After scanning the literature on the human relationship with sex, I have come up with this very deep and profound conclusion: “Sex is hard.” And it may very well be the gateway for us humans to being whole. It is the one part of us that is very difficult to isolate. Blame it on our wiring. Sex is physical, emotional and psychological. Sex controls our gender identity, our place in society, our ability to reproduce and to have pleasure.
And we flesh-and-blood mortals are incapable of teasing apart those strands when our juices are running. One might say that sex runs us.
It has throughout time. Whenever we’ve tried to isolate and control sexuality because of politics, religion, cultural norms, or fear, we create a mess. And we keep doing the same thing over and over again.
Given that sex is such a charged and vital part of our identities, I am amazed that after centuries (make that millenia) of cogitating, analyzing, opining and investigating, we still do such a lousy job supporting and educating people around their relationship with their sexuality. We’ve been struggling with this since Adam bit the apple.
I know that now, but when I was in the midst of my own sexual discovery I had no idea that what was plaguing me had been plaguing women throughout recorded history. My story is not so unusual. I didn’t know that when I was in it. One day I woke up and said, “What’s wrong with me?” After 20 or more years of an enviably successful marriage, I felt disconnected and broken. I over-ate, over-worked and found all sorts of ways to sublimate an unnameable yearning that governed almost every minute of every day. In another time, oh say Ancient Greece or Victorian England, the professionals would have said I had a bad case of “hysteria” (see below).
I wasn’t sure what to do. Countless years of talk therapy ran me smack into a brick wall. Something had to give. The more I thought about it – obsessed really – the clearer it became that I needed to feel beautiful in my body. I wanted to feel sensually alive, sexually vibrant. It had been so long since I had connected to that part of me that I completely forgot it was there. Yet that desire, once I could name it, bubbled to the surface and refused to go back into hiding. Instinctively, I reached for touch. I was like Sleeping Beauty. I needed some kind of physical awakening. Isn’t that why the “laying on of hands” has always been such a big deal? Isn’t that why people all over the world line up to be embraced by the “Hugging Saint” of Southern India, Amma? To be touched has always been a gateway to healing and transformation.
I didn’t set out to “cure” symptoms — the allegedly usual things that afflict mid-life women like low libido, pelvic pain or wildly uncomfortable intercourse. Instead, and far more common, I was seeking to understand my own sexuality and connect with my body. I fell through some kind of a wormhole into California sex therapy history circa the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. I got naked and began a journey into the land of somatic (aka “body-based”) therapy. I climbed on a massage table and got touched – everywhere. I looked in the mirror at my most private parts. I talked about my buried, “shameful” desires. It was terrifying, explosive, healing, fabulous and occasionally funny. I discovered that I didn’t need fixing at all. What I needed was help and guidance figuring out my sexuality, allowing in pleasure and finding fulfillment. I found out that by being seen and honored when I was my most vulnerable, allowing a trusted professional who asks for nothing except to hold my most intimate self was life-changing.
I certainly didn’t have any clue that I tumbled onto the remains and resurrection of what was known in the 20th century as “humanistic sex therapy.” And before that, and before that, and before that, it was called other things.
What I was doing stretches as far back as Ancient Greece in “the medical literature.” The Greek physician Galen (c. 129-c. 200), historically, one of the most influential writers on medical subjects, tackled the subject of women’s unmet sexual desire and pronounced it a disease. He coined the term “hysteria” (Greek for “suffering uterus”) to describe the anxiety, irritability, sexual fantasies, pelvic heaviness and excessive vaginal lubrication in sexually deprived or particularly passionate women. In other words, these women were suffering from sexual desire unfulfilled!
Moi? Sexually deprived? Particularly passionate? Me and how many more?! Just raise your hands. We’re legion.
Now Galen finally gets to the good part. His prescription was sex! He often recommended genital massage to be done by midwives. Jump forward several hundred years and “hysteria” is still with us and doctors are still treating the disease with hands-on genital massage. The occupational injury to their wrists that many doctors suffered in this time-consuming treatment spurred George Taylor, M.D. to invent the vibrator in 1869.
Hysterical women everywhere were thrilled! Women were lining up for sex therapy. And the course of sexual history was changed forever.
But it also had a downside (we always have to take the bad with the good). With the invention and use of the vibrator, the doctor was able to actually touch less, spend a shorter amount of time with the woman and see more patients. Good for the doctor, not so good for the woman.
Jump forward again, and we have Masters and Johnson who put a legitimate stamp on sexual surrogacy. At one time, not so long ago, there were approximately 400 practicing sex surrogates in the United States. Today’s number is estimated to be under 100.
And then there came yet another shift. Before 1978, actual erotic experience was considered a legitimate sex therapy option. Thank you Dr. Galen.
But post 1978 (when I was a teenager), The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), put the kibosh on erotic experience in treatment. No touch and no nudity please!
And now, here we are again, with the culture beginning to get interested in humanistic body-based experiences. It never really went away. It just went underground (except in Northern California) where it had been percolating away. And that’s where I found it in 1992, with my own “hysterical” exploration of sexuality.
One of the more forward sex think tanks has been The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (San Francisco) where sexologist Dr. Joseph Kramer developed a new approach to an old idea and called it “somatic sex education.”
Along with it came a new breed of practitioners known as “Sexological Body Workers” or “Somatic Sex Educators.” These somatic sex educators (men and women) are certified in the state of California, have a professional organization and standards of practice. They provide hands-on (one-way touch provided while fully clothed) therapeutic full body touch for clients with the purpose of supporting them to find a healthy relationship with their bodies and their sexuality through touch. Programs to certify Sexological Body Workers can now be found throughout Europe.
Dr. Lenore Tiefer, professor at New York University School of Medicine and founder of The New View Campaign, put it all in perspective for me in her groundbreaking article “Sex Therapy As a Humanistic Enterprise.” Published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy in 2006, Tiefer, an advocate of de-medicalizing treatment of sex therapy had this to say:
“It is about time that resistances to the humanistic programme are addressed. They did not necessarily arise from narcissism, naivete, or inappropriateness on the part of early humanistic sexologists. They did not arise from poor scientific validation of treatment approaches. Rather it seems likely that resistances to the use of bodywork or group-work or political action on the part of sexologists arose from the desire to adhere to the most respectable approaches so as to establish the legitimacy of the profession. This in turn may have arisen out of embarrassment about sex itself, especially about the respectability of sexual pleasure rather than sexual function as a focus for work. But…it is no longer acceptable for professionals in the field of sex education, research and therapy to fear being tainted by the subject matter. Our role is to advocate sexual authenticity and sexual entitlement without hiding behind the medical model of sexual ‘health’ and ‘normality’.”
In other words, it’s okay to need support to understand and embrace our bodies. We don’t have to hide behind the mask of disease to ask for assistance. And body-based therapies might be the perfect counterweight to the growing practice of medicating people who are trying to connect to their bodies.
Most interesting to me is her notion that in many ways this resistance is about our embarrassment about sex even on a professional therapy level. Our bodies and our minds cannot be separated. When we are able to get in touch with our body, we are able to get in touch with our feelings. And somehow through the politics of sex, religion, culture and so many other obstacles that get in the way, we keep trying to bury our genitals.
You would think that what was ancient would be acceptable. Direct bodywork in all of its forms used to be accepted as a part of humanistic psychology.
But we got scared again, moving forward the medicalization of sex. But that symptom based model is so discordant with what women are seeking that women across the country launched Red Tent Movements, threw on pink pink boas and started dancing in Goddess Circles trying to find their Divine Feminine. In retreats, in workshops, classes and with private hands on sessions people are facing their need to embrace their entire being. Genitals included.
The humanistic model of supporting people in their sexuality has almost vanished, but like a species on the endangered list, it is beginning to resurface. My experience as a client, and now as a sexuality coach in the tradition of humanistic therapy, is that the humanistic model focuses more deeply on emotional authenticity rather than sexual performance. The focus is on connecting to our own bodies first. We use real human relationships and real human touch as the medium for healing. And it works for so many people.
Why do we continue to silence the age-old message our bodies keep trying to shout? We are sexual beings and that’s not going away. And sometimes, we need to do more than just talk about it to figure it out.
I am going to leave the last word here with Dr. Teifer:
“The split between New Age humanistic sexual body-workers, who have extensive but untested insights into sex as a mind – body phenomenon, and white-coated sex experts, mired in medical mystification and reductionism, is holding sexology back. It may not be true, as California body-worker and guru Dr. Joseph Kramer insists that ‘‘sex is the creative force of the universe.’’ But, then again, it is about time we created a framework that would allow us to find out?”
What To Do After Reading This Article?
- Learn More About Pamela Madsen
- Her Book: Shameless: How I Ditched The Diets, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time To Cook Dinner (Rodale)
- Pamela’s Groundbreaking Retreat for Women: “Back to The Body: A Sensuous Retreat for Women“
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