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Originally posted on wellness@smith:

So I went to tea at a house where a student asked about orgasm, and I went into my usual spiel about myotonia and allowing sexual tension – physical muscle tension arising from sexual arousal – to rise and trusting your body to do its thing even though you might feel sort of out of control, and this student goes,

“The science is really interesting to me, but what do you actually DO?”

Which is a question hardly anyone has ever asked me, not because everyone knows the answer but because most people don’t have the balls to ask. So BRAVA!

There are many different ways to masturbate, but as a beginning, let’s imagine you’re lying on your back, naked in bed. (You can also try lying on your stomach with your hands clamped between your legs, lying on your side, a pillow locked between your thighs, or standing up…

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emily’s lessons about trauma, not from a book

I’ve been really fascinated to read other people’s experience with IUDs – both good and bad. It seems like there is a great deal of variability in women’s experiences and also in the approaches that different medical providers take to inserting it. Thanks everybody for commenting!

I’ve spent the last week with gradually diminishing cramps; at this point it just feels like a bad period, manageable with meds. It turns out that a judicious combination of naproxen and alcohol is the most effective approach – not good in the long term, but it’ll do for the time being.

The whole experience has given me a much more profound empathy into the experience of survivors of all forms of genital trauma, especially childbirth. Everything from sexual violence to childbirth, the vagina, cervix, and uterus are targets for pain, but there’s a cultural paradox around more-or-less voluntary physiological trauma like IUD placement or (more significantly) childbirth, where you experience it with full consent and even appreciation, but your body really doesn’t know the difference between that and, say, being shot.

I’ve taught about the changes that come with motherhood – physical exhaustion combined with emotional upheaval combined with the potential for tearing, scarring, and sensitivity – that can cause a woman’s interest in sex to take a nose dive. But before my IUD placement, I don’t think I adequately appreciated the ways that the juggernaut of childbirth could transform a woman’s relationship with her vagina, altering her entire body’s feelings about her pelvis and genitals.

See, by Sunday afternoon I was thinking clearly enough to notice a kind of “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” mental block around my entire pelvis. My brain was definitely in self-protection mode, after just the small, brief trauma of having the uterus penetrated with something less than half an inch in diameter.

With childbirth, the fundamental MEANING of those body parts would change, from sexual to… well, women with different cultural backgrounds/baggage would construct different narratives to account for it, but essentially, they’d be transformed into a lockbox.

If motherhood were vital to your identity and sex never was, you might view your genitals and pelvis as sacred and untouchable. You might view yourself just as a mother and not as a subject of sexual experience.

If you always enjoyed sex and want to continue enjoying it, you might experience the lockdown as “being broken,” a symptom of damage that will go away once the baby sleeps through the night, once the baby stops breastfeeding, once the baby is in daycare, once the baby goes to school… waiting for the life event that will unlock the door, when in fact the lock is triggered not by external events but by internal processing of the physiological trauma.

Like, my sister IM’d me just now to tell me that she’s cooking “tasty chicken thighs” for dinner. And just the word “thighs” made me lock up a little bit inside. If my minuscule little IUD experience can slam on my psychophysiological brakes to such an extent, what might happen inside the embodied mind of a mother?

I’ll be going to a couple somatic experiencing sessions to move through the physiological trauma. I know enough about this process that I could probably do the work on my own, but having the guidance and supportive of a practitioner gives focus and intensity to the process.

So I guess some advice: if you’ve experienced any kind of genital trauma, whether voluntary like IUD placement that goes poorly or childbirth, or involuntary, like sexual assault, the key to reversing that “lockdown” experience (what are other useful ways to describe it?) is to grieve, to listen to what your body knows, to move all the way through the stress response cycle, allow it to complete, so that your body can relax and begin creating a new meaning.

Also, use lube. I cannot stress this enough.

To participate more than I consume

Hey there folks, I took the long holiday weekend to work intensively on this relationship guide I’m writing (nearly finished!), and let the blog linger a little. But we’re back!

I keep thinking about the beauty and blogging thing, and especially my own thought process when I see folks in the media doing the work folks like me do, but without cameras and an audience.

Over and over, as I considered the issue, I found myself thinking, “…whereas in reality…”

Which I found interesting. Contrasting media with reality.

Because in reality, like at professional conferences, I *NEVER* wonder what role a person’s appearance played in their presenting at the conference. Might their appearance have played a role? Sure, I guess. But I never wonder about it.

And in reality, like sitting around in a bar talking about being a sex educator (btw, ALWAYS go to bars with the sex educators; we are definitely the most fun to drink with), I NEVER wonder how a person’s appearance affected whether or not they have the job they have. Could it have been a factor. Yeah. But I never wonder about it.

And in reality, beauty is various and complex and deep, and each person has a magnetism or charm of their own. Sometimes that magnetism is repellent rather than attractive, but still, it’s a power, and it typically has almost nothing to do with the shapes of their body parts.

In reality, you’re attracted to a person’s energy, their entire personhood, which is there before you when you meet them in reality, as opposed to when you see them on a screen.

In reality, we make decisions and develop opinions about people based on a richness of information that media strip from our “interaction” with that person.

So I’m creating a new rule of thumb for myself, and I offer it to you as something to consider in your life. It’s this:

Spend more time each day with members of your culture, in person, face to face, than you do consuming media about your culture.

I’m not counting email and I’m not counting any time spent at Google Scholar or my school’s library’s website, which I’m classifying as “research” rather than consumption. It might be a false distinction, but it feels right, it feels like that’s a different kind of information consumption. I also wouldn’t count reading a textbook if I were a student.

I’m counting websurfing, watching TV or movies, listening to the radio (though radio is more benign than anything with a video component), reading newspapers or magazines, or otherwise “consuming” culture rather than participating actively in it.  (There is an argument to be made that consumption is a form of active participation, but we’ll just skip that for now.)

My goal with this is to keep myself tuned in to the HUMANS in my life, as more representative of the world I live in than the IMAGES of humans available to me.

Because I don’t have a TV or go to the movies, this won’t actually be too challenging for me. I figure I spend 3ish hours just randomly on the internet most days, not working but just entertaining myself or learning things or whatever. So no less than that being a person out in the world won’t be a massive effort.

And just the process of coming to recognize that I’m healthier – and my culture is healthier – when I participate directly in my culture, rather than observing it mediated through corporations has already helped me move one notch further along the path to liberation from the socially/corporate constructed norms around women’s bodies!

vulva cupcakes (not safe for most people’s work)

Andrew and Sabrina sent me this photo, described as “vagina cupcakes,” (not by A&S) on twitter:

And my reaction was, “These are beautiful!”

They are! They’re anatomically correct and exhibit lovely diversity, including diversity of menstrual phase. I could only ask for a surgically constructed vulva and a bit more hair. I love them.

My reaction was also, “These are VULVA cupcakes, not vagina cupcakes.”

And then I clicked on the Facebook link to the image and found the comments associated with the picture… Here’s a sample. (I took out the “LOL!!” comments, as contributing nothing of interest to anyone.)

Really???

REALLY?!?! That’s all?!?! “Gross” or “hot” are pretty much all people have to say, with little exception?

And in looking closer, I noticed that a distressing number of the “gross” comments come from WOMEN and the “hot” comments come from men (this is why I kept the names in). Which breaks my heart. The general rule was not universally true, thank goodness, but to an alarming degree women viewed the vulvas as disgusting and men viewed them as potential sources of masculine pleasure.

Literally, this makes me want to cry.

On investigation, I’ve generally concluded that they must be made by the folks at Evil Cake Shop, which, I’ll be honest, is a bit disappointing. Can I confess that I had hoped it was some glorious feminist sex-positive, body positive cake shop that specializes in celebrating the beauty and diversity of women’s bodies?

But no. Evilness. Grossness. *sigh*

Still. They ARE beautiful.

sex and the apocalypse

My entire city and pretty much the entire rest of the county (and much of the state and indeed the region) has no power, thanks to the glories of global warming and the weight of snow collecting on not-yet-fallen leaves. (So most of you won’t be reading this until tomorrow or later. Hope’re staying safe!)

The lights went out around 6:30 last night, when it was already dark and the euphemism and I were settling in to a nerdy evening of soup and internet.

A few months ago, I would have written a witty post about using the dark as an opportunity to take candlelit bath with your sweetie and then snuggle in the bed.

But then a few months ago I would have assumed that the anxiety of losing power and not knowing when it would be restored would be erased by the comfort of having someone to snuggle with – which I didn’t have then and I do now.

In other words, a few months ago I would have been a bit deluded.

Losing power and not knowing when it’ll be back is anxiety provoking. Even early into the event, I was already obsessively checking and rechecking twitter and facebook on my phone, for updates.

So rather than writing a quippy, feminist-women’s-magazine style post about “making the most of it with Victorian-era role play,” I’d like to take this opportunity remind readers that anxiety, worry, and stress of all kinds kills most people’s sexual interest. (Details about individual differences here.)

It’s a point I haven’t made for a while – not since two July’s ago, when I was criticizing TV for blithely ignoring how stress affect sexual desire.

So I’m glad for the opportunity to avoid making the error that I criticized last year, the a glossy assumption that a stressful situation can be handily set aside while you play and frolic with your bunny.

Nah. It’s neither that simple nor that easy. When shit just sucks and when the suckitude drains you of sexual energy, THAT’S NORMAL.

It makes perfect physiological sense, right? Your stress response, being unable to differentiate between loss of electric service and, say, being hunted by a lion, shuts off or slows down a variety of biological systems, from your digestion to your immune system, until such time as the stressful situation, be it lion or electron, has been resolved. Your sexual motivation system is one of the ones that gets impeded by the stress response; globally (and there are exceptions), sex is not a biological priority under circumstances of high stress.

(Sometimes sex can be used to manage negative affect or to resolve a stressful situation.)

(Also, there are special strategies for dealing with worrying about sex during sex.)

So when you’re stressed and therefore your sexual interest goes away, THAT’S NORMAL. Don’t sweat it. Don’t try to be a candy-coated sexy kitten when what you want is to obsessively reload the outage map.

You know what can help instead? Straightforward affection, the loving presence of someone you trust and care about, who trusts and cares about you. Be grumpy and stressed together. As long as you recognize that the stressor is OUTSIDE the relationship, you can commiserate and problem-solve and just sit next to each other in the candlelight, glad that there’s someone else there, in case this really is the apocalypse.

belly theories

I wanted to add to yesterday’s post that I have a pet theory about why this silly and biologically untenable “flat belly” has become such a vogue.

Well I have two theories, actually.

The first, less sexually interesting theory, is that it’s a corporate construct designed to make us believe incorrect things about what our bodies are supposed to look like, so that we’ll feel bad and try to change our bellies, buying all kinds of crap in the process, when actually there is nothing wrong with our bellies that a little basic knowledge can’t fix. What makes me especially like this theory is that it’s actually NOT POSSIBLE to achieve the rock-hard-fat-abdomen advertised, because that’s simply not how bodies are shaped, so we’re being led down a rabbit hole, made to crave something that is genuinely impossible. Which is a good trick, if you have a vested interest in making people spend money.

My second theory is about why THAT aesthetic in particular might resonate so powerfully. It might be that the taut abdomen is actually more like what a person near orgasm looks like. You get all this tone in your abdomen, these waves of muscles contractions that may well flatten out your belly. In the way that lipstick darkens lips as lips darken with arousal, blush flushes cheeks as cheeks flush with arousal, and mascara and eyeliner, the flat abdomen mimics arousal.

Just a pet theory.

Oh, and a third theory: youth. Because fat accumulates on younger women more on the butt and thighs and gradually moves north as they age, fat on hips and thighs is an indicator of youth and fertility. That’s actually a genuine thing at moderate levels, but it doesn’t account for the EXTREMITY of the current fashion. That, I think, is best accounted for by the corporate theory.

(PS – All of the above might be nonsense.)

No One Will Ever Love You

Apparently this is what happens when you start sending email to your favorite sandwich. Gmail wants you to be afraid. Yesterday it was this:

Why Men Lose Attraction
10 Dangerous Mistakes Women Make That Ruin A Potential Relationship

OHMYGOD WHATAMIDOINGWRONG THATWILLMAKETHEEUPHAMISM LEAVEME?!?!

Girls who feel things will always be alone

*sigh*

People have emailed and commented and tweeted me about these ads, so I know there are lots of you seeing these. To save you the nausea of clicking on the link, I found out what the 10 Mistakes are. Here ya go:

MISTAKE #1: Betting Your Love Life On His “Potential”. So okay, so this isn’t untrue; it isn’t a gendered thing, but whatever – people sometimes view potential partners are projects, fixer-uppers, when really they ought to be respected and cared for just as they are. Fair enough.

MISTAKE #2: Assuming You “Get” Men & Their Psychology Men are different from women [sic]. Well. Men and women are different – their bodies are different in important ways, they’re trained from birth to follow different social rules, yeah they’re different. And it can be difficult to understand the world from a point of view so different from your own, so okay. God knows there are plenty of men who look at the world of women and feel mystified. Sure. Okay.

MISTAKE #3: Pretending To Be Something For A Man. Genuineness is one of Carl Rogers’s Core Conditions. But wait, when you read the description of that mistake, it turns out that’s not actually what he’s talking about here. He’s talking about how doing stuff to flatter a guy – for example, having sex with him – lowers your value in his eyes because of supply and demand: if you are available, he won’t want you, and if you seem unavailable, he will want you. No, we’re not talking about genuineness here, we’re talking about Which Game to Play. Viz., Don’t want him too much.

MISTAKE #4: Sharing How You “Feel” Too Early With Him. Okay see, now we’re getting the stuff that just pisses me off. Can I ask why “feel” is in “quotation marks,” like feelings are a euphamism for something else? In fact when you read the explanation, it turns out that “feelings” are a euphamism for “neediness.” When you talk about how you “feel,” he experiences that as “clinging.” It makes him feel like he’s in a relationship or something, I think.

MISTAKE #5: Misreading The Important “Signals” That Men Send, and no he doesn’t tell you what those signals are. You have to sign up to find that out. SOMEONE has to pay for all those google ads, and it might as well be you, since you’re the one suffering from men’s inability to use words instead of signals.

MISTAKE #6: Relying On Your Natural Ability To Judge A Man’s Character. Men are sending signals, we are told (again). And you might think you know what they mean, but you don’t. Because you’re a woman. And no, we are not told what the signals are because, again, someone needs to pay for the google ads.

MISTAKE #7: Expecting A Relationship To Make You Happy. This is another “don’t be too clingy and dependent” thing. You can’t expect a man to take care of you.

MISTAKE #8: Trying To “Convince” Him To Like You Or Love You. This one at least he concedes that both men and women do.

MISTAKE #9: Not Knowing What To Do In Each Type Of Situation – and I swear to god this is how this section ends: “If you don’t know what to do in each situation, you’ll probably screw it up… and LOSE EVERYTHING.”

EVERYTHING. Your house. Your job. Your dog. They’ll rescind your degree. Your family will disown you.

E V E R Y T H I N G.

MISTAKE #10: Not Getting Help. From a man. Obviously. So that he can pay for his google ads.

Right, so there you have it. What you’re doing wrong. You want him too much, you’re too available, you’re too interested, and you’re misreading his “signals.” Because adult humans communicate through “signals,” rather than language.

Anyway.

I confess my strongest reaction to all this is, “I give WAY better relationship advice. I should post manipulative, fear-based google ads and inveigle money out of people for my far superior (not to mention genuinely expert) advice.”

I don’t mean it, though. The audience for those ads is not the audience I want; I want the people who can recognize the misogyny in such advice without even having to click the link. Those folks – YOU folks – have all the same fears of being alone forever, but you can recognize bullshit. The 10 Mistakes are for people who drink Bud Light and like it. My relationship advice – of which I’ll be giving more over the coming days and weeks, since it’s coming up so often – is for people who drink stout, IPA, and nut brown ales.

Now I want a beer at 11am, which is bad, particularly as I happen to be on antibiotics.

Is He a Cheater?

Emailing my euphemism last night, gmail showed me this ad:

Is He A Cheater?
1) Search His Email Address Fast.
2) See Hidden Pics & Profiles Now!

I’ve written an entire post about jealousy and any number of posts about attachment, including attachment styles, stages of attachment, and breaking up. But I’ve never written a post about infidelity. Indeed, I’ve only mentioned it once, in passing, while describing the nature of love and joy.

So when I saw the ad, I thought, “I should write a post about infidelity.”

But I find it difficult to feel invested in such a subject; I just can’t get on the moral outrage train that seems to be so popular, and a calm explanation of infidelity doesn’t meet the needs of people who are worried about it.

Like this: People cheat for a nearly infinite range of reasons, all of which boil down to the fact that monogamy is incredibly hard. Well-intentioned, loving people cheat; so do manipulative liars. The infidelity is not what matters; what matters is how you and your partner deal with such events, potential or real.

See? True, but so different from what you want to hear that it just CAN’T be of any use to you.

People want to know, “How do I find out if my partner is cheating?”

And I’m struck by the ad’s encouragement to STALK to your partner. Worried your partner might have violated your trust? Then violate their trust! Think your partner might be a fundamentally corrupt human being? Then engage in equally corrupt behavior from the moral high ground of The Betrayed Lover! It’s okay to sneak around behind your partner’s back if you think they might be sneaking around behind yours.

Eurgh.

There is still a post to be written about the paradoxical truth that one of the main things we give and receive in relationships is permission to be free from the relationship. I’ll write it soon. In the meantime, the answer to the question, “how do I found out if they’re cheating” is:

There is no foolproof ‘sign.’ And really, if you had something that felt like ‘evidence,’ what would you do then? Confront them with it? Because presenting them with this supposed evidence might increase the chance that they’d tell the truth about it? Dude, if you can’t trust that your partner will tell the truth without being presented with evidence, there is already something more important wrong with your relationship than a little extra-dyadic sex. Your relationship lacks trust and it lacks communication skills. Go read some of the posts above, especially the jealousy post.

… is in a relationship with…

In “Social Network,” the idea of the “Relationship Status” is presented as the cherry on the sundae, the finishing touch that makes facebook Ready, makes it Cool. The college student perspective was that it was a way to advertise being single or to find out if a love interest might be available.

In the world of grown ups, though, it has instead taken on the role of communicating to people about a big ol’ life event that would otherwise require cumbersome phone calls and emails or clumsy mass emails (“sorry for the mass email, but I wanted all of you to be the first to know…”) or even, god forbid, sending MAIL. Hardly ever does anyone send an email or call, and they definitely don’t send announcements in the mail to let the world know about these things. They post it on Facebook.

That little red heart and a single sentence “X is in a relationship with Y” or “X is engaged to Y” or “X is married to Y,” stands in place of the mountain-top cry of “I found them! They were there waiting all along!” Or it might mean, “See, I’m NOT a failure, a loser, a freak, or a jerk; someone likes me!” Or it might mean, “Leave me the fuck alone; I am claimed.” Or it could mean, “I Claim This Person. Hands Off.” Or all of those things, or something else. What the friends receive is simply a sentence and a little red heart.

I’ve watched it happen to my friends and family – my sister and brother both went from “in a relationship” to “engaged” to “married” in the past few years, and Andrew and Sabrina, too, went from soup to nuts on FB, and the stories behind each were complex and varied and deep. I’ve seen it happen to friends I know less well, too; and I’ve built stories in my mind about each little red heart, and I’ve felt a warm happy twinge to see just a little more love in the world.

(Always the stories I invent are about love, never fear. Why assume someone is in distress when the scant available information just as easily supports an assumption of joy?)

Now, for the first time since I joined Facebook, I’ve experienced a change in my own relationship status. The only people I called were my mom and my sister. I emailed a couple other people. And everyone else got “Emily is in a relationship with Rich” – seven words and a little red heart. Which, for me, meant something along the lines of, “It’s like I accidentally slammed my face into a door or fell down the stairs – I was looking the wrong way when all of a sudden THERE IT WAS WHAM and I’m off my feet and shaking my head to clear my vision – but in a good way.”

The person on the other end of my facebook status change has way way way more FB friends than I do, and he pretty much instantly had a couple dozen “likes” and a number of comments about his status change. It was more low-key for me; indeed, in a fit of self-consciousness I “removed post,” so that it wouldn’t be too much of a public proclamation, ya know?

(Though now I’m writing a blog post about it, and many more people see this than my FB, so what the hell, Emily?)

It’s a strange thing, the facebook declaration of relationship. A call or an email (or indeed a blog post) lets us tell the true story. But maybe it’s a gift to let people invent their own stories from that single sentence and the little red heart. It’s like handing them the perfect romance novel, custom tailored to the individual’s romantic inclinations, all in seven words.

never let me go

So I’ve just read (had read to me – audio book) Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”

It’s a rare foray into literary fiction for me; literary fiction often pisses me off for the pretentious, ignorant, showy way it deals with sex; the sex is always sick, deviant, dysfunctional, uncomfortable, boring, or perfunctory, where the sex in romance novels is deceptively ecstatic. (Which would you choose to read about for recreation, if you’re a sex educator who spends large chunks of her day thinking about the ways sex goes wrong?)

The title, “Never Let Me Go,” derives from a fictional song performed by a fictional torch singer. The lyrics of relevance are: “Oh baby, baby, never let me go.”

The main character has one interpretation of these lyrics, other characters have theirs, and I have my own. Mine is, of course, the best one.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the book is the history of some students at a school where they live all the time, parentless, familyless, with teachers (“guardians”) as their only adult caregivers.

In other words, it’s a HAVEN for attachment disorders.

Therefore when the main character, around age 13, listens to this song, “Never Let Me Go,” over and over again, and imagines herself holding a baby, ache you feel is for an early adolescent whose early attachment experiences made her necessarily avoidant.

Unsurprisingly, her first forays into sex follow an avoidant pattern: there are times when she just WANTS sex in an overwhelming way, she’s just STARVING for it and will go anywhere to get it. Well yeah. One thing she wants when she wants sex is the basic feeling of human connection. Which she’s desperate for.

It’s a beautiful book that lingers inside you after you’ve read it. I recommend it just on its own account. But if you’re interested in seeing what avoidant attachment looks like – especially its peculiar and seemingly paradoxical dynamic of wanting desperately to connect and at the same time not knowing how, not feeling safe, not being able to hold on it – and how that attachment style can enact itself in sexual decision-making, this is a superb illustration.