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Understanding and Working Through Sexual Shame

What is shame?

Shame is a near-universal human experience and it is very painful. Even the word ‘shame’ can stimulate discomfort in us, bringing up feelings that we desperately want to get away from. Most of us are very familiar with that excruciating feeling of exposure, of being found deficient in the face of others. Many of us, too, have internalised shame so that we come to generate it ourselves just by imagining what others think of us.

Researcher and author, Dr Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Another helpful description of shame is in comparison with guilt: In a nutshell, guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am bad. There’s something fundamentally wrong with me.”

What we do when we experience shame

The psychological experience of shame, and its sensations in the body, can be so unpleasant that we withdraw. Or we may blame others, seeking to angrily offload to get free of that crushing feeling of fault or flaw. This 'transfer' of shame takes us out of connection and can be damaging to our relationships.

Another strategy we may use, not always consciously, is one of 'defense'. This strategy aims to protect the self from future exposure by avoiding the behaviours or circumstances that stimulate shame. An example that is common is the avoidance of public speaking. A person may be dismissive, saying they aren’t interested or just don’t like public speaking - but later admit that what really stops them is the fear of appearing foolish or unskilled in front of an audience.

The strategy of defense may be less toxic to our relationships than the strategy of transfer but it can be utterly self-limiting, thereby reducing quality of life. I see a link between shame avoidance and the common regrets of people at the end of their lives, such as: “I wish I hadn’t cared so much about what others think”, and “I wish I'd had the courage to be myself.”

Cultural scripts that generate shame

Our shame patterns develop in our early years, generally within family and school environments. However, wider culture also communicates powerful expectations that we may not live up to, and this can contribute to our sense of shame. Clinical psychologist and author Gershen Kaufman and English professor and author Lev Raphael describe three cultural scripts that can generate shame. Though they write about the United States, these scripts or similar are embedded in many cultures:

1. Success

We learn that we must succeed. This requires competition and is demonstrated through external standards of performance. We are taught to measure our self-worth by our accomplishments relative to others. Failure, which we all experience at some time in our lives, results in a sense of inadequacy and exposure. In other words, shame.

2. Independence

The second expectation demanded is independence and self-sufficiency, despite the fact that we're a social species and wired for connection. We learn we must be capable of standing alone, needing no one. This is particularly reflective of masculine socialisation. Need is associated with inadequacy, and can feel humiliating. Most of us are familiar with the term ‘needy’ to describe a person, and would certainly not want to be described that way ourselves.

3. Popularity and conformity

The third script is that we must be popular and we must conform. Popularity and conformity do not fit well with an individual truly being themselves and reaching their potential on their own terms. Being different may be mildly tolerated as ‘quirky’, but there really is little scope for well-supported individual authenticity. We know that in order to steer clear of shame, we must avoid being different or perceived as different.

I see the effects of these cultural scripts in all aspects of life, but I particularly notice how they seem to map on to sex and sexual difficulties. ‘Performance’ issues, uncommunicated relationship needs, and shame about perceived sexual non-conformity show up often in my session room.

Sex and shame

Sexuality and sexual expression can be a potent source of shame. For a majority of people, there were overtly negative or conflicted messages about sex growing up, or the awkward avoidance of conversations about sex – a tacit understanding that sex was somehow bad or shameful.

Plenty of people are also directly shamed by others for their sexuality or sexual expression, despite it causing no harm to others nor contravening consent. Many ways of living are shamed. Whether directly or indirectly, the messages conveyed are: “If you don’t like X, you’re not normal” and “If you do Y, there’s something wrong with you.”

In addition to the general shame-inducing cultural scripts described by Kaufman and Raphael, culture also aims its darts at sex directly. While many Western cultures are frankly sex-obsessed, they can also be intensely sex-negative, with jokes and judgements, belittling and disgust common in relation to sex. The impact of culture befalls all of us to a degree, even those who grew up in families that provided positive and appropriate messages about sex and sexuality. People raised in a sex-negative culture may well carry sexual shame, long before they become sexually active themselves.

Many of us are familiar with anxious inner questioning such as “Am I normal?”, “Is there something wrong with my desires?”, or “Are my genitals acceptable?” In my experience, all of these questions are underpinned by the vulnerable heart’s cry: “Will I be received?”

Working through sexual shame

I have worked with many people whose capacity for sexual joy has been significantly stifled or totally disrupted by a belief that their sexual selves were somehow unacceptable. Sexual shame manifests in myriad ways including:

  • problems with arousal (e.g. unreliable, absent, or overwhelming)
  • feelings of unworthiness about receiving pleasure (which can manifest as e.g. chronic over-giving or avoidance of intimacy)
  • lack of awareness about boundaries (or difficulty asserting their own or respecting others’)
  • an inability to communicate wants and make requests
  • body image issues
  • the belief that self-pleasure is somehow wrong or deficient

There are so many ways that my clients and I work together on their sexual shame, whether stated at the outset as an issue, or because it flares up unexpectedly in a session. Once recognised, I invite the person to describe their experience and what it brings up for them. I support them to stay with those feelings and to track them in the body. I challenge the beliefs that relate to their shame. I will be with them in their anger or sadness at what they have lost. I celebrate with them their successes, whether a small step forward or a breakthrough. Underpinning it all is unconditional positive regard.

Being witnessed in our shame and finding acceptance, respect and care in return can be powerful indeed. As shame begins interpersonally, addressing it interpersonally with a compassionate practitioner can help to transform the excruciating feeling of exposure and self-condemnation, offering the opportunity to develop a different view of the self.

In conclusion

The experience of shame can feel unbearable and most of us go to considerable lengths to avoid it, hide it or displace it on to others. Sexual shame is a specific kind of suffering, which diminishes a person’s comfort with themselves, damages their ability to connect with others, and restricts their experience of sensual and sexual joy. Some of my most rewarding work has involved supporting people to make peace with their sexual selves and find their pleasure, and in doing so, re-connect with themselves and others. Time and again I am humbled by the courage of people who choose to be vulnerable in their quest to be free.


For support with shame issues, or 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.



Bradshaw, J. (1988) Healing the Shame that Binds You.

Brown, B. (2017) Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.

Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

Kaufman, G. (1980) Shame: The Power of Caring.

Nathanson, D.L. (1992) Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self.

*NEW* Healers on the Edge - anthology published

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.

Playing Well with Others: Part II - How to explore your delicious yeses and ask for what you want

Consent is quite possibly my all-time favourite subject in regards to sex and relating. Until I studied it in earnest, I didn’t realise how hot consent can be. Since then, I have continued to learn that consent is about so much more than behaving right; it is a path to glorious pleasures. In last season’s blog, I covered how we can better notice our nos and develop boundaries that liberate us. In this blog, we’ll look at how we can explore our delicious yeses and ask for what we want.

So, what is a delicious yes?

1.    For another’s benefit

A delicious yes is unequivocal. It’s hungry. It’s utterly welcoming. It’s joyful. It has no hint of putting-up-with. It involves generously and full-heartedly giving to another person. In other words, a delicious yes is:

  • Authentic
  • Enthusiastic

A full-hearted yes to giving pleasure to another person is wonderful, for us as well as them. But it’s not the only kind of delicious yes...

2. For our own benefit

There is also the delicious yes we give to ourselves, enabling us to acknowledge our own desires and to courageously ask for what we want.

So, the delicious yes has another key component:

  • courage.

This blogpost focuses on the second kind of delicious yes – the permission we give to ourselves – and explores how we and our lovers can better communicate our desires and respond to each other.

Why we don't ask for what we want

There are many reasons why we don’t always ask for what we want. Amongst the most common are: fear of rejection or being judged, feeling that we don’t really deserve pleasure, or not being sure what we want (perhaps only knowing what we don’t want).

We might instead manipulate, or hope it will magically come to us, or we might bargain, or sneak, or we might substitute for something that’s easier to ask for, or we might just give up and shut down.

But, valuing and expressing our own desires is an important part of sharing pleasure.

So, how can we learn to better recognise and communicate our desires?

Noticing what we want

Similar to what’s needed to notice our nos, we must take time and we must listen to our bodies: 


When a lover makes you an offer, take a moment to notice what your answer is. Or when you want to ask for something, take time to form the words. It’s that simple. It can feel difficult to slow down when many of our lives are so hectic. Yet, slowing down is key to noticing what we really want, and can help with finding the words to communicate.

Your body

A great way to deepen that moment of noticing is not just to take time, but also to actively turn your attention to your body to see what it can tell you:

How do I most desire to be touched? Or, what part of my lover’s body do I most hunger to stroke, or move against, or lick?

Taking one slow, deep breath is a great way to create a moment and notice what’s going on in your body.

Ways to improve communication about desires

The more we can notice and communicate our nos and have them honoured, the more enthusiastic, adventurous and delicious our yeses can become. The more we can trust our lovers that they are honouring themselves, the more we can dare to ask for. We are all responsible for creating the conditions in which nos are welcome and yeses become delicious. These conditions include communication with clarity, kindness and boldness:

  • Be bold, be clear

Take a deep breath and try asking for that thing, that thing you never asked for before. Most people want to give pleasure and it’s an honour to be trusted to hear a desire. For those with partners who may sometimes struggle with hearing desires, remember that it isn’t personal. They may be expressing a limit, or they may be thrown by something new. Give time, and talk about it outside of a sexual context. There is nothing inherently shameful about desire. In fact, giving voice to our desires can help us to tackle any shame or self-consciousness we may feel, even when our requests are not met with a yes.

  • Say what you liked, rather than what you didn’t

Rather than focusing on what you didn't like, encourage more of what you did like, e.g. “I liked it when you ran your tongue over the crook of my elbow. Would you do that to the backs of my knees too?” The direct positive approach is much more motivating.

When ok is not ok
  • When okay isn’t okay

“Is this okay?” is fine to ask of the person whose seat you’ve just plonked your bags next to on the train. But “Is this okay?” is a low bar to set when it comes to sex. Relationship coach and sex educator Marcia Baczynski calls ‘okay’ a four-letter word. It might be intended as a gentle way to communicate, but really, who of us would want our touch to be just okay for the person we’re with? Open questions give more information and will elicit more than a yes/no answer, e.g. “How does this feel?” or as one of my teachers, Chester Mainard, recommended, “What would make this feel even better?”

  • Ask questions

If you’re not sure what’s being requested of you by a lover, ask for clarification. Understanding what’s being asked for enables us to notice if we have a delicious yes in response, and if so, enables us to meet it.

  • Give more attention to picking up on subtle cues

If we and our lovers can bring more attention to picking up on each other’s subtle cues, we can notice what offers we could make that might hit the spot. For example, someone who holds on to the pillow or braces themselves against the wall during sex may appreciate the offer of their arms being held down; someone who makes jokes about spanking may actually like to try it. Thoughtful offers will support choice.

  • Follow the pleasure

Follow where the pleasure leads – it’s a dance that deliciously demands our attention. Sometimes a no becomes a yes. Sometimes a yes has caveats – communicate clearly when things change and what your limits are. A yes with caveats is not less enthusiastic, and a no that becomes a yes is no less authentic (but do be aware if alcohol or recreational drugs are involved as this can impair judgement.)

  • Explore the erotic within

We may have our own personal work to do in order to accept ourselves fully as erotic beings. Building sexual self-esteem involves learning that we needn’t be reliant on the validation of others to find pride and joy in our own unique erotic expression. Mindful masturbation is an effective way to cultivate erotic self-awareness and self-acceptance, and this can have a positive effect on our sexual relationships with others.

Exercise: Practice asking for what you want 

A fun exercise I learned from consent mastermind, Betty Martin, is a game where two people sit back-to-back and practice saying what they want. None of it is acted upon – or at least not in the context of the game – and what emerges can be fascinating. It simply involves taking turns to make statements that begin with “I want to…” or “I want you to…” For example:

Person A: “I want to make eye contact with you while I think about all the things I want to do to you.”

Person B: “I want you to kiss my thighs.”

Person A: “I want you to suck my toes.”

Person B: “I want to pour oil on your body and slide all over you.”

Person A: “I want to go down on you but just use my hot breath until you beg me to put my mouth on you.”

Person B: “I want…I want you to…go down on me but just use your hot breath…until I beg you to put your mouth on me.”

Being back-to-back helps with saying things that might be harder to say face-to-face. It can quickly escalate in to the ridiculous, or as the example above shows, into sexy baiting, and surprise discoveries of compatible desires.

Explore your delicious yeses by taking time to notice what you want and communicating clearly. Follow the pleasure and see where it takes you…

For support in learning how to ask for what you want, or 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.

Playing Well with Others: Part I – How to notice your ‘nos’ and have boundaries that liberate

Consent is quite possibly my all-time favourite subject in regards to sex and relating. Until I studied it in earnest with consent trainer Betty Martin, I didn’t realise how hot consent can be. Since then, I have continued to learn that consent is about much more than behaving right; it is a path to glorious pleasures. Having benefitted so much myself from a better understanding of consent, it is now a core part of my teaching. I am delighted to share some of it with you here.

Exploring the realm of the delicious yes (which I will cover in part II of this topic, in my summer blogpost) requires the foundation of clarity about our limits. Continue on, dear reader, for practical tips on getting ok with no.

Getting ok with no (your own and other people's)

Ever had a conversation that’s gone something like this?

It seems to me that this kind of experience, which many of us will recognise, has two main components to it:

  1. We don’t give ourselves a moment to actually notice what we want
  2. If we've said yes, we don't think it's really ok to change our answer

Noticing your no

The ‘automatic yes’ is so common that we seem to have an epidemic of fuzzy consent. It’s as though we think we should know the answer immediately, or that taking time to notice our real answer is somehow rude. The ‘automatic yes’ is how we end up in situations like the one above, over and over.

So, how can we notice what we want?  

The short answer is: time. The longer-but-still-quite-short answer is: time + your body.


When someone asks something of you (e.g. “Will you help me move house?”) or makes you an offer (e.g. “This item has a special deal – you can have 3 for the price of 2.”), take a moment to notice what your answer is. It’s that simple. Once the automatic yes has dropped away, the real answer will become clear. It may still be a yes, but it will be a real yes rather than an automatic yes. If it’s a no, you just saved yourself from agreeing to something you’ll feel unhappy about later. We’ll look at how to say no in the next section.

Your body

A great way to deepen that moment of noticing is not just to take time, but also to actively turn your attention to your body to see what it can tell you. If you notice that your back is sore, that may help you decide whether you can help that friend move house. If you notice that you’re feeling a tightness in your chest, you might recognise that you feel pressured by that salesperson and actually, you don’t want three of this item regardless of the special deal. Tuning in to your body is especially helpful when someone asks you for, or offers, touch.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I happy to give touch right now? (and notice the answer)
  • What kind of touch can I happily give? (and notice)
  • For how long? (and notice)


  • Do I want to receive touch? (and notice the answer)
  • Where do I want touch? (and notice)
  • What’s the quality of touch that I want? (and notice)

The combination of taking time and tuning in to the body is powerful indeed, in noticing what we can give or receive with a full heart.

When things change

Another aspect of noticing is noticing that things change. I often hear people describe having said yes to something and then changing their mind – but feeling like they have to go through with what they’ve agreed to. There may be some aspects of life where you change your mind, and to back out would really inconvenience someone. But this does not apply to sex. You can say yes (or no) and then change your mind, even if you’ve already begun. In fact, it’s utterly important that you communicate what’s happening, so that you remain aligned with your body.

If we slip in to tolerating touch, we lose connection with ourselves and with others. Before I learned about consent, I often tolerated touch when I had changed my mind or if I was in discomfort, because I was thinking about the other person, or it just seemed easier, or I didn’t want to ‘make a fuss.’ Now, I know that I was inadvertently training my body to close down – and along that road lies a narrowing of pleasure potential, not a blossoming. We owe it to ourselves and our lovers to notice our nos and give authentic answers to requests and offers. Our lovers also owe it to us and to themselves to respect and value those authentic answers.

How to communicate a no

Saying no is more than just ok; a genuine no is a gift of truthfulness and trust. A no is a yes to something else! A no can be a pathfinder to pleasure because the honouring of our nos deepens our capacity to discover our utterly delicious yeses. 

Most of us recognise that hearing a no can sometimes be difficult. So, how do we communicate in a way that makes it easier to receive our nos?

  1. Understand that you have a right: Knowing in your bones that you have a fundamental right to say no can help with communicating it clearly, without guilt or apology or lengthy explanation.
  2. Consider that a no is a gift: Would you want someone to tolerate your touch or go through the motions when touching you? In saying no, we move away from tolerating and towards pleasure and connection.
  3. Be kind: Saying no kindly is about manner rather than a form of words.
  4. Notice it, ventilate it, say it: As soon as you notice you have a no, if you feel comfortable, say it. But if you have some discomfort about communicating it, give yourself a moment to let it be. The popular Buddhist teacher and author, Pema Chödrön, describes allowing difficult feelings and ‘ventilating’ them. So, if you find having a no difficult, just let it ‘breathe’ for a moment, to bring a little peace to it before you communicate it.

Noticing other people's nos

We’re against a cultural backdrop of scant (or completely absent) teaching of consent in schools, and there is widespread teaching of persuasion skills in business. In the media, we see reported defensive and dictatorial responses to consent problems, such as the new policies on some US college campuses. We also see both the promotion and fierce criticism of the ‘Pick Up Artist’ movement, which teaches men how to convince women to have sex with them, with arguably dubious consent. The cultural mirror seems to be one of extremes – we disregard choice and violate consent as standard, or we disempower ourselves, taking responsibility for other people’s nos and refusing to believe their yeses for fear of being a perpetrator. 

So, how can we notice other people’s nos?

Clear answer:

  • They tell us no

Less clear answer:

  • They seem to avoid giving an answer
  • They say yes but seem distracted or disconnected
  • They say yes but then avoid the interaction or cancel repeatedly
  • They say things like, “I don’t mind” or “Do what you want” or “It’s ok”

All of these may be caused by something other than an unsaid no or luke-warm consent, but it’s best to check in. There is a balance to be found between taking someone’s yes at face value, and relentlessly digging for a hidden no. Somewhere in the middle is observant consideration, where we are aware of the complexity of consent, but where we trust the person giving consent to take responsibility for their own limits. 

It takes practice, and we all get it wrong sometimes. It’s important to be forgiving – of ourselves and others - for genuine misunderstandings. 

How to receive a no

Many of us have sometimes experienced difficult feelings when receiving a no. We may feel rejected, or feel some shame for even having asked. But we know that being cool with a no is very important. 

So, what can help us to receive a no well?

  • Consider making requests in a way that shows the importance we place on consent. In doing so, we can make it easier for the person to communicate a no if they have one, and this can make it easier to receive that no. For example, Seattle sex coach and fellow Certified Sexological Bodyworker Charlie Glickman suggests adding a simple ‘If statement’ to our desires, e.g. “If you’re available, I’d love to go out for dinner with you” or “If you’re in the mood, I’d love to kiss you.”
  • Don’t take it personally if you get a no. Instead, think about how the person has honoured themselves – and honour that.
  • Some people find saying ‘thank you’ helpful in response to a no. In fact, with practice I have noticed that saying thank you in response to a no can bring a warm ease for everyone involved, through that verbal honouring of the person expressing their limits.
  • Suggest exploring what else you might like to do together

If you give an automatic yes when you have a no, or fumble over your communication (or hearing) of a no, don’t be discouraged – it gets easier with practice.

As a somatic sex educator my purpose for this blog is to educate and share tips that can aid greater erotic connection. But, the reality is that when it comes to noticing and communicating our limits, it’s about so much more than sex – it’s about the broader business of living and negotiating our way in the world. Consent is about honouring our boundaries and giving with a full heart, whether in sexual expression or at work or with our family and friends – and expressing our limits well in one area of our lives can make it easier to do so more broadly.

For support in deepening consent awareness, or 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.

Playing with Yourself: How to touch yourself mindfully to grow your capacity for pleasure and connection

Have a think for a moment about the last time you masturbated. Yep, I’m serious. What do you recall about the experience? Was it slow and pleasurable – or quick and functional? Was it different from the last time, or does it usually involve the same routine?

For many of us, masturbation isn’t particularly pleasure-focused so much as goal-focused. For many of us too, it can carry shame or at the very least, sheepishness. It’s no wonder it’s common to keep it quick and predictable.

Here’s another thought: If you were sexual with others the way you’re sexual with yourself, do you think you could be considered a good lover? Or would a far less flattering moniker apply?

From masturbation to self-pleasure

I’m going to stop using the term ‘masturbation’ at this point, because the origin of the word is widely thought to be ‘manstuprare’, which roughly translates as ‘self-defilement with the hand’.

From here on, I choose the term ‘self-pleasure’ because that’s simply what it is – or what it can be. Research from Kinsey and his team in the 1940s and 50s through to the large-scale British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles since the 1990s has shown that self-pleasure is natural and that most people do it. In addition, there’s also evidence that it is good for us.

In fact, it can be really good for us. Self-pleasure doesn’t have to be that swift private matter that we feel some embarrassment about. Taking a more mindful approach to it can be a tangible way to love and care for ourselves, nurture our erotic nature, and can even contribute to our becoming better lovers.

Why bother to self-pleasure mindfully?

Approaching self-pleasure as a practice, like meditation, can transform it in to a source of deep joy, relaxation, and learning. However we like to self-pleasure, by doing it mindfully we can:

  • Really notice that we have a body!

It sounds simple, but so many of us spend our adult lives in our heads, largely disconnected from the body and its needs.

  • Notice how our bodies like to be touched.

If we receive touch from other people, we may accept it, even if it’s not what we really like. Self-pleasure is an opportunity to explore the sensations of different touch with curiosity, and to notice what we respond to and how.

  • Give our attention to the feeling states we experience during sexual arousal.

‘Feeling state’ is the name for the combination of feelings and behaviours. Can we notice what feelings we want to experience – or avoid – and the behaviours we engage in to produce that outcome? (e.g. What happens in self-pleasure if the only goal is the intensity of orgasm? Or, what happens to our sexual expression when it’s heavily influenced by a need to avoid feelings of shame?) Through mindful self-pleasure we can increase awareness of our feeling states, and this can support us to let go of old habits that don’t serve us.

  • Experiment with raising arousal more slowly.

If we take the time to slow things down, we can learn to experience more pleasure on the arousal journey. Orgasms will often be more satisfying too, if arrived at through a slower build of arousal.

  • Notice skin sensation, over time, to the minutest detail.

If you experience numbness, taking time to consciously notice the detail of skin sensations on small areas of the body can be very effective in re-building sensitivity.

All of these elements are somatic (‘of the body’) skills that we can cultivate in self-pleasure and then share with our lovers: Self-pleasure enables us to notice what our bodies like so that we can better ask for what we want. It also improves the skilfulness of our touch.

In giving ourselves the gift of exquisite attention, we grow our capacity to give exquisite attention to others.

Practical keys to self-pleasure mindfully

To quote Joseph Kramer, the creator of sexological bodywork, mindful self-pleasure “involves a deep attention to sustained sexual arousal in the body in the present moment.” Essentially, it’s a sexual meditation, and it is also an extraordinary opportunity for not just ‘be-ing’ with sexual arousal but also actively learning about our own unique desires, preferences and responses. As a route to getting in touch with our own bodies, mindful self-pleasure – however we do it – is foundational.

Here are the four practical keys to mindful self-pleasure:

1.     Intention

Taking a moment beforehand to set an intention helps to frame our self-pleasure as distinct from ‘a wank’. It’s best to settle on one per practise, rather than several. Here are some examples:

“My intention is to not rush.”

“My intention is to stay present.”

“My intention is to stay with bodily sensation, rather than using fantasy* to drive my experience.”

*Fantasy is an important part of many people’s sexual lives. Fantasy can be creative and fun and can be a safe place to explore taboos. However, it can also become a way of disconnecting from our bodies and our lovers, and getting in to a rut of wheeling out the same tired old themes. Learning how to be with sexual arousal both with fantasy and without it expands what’s possible for us.

2.     Take time

Set aside 30 minutes if you can – even schedule it in if that’s what it takes. Taking time will profoundly alter your experience. However, even 10 minutes of mindful self-pleasure regularly will bring benefit.

3.     Breath, sound and movement

One of the hallmarks of a ‘quick wank’ is, well, not much: holding the breath, little or no sound, and a minimum of movement. By using the breath consciously, such as deep slow breaths, or fast breaths to build arousal followed by slow breaths and imagining spreading it around the body, we can hold more arousal in our bodies and learn to ride waves of pleasure, rather than rocket to the exit sign. Sound and movement contribute to the feedback loop that builds arousal.

4.     Savour

Rather than immediately getting up and getting on with something else after self-pleasuring, take a few minutes to breathe and to notice the sensations in your body and the contents of your mind. Give yourself the space to just notice. Savouring is an important part of integrating experience and embedding it, especially when we want to change a habit.

Self-pleasure practises to try

Engage in self-pleasure however feels good to you, using the four keys above, to bring a mindful approach to your solo sexytimes. But if you’d like some fresh inspiration, here are some practises to try:

a. Breath experiment

Play with your breath and how different uses of the breath can slow down or heighten arousal. Try deep, slow breaths in to the belly. Try a stimulating breath such as inhaling through the nose in four consecutive sniffs and exhaling through the mouth in four consecutive ‘hah’ sounds: sniff-sniff-sniff-sniff-hah-hah-hah-hah. Notice the different effects of breathing vs holding your breath as you self-pleasure.

b. Explore the unknown

Is there a part of your body that doesn’t get touched? Incorporate it in to your self-pleasure with curiosity and kindness. If there are hygiene concerns, such as with the anus, take a shower first and make getting clean part of your gift to yourself to then be able to explore with more comfort.

c. Reflection

Self-pleasure while looking in a mirror. A large mirror will enable you to see your whole body. A smaller handheld mirror can allow you to see the changes in your genitals** as you become aroused and can enable you to see your own face, up close, while in pleasure and in orgasm. This practise is simple, but it can be powerful.

**If you have a condition that means you do not experience sensation in your genitals, do this practice with a part of your body most connected with pleasure.

d. Porn pendulum

If porn is a regular feature in your self-pleasure and you’d like to rely on it less, try watching it to become aroused, then pausing it and focusing on body sensations and your self-touch. If arousal drops, return to the porn to raise arousal again, and then go back to focusing on the body. Alternate as much as needed to begin to introduce more awareness of body sensation in the present moment. My teacher, Joseph Kramer, calls this moving of attention from the porn to your body and back, “the pendulum".

e. Erotic massage

Give yourself a full body massage. Stroke all of your body that you can reach with your hands. For what you can’t reach, use other means to elicit skin sensation, such as writhing about on the bed to experience the feeling of sheets against your back.

The five practises listed here are just some ideas to try. Repeat the ones you enjoy. Make up your own. Most importantly, have fun! If self-pleasure incorporates the 4 keys of intention, taking time, breath/sound/movement and savouring, then really, anything counts.

Touch yourself in ways that feel good to you, explore and experiment, and notice the effects over time. Do you feel more connected to your body? Do you feel more comfortable or confident with a lover? Have feelings of shame reduced? Have feelings of joy increased?

Supported learning

I *love* my work. I am honoured to facilitate and teach people to notice that they are here, that they are deeply alive, that they can learn to be in pleasure, cultivate new neural pathways, and explore their bodies' capacity for joy.

For support in developing a self-pleasure practise, or to find out more about sex and embodiment coaching, visit my website.

Coming in to the body

Coming in to the body

In Western cultures, we’re very good at being body conscious – or body self-conscious, more like it. We’re focused on the exterior, and the judgments about our appearance that we face from others and impose on ourselves, often through very critical eyes. We’re focused on performance, too, and the pride or shame that can bring. Neither focus takes us *into* the body; it keeps us on the outside, external assessors of our own dwellings...

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