Cosmic Bitch Slap? Or is it something else?

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”  Mary Oliver

In earlier blogs, I cheerfully wrote about my decision to use bioidentical hormones as a way to retain my sexual vitality while avoiding the unpleasant effects of menopause. I had only begun to enjoy sex at around age 50 after attending many workshops on love, sexuality and intimacy, which helped me heal from the effects of sex abuse and own my empowered sexuality.

It seemed so easy, this choice of mine to use bioidentical hormones to escape menopause hell. Oh, I knew the risks—but the information I read suggested that bioidentical hormones were safer than pharmaceutical pseudo-hormones—that it was pharmaceutical hormones that caused breast cancer, not bioidenticals. I had no reason to believe otherwise though I’ve now learned that not everyone is as confident in the purported safety of bioidenticals as those who advocate for them. Unfortunately for me, the symptoms of menopause really are hellacious: frequent and intense night sweats that disrupt my sleep, brutal daytime hot flashes, intense pain that robs intercourse of pleasure, brain fog, anxiety and baffling mood swings to name just a few.

The breast cancer diagnosis brought an abrupt halt to the relief the hormones delivered, and about a month after my last dose of estrogen, my body once again descended into menopause hell. I’ve been left with a BIG question and a challenge.

The BIG question is: WTF?? I had always believed, based on years of reading self-help and metaphysical books (thank you Louise Hay) that if we “do our work” (as in, the hard work of healing sexual or whatever trauma we carry) we somehow find this place of peace and grace, where things work out for us, because we’ve healed our shit. Bad things, like a breast cancer diagnosis aren’t supposed to happen after you’ve healed your shit! Thus, for me to do my sexual healing work, to own my empowered sexuality, to become a woman who truly loves sexual connectivity, to finding a way to hold onto it, to have that taken away by the practical reality of wanting to stay alive, seems, well, like a cosmic bitch slap. Why didn’t the Louise Hay formula work for me? Or am I just not seeing that it really has worked for me?

Where I sit now, a few months past surgery and well into my wellness and healing, I can see through the angst what I needed to see all along. “Doing our work” doesn’t guarantee that it all works out the way we want or expect it to. We don’t get to script the end result of our efforts. Nothing in this life guarantees that. And yet, “doing my work” has resulted in profound healing. I no longer carry sexual trauma. I have forgiven the men who sexually abused me, and my parents for being so consumed in alcoholism (dad) and co-dependency (mom) that I did not have anybody that felt stable enough to tell. I am more deeply connected to my husband than ever before. I enjoy sexual energy and sexual connectivity. I’ve dropped divisive cultural stories about what men are like, and enjoy rich friendships with men. In addition, I’ve become a teacher, educator, and intimacy blogger emphasizing communication and intimacy as key components of healthy sexuality. These, and more, are the gifts I’ve received from “doing my work.”

And here’s my challenge: to revisit my assumption that menopause would derail my enjoyment of sexual intimacy.  I’ve already discovered that there are many women who continue to enjoy richly satisfying sex lives after menopause without hormones—why not me? In my next post, I’ll let you know what I’ve learned so far.

An Unexpected Detour

“The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” Paracelsus, Sixteenth-Century Physician

After taking off last summer from blogging, I wasn’t planning on taking another break. My last blog left off in November, when I joined the staff of As You Like It; The Pleasure Shop. I have so much to report on this new adventure! But before I do, I want to talk about my unexpected detour.

In early December, I learned that I had breast cancer. For many reasons, I was stunned. I believed my dedication to healthy eating and fitness protected me. In fact, so confident was I in my lifestyle, I had told myself many times over how grateful I was that I’d never have to walk “that path,” meaning the path of a breast cancer thriver. I couldn’t have imagined that one of the tools I had chosen to ensure healthy aging and vital sexuality—bioidentical hormones—would become such a threat. Alas, my tumor was receptive for both progesterone and estrogen. So much for bypassing menopause.

Fortunately, my intuition spoke loudly and clearly. It told me that other than surgery, I could not do conventional medicine. The day I was diagnosed, I asked my provider for options, confessing that I was more afraid of western medicine’s way of treating cancer than cancer itself. Amazingly, she had a book for me. Aptly titled, “You Did What? Saying “No” to Conventional Cancer Treatment,” this small but mighty book was my salvation. I then read Kelly Turner’s inspiring “Radical Remission,” Raymond Francis’ “Never Fear Cancer Again,” and others. In January, I watched most of Ty Bollinger’s series, “The Truth about Cancer” along with Chris Werk’s series, “Chris Beat Cancer.” I’m currently reading Donald Yance’s “Herbal Medicine, Healing & Cancer,” which astounds me with the power of herbs to heal at the systemic level.

My own intuition and other resources convinced me that there is far more than the one way of healing ourselves from cancer. I didn’t like conventional medicine’s war metaphor and “doing battle” with cancer.  I had no desire to declare war on any aspect of myself and do the equivalent of dropping a napalm bomb on my body by submitting to radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapies. My sense was that cancer was not a foreign invader, rather, my cells were just a bit confused. I called them my “errant cells” and sent them and my breast love daily. I believed (and still do) that only through love, faith and trust would I heal.

Thus, I contacted the Mederi Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland, featured in “You Did What? Saying “No” to Conventional Cancer Treatment” and am now following an intensive herbal medicine protocol. Several of my herbs help my body cull harmful estrogen metabolites from my system; some strengthen and protect cell membranes; some strengthen liver function and overall immune function; some prevent angiogenesis (the process of cancer cells growing blood vessels; some induce apoptosis (the natural process of cells dying when defective—cancer cells forget how to do this).

I take herbs and supplements daily and eat an extraordinary diet, consuming about 25 organic vegetables and fruits daily. Many foods act on cancer cells as well. I make all of my own food, such as organic breads, beans, quinoa, rice, amaranth, kimchi and drink green and medicinal teas throughout the day.

In addition, I meditate and exercise daily; I go to acupuncture weekly; I’m working with a counselor to root out old emotional issues and patterns; I’ve become a Reiki practitioner and regularly give and receive healing touch. I respect that there is mystery and unknown in the healing process—and I am learning to trust and have faith. I don’t have the answers and don’t profess to. But what I do have is a healthy, strong body that is cancer free and free from side effects of western medicine (“collateral damage” as my surgeon called them).

I’ve been hesitant to write about my process for so many reasons. Here are just a few:

  • I’m just a bit pissed off about the mammogram thing. Persistent marketing by corporations that make billions on peddling fear convince us that mammograms will protect us. I had a “normal” mammogram just five months before I found the dent on the underside of my breast as I lifted my arm to apply deodorant. The diagnostic mammogram I was given in November was also a “normal” mammogram—it was the ultrasound that detected the tiny Grade 1 (non-aggressive) Stage 1 (no spread to lymph nodes) tumor that had distorted my breast tissue. To me, mammography is a false promise—and don’t get me started on Oregon Imaging’s questionable ethics in billing practices. Despite my understandable lack of faith in mammography, I am told repeatedly that it is the “standard of care” in the industry and I must get another in a year. I’m researching other options: thermography and ultrasound top my list.
  • Our cultural narrative on cancer is fear-based and controlled by the cancer industry. We are taught to fear cancer and to believe that anyone with cancer is under an impending death sentence. We are told that there is ONE WAY—and ONE WAY only—to deal with cancer: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and for some, hormone therapy with carcinogenic drugs like tamoxifen. The attendant message, whether spoken or not is that failure to follow the ONE WAY will lead you to an early death. After conducting massive amounts of research, I completely disagree.
  • Some people look at me differently, which completely sucks. I get looks of fear—that’s Mother Culture at work—but what I really hate is the looks of pity, or worse, the comments, “Wow, you look so good!” Or the hushed tone, “So, how are you really doing?” As if I should look like I’m dying or feeling horrible. Even worse is the look of doom when I mention that I’m not doing conventional medicine.

Here’s my truth: I am strong and healthy and have not been sick a single day since my diagnosis. I am cycling, walking, hiking and lifting weights regularly. On my 55th birthday (my “rebirthday”), I had that tiny tumor surgically removed and was out walking two days later. My surgeon called me a few days later to tell me she had obtained “clear margins,” meaning the tumor was removed fully surrounded by healthy tissue and my lymph nodes were clear. She then referred me to Willamette Cancer Institute to meet with a regular oncologist and radiation oncologist. With faith in my intuition, trust in my healing path and my higher power, I skipped those appointments and chose this path of natural healing.

One of the hardest parts about my path is loneliness—bucking cultural norms can be isolating. Fortunately, I’ve just found a group, “Healing Strong,” that is for people like me who are following a similar wellness approach to healing. Melanie from North Bend, Oregon, has been so supportive. Anyone considering this path will find support from “Healing Strong.”

Finally, everyone who confronts a cancer diagnosis has to decide how to proceed. While western medicine did not appeal to me, it may be someone else’s hope and salvation. Trust in western physicians runs strong in this country. It is how we’ve been trained to believe. (“The Truth about Cancer” tells this story powerfully and explains why we may want to question this cultural narrative.) I’m not trying to convince anyone that a natural healing path is right for them—just that it exists, along with so many other options our culture routinely and easily dismisses.

Next time I blog, I’ll get back to my topic: intimacy, connectivity, empowered sexuality. I taught seven adult sex ed classes from February 7 to March 20, and learned so much! Can’t wait to pass along some great information.

 

Another Trip to the Edge

“Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.” Herman Melville

Seven years ago, I ran crying out of Babeland, a sex positive sex toy store in Seattle, overwhelmed with shame after I attempted to buy a small vibrator. I simply had wanted to—no­­ needed to buy a vibrator so I could get over masturbation shame, something that was instilled in me at a very young age. Fortunately, I was determined and with the encouragement and support of my husband, (and a hearty swallow off his Mai Tai), I marched right back into Babeland and purchased that vibrator as well as a book on sexual healing. Two years later, I returned to Babeland, stayed for over an hour, and purchased $200 worth of pleasure products! Woo hoo!

Fast forward to the present. I’ve recently accepted a job at Eugene’s As You Like It; a Pleasure Shop, where we promote healthy sexual expression through workshops, and an eco-conscious, body-safe product line including vibrators, dildos, lubes, gender expression items, books and more. As a female-owned, sex positive store with its unique focus on earth and body-safe products, As You Like It is a community treasure. In February, I’ll begin teaching a series on rocking sex after 50, and I can’t wait!

Given my history, I could not have seen this one coming even as of a few years ago—yet, as part of the evolution of my background as a sexologist and sex educator, it makes perfect sense. For what we do in As You Like It is to help people normalize the experience of pleasure within the context of their own sexuality. And we do this in an environment that is light, bright, open and safe for everyone.

So what’s the catch? I am so aware that many people can’t separate the light from the dark when it comes to sex and pleasure. Our culture still sees female pleasure as taboo and shame-worthy yet thinks nothing of using sexual images to sell services and products (cars, hamburgers, clothing, etc.), which is completely warped. Many women don’t have any context in which to experience sex as pleasurable due to lack of permission, lack of familiarity with their own pleasure centers, or having a history where sex was about being used for someone else’s pleasure to the exclusion of their own.

In my experience, when people claim agency over their sexuality and pleasure and dispatch shame, empowerment results. In this context, it doesn’t matter what Mother Culture says about sex; it doesn’t matter what religion says about sex; it doesn’t matter what parents, relatives or siblings believe about sex. It all comes down to each person in the privacy of her own heart and mind, deciding what sex is for her and opening to a journey of personal exploration and self-acceptance.

I have chosen a complex playground and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Helping people gain agency over their sex lives and conquering the dark side feels fantastic!

 

 

 

 

Believe Women

“Stark truth is seldom met with open arms.”  Justin K. McFarlane Beau

This is not a blog I wanted to write. I wrote it because I am righteously incensed and tired of a subject that should have been put to rest decades ago. Yet, here it is again. And again. And again.

Several weeks ago, I was with friends and the topic came up of women coming forward to report that the republican presidential candidate had sexually assaulted them. And there it was. My friend commented, “What I don’t understand is why they didn’t report it when it happened. I mean, why are they just coming forward now? It seems a bit suspicious.”

A few short days later, an acquaintance stopped to chat while I was on the spin bike at the gym. Same topic. She commented, “What I don’t understand,” she said, pulling her fist back and drawing her face into a tough sneer, “is why none of them punched him in the face or kicked him in the balls. That’s what I’d have done.”

As a woman who has been sexually abused (five different perpetrators), assaulted in several different ways, groped, subjected to sexually explicit talk and leering by a managing partner at a law firm I worked at years ago, I couldn’t believe that I was hearing women talking this crap, parroting harmful cultural memes that serve to keep other women from coming forward and reporting sexual assault and abuse when it happens—or when they are ready to report.

Studies confirm that women do not report between 65-89% of sexual assaults, and the rate of false reports is less than 2%. By now the reasons for a woman not reporting should be patently obvious, but let me list a few:

  • Sexual assault causes trauma. Trauma is an emotional reaction experienced in the aftermath of a horrific, unexpected and upsetting event, like being raped, assaulted, molested, groped or otherwise violated. According to the American Psychological Association, “immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder.” While individuals respond differently to trauma our bizarre cultural belief is that all sexual assault/abuse survivors should calmly and rationally step forward to report an incident, when in fact, they may be frozen in a state of disbelief, denial, terror, dissociation or worse. Even for those survivors who appear present and grounded the prospect of reporting in a cultural climate as hostile as what we currently have can be utterly prohibitive.
  • Mother Culture has taught women to blame themselves for being sexually assaulted/abused. This, coupled with the effects of trauma, may prevent a woman from understanding for years that she was not at fault for a man’s choice and actions. Where the man occupies a special position of power or trust, such as a boss, a relative, respected community member (physician, priest, politician, athlete, coach), a girl or woman may be even more reluctant to step forward. In this culture, who will believe her word against his? And when she finally does step forward, she is met with contempt and disbelief that reflects a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of either cultural training or trauma: “Gee, why didn’t she say something sooner?”
  • Collectively, our culture savages women who report sexual assault/abuse, whether they report it when it happens or years later. Women are called liars, are subjected to ridicule, have their motives questioned, are asked what they did to encourage the assault, are asked why they didn’t leave. Thus, witnessing this perverse cultural fiasco, is it any wonder that most survivors decide not to report? Is it any wonder that women will report only when a critical mass step forward as in the Bill Cosby clusterfuck, and now the republican candidate disaster? Get this straight: women don’t report because they know that they will be doubted, harassed, blamed, shamed, threatened, intimidated, shunned, and worse. Social media compounds this despicable situation even more, like a metastatic cancer extending its reach. Even worse: women don't report because they know their perpetrator is likely to walk away with minimal or no punishment.

No person knows in advance how she will respond to the trauma of sexual assault/abuse. For a woman to suggest that all women should stand up to a powerful man with a slap or punch or by calling it out because that’s her fantasy of how she would respond is utterly unfair. Understand this: until sexual assault happens to you, you really don’t know how you might respond. Don’t judge survivors based on your fantasy of how you’d deal with a situation you’ve never experienced.

What can you do? Believe women who step forward to report sexual assault/abuse. Call out people who cast suspicion on a woman who reports an assault. Teach boys and men to stop sexually assaulting women and to reject this culture's current warped entitlement thinking around women's bodies. Insist that judges impose realistic sentences in rape and assault cases. Our judges simply must stop winking at offenders, handing out ridiculous non-penalties for sexual assault, rape and abuse.

Dancing on the Edges...Again

“You will always be too much of something for someone: too big, too loud, too soft, too edgy. If you round out your edges, you lose your edge.” Danielle LaPorte

“Only ever doing what feels comfortable is a form of suicide.” Oli Anderson, Personal Revolutions: A Short Course in Realness

On my way to a writer’s luncheon, I ran into an acquaintance, someone I knew from my past life as a law school administrator. When I shared about my work as a sexologist, sex educator and blogger he remarked that his friend had transitioned from being a lawyer to teaching Kung Fu. He thought that his friend’s transition seemed a bit ordinary in comparison. And he doesn’t know the half of it.

Two weeks ago, I stood in front of 400 people at the Portland Mystery Box Show and shared a deeply personal story that is part of my sexual healing process. It was something that I felt compelled to do—and it felt right to get up on that stage and tell this specific story. I didn’t get up on stage for attention or showmanship. It simply felt amazing to acknowledge how far I’ve come in healing sexual wounding. Similarly, it felt empowering to break the code of silence around sex abuse and to speak out. And while writer Elizabeth Gilbert would skewer me for this one, I spoke out with the hopes that perhaps other sex abuse survivors hearing my story could find hope. Hope that there is healing. Hope that there is empowerment. Hope that even for sex abuse survivors, sex is something that they can retake as their own and enjoy once again as I have done.

Despite feeling grounded and strong after telling my story, I’m feeling vulnerable as I contemplate whether to share the video more broadly on YouTube.

I’m completely comfortable with what I said on that stage. I’m comfortable sharing the video with friends and others who I know will support me. What I worry about is the consequences of making my story accessible to people who haven’t earned the right to hear my story, to borrow a concept from shame expert Brené Brown. People who haven’t earned the right to hear my story include: 1) people who may be critical or who may blame me (and in our culture, the destructive practice of blaming sex abuse survivors is alive and well); 2) people who don’t know me well and/or people who may feel embarrassed and avoid me; or 3) people who simply lack compassion and cannot relate to the depth of my experience.

There are other reasons that I feel vulnerable. This is the first time I’ve so publically identified any of my five abusers (yes, five different incidents, five different perpetrators). I don’t name the person but family members and a few others will figure it out easily enough by listening to my story. This in itself may open a whole new wound, something I really would prefer to avoid. And yet, as I write these words I realize there is something else at work: shame. Fuck it all, there is still shame and it is at the root of that uncomfortable feeling that I shouldn’t be talking out loud about sex abuse, that I might offend someone or make someone else feel uncomfortable.

Through the grace of doing all this healing work, I can spotlight the shame and replace it with this awareness: I’m not the one who did anything wrong, so why should I feel uncomfortable (shame) in disclosing the act of sex abuse someone else did to me?

Even more importantly, my story is far more about courage and my tenacity in pursuing healing. Frankly, that’s the real story. There’s no shame in that and I am not responsible for other people’s reactions—whatever they may be. In my women's group, we have a saying we love to shout out at times, "Fuck Fear." I'm borrowing the concept and shouting out a hearty, "Fuck Shame!" You'll see a link to the YouTube video of my Mystery Box Theater Story soon.

Sexual Ethics 101

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

Recently, a friend of mine had a disturbing visit with her gynecologist. She wisely scheduled a visit to complete a panel of testing before engaging sexually with a new partner. She and her partner agreed to be tested and to exchange results as part of conscious safer sex planning. If everyone did this, imagine how much new STI transmission rates would decline!

Shockingly, my friend’s gynecologist suggested that she forego testing for HSV-I and II (Herpes Simplex Virus), explaining that if she got a positive result for either and had never experienced an outbreak of either, it would “muddy the waters” and be difficult to explain to a partner, so it was better not to know. Seriously. A gynecologist in Eugene, Oregon, made this recommendation. In 2016.

The fact is there are many people who have HSV-I and II, and do not know it because they have never experienced an outbreak. According to the CDC, most people who have genital herpes do not know it. These silent carriers can still transmit the virus, so knowing one’s own status is vitally important as is knowing a potential partner’s status through testing. Herpes is not the only STI that some people can carry without symptoms; it is also not the worst player out there. By far.

My friend was not deterred and asked her doctor to order testing for HSV-I and II. She explained to her gynecologist, that as a matter of sexual ethics, she wanted to know what her tests showed so she could have an open and honest discussion with her partner. The gynecologist did not offer any additional information or ask any other safer sex-related questions.

One of my original motivators for becoming a sexologist and certified sex coach was meeting too many women in their 40s-60s who had contracted sexually transmitted infections because they did not know how to have a safer sex conversation, didn’t know what STI tests to ask for, took a partner’s word for it that they were “clean,” and did not use barriers, or were too embarrassed to talk to their doctors at all. Judging by my friend’s experience, I’m not sure talking to a doctor would be much benefit in any event. A visit to Planned Parenthood undoubtedly would be far more beneficial!

When it comes to sex, we need to choose empowerment, from learning how to be comfortable talking about sex, to taking responsibility for our sexual health, and to standing up to a medical doctor’s suggestion that ignorance is acceptable in the realm of sexual health. Information is empowering, deliberate ignorance is dangerous and debilitating.

Sexual Empowerment: Owning and Loving Our Sexuality

“Let today be the day…You stand strong in the truth of your beauty and journey through your day without attachment to the validation of others”
Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

“Taking control and owning our sexuality is radically empowering and forever immunizes us from the crippling effects of others’ judgments in virtually all areas of our lives. A sexually empowered woman is strong, confident and entirely self-referential.” Jane Steckbeck, Sexual Empowerment: Owning and Loving our Sexuality

This past weekend, I had the great honor of serving as an assistant at a revolutionary workshop, “All About Sex for Women,” in the Bay Area. In an environment that was sacred, reverential and deeply respectful, I supported the women as facilitator Sarah Sandhill led them through a series of carefully designed exercises that encouraged curiosity, self-reflection and self-acceptance. Attendees also shared in large and small group discussions and as the weekend unfolded, Sarah’s authentic, grounded and masterful facilitation fostered a closeness that enveloped the group of seventeen.

Our group included women ranging from age 32 to 75. Most came with questions about normalcy: I like sex this way, is that normal? My vulva looks like this, is that normal? I can only orgasm if I do this, is that normal? How can I love myself when I’ve gained 30 pounds this last year? I don’t feel anything when my husband touches my g-spot, is that normal? Some came with concerns resulting from misinformation or hurtful comments made by past partners. Some have overcome horrific histories of sex abuse and have worked hard to enjoy sex once again. Some shared feelings of acute loss because older male partners had withdrawn from intimacy when their erections lost the potency of youth, failing to recognize that true intimacy comes from far more than an erect penis.

I used the word “revolutionary” to describe the workshop yet I wonder why it has to feel that way. And sadly, it is this: in most cultures, a woman’s sexuality is secondary to male sexuality, and talking about sex is still uncomfortable for many women. We teach girls that they exist to please men and bear children certainly not to experience pleasure! Women are not supposed to enjoy sexual pleasure, despite being equipped with a clitoris that has over 8000 nerve endings and a virtually limitless capacity for multiple orgasms. As a result of our cultural conditioning (delivered through family and religious messaging, mass/social media, direct experiences), many women feel shame when they feel sexual pleasure. Even worse, some women have been told that their vulvas are ugly and misshapen, or that sex is only for women with a certain body type.

In participating in workshops like “All About Sex for Women,” women can shed the layers of cultural conditioning and uncover some important core truths: 1. Sex is highly pleasurable and women can learn to enjoy pleasure without shame and guilt; 2. Women in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are sexually alive and well, enjoying intimacy and orgasms well beyond menopause; 3. Masturbation is a primary means of sexual expression and self-awareness, allowing women to understand their own sexual response and tap into their vitality and sexiness, whether partnered or not; 4. Even women with histories of rape and sex abuse can heal and reclaim their right to enjoy sex free from trauma and pain; 5. Every woman’s vulva is different, unique and beautiful. Contrary to the limited view promoted in pornography, vulvas come in all sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Understanding this and choosing self-acceptance goes a long, long way; 6. Taking control and owning our sexuality is radically empowering and forever immunizes us from the crippling effects of others’ judgments in virtually all areas of our lives. A sexually empowered woman is strong, confident and entirely self-referential.

I hope to someday live in a world where each woman can and will own her power. Thus, my advice to my sisters: own your sexuality. Own your body, know its pleasures and become the sole and loving source of your body image. Own and treasure your experience of sexual pleasure. Become curious and explore. Who are you as a sexual person? What do you like? How can you step into vital sexuality on your own terms? Heal your wounds. Few of us arrive into adulthood free of scars. To the extent your wounds inhibit your enjoyment of sex, find help. Healing is worth it. In this culture, it takes courage for a woman to mindfully embrace her sexuality. May that courage fill your spirit and carry you forward to empowerment.

 

The Myth of the Gray Area and Rape Culture

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Peter Drucker

Recently, in an online forum for Sex Coaching professionals, a colleague posted a question that she labeled a “gray area” about consent. Here is the paraphrased question:

Partner A has explicitly said “no” to penetration, but consents to outercourse, (external hand/finger stimulation, oral sex). While engaged in outercourse, Partner A talks dirty to Partner B about intercourse (“I wish I could do you/feel you inside me.”) Partner B initiates intercourse, penetrating Partner A.

As both a Sex Coaching professional and a date rape survivor, I don’t see a gray area in this scenario. Even calling it a gray area is upholding our current rape culture because it implies that a woman gives consent to penetration simply by being sexual and/or talking dirty. In the above scenario, Partner A explicitly said “no” to penetration. Nothing about what she said or did changed that “no” to a “yes.” Only the word “yes” would have done that.

As long as we label scenarios like the above as “gray areas,” we condone rape, because we readily substitute a woman’s explicit “yes” with words or behavior that are not “yes.” And we do that culturally because at some level, we believe that if a woman is behaving in any way that is sexual, she is consenting to penetration. That, my friends, is a rape culture assumption.

In the above scenario, if Partner B felt confused about whether Partner A’s dirty talk meant that she had changed her mind, it was his responsibility to ask before initiating intercourse because he wanted to move beyond an explicitly spoken boundary. There is no room for assumptions or guesswork. He should have asked: “You sound really turned on talking about penetration. Have you changed your mind? Can we have intercourse?” She might have responded: “No, I haven’t changed my mind. It’s just a huge turn-on for me to talk about it while you touch me.” Or: “Hell, yes, I’ve changed my mind! I want to have intercourse!”

In short, nothing but a clear conversation followed by an explicit “yes” changes the above scenario from rape to consensual intercourse. Labeling it a “gray area” suggests that men are allowed to treat behavior and words after “no” that are not “yes” as a “yes” rather than training men that they must stop and ask if confused. Why do we continue to shift the burden of a man’s choice to override a woman’s boundary onto the woman?

Please share this post—it is a message that needs to be communicated repeatedly and often until we eliminate this tragic cultural bias. It may take a few generations, but why not try for our daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters?

Redemption through Touch

“A hug makes you feel good all day.” Kathleen Keating

Last Sunday night—Mother’s Day—felt incredibly sweet for me. My own kids, Michael and Scout, sent lovely messages from Oregon, while I got to spend time in Indiana with my mom, Char, my three brothers, two nephews, my lovely 13 year old friend, Avi, and my sweetie, Ed. Being together was a rare delight on its own, but what made it so sweet was the hugging.

We didn’t hug, cuddle or show physical affection when we were growing up. Parental touch came in the form of correction or discipline. Touch between my brothers and I occurred mostly during athletic activities such as football or wrestling—in other words, it was rough and tumble touch, not affectionate. (Poking each other in church or a cramped car was the other common form of touch but that never resulted in anything good!)

And yet, even with our stunted experience of touch we’ve all somehow learned to do it differently than what we learned growing up. Ed and I shared e-hugs with my three brothers and their wives and big bear hugs with my nephews. Our young friend Avi was a delight, freely offering hugs, cuddling up and holding hands. When everyone left at the end of the evening, we shared big hugs all around again. My heart soared at what I felt and witnessed: genuine affection conveyed through hugs. What a shift—and how fortunate for all of us.

After all these years, why should this matter so much? Two reasons come to mind: as I write my memoir I am recalling more good memories which not only provides balance, it enables me to see that through the tough times, we were a family that remained connected though for a time, we definitely scattered for survival. Alcoholism will do that to a family—yet not all families retain core connection. And second, being touch-avoidant never felt quite right to me. I always felt like something was missing in my relatively touchless world. Turns out, I was right.

There are so many reasons for us to share non-sexual touch with others. Our skin is our body’s largest organ and touch releases oxytocin by stimulating the sensory receptors in our skin. Oxytocin is a hormone that makes us feel good—happy, accepted, connected—and its activation delivers a host of well-known benefits:

  • Levels of the stress hormone cortisol decline
  • Blood pressure and heart rate drops
  • Immune function increases
  • Asthma symptoms abate
  • Migraine headache symptoms ease
  • Sleep is more restful
  • Chronic pain sufferers report a decline in pain
  • Problem-solving abilities improve
  • The restlessness associated with dementia is alleviated

I know that when I share touch with someone, be it a hug, holding hands, stroking a hand or arm, giving or receiving a shoulder massage, it feels good to the core of my being and I generally feel softer, and more grounded inside—and more connected to the other person. That there are even greater health benefits involved is pure bonus!

I am deeply grateful that I’ve normalized touch and that my family has learned to relax into warm hugging with one another. Undoubtedly, with what we know about the benefits of touch, we are all far better off. Cuddle pile, anyone?

“Don’t Yuck Anybody’s Yum!”[i]

“When we are judging everything, we are learning nothing.”
Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth and Being Free

I recently had an interesting discussion while teaching a group of seniors about experiencing sexual pleasure in an aging body. This particular segment of the class focused on sex toys and how all manner of sex aids/toys can enhance sexual enjoyment where sensation has diminished with age. Translation: a vibrator can be a godsend for a woman who needs lengthy and intense stimulation to experience orgasm.

I shared a handout that contained a variety of statements about sex toys and asked participants to decide which statements were myths. One of the statements: “Sex toys are kinky,” generated a discussion worth sharing after one participant declared, “Sex toys are kinky, especially butt plugs!” His insistence allowed me to ask clarifying questions and offer a more sex positive way of viewing sex toys, butt plugs and sex practices that are consensual but perhaps different from what he was accustomed to.

While the term kink refers to sexual practices considered to be unconventional, including BDSM, it can also be used in a derogatory manner to suggest that a sexual practice is deviant or twisted. In the first context, the use of the term kink is accurate; in the latter, it is hurtful, perpetuating the belief that consensual sexual practices are bad if outside the speaker’s comfort zone. In my view as a sex positive sex educator, any sexual behavior goes as long as it is: consensual, mutual, respectful, safe and sane. Emily Nagoski in “Come as You Are, The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life,” suggests that a good rule of thumb for sex educators is “Don’t yuck anybody’s yum.” I think “Don’t yuck anybody’s yum” is a good rule for all of us!

If you hear of a sexual practice that strikes you as unusual, instead of judging, shaming or ridiculing, consider curiosity instead. Ask questions. Find out why a particular practice appeals to a person. Take butt plugs for example. Many people find anal play and the use of butt plugs to be incredibly erotic. For men, butt plugs stimulate the prostate, which is highly pleasurable and can greatly intensify orgasms. Straight men who can get past the “I must be gay if I enjoy anal play” mythology can open a whole new pathway to pleasure if open to exploring.

It is perfectly alright to avoid sexual activities that turn you off—in fact, a healthy “no” is vital to sexual wellbeing. But keep in mind that your yuck may be someone else’s yum and vocalizing your yuck can result in shaming—and that simply isn’t useful or welcome. So, let’s dispense with our judgments, shaming and labels. Be curious—and don’t yuck anybody else’s yum.

[i] Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.”

Risking Touch

“Touch has a memory.” John Keats

“What I like more than anything is the touch of a warm hand.” Marty Rubin

Last weekend, I led and participated in an event that most of my friends and family would consider “bizarre” and threatening by any stretch. Did I go to a sex party? No. Even more scary! (And no. I’ve never been to a sex party in case anyone’s wondering.) Ed and I joined five other people for an evening of non-sexual but intimate touch. Our group was comprised of people who have all attended workshops through the Human Awareness Institute, and have all experienced the profound gift of human touch that is offered with no agenda other than to share nurturing touch.

The evening consisted of a potluck, followed by a series of connective exercises. Participants shared openly about what’s going on in their lives; most exercises ended in some form of sweet stroking: face stroking with eyes open then closed, stroking head, ears, necks and arms. One exercise ended with each person in a group of three taking a turn being sandwich-hugged by their two partners for a full minute. Everyone was clothed. The evening ended with all of us in a cuddle pile, giving nurturing touch.

It’s amazing to witness such an event. People walk in with their street faces on, bodies tight, a bit stiff—and leave, looking 10 years younger, faces open and content, fully relaxed and 200% happier. The event I’ve just described may have many of you thinking, “Yep, she’s gone off the deep end,” or, “Holy crap, I’d NEVER go to something like that!” Years ago, I would have said the same thing. Touch, intimacy, hugging—all of it—terrified me. I’m so grateful that I’ve found my way to this place where I understand and treasure the value of nurturing touch. Because essentially, I found my way back to my own heart.

The transformative power of touch is profound, yet our culture—on the whole—does not value touch for many reasons.

First, many of us grew up in homes where our parents did not touch us very much at all, except for discipline. We might have been taught to keep our hands to ourselves, thus making it hard as we’ve grown up to recognize and appreciate touch. We may feel outright uncomfortable with touch just because we’ve never learned what nurturing touch feels like or that it is ok.

Second, most sex abuse survivors are suspicious of all touch, having learned that some touch can start innocently and morph into something entirely unwanted and invasive. In my own healing process, I had to learn the difference between barriers and boundaries, surrendering my barriers around touch and learning instead how to set and enforce boundaries. In this way, I learned to allow nurturing touch and decline or stop touch that did not feel right to me.

Third, on the whole, our society conflates touch with sex, so it can be challenging to touch without people feeling uncomfortable, unsure of the intent behind the touch. Thus, those of us who value touch and want to touch our friends and family, have to be meticulous in asking before we touch and in reading others’ comfort levels. As a sex abuse survivor, the last thing I want to do is to make anyone uncomfortable with touch!

Fourth, and linked to my third point, our culture teaches adults to get our touch needs met in the confines of our typically monogamous intimate relationships. This leaves unpartnered people with few options. And for many couples, touch sadly diminishes over time. We’re now seeing not just sexless marriages, but touchless marriages. It hurts just to write that! People in that situation are undoubtedly suffering from the lack of healing touch and intimacy.

In my next blog, I will explore the many health benefits of touch and ways for all of us to get more nurturing touch into our lives. In the meantime, think about your comfort level with touch. Consider a time where a simple touch or hug lifted your spirits. Is it time for you to open to the healing powers of touch? E-hugs all around!

Meta-Emotions and Sexual Wellbeing

“Knowing how your sexuality works is important; welcoming your sexuality as it is, without judgment or shame, is more important….[t]he hard part is liking your sexuality as it is, when for multiple decades the world has been trying to convince you that you’re broken.” Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

Can you guess what the most important element is in determining a woman’s sexual wellbeing?

Is it having a beautiful body? Experiencing orgasm easily? Liking certain sexual activities? Certainly, if you believe pop culture, you might think any of these is true, and you’d be wrong.

The most important element in determining a woman’s sexual wellbeing is how she feels about her sexuality or any aspect of it—her body, the time it takes to orgasm, or what she likes or dislikes. How she feels is more important than her sexuality itself. “Meta-emotions are how you feel about how you feel…It’s how you feel about what you’re experiencing,” according to Emily Nagoski in “Come as You Are.”

How we feel about our sexuality is complex in our sex negative culture, where few of us receive positive input about any aspect of our sexuality. A woman who enjoys kink may feel shame because of family or cultural messages that label kink as “warped”; another woman may feel shame because she is slow to orgasm and feels like she can’t ask her partner to take the time she needs to climax; yet another may like sex, but feels inhibited because media images have taught her to loathe her overweight body. In each of these situations, the woman’s issue isn’t her sexuality. Rather, how she feels about her sexual expression, her sexual functioning or her body is what affects her wellbeing. The same is true for men.

In hearing from so many of you in the last year and in my own healing process from the effects of sex abuse, family and cultural messaging, I’ve learned it is important to recognize meta-emotions because negative meta-emotions are the only thing we ever need to change. We really are fine just as we are, in our unique sexual expressions, what turns us on, our bodies, our functioning.

Here’s the nugget: when it comes to our sexuality, our own internal experience is the best source of knowledge about what is ok for us. Nothing else and nobody else gets to weigh in: not culture, not religion, not a sexual partner, not the media—only you.

As my own body changes, I’m noticing my meta-emotions and working at letting them go. Sometimes, I’m fine in this changing body, other times, I feel irritated about it all. On the days I feel the best, I’m in a place of acceptance rather than criticism. Join me this week—commit to noticing your meta-emotions about any aspect of your sexuality. Simply noticing is the gentle path to awareness, release and self-acceptance.

Hugging Like I Mean It

“A hug is a priceless gift of love and kindness.” Debasish Mridha

“Hug while you can.”  Jay Woodman

When Ed and I first met, he introduced me to the E-hug, which is full, heart-to heart embrace in which two people melt together, touching all the way down to the knees—and lower if possible. There is nothing sexual about an E-hug—it is not a hug with a grind—it is simple, full-contact tenderness, a hug that says, “you matter; I see and feel you; my heart touches your heart.”

Growing up, my family did not hug much at all and E-hugs never happened. In fact, for a long time, I was not comfortable hugging people other than Ed, though I experienced a deep longing when I saw people in non-sexual, deep, welcoming embraces. “I want that!” A little voice inside me seemed to call out. “I really want that!”

When I began attending workshops on intimacy, love and sexuality, I landed in a place where E-hugs were commonplace—and I’ve grown to love this kind of all-in warm, welcoming hugging. Actually, I don’t just love it: I crave it, and wish as a culture we were more open to greeting one another with our hearts. Connecting through hugs is one of the most heart-warming and sweetest ways to experience non-sexual touch with other humans. Yet, the E-hug is a rare animal among hugs. Here are the more common types of hugs I am sure you’ll recognize:

  • The “A-hug” or “A Frame.” The huggers stand far apart, arms around each other’s shoulders, press together quickly and separate;
  • The “B-hug” or “Sidearm squeeze,” “Dude hug,” or “Buddy hug,” in which two people (commonly guys) hug from the side, with the sides of upper bodies touching quickly then separating;
  • The “C and D-hugs,” frontal hugs involving more frontal contact to or above the waist, that is usually quick;
  • The “Baby-Burp hug,” which includes a flurry of little pats on the back but no real contact; usually a variant of the “A-hug”; and
  • The “Spine Crusher,” no explanation needed….

While I value all kinds of hugs and recognize that not everyone is comfortable with E-hugs (nor is an E-hug appropriate in all contexts), I’d love to give and get more E-hugs from my friends and family. It can be challenging: I’m pretty sensitive to others’ comfort levels and if I read discomfort, I back off quickly, settling for a hug that allows both of us to be comfortable.

So I ask: What’s your hugging style? Do you regularly greet friends and family with a warm E-hug, or are you a Sidearm Squeezer, or a Baby Burper, or hug-avoidant? Is your hugging style just what you’ve always done? Would you like to get and give more E-hugs? I certainly would and plan to give and get as many E-hugs as I can in this lifetime. Feel free to tap me on the shoulder any time and make an E-hug offer. I’m available and welcome melting together, heart to heart.

Karma and Menopause

“I do not want to be like a small animal bitten by a snake, going stiff with that poison. I want to bite back.” Yvette Christiansë, Unconfessed

Karma is a bitch. On May 1, 2015, I posted a blog admitting that I detested reading about menopause because everything I read was so negative, focusing on evil symptoms like hot flashes, fading libidos, dry, irritated vaginas and the like. Then I presented a more positive view of perimenopause…, which was a very nice perspective.

And surely the gods laughed because it is now perfectly clear that my May 1 post was written by a woman, who up to that point, had never experienced a blazing hot flash that left her swimming inside her clothing, painful intercourse or sudden onset insanity…I mean, mood swings. Yes, please pray for my husband; I think he may need support from non-hormonal friends. And the poor customer service people at Starbucks who were trying to help me after my app crashed….They had no idea what they were up against. Now that I’m sane again (who knows how long this will last), I cringe over the e-mails I sent to Starbucks. I used to be so nice in those situations….

Now, I’ve read a lot about menopause so I knew what to expect. (Cue hysterical laughter.) Yet, like having sex, reading about it and experiencing it is a wee bit different. I also know that women experience this life stage differently: some sail through with minimal or no upset, others, well, others become batshit crazy. I was hoping to be amongst the former. Fortunately, I have options. In fact, I’ve made an appointment to get on bioidentical hormones as soon as I can get in the door, desperately hoping they help as much as promised. I’ll keep you posted.

On the more serious side, I’m not about to set aside my ability to enjoy sexual pleasure due to symptoms of menopause if I can help it. Very simply, it took me far too many years to get here, to work through shame and sexual wounding and to get to a place where I enjoy sex. I’m not about to stew in this awful place if I can possibly help it. And I really don’t like being a sweaty, irrational, bitchy woman—I mean, I’ve always had my moments (who hasn’t?), but I’d like to think I’m really not that crazy woman coming unglued because her app won’t work.

While I don’t plan to turn my blog into a “menopause is horrible” blog, I may toss in an update from time to time. I’m hoping it’s good news!

Next week: An update after one year of blogging

The Big Disconnect and the Sex Abuse Survivor

[Please read last week’s Blog, The Big Disconnect: Arousal Nonconcordance,” before continuing, if you did not read it last week!]

“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”
Edwin Louis Cole

Recovering from the effects of sex abuse is a complex and multi-layered process because sex abuse affects survivors on so many levels: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Untangling how the abuse has affected a survivor is a highly individual process and each survivor will find recovery in his/her own way and when he/she is ready and able to heal.

In my own healing process, one of the most confusing and painful moments I experienced occurred when a horrific realization emerged unbidden from my subconscious mind that I had felt sexual pleasure when an abuser touched my vulva when I was nine years old. In that awful moment of recognition, (in my mid-30’s) I was crushed and overwhelmed with shame—until the compassionate counselor I was working with ever so gently with tears in his eyes, spoke these words: “Jane, your body is wired to feel sexual pleasure when it is touched like that. It can’t tell whether the touch is welcome or desired. All it can do is respond. You didn’t do anything wrong and your body didn’t betray you. Your abuser did.”

In that moment of absolution, I could see how I had shamed myself because I had misunderstood my body’s natural response to the unwanted sexual stimulation—and I could release years of shame. Since then, I have met many survivors who have struggled with the same issue. Our lack of understanding is heartbreaking.

In writing this blog, I hope that any other survivor reading it who still struggles with shame around their body’s autonomic response to unwanted sexual touch can understand—accept themselves and let it go. Remember from last week’s blog, genital response is a state of expecting, and is triggered by stimuli it has been trained to recognize as sexually relevant, like Pavlov’s dog trained to salivate to a bell ringing. It is not a state of desiring, liking, or wanting.

Equating genital response with desiring/wanting/liking can be confusing in any number of situations. However, for the sex abuse survivor, linking these two very different states can be the source of profound shame, emotional pain and a lifetime of feeling like our bodies betrayed us—or worse—that we’re bad or somehow liked or wanted the abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth and with this information, we can trust that our feelings were accurate and our bodies were simply doing what bodies are wired to do.

The Big Disconnect: Arousal Nonconcordance

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” Jane Austin

Speaking to my women readers: have you ever had that experience of being completely into your sweetheart or lover, of feeling very aroused—perhaps you’ve even had an orgasm or two—only to discover that your body has produced very little lubrication? Or perhaps you have experienced the opposite: you did not feel sexually interested or aroused—but discovered to your horror that your genitals were responding?

Most of us find these experiences disconcerting—and we may feel as if something is wrong with us, that our bodies have betrayed us. Or, our partners can interpret the lack of lubrication as a sign of lack of arousal or interest. Even worse: lubricating in a situation we find repellant can fill us with deep shame and self-doubt.

The reason we feel wrong or our partners feel hurt is that our cultural narrative tells us that genital response and arousal are the same thing. Romance novels, movies, porn, interpersonal sharing and even current sex education resources reinforce this message. Recent scientific studies show that our cultural narrative is flat wrong.

Arousal nonconcordance exists when genital response and arousal, the subjective experience of enjoying/desiring a sexual activity, differ. It turns out that all genital response tells us is that the genitals are reacting to something they’ve been conditioned to perceive as sexually relevant. Genital response tells us absolutely nothing about whether we are enjoying the situation, because arousal takes place in the brain, not in the genitals. In other words, genital response is an autonomic, trained physiological reaction that is not necessarily related to what we find sexually appealing. And at times, we may find something very sexually appealing—and our genitals do not respond at all.

In Emily Nagoski’s phenomenal book, “Come as You Are,” Chapter 6 explores the science that explains nonconcordance. I recommend reading her entire book, but Chapter 6 alone is revolutionary. Amazingly, in studies measuring women’s physiological reactions and subjective descriptions of arousal when viewing different kinds of porn, (get ready for this): “[t]here will be about a 10 percent overlap between what her genitals are doing and what she dials in as her arousal. 10 percent.” (Italics added). In men, genital response and subjective arousal overlap about 50 percent of the time.

The science of nonconcordance is far more complex than this brief summary, so I do hope you’ll take my advice and read Nagoski’s terrific discussion of the subject.

My interest is on the practical side: what does this really mean? Simply this: we can stop feeling wrong if our genitals and brain are sending us different messages and we can learn to trust our feelings over our genital response. Thus, if we are feeling very sensual, sexy and turned on with our sweeties and are not lubricating, we can trust our turned-on feelings and reach for the lube without analyzing what might be “going on.” Conversely, if we are feeling reluctant, turned off, or even repelled but become aware that we are lubricating, we can trust our feeling of “I’m not into this,” and say “no thanks.” Remember, all the genitals are telling you is this: “I’m responding to a stimulus because I’ve learned that it is sexually relevant.” Genital response does not mean you’re into it, that you like it or want it. That comes from your brain.

When I read about nonconcordance, I felt a load of cultural crap weighing about a ton drop from my shoulders and I love knowing that what my body does is pretty typical for a female body. Yet another harmful and confusing cultural myth bites the dust! I hope that you too can let go of the erroneous belief that genital response and arousal are one and the same and instead, learn to tune into and trust your feelings.

Next week: Nonconcordance and the sex abuse survivor

Being the Source of My Bliss

“Again and again it defeats me—This reliance on others for bliss.” John Welwood, “Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart”

This last weekend, Ed and I attended a couple’s workshop. The subjects included love, money, power and intimacy, among others. It was a great opportunity to relate in an environment that provided a good mix of intellectual discussions with other couples and heart connection with one another. One of the highlights of the workshop for me was Ed agreeing to participate with me in Saturday night entertainment: we took turns writing short love poems and haiku over the lunch hour then read them to one another in front of the group later in the evening.

Like any good workshop, it also presented an opportunity for a mis-connection—and the resulting process of ironing out the wrinkles and coming to a place of understanding one another’s perspective. I won’t go into details—other than to say that on Sunday morning, we had a series of disconnects that left me feeling upset and confused. And in subsequent discussions with Ed, I understood that the source of my upset and confusion was myself: I had unspoken expectations about how I wanted Ed to respond/react to me, and when he didn’t meet my unspoken expectations, I concluded that there was something wrong with me.

As is so often the truth, what I discovered is that I’m fine just as I am and Ed is fine just as he is. And rather than interpreting his response or lack of response as an indication that something was wrong about me, I really needed see that we simply had different mindsets at the time. Thus, what I learned is this: whether my partner (or friend) can meet me in any given energetic space has nothing to do with whether I am ok. As long as I offer myself unwavering and uncompromising approval and self-acceptance, it is perfectly fine for my partner and I to think and feel differently.

As I was processing all of this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the above quote from John Welwood’s beautifully written book on navigating relationships with others—and with ourselves. When I first read this quote in 2012, I thought it was bleak and isolating. However, this weekend, I finally got it: while other people are vital to my life, to adding richness, depth and meaning, other people (even my long-term Sweetie) are not responsible for my bliss. That’s on me, through self-approval and acceptance. Ed is entitled to occupy his own space and to have his own needs. When we connect well, it is bliss; when we do not, I can still have my bliss, as long as I stay connected to myself.

“Perfect Love Imperfect Relationships” is a gorgeous read—for anyone—whether in a relationship or not. I highly recommend it!

Dive into Intimacy

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” Plato

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Leonardo da Vinci

As Christmas is supposed to be more than boatloads of presents under a tree, shouldn’t Valentine’s Day be more than chocolates, jewelry and flowers? What if we dove beneath the Hallmark surface and mined this day for its real meaning? Could we make a meaningful celebration with our beloveds that center around love and intimacy sans the pressure of consumerism? My hope is that each of you connect with your sweethearts in a way that runs deep for both (or all!) of you. 

Here’s an idea: make dinner at home—together—and take some time to look into each other’s eyes, stroke each other’s faces tenderly. Read each other a couple of romantic poems, or write each other a love poem. Be playful. Try limericks or haiku—or whatever calls to you. Be present with loving your partner—with all that he or she brings to your life. If you’re unpartnered, write a love poem to yourself. After all, we are the original source of love for ourselves: in other words, it’s hard to accept love from others unless we first feel it from ourselves. Feel the difference in how you experience Valentine’s Day when it really is about love—rather than a token Hallmark holiday. Below are three of my favorite love poems from Hafiz. The poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, Mira—so many others may provide some inspiration.

From my heart to yours: love deeply, authentically—it may feel exquisitely vulnerable—turn towards that feeling and come alive in love.

How Did The Rose?

How

did the rose

ever open its heart

and give this world all of its beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light against its being,

Otherwise we all remain too frightened.

One Regret

One regret that I am determined not to have

when I am l lying upon my

death bed

is that we did not kiss

enough.

Troubled

Troubled?

Then stay with me, for I am not.

Lonely?

A thousand naked amorous ones dwell in ancient caves

beneath my eyelids.

Riches?

Here’s a pick,

my whole body is an emerald that begs,

“Take me.”

Write all that worries you on a piece of parchment;

offer it to God.

Even from the distance of a millennium

I can lean the flame of my heart

into your life

and turn

all that frightens you

into holy

incense

ash.

The Heart Has No Wrinkles

“American seniors are living well into their eighties today and many of us are still self-sufficient and very much interested in sustaining sexual activity. It’s time for everyone to accept that, if they’re lucky, they too will be old someday. And if they make it, most will want to have some form of sexual expression.” Betty Dodson, PhD, Forward to: Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex, by Joan Price.

Let’s face it: the current state of sex education in the United States is abysmal. With the exception of Planned Parenthood’s outreach efforts to local schools (which is not available in every state or even state-wide in Oregon) and the Our Whole Lives (OWLS) programs offered through Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches, we do not provide teenagers much accurate, non-judgmental and useful information. Most sex education programs emphasize disease and pregnancy prevention, leaving out critically important topics such as communication, consent, boundaries, respect, self-acceptance, body image/body awareness and pleasure. And programs that emphasize abstinence only aren’t even in the reality ballpark.

According to Marty Klein, PhD, in his book, Sexual Intelligence: What we Really Want from Sex and How to Get it, “[m]ost school sex education programs in the United States are not allowed to use the words clitoris or pleasure,” and instead focus on disease and pregnancy prevention. Is it any wonder that by the time people reach their 20’s, sex is for many confusing, intimidating—and a subject about which they cannot comfortable speak? Add an overlay of cultural shame, mythology and inaccurate information it is easy to see why sex is such a messy subject.

For those of us who are 50 and over, the situation is even worse. We arrive at this age with a whole lot of cultural baggage about sex then find ourselves in bodies that are changing—sometimes dramatically. With very little exception, getting accurate information about sexuality and aging is challenging at best. Many health care providers don’t bring up sex with patients either because they make an ageist assumption that their patient is too old to be sexual or they are uncomfortable talking about sex. Patients often don’t bring up sex in medical visits out of embarrassment—thus both provider and patient miss an opportunity to talk about important health care issues. And truthfully, most health care providers simply are not conversant with sexual matters, unless they are also versed in sexology. With one notable exception, there are no programs that provide sex education to people over 50!

Fortunately, Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon has stepped up and is repeating its six week class: “The Heart Has No Wrinkles: Sexuality and Intimacy in the Later Years.” The class is consecutive Wednesday evenings, from Wednesday, March 30-May 4, 2016 from 5:30-7:00 p.m. Classes are being held at Planned Parenthood in Glenwood, 3579 Franklin Blvd. The cost of the class is amazingly low: $50 for 9 instruction hours. I’ll be teaching two of the six classes: “Talking Out Loud: Communication and Sex,” and “Experiencing Pleasure in an Aging Body.” To register, call Joanne Alba, (541) 344-1611 x 1014.

We are sexual beings from the moment of conception until the moment we die yet our culture pretty much either ignores or ridicules aging sexuality. If you are over 50 and seeking accurate, fact-based, non-judgmental information about sexuality and aging, please join us at Planned Parenthood for “The Heart Has No Wrinkles.”

 

The Emotional Health Safer Sex Conversation…or “The Other Safer Sex Conversation”

“Truth builds trust.” Marilyn Suttle

“I feel so stupid!” my client moaned. “Oh, sure, we talked about safer sex and we used protection. But we didn’t talk about what having sex meant to each of us. Turns out, he just wanted sex but no attachment. I thought he seemed like he’d be a great boyfriend—that’s why I had sex with him. I feel like such an idiot.”

My client’s lament demonstrates the importance of what Steve Bearman, PhD refers to as “the other safer sex conversation,” in which potential partners have a candid discussion before having sex about what it is going to mean to each of them if they have sex. And if they are incompatible in their expectations or the meaning they attach to having sex then they can mindfully assess whether to have sex anyway or take a pass. Please follow the above link and watch the video on Dr. Bearman’s website—it is short, clear and effectively makes the point.

People attach a multitude of meanings to sex:

  • “I just want to have fun—I really don’t want a relationship right now;”
  • “I only have sex if I’m serious about a person and want to move deeper into a relationship with them;”
  • “I like to have sex with my friends—it makes me feel safe and deepens our friendship. But I’m polyamorous, so it doesn’t mean I’m making a commitment;”
  • “I’m having sex to help me get over being date raped. I want to enjoy sex again.”
  • “I’ve been attracted to men for a long time and want to explore that now. I’m trying to not worry about whether I’m “gay” or not—I just want the experience.”
  • “Sex for me is spiritual. I really tap into a greater energy flow during sex.”
  • “If I have sex with someone, it means we’re going to be exclusive. Isn’t that a reasonable expectation?”

In each of the above examples, the speaker is sharing a meaning they attach to sex—and consequently, an expectation of what they believe will happen or not happen during and after sex. Where people share the same meaning and expectations, they can have sex without experiencing an emotional hangover. Where people fail to speak their expectations and have sex with someone who attaches a very different meaning, they may feel angry, confused, deceived or devastated after sex. Why take that risk? Yet, it happens all the time!

Having the emotional health safer sex conversation minimizes emotional risk in the same way that the sexual health conversation minimizes health-based risks. It doesn’t automatically mean people with differing perspectives will decide not to have sex: but it gives each person the option to make an informed choice.

Sex with new partners always carries some level of emotional risk that even candid talk cannot remove. However, empowered communication ensures that what’s important to each person is spoken out loud, enabling each to make a clear-headed, mindful decision about whether to go forward. That’s what empowerment is all about.