I recently contributed to a project called Let's Talk About Sexual Healing with friend and colleague, Renee Sills. The project included public panel discussions, workshops, online participation, exhibitions and a print magazine. The two of us worked together on an article for the magazine. I re-read the work this afternoon in preparing for a workshop on nonmonogamy, it felt important to publish this portion as I make more and more public work on these subjects.
The full PDF is available by contacting Renee Sills via her site reneesills.com.
Here is the excerpt of my contribution, MOVING TOWARDS LIBERATED RELATIONSHIPS, co-authored by me and Renee Sills.
AS ARTISTS who are both personally and professionally invested in examining relationships, intimacy, and vulnerability, we have spent a considerable amount of time talking with each other about how to create space for more meaningful exchange around sex, sexuality, and sensuality. For us, the value of having these kinds of conversations is extensive: we have experienced, both personally and in our communities, the relief and liberation that often accompanies “coming out,” and know firsthand how psychologically damaging it can be to live in secrecy and shame. We’ve also both spent years, if not decades, developing the capacity and language to speak about our own sexual and intimate needs, and have recognized that when we are able to articulate and share those needs with our partners, it leads almost immediately to an increased sense of trust and willingness to be vulnerable.
Relief, liberation, developing capacity for effective communication, and increased trust and intimacy are just a few examples of how talking about these issues might improve one’s personal life. The necessity for these conversations is not simply to increase personal wellbeing however. Due to the current cultural moment—the ongoing outpouring of sexual assault allegations, continued conflict over a woman’s right to choose, and a sitting president who has openly admitted to sexual assault, and other alleged crimes of sexualized violence—we are certain that the general level of conversation surrounding sex and sexuality is inadequate. We imagine and propose that a cultural shift toward greater maturity, sensitivity, compassion, and ethical, equitable relationships is well within the realm of possibility. We believe that increased conversation and education is the first and most important step.
It is towards these goals that we propose the following paths toward liberatory relationships:
WORK TOWARDS CONFIDENCE AND SELF-ACCEPTANCE
We appreciate that this suggestion may be totally obvious. Self-acceptance also may seem an illusive state of being for many of us trying to work through shame or negative self-esteem. This is difficult work, but ultimately it’s the most effective form of self-care. Remind yourself that taking time for self-reflection and cultivating self-acceptance are also acts of love for your community. When you demonstrate centeredness and peace within yourself, you become a possibility model for the people around you.
To begin, we suggest simply that you behave in ways that normalize your own life. This work is about getting comfortable enough with yourself so that you’re not embarrassed or ashamed of your choices or desires. When you describe yourself, your choices, and your relationships, describe them with joy and appreciation. Practice this first with friends and trusted allies, then with others. Remember that everyone has some part of themselves, or something in their life, that they feel is unacceptable. Being open and vulnerable might just give them the permission they need to talk about those parts of their lives with you. When you speak, take a moment to pause and breathe, so you can come to a physical state of centeredness that will infuse your words. Proceed with honesty and openness from there.
WORK WITH A SEX-POSITIVE, IDENTITY-AFFIRMING THERAPIST
Regardless of your gender identity, sexual orientation, or sexual preferences it’s essential that any therapist you work with is 100% supportive and invested in making your personal choices work for you. (We assume here that cultivating ethical relationships and practicing enthusiastic consent are values for both you and your mental health provider.) When looking for a therapist, we suggest seeking someone who is well-versed in intersectional feminism and is queer-affirming. Whether or not you identify as queer, this is important since a queer perspective can work wonders for those who find themselves trapped in gender roles when they don’t want to be!
We love therapists who give homework and suggestions for new behaviors or activities. We also recommend looking for therapists who provide tools for beginning or engaging in difficult conversations with partners, friends, family, or loved ones. We understand that these types of therapists might be hard to find depending on where you live. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) has a large and growing database for providers across the continental U.S. A simple Google search for “sex positive therapists” will also bring up a number of therapists who offer their services over Skype or by phone.
DEVELOP YOUR OWN LANGUAGE
Asking about and listening to other people’s experiences can be incredibly helpful! Reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, watching films, and talking with other people who are willing to speak candidly about their sexuality and experiences are all great ways to develop your own voice and language. We can learn from each other, get new ideas, examine our own biases and beliefs. We can hear our own feelings and experiences reflected and validated. There is a wealth of available resources to learn more about healthy sexuality and sexual healing. Finding community whose language you share is crucial, whether they be friends you gather with or writers you admire. That said, there are many ways to pursue your sexual liberation, and you don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s structure, terminology, or relationship culture. You have to decide what feels right for you. Included in this program are some of our favorite references. Start with one or two and see where you end up.
CHANGE THE CONVERSATION
People actually do talk about sex, a lot. However, we’ve noticed that conversations surrounding sex mostly center on bragging, shaming, or sharing clinical or fact-based information. Many conversations attempt to create impressions or project what we think people should know or feel. The kind of conversations we would like to promote are not so much about the act of sex itself, but rather about the feelings, beliefs, sensations, habits, insecurities, and assumptions that arise around sex. If you find yourself in a status- quo conversation about sex we suggest shaking it up by asking a few questions that could invite deeper reflection or different perspective. Some examples of these kinds of questions are: How did this (event, interaction, feeling) affect your sense of (personal wellbeing, confidence, security, feelings of attractiveness, or ability to relate?) Did this (event, interaction, feeling) remind you of (events, interactions, feelings) you’ve had before? If so, please share those stories. Was this (event, interaction, feeling) something that you’d like to promote in yourself for the future? Why or why not? How?
Changing the conversation is the decision to deviate from the expected route of the conversation. For example, if you’re talking to a friend who likes to brag about the sex they have, you might ask them what about these exchanges boosts their sense of self-esteem, or inquire into the health, wellbeing, or happiness of their partners. If your conversations trend towards clinical and perfunctory you might challenge yourself to talk about feelings. If your conversations are often moralistic, or if you notice many assumptions about normativity or ideas of right and wrong, we’d advise focusing instead on describing the pleasure of attraction or emotional engagement, or the appreciation of authentic expression and self-empowerment.
PROMOTE SEX-POSITIVE CULTURE IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Practicing all the suggestions above are great ways to start shifting your internal experience and immediate community toward greater levels of maturity, self- acceptance, and open-mindedness. At some point though, you may be called or compelled to reach out to a broader community. When you do, remember that although it’s important to point out what’s wrong or what’s not working, it’s just as important to actively demonstrate possibilities and alternatives, and to model new ways of being.
Model comfort, transparency, and good humor as you make your critiques and suggestions. Make space for more conversations about love and holistic pleasure. Point to the health benefits of positive sexual self-esteem (less likely to engage in dangerous or risky behaviors, more likely to get regular medical check-ups, more likely to engage in positive, healthy relationships, etc.). If you are in conversation with someone who is dismissing a behaviour, feeling, or sexual preference, etc. as non-normative, or unhealthy, try responding by sharing your differing perspective with kindness and openness.*
*It’s important to acknowledge that there are many cultural differences, even within regions of the United States, and definitely outside of the US, in regard to talking about sex. We understand that in many situations personal health, safety, or other negative consequences may mean that our suggestions are not advisable in the moment. Please use your best judgement about when you feel safe and brave enough to try out these suggestions.