An anthology about somatic sex education, Healers on the Edge, has recently been published! Edited by Cassie Moore, Caffyn Jesse and Mehdi Darvish Yahya, the book provides information on the many aspects of somatic sex education - and why we need it. Click on the image to find out more.
I was privileged to be asked to be one of the contributors, and my piece is on a subject that is dear to my heart and reflects much of my somatic teaching work. I provide it here as a taster for the book:
Developing greater capacity for pleasure through somatic sex education
I have noticed in my practice over time that there is one common thread that runs through many of the stories I hear. This thread is pleasure limitation. Whether it’s a person who experiences their vagina as numb, or a person who ejaculates earlier than they would like to, or a person who struggles to stay present during sex, the subject of pleasure limitation – and in some cases, pleasure aversion – feels frankly epidemic. This piece speaks to that phenomenon and what can be done somatically to support people to develop greater capacity for pleasure.
What is pleasure?
Let’s first get clear on what pleasure is. It isn’t just about sex – and pleasure limitation in sex often signals pleasure limitation in other areas of life, so we need to look at it widely. While it’s experienced in many different ways, pleasure can be defined by its broadly agreed characteristics:
- Pleasure is often associated with the satisfying of basic biological drives, like hunger, sexual desire, and social belonging.
- Pleasure can be found in appreciation of the arts, in music and dancing, and in religious and/or spiritual fervour.
- Pleasure’s heights are often fleeting, and we can distinguish them because they surpass ‘ordinary’ experience.
From a somatic perspective, I would add that:
- Pleasure fundamentally involves the body. Even the pleasure of an intellectually stimulating conversation can be felt in the body as well as the mind.
- Pleasure is about connection – with others, with ourselves, or with a sense of something greater than us. Though the experience of pleasure is highly individual, it is rarely in isolation.
- Though pleasure’s heights may be fleeting, we can learn to expand our frequency and experience of pleasure so that it becomes an easily accessed presence in our lives.
- Deeply embodied pleasure is synonymous with wellbeing.
Sounds wonderful! So, what’s the problem with pleasure?
Those whose cultures are Western may recognise the poles of denial and indulgence. We have a guilty relationship with pleasure. Even dictionary definitions use terms like “recreation or amusement”, “diversion” and “worldly or frivolous enjoyment”. The impression given is one of an experience that is irresponsible or selfish, one that we should grow out of or learn to control if we are to be productive members of society. Yet, we see excesses and dishonesty where pleasure is held back, compartmentalised, or denied. We also see meanness, self-loathing and depression as people battle against their desires for pleasure and connection.
Adding to the confusion, there are mixed messages. Some pleasures are marketed or wryly tolerated in our cultures, such as the experience of being a consumer with a ‘lifestyle’, indulging excessively in food or alcohol or drugs, engaging in sexual activity that breaks relationship agreements, i.e. doing things we’re ‘not supposed to’. These stories are luridly reported in the media, and fed back to us as a vicarious sort of pleasure. In many countries, sex education is inadequate at best and scare-mongering at worst, and the content may differ depending on what sex you are. Shame underpins most of the messages we receive about pleasure, and conscious choosing and embodiment are rarely modelled. Is it any wonder so many people are conflicted when it comes to sex and pleasure?
Pleasure limitation presents in the session room in many different ways – as numbness, oversensitivity, compulsion, and avoidance. The internalised messages vary: A person may feel that they can’t ask for what they really want for fear of being judged. There may be strong socialisation that others’ needs are more important or that pleasure isn’t deserved. A lack of information may mean that the body’s pleasure capability is not well-understood. There may be disabilities or issues with identity that can complicate experiences of pleasure. There may be a trauma history, which has caused the body to be experienced as an unsafe place.
Plenty of people struggle to digest pleasure, to generate it reliably, and to feel good about feeling it. Many do not know how to cultivate it within themselves, instead looking almost exclusively to external sources for arousal.
It is this disconnect that I work with as a Certified Sexological Bodyworker: supporting people to really notice their bodies, to be able to inhabit them more consciously in incremental steps, to begin to feel more, to work with feelings of shame and unworthiness when they emerge, to experience pleasure and ‘stay with it’, and to learn to prolong pleasure states.
Towards the welcoming of pleasure
Learning to be in pleasure is a process, a skill to be practised. This takes time, and the shape of the work will depend on the barriers that people face. It does seem to me, though, that the body is persistent, and it will find its way, as a plant grows towards the sun. I believe our bodies long to be heartily lived in, to be witnessed, to be gloried in, to heal. In my work, I have the privilege of working in flow with these natural tendencies.
What is useful is often what is simple. The breath is a wonderfully simple tool of embodiment. Though complicated breath sequences can be enjoyable, they are not necessary to experience more awareness of the body in the present moment. Just by choosing to place attention on the breath, we can experience greater embodied awareness. In addition, we can learn to calm our nervous system down by making our out-breath longer than the in-breath. If we also learn to upregulate our nervous system by making the in-breath longer than the out-breath or by speeding up the breath, that’s a great basic toolset to explore different kinds of feeling states and arousal in the body.
In the steps towards the welcoming of pleasure, I have also found that a more psychological aspect requires considerable attention, an aspect without which a joyous, erotically-integrated life can only be partially allowed. That element is: permission. Permission for pleasure comes up in session, comes up in the orgasmic yoga (mindful self-pleasure) homework, and comes up in clients’ wider lives. Self-consciousness and fear of greediness can emerge, which to me indicates not just discomfort with moving beyond the shallow or quick pleasure many of us are accustomed to, but also reveals the extent to which many of us fear imposing ourselves on others or fear being judged as indulgent. As an example, I recall my own experience of struggling with giving myself permission as I developed greater sensory awareness. I remember initially feeling self-conscious if I suddenly realised that I had been stroking a coffee cup or turning my face to the sun, just for the pleasure of the embodied experience. Over time, I learned how to relax in it, and have found that if people do notice that joyfulness and make a comment, they’re more curious than judgemental. Developing greater capacity for pleasure involves learning to give ourselves permission to feel.
How we can build our capacity for pleasure
“What we must work on, it seems to me, is not so much to liberate our desires but to make ourselves infinitely more susceptible to pleasure.”
Michel Foucault, from an interview published in the French magazine Gai Pied, April 1981.
Developing an understanding of our genital structures and their functions can be normalising in the Internet age where sexual aesthetic and performance ‘ideals’ have perhaps never been narrower. Whether supported by a somatic sex educator or through independent learning, finding out about the basic anatomy and physiology of arousal brings appreciation of the way our bodies work and why. Exploring those functions through mindful self-pleasure that focuses on noticing the changes in our genitals (and indeed the whole body) at different stages of arousal can be fascinating and very empowering.
The body holds an extraordinary amount of information about what is happening for us. In addition to breath work, my sessions include simple exercises to support the person to notice the inner processes of their embodied experiences and describe what is happening (e.g. “my heart is beating a little faster than usual”, “there’s a tightness in my hip”, “there’s a tingling in my fingers”). Noticing these experiences in the body will inevitably involve noticing how things change in even a few minutes when sensations are ‘stayed with’ mindfully. These skills are supported and cultivated through a range of clothes-on somatic practices and through bodywork that raises erotic sensation.
In addition to becoming comfortable and proactive with our bodies, pleasure capability is grown by becoming comfortable and proactive with our boundaries. One of my teachers, Dr Betty Martin, describes a process of learning to notice what you want (and what you don’t), to trust that, to honour it, and to learn to communicate it. Without boundaries, the wishes of others can become a burden that causes us to disconnect. With clear boundaries, honesty and communication, we can seek shared experiences of pleasure and bliss without becoming overwhelmed or derailed.
Understanding more about how our bodies work, deepening our experience of body awareness, and becoming more skilled at noticing and expressing our desires and boundaries make us “more susceptible to pleasure”, as Foucault so beautifully worded.
Somatic awareness for holistic wellbeing
‘Integrate your erotic’ is my strapline, because supporting people to enable their erotic capacity to infuse and bring joy to every aspect of their lives is my mission. In Western societies, many of us have learned to value the mind and distrust the body. But a groundswell of body/mind integration is evident. More and more people are unwilling to accept the disconnect. It is becoming increasingly well-understood that embodiment can make it easier to achieve things we long for and strive for – better sex (whatever that means for you), greater contentment, reduction in anxiety, and more considered and confident decision-making. It is my observation and experience that the befriending of our bodies and our pleasures doesn’t just make for greater sexual fulfilment, it makes for improved wellbeing in the fullness of our lives.
To buy 'Healers on the Edge' click here.
To find out more about somatic sex education, check out the rest of my website, and do get in touch if you would like to discuss sessions.