*Art by Carlos Bongiovanni
June’s Quebec Bodysex® workshop coincided with the Roe v. Wade overturning in the U.S., and, knowing that millions of women were losing their right to choose what happens with their body, I couldn’t help but remember where my journey into this work began over 24 years ago. I moved to Kenya just shy of my 20th birthday and ended up living there on and off for 5 years, in a remote area amongst a tribe called the Maasai. During my time there, all of the women who became mamas, sisters and nieces to me, were either circumcised or were going to be once they reached puberty. I saw two girls get circumcised while I was there, and knowing that their right to pleasure was removed from them, while mine was intact but felt inaccessible to me, had a profound affect on my life. What responsibility did l have to exercise a right that others are denied? Was it privilege if I didn’t know it was there or how to use it? In all the sex ed I received growing up, never once was there a mention of the clitoris or of pleasure.
The memories from those circumcisions lived like a simmering ember inside me for years before I started to exercise my right to pleasure, started this work and began to help other women find their own pleasure. The news in the states sparked that ember into a flame, reminding me again why this is so important. The night after the workshop ended, my thoughts and dreams oscillated between the beautiful group show and tell in Quebec, and memories in the hut in Kenya where the girls were mutilated. Two very different and, yet somehow similar, ceremonies replay over and over in my head ……..
My favorite part of bodysex is always the genital show and tell. The room was quiet except for the sounds of appreciation and support as each woman took her turn sitting beside me while the other women huddled around watching. One at at time they sat down in front of a lamp and mirror, opened their legs — putting one leg over mine — slowly spreading their vulva to share her with us. Sometimes this is the first time a woman has looked at her vulva and all the layers and textures can come a a surprise to her. Together we explore the inside and outside of her vulva, admiring her clitoris with all of its thousands of nerve endings and the different colors, sizes and shapes of her beautiful lips. They look like flower petals spilling out between their legs and if someone painted the scene, I imagine that’s how they would paint it. We explore different ways to touch and what feels good and what doesn’t and how it’s different for each woman. I’m close enough to them to feel the sweat drip down the side of their naked body, and to rest my head on their shoulder so that I can see the exact mirror image they see between their legs. Sometimes the women cry, and sometimes I rest my hand on their leg to comfort them. Sometimes they take their time to open their legs and sometimes we sing them open. They open slowly like flowers except — instead of the sun — we are the light they open to. If the women look up, they’ll see a room full of women shining all their love and light towards their vulva. Every moment is a blessing, an honoring of the reverence and sacredness of this most special part of what it is to be a woman.
Next I remember a Maasai girl who is just starting her period with budding breasts and still child like features also sitting on the floor of a room full of women watching her. This room is quiet, as women and girls of all ages huddle in to watch. She is sitting with her legs spread between 2 women, one on each side, who hold them open while another sits behind her and covers her eyes with her arms and hands held tight around her. She is held there, unable to move while an old woman, who has cut many vulvas before hers, sits between her legs and uses a razor to remove her growing clitoris and each of her budding flower petals. Her cries break the silence. She screams, she tries to fight but they hold her there. Women and girls watching, half cover their eyes with their dresses. Fighting against it, the hand covering the girls’ face loosen and I see her eyes for a second. The look in her eyes is absolute terror, and I leave the room bawling. Nothing feels sacred. Nothing feels reverent. I feel only violence. Hours later I come to her home to bring her a gift and check on her. She looks relieved it’s over and proud somehow, as women move around caring for her. She rests on a bed made of freshly cut branches and leaves and her wounds are tended to constantly and lovingly by the women in the room. She will need help eating, walking and going to the bathroom for some time, and they won’t leave her side. This is how I know the women to be, shining their light and love towards her. This is how women are. Back in the other room, was what men get women to do to girls, so they can have the girls’ power before she realizes it’s even there.
Waking up the morning after the workshop, I thought of these 2 very different ceremonies and how Bodysex® was created by a sexually empowered woman, while female circumcision was created by men wanting to remove that power. I wonder what a Maasai girls’ right of passage would be like if sexually empowered women created it? Instead of cutting, would they lovingly hold the girls and sing their vulva’s open – blessing them into woman hood? If all women were taught about their clitoris and their right to pleasure, how would that change how we raise our daughters? On my flight home, I held close to me the beauty of the sacred weekend, and reminded myself that in a world where a law just passed to limit a woman’s bodily rights, loving our vulvas and pleasuring ourselves sends a powerful message. I know what my power is, I know how to access it and I am passing this power on to my children and grandchildren. Like flowers, I hope it spreads and someday we will live in a world where no petals are cut.
** In honor of all the vulva petals cut and with love to: Melba, Aruba, Eve, Tara, LilyRose, Phynissea, Myosotis, Preciousa, Asa, Bliss, Inanna, Douce Soeur and Papillon.
Every Bodysex retreat has a different “theme” to it and I’m always curious as to what it’ll be and where it comes from. Betty Dodson described these circles as consciousness raising, and I often wonder if what comes up is what the women in the circle need at that time, or if it’s part of a wider collective need for humanity. ….
Normally Justine and I start the weekend by working together to unload supplies, set up the circle and prepare snacks before all the women come. This time was different as I was committed to attend an online training for part of that morning, and I could feel the pull of wanting to please everyone. I tried to be on the call and unload at the same time, but Justine insisted that I focus on my training while she went ahead and started. I know I can trust her to be honest with me about what she needs, but I still felt uncomfortable that she had to do more work, and I spent most of the hour of training feeling conflicted.
When the women arrived, the vibe was instantly chill and relaxed and there seemed to be no sense of urgency to anything. As a group we interacted intentionally and deliberately — slowly dipping our toes in to get to know each other, getting comfortable being naked and exploring what our bodies needed to feel pleasure. As I experienced with Justine in the morning, it’s often very difficult for women to ask for what they want or to take time for themselves when they assume others might be wanting something else from them. It can be especially difficult to do so in a group setting when there is fear of “putting someone out” with whatever the need is. This group seemed to be a real exception to this because even on the first day I could see women beautifully taking up space and time to care for their own needs.
There were two moments in group genital show and tell that this theme really showed up. Each woman took a turn sitting beside me in front of a lamp, mirror and the rest of the group while they looked at and displayed their vulva. This ceremony is my favorite part of the weekend and the vulnerability it takes cannot be understated. It’s not uncommon for it to be the first time a woman has looked closely at her vulva and it often comes with many emotions. Everyone took turns naming their vulvas and stating a wish for her, followed by the group welcoming the vulva by her chosen name. One of the women stated that she needed more time in her moment, and this seemingly simple act was incredibly powerful for many of us as a group because it’s often SO hard for women to acknowledge and ask for the time they need. Hearing her do so I think in a way, gave the rest of us some permission to do so as well.
The last woman to take her turn at genital show and tell seemed understandably nervous and I sensed that she needed to ease into it a bit. I helped her to breathe in a way to encourage her body to soften and when parts of her anatomy stayed hidden, we offered her the suggestion of gently inserting the tip of her finger into her vagina to help the rest of her vulva soften. (It’s amazing how this works) As she slowly inserted her finger into her vagina she identified tension so I encouraged her to breathe down into the tension and see if she could create space around her finger. She leaned her body back into the pillows behind her and slowly breathed space around the finger inside her. On one of her exhales I heard a rumble in her breath and encouraged her to expand the rumble into a deeper sound as a way to further release the guard of tension in her body. We made sounds together on each exhale and it was incredibly beautiful to watch her take this space for her body to soften and receive her touch. So often we force ourselves to endure penetration when our vagina is just being self protective because it isn’t ready to receive yet. Her offer of her finger, along with gentle nudging of encouragement, allowed her vagina to meet her in this new experience. Sitting with my body right beside hers I could feel a guard of tension melt from her, as she so bravely honored her body by listening to its need for time and softening.
These moments on the first day really seemed to create this theme of taking the time we need and to witness women doing this in front of a group who had been strangers only hours earlier, really touched something inside of me — especially since I had felt guilty just that morning of taking my own time.
I noticed this theme show up throughout the rest of the weekend in action and words expressed by the group. It showed up in women taking space and time to themselves in their room or in a corner of the big room during non workshop hours. It showed up in women taking time to explain how they do or don’t like to be touched in group massage. It showed up in women taking time during group self pleasuring to feel in their body what the right touch is for them. It showed up in a woman choosing to go home to sleep on the second night so that she could feel better rested. And I noticed it in myself on the last morning as I took time to visit with the women instead of trying to get things cleaned and packed up to make up for what I hadn’t done in setting up.
Whether this theme is personal to our group or if its a universal need, I really needed the reminder. In my work, in my pleasure, with family and throughout the moments of each day, I can give myself permission to take the time and ask for more time whenever I need it.
Much love to my new friends: Azalea, Turtle, Eleanor, Freedom, Rose, Lily, Luna, Joy, Honor, Alice and Sunshine. I wish all of you the space and time you need..
For most of my 44 years, I thought sex and grief existed separate from the rest of life — behind closed doors and in hushed conversations. I now realize that in separating them, I missed the opportunity for the most beautiful intimacy I could have ever imagined.
Over the past 3 years, me and my children have experienced 3 tragic losses and at first, I had little ability to navigate them through what felt like unimaginable pain. Untimely, tragic deaths of children wasn’t something I’d dealt with beyond a clinical understanding in Counseling training, and I oscillated between fear that I would also lose my children, and gratitude for a deepening connection to them through our grief. Looking back on this time I can’t help but notice the parallels with my experiences in the intimacy of loss, and the intimacy of pleasure. There have been moments during this time where I felt I was experiencing the deepest intimacy of my life — Intimacy that is available when I move beyond my own fears and insecurities — and stay present in the seemingly insignificant details of the moment.
Seeing my 17 year old son hold the hand of his 16 year old sister as she cried in fear for the life of her friend. Hearing him teach her to breathe in the way he had learned to calm himself down when he had lost his friend the year before, and directing his other sisters to put a wet cloth on her forehead. I watched this scene in front of me, noticing the tv still on and half eaten food on the desk of the hotel room we were staying in. We’d come to celebrate my youngest’s birthday and all of that changed in a moment with one text message.
Fast forward a year and I’m standing in my friends’ doorway, holding her crying in my arms after losing her son. I feel her shoulder blades under my fingers, smell the shampoo in her hair, see his jacket on the hook behind her and his shoes casually sitting on the door mat under her collapsing legs — as if he’d just casually kicked them off and walked upstairs.
Interwoven with tragedy and grief is the unmistakable normalcy of everyday life.
After eating a bowl of homemade soup together in my dining room, surrounded by folded clothes and children’s books, we move to my bedroom. The woman, who’s come to me for orgasm coaching, lies down naked on my bed and I watch the color rising up her chest as her pleasure builds. Sitting on my chair I notice her seemingly oscillate between the push and pull of control and surrender — not knowing exactly how things will turn out if she just lets go. Increasing the sound of my steady breath to support her, we breathe together and she lets go; tears and laughter follow as her flush lessens and tears flow. “I’m not broken” she says. After she leaves, my children come home and we eat dinner at the same table.
Arriving at a hotel jacuzzi suite for a weekend of pleasure with my lover to discover my bleeding has come early. He takes off his red plaid shirt for me to bleed on — as if it’s the most normal thing to do in the world — and the rest of the weekend is spent naked, in pleasure, eating good food, discussing life and refolding the red shirt under me to find new squares to catch the blood.
Interwoven with pleasure and sex is the unmistakable normalcy of everyday life.
In January, we once again experienced the untimely loss of a close friends’ mother and, while supporting her through it, I couldn’t help but feel once again, this deep sense of intimacy. Intimacy in being alongside a person you love while they grieve. Intimacy in sharing stories about her life and legacy and the intimacy of asking myself what my own legacy will be. Intimacy in my daughter recognizing that her friend doesn’t “just want to talk about losing her mom, she also wants to talk about clothes and movies.”
Interwoven with tragedy and grief, pleasure and sex is the unmistakable normalcy of everyday life……….
* This is my experience only and I recognize that grief and loss are different for everyone. I’m not suggesting my experience should be anyone else’s
Imagine you had a partner who wouldn’t look at you, acknowledge you, say nice things to you or touch you – except in demanding or forceful ways. What if your partner asked you to do painful things to yourself to look presentable to them? What if they never took the time to ask you how you felt or what you wanted?
When they demanded something of you, do you think you’d feel open to giving it, or even letting your guard down enough to allow it? Would you feel safe? Cared for? Relaxed? Loved? Cherished? Would you want to have sex with them?
Now imagine this partner is your genitals. Your vulva, your penis. How do you treat this part of your body on a daily basis? Can you imagine your genitals as a being of their own? Do you acknowledge them as having needs? Do you recognize their need to feel safe in order to enjoy themselves? Their need to relax in order to soften….. or harden….. or feel pleasure? Have you spent enough time with them to know what they like or what feels good for them? Do you demand results from them without even knowing what feels good for them? Do you go directly to their clit or dick without exploring the rest of them, when you wish partners would spend time with the rest of you and your body before doing that?
What kind of partner are you, for you?
**Inspired by a breast cancer survivor I worked with, who asked me to share with other cancer survivors how I helped her accept her body again. I helped her in much the same way I helped myself, so here’s my story.
I started hating my body was when I was a teenager. My legs were too big and muscular, my breasts didn’t touch together like the women in magazines, and I knew I hated my vulva without even looking at it. I found ways to hide these things by wearing pants all year round, using my arms to push my breasts together during sex (yes I’m serious) and never looking at my vulva. As the years passed and I became a mother, I added a cesarean scar from 4 births and endless stretch marks that made my skin wrinkled to my “hate list.” I hated my body.
One day, while touching one of my five children, I wondered what he felt receiving touch that stemmed from a source that I loathed. Sliding my hands over his perfect little body, I wondered if he felt the love in my heart for him or, if he could feel my hatred of the body it came from. Worse yet, did it feel sourceless like tea pouring from an empty pot? There’s nothing I love more than my children and I wanted them to feel that love in every touch of my hand. So, I decided to try bringing the love I felt for them — towards myself, and see if I could fill up my own tea pot. If I could do that, I would be confident in the love they were receiving from my touch.
Making the decision was one step but the question of how to find love for my body when I hated it, was another. I thought of all the ways I showed my children love by looking at them, touching them softly and offering them kind and loving words. So (with the term “fake it til you make it” in my head) I imagined I was touching someone else I cared about, and slowly began to touch my body. It was really difficult at first — excruciating actually — and often brought me to tears. I’d avoided my body for so long and now here it — no she — was and the depth of how little I knew her and how much I’d rejected her, was right in my face. With commitment, I touched her everyday and started to remember the stories of the scars and stretch marks and other remnants of journeys I’ve been on.
Lines on my face reminded me of the sun in Kenya and all the beautiful relationships I had there. “Thank you my body.”
The loose skin on my belly reminded me that it was the first home for four of my children and I wondered about the belly of the mama who birthed my 5th child. “Thank you my body. Thank you Selam’s birth mamas’ body.”
I felt my cesarean scar and the lack of nerve endings across it. Slowly, finger by finger, I replaced the shame of my body not working properly to birth my children, with compassion for what my body went through to bring me 4 of my children. What a journey we’ve been through and you’re still here carrying me. “Thank you my body.”
Years later, I discovered I had thyroid cancer and the tumor, along with my right thyroid, was removed and there was a new scar with new feelings of shame. What had I done or not done to make myself get cancer? What am I doing now that could make it happen again? Why me? Why has my body failed me? Thinking again of my children and imagining how much love I would give them if they had cancer or a scar, and how I’d feel even more love for that part of them — I gave that to myself. I touched my neck gently and expressed appreciation for helping me find my voice that had been silent for so long. I spoke to her and under my touch, felt her soften.
“I see you and I know you’re here even if some of you is missing. Thank you my body”
It’s been 12 years from that first time I touched myself, and now I know my body so well. She’s my best friend. She’s honest with me when I eat something that doesn’t feel right for her and she’s taught me that she likes to be seen and validated and loved too. Sometimes I get caught in the trap of comparing her to others or of wishing she looked different, and I just come back to her and how she feels under my fingers and the stories she’s carried me through. When I do this, I can’t help but love her. Thinking of how I love my loved ones unconditionally, I remind her of all the ways I love her unconditionally. I love her scars and stretch marks, the thyroid still here and the one that’s gone, and her beautiful vulva. I tell her that she’s made perfectly and that I wouldn’t want her any other way, and with my touch and my words, I feel her soften under my fingers. “Thank you my body”
Today, when I touch someone else, I don’t doubt that they feel the source of this love coming through each of my fingers. With this love, I filled my own tea pot.