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.