame the parts of us that are made to feel it how can we protect the wilderness around us of which we are a part?
To reclaim the erotic is not just to have really great sex although this certainly is a lovely byproduct. To reclaim Eros is to systematically make space for life to move through us by clearing away the deadening forces of a culture that encourages us to stay numb and filled with fear. To reclaim the erotic is not only to look at a pretty landscape, take a picture for the album and move on to consume the next thing. It is to breathe in deeply the scent of brine from the ocean mingled with your own or to feel the pounding, rushing water of a waterfall cause a quickening of the water inside your own body. Only then, will you feel in your own veins the pain of polluted water moving through the riverbeds or the collapsing of the earth’s lungs as yours struggle to breath in the smog and rise to do something about it.
Sometimes reclamation of wildness is as simple as letting our breath reach the pelvis instead of getting truncated in the chest. Or giving ourselves permission to notice and savor something that feels good instead of hurrying onto the next thing.
Somatic Sex Educator, Christiane Pelmas writes, “ A deep, abiding, integrated connection with our generative, sexual and erotic wildness is the necessary foundation of our authentic expression and participation with the world. This foundation of an integrated connection to our erotic wildness and generativity provides a constant stream of encounters with our essential soulful self; the self that is poised to risk everything in service of what it loves.”
So, as we continue to support the courageous actions being taken by our children around the state of the natural world, I encourage you to turn an honest mirror inward to your own wilderness. Where can you plant a new tree or clear away vines of shame and fear that choke the ancient ones? As we fight for an end to the rampant destruction of the delicate ecosystems around us, can we take a stand for the delicate ecosystems within us, root out the poison that keeps us from thriving and meet ourselves and each other with fierce tenderness as we regrow? I will meet you in the questions.
This time of year is full of meaning. For many it is a time for gathering in family, community and celebration. For many, this time tinged with loneliness, disconnect and stress. This time of year can feel like a balancing act between holding the truth and light of ancient traditions in balance with the rampant pressure to consume and buy and stretch ourselves beyond our means to fit an impossible standard of perfection.
The truth is, family is a mix of messy and joyful. Discomfort and comfort. Mundane and transcendent.
To me, this is also a time when I get to practice giving and receiving. If I am mindful and conscious. this can also be a time when I can look closely at my patterns of martyrdom, stinginess and over-extension. Where in my body do I feel the impulse to be generous? Where do I feel an impulse to turn inward and give back to myself? How does it feel to receive?
So, where do YOU draw from to keep yourself full? How do YOU find your authentic ground inside of yourself so that you can keep giving from a place of integrity and fullness?
I consider myself a pleasure activist, which means that I believe in consciously practicing and making space for pleasure in our nervous systems. Not only as a way to personal well being but planetary well being as well. Humankind has evolved with a negativity bias. This is a good thing because it has kept us alive. But this means that our brains are much more practiced at holding onto and remembering negative experiences and turning them into patterns. In order to absorb and integrate positive experiences, it actually takes more focused attention and more time for the neuro-chemicals associated with these positive experiences to release and change our internal state.
So, my invitation to you is to is to actively seek out and find pleasure in your days. Especially when the patterning might tend towards stress and overwhelm. When you find pleasure in yourself whether it is in the fragrance of a food you are preparing, a deep breath, a hug from a loved one or receiving a gift, stop and notice and take a moment to make this feeling bigger. Breathe into it and let it grow. Notice what happens when you do this and how it may change your internal state. Do not pass it by as quickly as you might be accustomed to doing. Let pleasure be the measure of your days, your relationships and your interactions during these coming days.
May you remember that you are the gift and may you be deeply sourced in the authenticity of your own perfectly balanced generosity and gratitude.
*Beautiful art by Meganne Forbes (check her out meganneforbes.com )
As a Somatic Sex Educator, one of the main topics that I focus on with my students is unwinding sexual trauma. Whether they are unwinding from the systemic trauma of a sex negative culture, the trauma of a personal experience of sexual assault or abuse or something in between, the truth is that most people experience some form of trauma around their sexuality.
As a culture, our understanding of trauma is beginning to broaden and shift. We are coming to understand that trauma is actually not so much about an event itself but the stuck energy that it creates in the nervous system. We are coming to realize that every nervous system carries a different story which means that any given event can land as trauma in one nervous system and not in another. An additional challenge that we face is that we have pathologized the natural ways (crying, shaking, screaming, laughing, sleeping) that our organisms have evolved to release trauma and resolve this stuck energy.
We are living in an age where we are beginning to see the thawing and crumbling of generations and generations of internalized trauma and the ways that it has become incorporated into the very systems by which we live. One could say that having Trump as president is like a giant magnifying glass into the festering wound of violence, sexism, racism, bigotry and fear that are all symptoms of unresolved trauma. Through the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh hearings and all of the many rich dialogues that have ensued, we can agree that this wounding is out in the open now and the question is, what do we do with it?
A common hesitation that my students have before beginning the work of unwinding sexual trauma is that once they begin to let the light into these places there is no going back. They cannot un-see what has been seen. Often times, people have built entire identities and patterns of relating around their traumas and the thought of losing that is more terrifying than staying stuck. Who would they be without it? Many people fear that they will be left feeling lost and empty.
My teacher Caffyn Jesse writes, “We all set limits on the quantity and quality of pleasure we can embody. Limits to pleasure are ubiquitous in a culture that shames sexuality and fails to teach us how to honor and celebrate erotic energy. Sexual wounding becomes embedded in the body’s tissues and responses. Somatic Sex Education can assist you in expanding the pleasure that is possible. This expansion has physical, emotional, mental and spiritual components.”
Often times a person comes to know their traumas by bumping into the invisible electric fence they have built around experiencing pleasure. Sometimes it has been there for their whole lives and they have done such a good job at avoiding it that they forgot it even existed. Perhaps being shamed for touching their genitals at 3 years old was all it took. From that vague moment in their childhood memory, they marked that particular pasture as dangerous and inaccessible and have avoided it ever since.
This is where the concept of pleasure activism comes in. Pleasure activism goes beyond dismantling the traumas into a place where life can take hold and begin to thrive. Pleasure activism invites us to clear a path back to that overgrown pasture and keep clearing it again and again until we can dismantle the fence and step inside. Pleasure activism invites us not only to identify and reclaim the hijacked parts of our bodies but also to systematically fill the spaces that remain with content of our choosing.
The Japanese practice of Kintsugi or “Golden Repair” is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold. The philosophy is that the broken parts do not need to be hidden but tended to, elevated and celebrated. To fill the cracks with gold, makes them even more valuable than the parts of the pottery that have not been broken. When we begin to notice the parts of us that may feel broken, it is a sacred opportunity to choose gold to fill the cracks and rewire the nervous system in profound new ways to feel good about feeling good again.
In a culture that shames and discourages pleasure and even profits off of us feeling broken and insecure, it is not enough to simply “allow” pleasure.We are what we practice so it becomes a subversive act of reclaiming and practicing our own pleasure so that the body becomes a trustworthy compass as we move towards creating the world we would like to live in.
I lay down to sleep last night and immediately noticed that my nervous system was on high alert. Everything was upregulated. My pulse, my breath. I felt like a little animal hiding in long grass. After a day of reading, re-reading and reflecting on my own sexual assault and harassment stories my nervous system was pretty sure that it was not safe to let my guard down. In fact, I am writing this piece now at 6am after being startled awake finally after a night of dreaming that I was running away from men who were trying to rape me or assault me. Only in the dream there was nowhere to hide. None of the buildings had roofs and all of the men were huge and could look right over the wall and find me no matter where I hid. It was an exhausting night. And I can tell you that this is just one of many dreams like this.
I am writing about this because I imagine I am not the only person who has stumbled upon some post traumatic stress after such an intense wave of sharing and vulnerability with the #metoo campaign. Post traumatic stress is not just when you feel uncomfortable talking about something but when the body actually feels like it is stuck in a loop trying desperately to complete the cycle of unsequenced trauma. And it is. Our growing understanding of trauma is informing us that trauma is not actually so much about what has happened to the body (though it certainly is relevant) but how the body responds to it (or doesn’t because it is not allowed to.) When an animal experiences trauma it shakes and twitches until all of the adrenaline that was coursing through its bloodstream is spent and then it sleeps to return to its normal and regulated state. Look up Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) which is based completely on this.
When we experience trauma of any sort the nervous system responds in a number of ways. We have all heard of the fight or flight response. This is the part where our intelligent body quickly assesses whether the threat can be fought off or, if it is much bigger and stronger than we are, to run. If neither fighting nor fleeing will work we freeze which is an animal’s last ditch attempt to save itself by playing dead or going limp so that death is less painful. After the immediate danger has passed (if we didn’t die) we need a way to finish the sequence and allow our nervous system to re-regulate itself. In a culture that does not allow screaming, crying and definitely not twitching and shaking we remain stuck and frozen waiting for the bear to finally finish us already. Post traumatic stress is when we become our own bear over and over again.
One thing that prevented me from telling my own story for so long was that one of the ways that my nervous system had been able to cope with the trauma was to rewrite the story. For years,I was pretty sure that what had happened was not rape because it did not fit neatly into the image of being cornered and forced to the ground in an ally. To top off the confusion, during said incident, my body had responded in ways that looked and felt like, for all intents and purposes, pleasure or enjoyment. Until it turned into excruciating pain. This experience has left a patterning and imprint on my body that has affected every single one of my sexual encounters since. As pleasure builds, my body starts to prepare for excruciating pain and freezes. Rinse. Repeat. I am just starting to find awareness around this that I can use as a little wedge in this relentless cycle to give myself more space and begin to change it.
For a long time I felt betrayed by my body. Why would my body respond to what was essentially sexual assault in this way? An elevated heart beat, lubrication and blood flowing to my genitals means arousal and that I wanted it right? Recently I have just learned about this thing called “arousal non-concordance” and it explained everything. In case you don’t know about it I want to share with you because maybe it will give you the reframe that you need to better understand one of your own experiences and then begin the healing process.
I am reading this wonderful book by Emily Nagoski called Come as You Are. She touches on a vast well of knowledge about the neuroscience of sex for women but one thing that she touched on that really stuck with me was this idea of arousal non-concordance. The idea that our brain’s response to sexually relevant stimuli and our body’s response to sexually relevant stimuli do not always sync up. In fact, only 10% of people with vulvas experience physical response (blood flow to vulva, lubrication) concordant with being actually turned on and interested in sex whereas 50% of people with penises have physical symptoms (a hard on) that match their desire for sex.Think Pavlov’s Dogs. So only 10% of the time our brains and bodies are wanting the same thing!
I think that this fact has the capacity to give survivors of sexual abuse a sacred and well-deserved gift of self-forgiveness and relief. Take a deep breath right now and just feel that. For the woman who climaxed while being raped. It was still rape. For the woman who convinced herself that she was actually into what was happening to her because her body was responding in a sexually relevant way even though her mind was screaming no. It was still rape. For the woman who felt strangely turned on by unwanted attention and then gross and confused afterwards. It was still harassment.
And just to give you a little extra space and breathing room in the reconciling of the “You said no but your body said yes” myth, it is not your fault but has been perpetuated by our culture in sneaky and totally overt ways. Here is a quote from Emily Nagoski:
“This myth has its own degree of traction, showing up in the public discourse as recently as the 2012 Senate race in Missouri, when Republican candidate Todd Akin said, ‘If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down,’ which even Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney described as ‘insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong.’
Sex researcher Meredith Chivers often says ‘Genital response in not consent.’ Let’s add to that, ‘And neither is pregnancy.’
Genital response is no more an expression of pleasure, desire or consent than the fertilization of an egg is. I hope that is totally obvious to you by now.”
For me, recognizing non-concordance has clarified a lot for me about my experiences and has afforded me space for re-framing and, finally, healing. I hope it might help to clear some of the confusion for you. Healing sexual trauma is no small thing, but can be done. Our bodies are already doing it but we have to allow them to finish the process.