This speech was modified for a blog post. It was originally given at the AASECT Institute, “The Body Whisperers, Body Work in the Sexuality Fields” in New Orleans, November 2019. I was asked to post it by multiple people, so I have de-contextualized some of it from the Institute, which was about erotic body work, and am posting it here. To all at the Institute–thank you for your overwhelming support.
The night before the AASECT Winter Institute, The Body Whisperers, I was asked what my hopes were for this Institute. What was I hoping would happen?
As much as I teach how to use goals and objectives, the fact is, I didn’t have many for the weekend. As I get older, and as I learn more, I am less and less interested in goal-oriented activities. I’ve found that I’m far more interested in having the conversation than in focusing on an outcome.
When we have the conversations, incredible and unexpected results emerge from them. So while I have written goals and objectives for all of my teaching, the deeper truth is that I am more interested in the process itself. I believe in slowing down our digestion, so that we don’t rush into immediately creating new policies, or new procedures, or new codes. When we look ahead to what we will do with it, we often sell ourselves shockingly short. If I have goals, they will often be exceeded beyond my wildest dreams if I let go of outcomes and flow with relationships created.
I’d like to address AASECT professionals first, and professional bodyworkers second. I have different questions and considerations for each that I would like to pose at the outset of our time together.
First, I’d like to spend some time speaking about my stakes in this theme of body work. We all have personal reasons why we pursue this work. These are some of mine.
In 2005, I gave up on having children for the second to last time. After 7 years of infertility treatments, our sex life had been permanently damaged. We attempted to have an open adoption, but after three failed attempts at that, we gave that up as well. It isn’t just the endless rounds of sex on schedule, and sex with a plan, that kills the passion in an infertile couple. It’s also the grief.
The grief is a monthly thing. And once moved to bigger processes, like IUI or IVF, it becomes more devastating. After years of this, my then-husband and I had to live with what it means to share deep grief. What it means is that you can never get away from one of the objects, and perhaps one of the causes, of your grief. I often could not tell if I grieved more for myself, or for him.
It was this strain, among others, that found us in our kitchen one night, still in love, but discussing separation because of sexual breakdown.
As it turns out, that was about to change. Radically. We had a friend who was a Body Electric School instructor. Michael was a therapist and we had known him for years. My husband had been participating in a men’s group with him for and I trusted him implicitly. He had told us about Body Electric, a retreat organization for the direct experience of transpersonal sexuality and spirituality connection.
We went. At these first retreats, what we did completed a healing journey that I had begun as a teenager. I had searched for something for years, but I had no name for what I needed. I knew it should be body-oriented, and after many years of traditional psychotherapy, I was pretty much through with talk.
Should I do yoga? Dance? Should I have a massage every week? I intuitively knew that my body was the vehicle for my healing, but I had no way to know the direction that my healing should take. I was very lucky to be handed the key to the last major piece of work that I needed to do. It was the work of inviting and accepting pleasure. The work of the body erotic.
In 2005, we attended what was then called “Two Spirits” retreat, at Wildwood retreat center in Guerneville, California. We were told that we could ask everything that happened on the retreat, and they would tell us, or we could ask very little, which they suggested was a better option.
Little did I know that the exquisite boundaries set and held by the leaders of this retreat, Selah Martha and Colin Brown, were to frame and shape the philosophy and the underpinnings of everything that I came to do when I entered the field of sexuality as a professional. They shaped my institute. They just recently shaped AASECT policy, when I was asked to collaborate on a policy for the use of touch during live demonstrations and classes.
Here is what I have learned not only from Body Electric, but all of my work, play and life in communities like it.
- Do no harm.
- Practice boundaries. Invite and appreciate “no”.
- Make choice clear.
- Do not stop making choice clear. Remind, and remind and remind, long after you have established community and safe space. As a matter of fact, the more your community or classroom or training program gels and is seen as a “safe space”, the more I remind people that they are still, and always, “at choice,” because established communities become families, and a family has a lot of power.
- Do not ask for trust. Instead, invite conscious risk.
- Pleasure is healing. Do it, and then forget about healing altogether and live with your birthrights of play and celebration—those birthrights that we never get to enjoy, because we are so used to settling for comfort, instead.
I met someone at my first Tantra retreat who was later to come work with me, and to teach for me. We were asked to use a Tantric principle to create a scenario for ourselves, to expand or to heal or to experiment. As we worked in our small group together, I watched this woman help each of us to create what amounted to multi-dimensional Gestalt exercises, tailored for each person in the small group. They were intensely effective. Because we were given the freedom to use any part of our bodies and to enact any symbolic actions that we chose, (given our group members’ willingness), the capacity for transformative change was 100 times more efficient than anything I have ever seen in a therapy room. We were completely free to heal as much as we wanted, in any arena, with absolutely all of ourselves 100 percent present.
For those who don’t know my background, let me say that I had spent my entire adult life as a psychotherapy professional—20 years at that point. I had been trained in general counseling and group therapy, and later marriage and family therapy. I have facilitated intergenerational family sessions, I have been trained in Gestalt and psychosynthesis and psychodrama. I had been through these therapies myself and found them profoundly valuable. Now, in a Northern California retreat center, a woman who later revealed herself to me as a sex worker and identified as a professional whore was facilitating some of the most insightful, intuitive and skilled healing work that I have ever seen.
When I opened my school, I asked her to come teach for me, which she did, for several years. Her classes were never short of mesmerizing for their considerable intellectual content, as well as their emotional intuition, and my students never stopped clamoring for more of her instruction. But three weeks ago over lunch with her in Portland, I had to endure the slicing pain of listening to this brilliant diamond of a human being thank me for “including” “people like me.”
If we look at the history, it tells us an important story.
Some do not remember who it was that Alfred Kinsey consulted when he didn’t understand something about sex, and when he was designing his groundbreaking research. It was sex workers.
Who told Bill Masters that he didn’t know anything about women, and that he needed a translator, prompting him to hire Virginia Johnson? A sex worker. This same team of two created the work of sex surrogacy, which later expanded to surrogate partner work. This was deeply and broadly aided by the expertise of sex workers.
If you talk to full-service sex workers today, you learn how often they are asked questions by their clients, and how many of them actually research the answers. You learn how common it is for sex workers to talk to clients about erectile dysfunction, difficulties with intimacy, fetishes, body image and penis size, and even to help them get over and through these difficulties. You learn that many sex workers you talk to love to help their clients in these ways—even when they feel inadequate to the task. Yet when they reach out to some organizations and want to be honest about their backgrounds or their professions, they are either turned away or told that they must keep the sex work to themselves. The same is true for Sexological Bodyworkers, Surrogate Partners, Somatic Sex Educators, Sacred Intimates and others.
As a professional field of educators, counselors and therapists, we stand on the shoulders of sex workers. But as a field, if not as individuals, we are standing on their backs. The fields of sex therapy, counseling and education and even sexual medicine have helped themselves to sex workers knowledge, have colonized their wisdom, and ultimately may have gentrified their techniques.
As a human being, I cannot afford to sit in judgment of those who do hands-on work. It creates a split inside of myself. How can I talk about the healing of the body, and then shun those who put themselves inside of that work in the most vulnerable way possible? How can I intellectually believe in the life-giving and healing power of sex and pleasure, but ignore or marginalize the body itself when it comes to how people learn about those concepts? How can I say that I am sex-positive, yet look down upon people who do sex work simply because money is involved? Haven’t I been mocked for similar things? How many of you therapists, like me, have been jokingly called a “Rent-a-Friend”?
Therapists, clinicians, counselors and educators, I want to thank you for the work that you do. I’m not asking you to condone sex work, all types or any type. I’m not asking you to refer clients to erotic healers. I don’t know what we should do as a profession, quite honestly. I’m just grateful to be having the conversation.
I’d like to talk now to the bodyworkers in the room.
First, I’d like to thank you for your work. It’s needed. It’s important. It is incredibly valuable.
I’d also like to give you a window into the lives of educators and clinicians so that you may get a clearer understanding of some of the reasons why AASECT has been resistant to bodywork certification, or even to Sex Educator, Sex Counseling or Sex Therapy certification for people who do bodywork.
As a cisgender female therapist in private practice who advertised as specializing in sexuality, I very regularly had to field calls from people—usually cis men—where they either thought that I offered sex work, or tried to keep me on the phone talking about their “problem” while they got off. This kind of thing can be exhausting. It can also feel or even be dangerous at times, if you work alone, or if the caller or client is persistent. I know therapists who have had men begin masturbating in front of them in session, leaving the professional terribly vulnerable and sometimes at risk.
Certified Sex Therapists are constantly trying to correct the notion that they are sex workers, and many of them have no desire to ever do that type of work. Is it any wonder, then, that they wish to be crystal clear what Sex Therapy is, and is not?
Sex educators and counselors have to deal with this as well—leering, barrages of juvenile jokes, unwanted sexual attention, or simple misunderstanding of what they do.
Moving on from this, I want to speak to the bodyworkers and hands-on people in the room. Here are the questions I have for us, and our communities. Some of them you may understand, and some of them may not apply to the type of work you do. Take what you like to chew on, and leave the rest.
First, what might bodyworkers have to teach AASECT professionals? The Body Whisperers Institute is merely an introduction, and doesn’t cover all types of erotic healing work. What can you contribute?
Secondly, what can an AASECT professional offer you? Could you use more historical context, more detailed information on anatomy, a depth of knowledge about queer theory, or current trans concerns? AASECT professionals are certified in 17 separate areas of knowledge and also go through skills training in 5-6 areas, on top of this. How can we help you?
I also want to go more deeply into questions that trouble me about the bodywork arena.
As retreat organizations, what do we have to offer as people expand and grow? If we are an organization that focuses on healing, we not only facilitate liberation and healing, we also create a deep sense of bonded community in our retreatants. What happens when that person no longer needs healing? Must they continue to manufacture some type of “disturbance” or “work” they need to do in order to maintain connection with the expanded and evolved community they have come to love like a family? Years ago, Carolyn Myss talked about the “language of woundology” as a love or intimacy language, and the devastating impact this has on relating, and our identities in the world. How can we move past this? What do we need to do for our members who feel they have moved past this?
My next question: Why do we continue to use the word Tantra? I’m very concerned with the colonization of the practices, and the idea that they are somehow ancient, when in fact they are taken far, far out of their original context. Can we find a new term for the sacred sexuality work that we do, paid or unpaid?
Another concern I have is one that many of you share. Do we create strata within sex work, with ‘sacred’ sex work or ‘healing’ sex work at the top, and work that is simply for pleasure at the bottom? Do we use language not just to clearly categorize, but also to marginalize? How can we look down on work done just for sexual pleasure, while acknowledging the value of sex and pleasure?
One of my hopes for moving forward is that bodyworkers will not only talk to AASECT professionals, but also to each other. We invited Body Electric School, Sexological Bodyworkers, Somatic Sex Educators, the Human Awareness Institute and The Body Sacred to speak, but I know that many more folks are invested in the ideas.
How can we grow the bodywork fields? What is the next level, the next iteration, of this work? What are the best practices for activism?
Next: The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Acts (FOSTA and SESTA) have impacted ALL of us in the fields—bodyworkers as well as psychotherapists, counselors and educators. The Institute I founded which trains educators, counselors and therapists had to go through special approval to place ads on Google, despite the fact that we have no explicit or adult content. I have been censored on Facebook, which prohibited me from using the term “sex education”, flagging it as somehow unacceptable. If you are in this room and you have not seen it yet, you will.
This leads to my last point. In some way or another– we are ALL sex workers. If we do not stand against erotophobia, they will eventually come for us. They have in the past. They are doing so as we speak, and in ways we have yet to anticipate. We must heal our own erotophobia in order to heal others.
So let us take time to talk, but more importantly to ask questions and to listen. Let’s check out what we have to offer each other. We don’t have to BE each other in order to create relationships. Like any good relationship we can maintain differentiation while sharing common activities or goals. I see us as islands on a common sea. We don’t have to become one country. But let’s build some bridges.
Rosalyn Dischiavo, EdD, CSES, November, 2019