*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?
When I was first exploring my sexuality, I didn’t resonate with using the terms masculine and feminine to describe myself — especially not when they applied to sex. I resonated with the idea of these energies co-existing, but not how having both of them could help me have a balanced sex life. Now, ten years later on this journey, I resonate much more with these terms and understand why that balance can be so helpful in sex and intimacy. At times in my explorations, I’ve swayed heavy to one side or the other, and thankfully this pendulum swing has been helpful in opening up a longing in me for the side that was missing.
I’ve always identified strongly with certain aspects of traditional femininity. I became a mother to a big family at a young age and the role of nurturing my children and husband felt at that time, like my highest purpose in life. Motherhood allowed me to tap into the soft, nurturing parts of myself that longed for connection and intimacy — through tending to the needs of others. Caring for my family became my attempt at meeting those needs in myself and yet, I often felt like something was missing. Without embodying my masculine side, I found it difficult to ask for what I wanted and needed or make decisions for myself that conflicted with my ability to care for others. My femininity lacked self-care that may have helped me feel nurtured or beautiful or comfortable in my body, and was solely focused on the needs of others. I stuffed my own needs down as deep as I could to protect this. As my children got older and built their own relationships and interests, parenting no longer met my need for intimacy, and the deep longings I felt bubbled to the surface. Slowly, I pulled them out one by one and learned that I liked to feel my body move through dance and to wear dresses and to feel pretty — for myself — and that femininity wasn’t only about caring for the needs of others.
Around this same time I discovered my pleasure in a more embodied way and the nurturing part of me that used to have sex for my husbands pleasure, started wanting pleasure for myself. It took awhile to learn how to do this, but eventually I no longer cared if he connected with me before we had sex as I’d long since been asking for. I learned that I could have sex solely for pleasure — as he had seemingly done for years and years — and that sometimes that was exactly what I needed. I learned to own my right to orgasm by making sure that, with the help of my hands, I always orgasmed in sex. I initiated sex, turned on the lights and took the pillow off of my face that I’d used for years to hide in shame. I didn’t have to feel shame to live in pleasure. It was my BIRTHRIGHT. I was doing what men have done for centuries and took ownership of my own pleasure. I’d believed my husband’s pleasure to be a given and that it was necessary for me to provide that for him during the 17 years we were together. Until I found my masculine, I couldn’t imagine believing my pleasure could be a given or necessary too.
High on this masculine energy I rode my right to pleasure as hard a cock. (see, just writing about my masculine gets me in that mode!) When my marriage ended, I continued seeking my right to pleasure in a masculine way — rarely asking for the nurturing or connection I also needed, or even discerning adequately who I was experiencing pleasure with. There are moments I remember in sexual situations where I felt almost out of body, wondering why I divorced my husband just to be back in the same situation of disconnected sex I’d wanted out of. I could orgasm just fine, but the longing for connection and intimacy and being seen, was still there.
Listening to my feminine, I started practicing discernment and realized that deep intimacy and pleasure (beyond just a basic “get me off” orgasm) happened when I felt relaxed and safe. Just “taking” my orgasm wasn’t enough anymore and I still longed for the more I craved in my marriage. I wanted pleasure yes, but also connection, softness, surrender. To have this, I had to learn to trust and to receive — both very feminine qualities. I realized it was much easier to long for these things than to actually make myself open to them, but I committed to practice. Using breath, presence and masculine confidence, I learned to soften my body like a jelly fish or sea sponge — able to absorb and feel the subtlest nuances of pleasure. Slowly I opened my legs, arms, hands and heart to myself, my partner and the universe. Allowing the feminine in me to receive and soften meant I could allow my partner to pleasure me for as long as I needed. When I felt insecure, the masculine in me was helpful as the strong voice in my ear reminding me, as it’s reminded men for centuries, that “this is my right!” Finally, the two parts were working together.
Looking back I feel that as a traditional, non sexually embodied woman — so far swung on the pendulum in that way — it was necessary for me to swing as far as I could the other way and find my masculine. I needed to own my right to pleasure and exercise it as my own, so that I could come back and own my right to embody my full femininity too. In order to surrender to pleasure, love and allow myself to be fully seen, I needed to know I deserve that. It’s my right as a human being. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, I believe these two energies exist in all of us, as does the potential to actualize them. To know if your pendulum is swung too far in one way, you can simply ask yourself “what else am I longing for in my sexual and intimate life?” Your answer, is an invitation to explore what’s missing.
These past couple of years, I’ve become very acquainted with the gifts and limitations of my wounds and how to tell the difference between the two. Helping or loving anyone from a wounded place can result in support that is either unhelpful or damaging. As parents, healers, ministers, helpers, therapists or support persons we don’t need to be unwounded to help others — we just need to have an intimate and honest relationship with our wounds so that it’s clear to everyone involved, who we are trying to “help.” I compare this to getting to know a lover. Seeking to know them inside and out — their strengths, depths, triggers and potential go-to behaviours when they (or I) just. want. to. stop. the. bleeding.
While I learned about all of this through counselling classes and other trainings I’ve done, the greatest teacher for me has been through my intimate relationships. Nothing matters to me as much as my children, partner, family and friends do, and yet — no other area of my life touches my wounds as much as they do. Because of this, I’ve learned to recognize the dysregulation in my body when my wounds have opened, to slow down, pause and be present to what is actually real in the moment.
There are 2 memories that stand out as for me as vivid reminders of what my wounded vs. unwounded help looks and feels like. In one — I’m standing at my eldest sons door, trying to help him grieve and find a reason to keep going after losing his friend from suicide. He keeps saying “don’t yell at me” and I can’t understand why he’s saying this when I’m not raising my voice at all. Only later do I realize that what he was feeling, was that my support (while good intentioned) was from a desperate place of fear that I’m going to lose him too, rather than from a place of present listening to him and what he actually needed from me.
The second memory happened a year and a half later — I’m holding in my arms a friend and mother who lost her son to suicide only a few days earlier. As she sobs, I feel the bones in her spine under my fingers, smell the shampoo in her hair and see her sons’ shoes on the porch floor under our feet. The difference between the 2 memories of myself is: grasping, desperation vs. generous, loving presence.
Since then, I use these memories as a reminder that when I’m helping anyone, there are 2 choices I can make — like 2 doors to open in my heart.
There are 2 doors in my heart — each with a sign on them that says “helping.” Apart from the signs, the doors look very different.
One is like those old saloon doors that have no handle and swing open without warning or thought to who is on the other side. Beyond the swinging door, the ground drops away immediately so that as soon as I step in — as fast as the door swings open — I fall into a big pit of gooey tar. There is no bottom to the pit and once in it, I have to tread tar to stay up. The tar is sticky and heavy and I have to not only tread fast enough to stay up, but also to keep it from hardening around me. Glancing around the tar pit I notice what I hadn’t noticed before — that the person I was trying to help, is in here treading tar with me. It’s difficult to see them for who they truly are in here — someone hurting and needing support while also fully capable of surviving this pain. All I can see is both of us, desperately trying not to drown in the tar while their eyes plead with mine to save them. This door represents the wounded part of me that when triggered, can’t always tell my wound from another’s in this pit.
The other door in my heart is wooden with a large stain glass window in it and I can tell from the way the colours in the glass sparkle onto my face and chest that there is a lot of light on the other side. This door is made with such obvious care that I can almost imagine whomever made it, hand planing and sanding it until it was smooth to touch. The handle is one that needs to be turned in order to open the door and as I reach down to turn it I’m present to every sensory detail I see and feel. Being so well cared for, this door makes me feel present, loving and generous before I even open it. Turning the handle and gently easing the door forward, I can see the person on the other side standing on the grass with light glowing around them. I notice the deep pain in their eyes, the quiver in their lip and the dysregulation in their chest as they breathe. When I reach out to hug them I smell the faint scent of soap in their hair and feel the bones in their spine with my fingertips. I am as present as humanly possible to what they’re going through and, while I can absolutely feel their pain and imagine with every vein in my body how it feels, I never once see it as my own or as my responsibility to fix. I am simply there for them, in whatever way they need, on their journey of healing.
Before I help anyone, I take a breath, pause at the entry of these doors and ask myself which one I’m about to go through.
***In loving memory of Thomas Schorr and his loving mama.