Monday, April 14, 2014

Death Work, the New Sex Work

Twenty-five years ago, when I began to educate people about unlearning homophobia, biphobia and sexphobia, I always acknowledged the complexity of sexuality, intimacy, relationships and orientations of all kinds. And I decided that the three topics I would address because they are not talked about enough are sex, money and death and dying.

As I educate people about sexuality and write about all the topics I can think of—abortion, STIs/AIDS, monogamy, polyamory, sex toys, pleasure, orgasm, self-pleasuring, sex work and more—I emphasize consent, respect and our intentions, whether it involves sex, money, death and dying or any other area of intimacy.

Death is a taboo topic in the United States—possibly more taboo than sex. Yet it is another form of intimacy, involving interactions with people like doctors, nurses and hospice care providers. But I am suggesting something beyond what is the norm today when I use the term “death work.”

How many of us talk about and plan for our death and dying? Not as though we can’t wait for it to happen, but as though we know it will happen. The quality of all parts of my living and dying has always been important to me—so important that it is worth considering carefully today how I would like things to go at the end of my life.

It is strange to me that it is okay to pay for numerous services—from doctors, massage therapists, chiropractors, talk therapists, coaches, mentors, trainers, yoga instructors—but when it’s in the realm of sexuality, it becomes not okay. Well, what about in the realm of death and dying?

Intimacy is everywhere, even where we may not be comfortable with it. It is at our day jobs and our professional work, in classes, in social media, in bars and pubs. It is in the events and conferences we attend, in our conversations, in our touch, in our eye contact and in our hustle and bustle. It is in our transit: in cars and on the buses and trains I take on an almost daily basis. And it is in sex work or paid sex as well as almost every other service offered out there. Intimacy is also part of death and dying. And all that really matters to me is consent, respect and our intentions.

I recently wrote an article called “Obligation Is Not Love.” For me, that includes any obligation to show up or any sense of “I have to” when someone is sick or dying. I am not planning on people just showing up when I am dying.

Money gets exchanged all the time. It is not good or bad; it all depends. And there are other kinds of exchanges whose value depends on whether we feel good about the exchange. The value is not usually dependent on society’s rules or norms.

As intentional as I am with my intimate interactions in every other part of my life, I want to work at doing the same with death and dying and maybe even more so. For years I have let friends and family know my health care wishes. But more recently I have started having conversations with people I would like to be there with me when I am dying. That is, I have started the conversations with individuals as I take into consideration the fact that I may need to pay money to be able to choose the people I want near me when I am dying.

I am not a fan of a health care system that focuses more on life-saving events than dying gracefully. I know what kind of health care I want and what kind of dying I want. And it is with full intention that I move toward the taboo topic of death and dying as though I were hiring someone for business coaching or yoga instruction.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Friendship Is Just as Important as Any Other Relationship We Could Ever Have

The title for this article could have been “Friendship Is Just as Important as Any Sexual Relationship We Could Ever Have.” But then I realized that some of us have sex with our friends.

My only rule for all relationships is that there are no rules other than that they be healthy. But then, the question always follows, what does that mean?

I honor however people do relationships as long as it works for them. There is no one right way to do anything, and the complexity of how we all do intimacy and sexuality in our lives is fascinating to me.

Nothing is more important than how we do love, and sometimes that can include affection or sensuality or sexuality—and sometimes not. Whether we call the person we have a relationship with a “friend,” “partner,” “significant other,” “spouse,” “husband,” “wife” or any other label does not matter to me. Labels don’t tell us much of anything. If we really want to know, we still have to ask the person what they mean when they use that label and what their relationship entails. What’s important is how we do love—how we love ourselves and how we love our work, where we live, and all the people in our lives.

Sex is not more important than other forms of physical or emotional intimacy. Sexual love is not more important than non-sexual love. Romantic and sexual relationships are not more important than non-sexual relationships and friendships.

In all the joy I can find in the complexity of my relationships—in my attractions, desires and levels of intimacy and ways of doing emotional and physical intimacy and sexuality—the highest compliment I can pay to anyone is to call them a friend.

I prioritize the traits and qualities that go into my friendships, like trust, care, loyalty, authenticity, honesty and love. I protect them in my relationships regardless of all the other unique characteristics or arrangements possible in a particular relationship.

Having care and intention in how we do everything in our lives matters. Being conscious and intentional in each moment of relating is my only goal, knowing I may or may not do even better in the next precious moment I have with someone I love.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Obligation Is Not Love

I wish I knew who first said, “Obligation is not love,” so I could give them credit. I first heard it from a therapist in a scream therapy process I chose many years ago as a part of my healing journey.

I grew up on a family farm in a community where if someone needed a barn built, everyone came to help. But I also grew up in a family in which it was not okay to say no.

I learned a certain loyalty that I treasure. I can be a good friend. I say “can” because it is with some misgivings that I also embrace the concept that obligation is not love. So I will not be an obliged friend. I don’t have rules for any of my relationships; I only care that they are healthy. But what does “healthy” mean? Only I can answer that question for myself in any moment. And only you can answer it for yourself.

The problem or the gift is that the answer may change from one moment to the next. So it may feel right to be friends or in a sexual relationship with someone in this moment. However, I am always attentive in each moment to when a shift needs to happen in relation to the connections that I value and love. If I think there needs to be a change of any kind, I will try to have a conversation with the person I am in relationship with to sort through what feels right for the relationship in this moment and into the future. I am also attentive to when words of appreciation and love need to be spoken and all the ways my actions speak louder than my words. I consider those words of appreciation and love some of the most meaningful and important actions I can take in my life.

Friendship, relationships and connections to other people are gifts. But none of them is a gift unless it is freely given, not out of guilt, expectation, routine or habit. That does not mean that I am not committed or loyal. But it does mean that I look for a level of choice and intentionality in every moment. And I strive to create connections in which the people I am connected to have the freedom to be authentic and honest.

I don’t want anyone to interact, relate or be in friendship or relationship with me unless they truly desire it. I don’t want conversation, dinner, touch or superficial or deep connection with another person unless intentionally chosen.

Living this value to its fullest means I think twice about just about everything. If I send a card to someone for their birthday, when their next birthday comes around, I ask myself if I want to send a card again and make sure I am not doing it only because I have done it previously. It means that I think twice about how I mark holidays, weddings, funerals and every other occasion that may have expectations interwoven in it.

And it means that I don’t always make the most typical decisions. I did not go to my own mother’s funeral, for example. It was the right decision. I have no doubt that my family knows I loved her very much based on my choices and actions leading up to that event, which were just as intentionally chosen as my decision not to go to her funeral.

I allow each of my friendships and intimate connections to have its uniqueness, and I work hard to not assume that it needs to be the same the next day or the next year.

I don’t have rules. I only constantly ask myself what is healthy and what needs to happen in this moment with this person I love. It does not have to look traditional. It does have to be intentional. I only want love and friendship freely given and freely chosen in every precious moment I have with someone

Sunday, June 30, 2013

I Love Food Too Much

I am told this is one reason people give for why they cannot lose weight. I use the word “love” frequently, and I mean it every single time I say it or write it—except this time. I don’t think we can love anything too much. If we do, then I don’t think we are using the word correctly or loving in the way loving is meant to be done.

I am a sexuality educator and consultant. For the past twenty years, I have talked about the importance of self-pleasure, self-love and our relationship with ourselves. I consider eating one form of pleasure that is neither less nor more important than other forms of pleasure.

I have challenged the cultural norms as best I can about just about everything. Much of my work has been trying to increase awareness and acceptance of gay, lesbian and bi sexualities. I advocate for all sexual expressions and activities as being acceptable as long as they are consensual.

So I have no hesitation to also challenge assumptions that we need to be of a certain weight, body type, skin color or age or to be able bodied in order to be considered healthy or beautiful.

While I don’t define health and beauty by pounds or outer appearance, there is no doubt that we live in a physically unhealthy society here in the United States. However, we also live in a mentally, emotionally, sexually unhealthy society, and it is just as important to address these aspects of our lives and health as it is to address physical health.

So I don’t underestimate the need for more exercise and healthy choices around food and other parts of our lives. But I will advocate for healthy choices that come from true empowerment within and not from pressure or arbitrary standards of beauty from a partner, peers or society.

I believe the only way we change anything is to fully accept where we are right now. We don’t get anywhere by beating ourselves up or not having compassion for ourselves and other people, whether we are talking about making good choices around sex, food or any other area of our lives.

So can we love food too much? To answer that question, we need to answer these questions: Is our love for food unconsciously similar to what happens in some unfulfilling relationships, or is it a love of the most authentic, meaningful and healthy kind? When we eat, are we really experiencing the pleasure of the food, or do we not even taste what we are eating? Are we intentional with our food, or do we go for what is convenient? Do we rush, or do we take time preparing and eating the food? Do we have regrets?

I believe it is important to be intentional in all parts of our lives, including what we eat. But our bodies and our lives do not have to look one way or like someone else’s. 

First published on   June 27, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Children

For the past five years until nine months ago, when my beautiful neighbors moved four hours away, this is what happened.

Every day on my way to my day job, I would walk past my neighbors’ house while the two children and one or both of their parents were having breakfast in their dining room. I’m not sure how it started, but it became a game: I would do something silly outside their window, like throw snow or my hat up in the air, dance, do whatever crossed my mind to make them laugh and smile and give me a little joy to start my day. Then, when I came home, I would see them, and knowing that life is short, I would not hesitate to play with them if it were summer time or give them a hug or chase them (kids love to be chased) or play tag or play games that Kai, the five-year-old, usually made up.

I have felt so grateful that their parents could share them and not be afraid that they could love another adult, one not related by blood. I think this culture has a lot to learn about dealing with insecurities and not feeling threatened or jealous in all of our loves and friendships.

Have I told you I don’t do anything typical? I don’t think of family, parenting, children or any way of my being in a typical way. Since the parents were so loving and open to me and not threatened that their children loved me, I took the time to be there and help if they asked. Even if they did not ask, if I saw the children in the backyard on the weekend, I would run over there and let the parents do something else while I played with them.

I love both of the children very much, and Ruby June, who is two and a half, and I have a very special connection. I swear I was waiting for her before she was born. I tell people that I think she and I knew each other in a past life. She would say “my Susan,” and I would reassure her that I will always be hers. Right before they moved, she would want me to do everything—change her diaper (if she had one on) or give her a bath at bedtime. She asked one Saturday to come to my house and eat lunch and take a nap. The mother told me no one could get Ruby to nap so easily—not Grandma, Dad or her. Ruby and I would go to the nearby park and take our time coming home, talking about all we were seeing as we walked home (or I carried her and whatever she chose to bring with us to the park).

I used to joke that I wanted to marry the family—the entire family—and I don’t mean that in any sexual way. Have I told you I don’t do anything in a typical way? I do it in the way that feels best and most authentic to me. Loving those children and that family feels really right to me.

There was a time in my life I thought I was not capable of love and that I would only feel hate. So it is actually very beautiful that I will love and risk losing and do it again and again in each moment. I would never undo or change what I had with those little ones.

I joked with one person at my day job (when she was having a hard day) that maybe if she played Ring Around the Rosy every day the way I did, she would have a better time at work.

I miss the daily presence of those two children very much.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: Think Like a Stripper: Business Lessons to Up Your Confidence, Attract More Clients & Rule Your Market

To say the least, Erika Lyremark, author of Think Like a Stripper: Business Lessons to Up Your Confidence, Attract More Clients & Rule Your Market, is witty and funny and has a unique business brand. Regardless of what someone may think of the book title, the essence of the book is giving helpful, insightful business tips on selling, money, hustling, delegating, being productive and a whole lot more.

My favorite tips address some of the more important issues in business and in living life such as being our authentic selves, handling rejection and dealing with failure.

In full disclosure, I have hired Erika as a business coach and participated in two of her programs. So no doubt I am biased in appreciating her fun and direct style of coaching.

While I recognize that this book is about business techniques with stripper stories incorporated into the lessons (have I said that Erika’s branding is unique?), I cannot review this book without looking through the lens of my work as a sexuality educator and writer.

Erika does a good job in the introduction and throughout the book of explaining why she chose the title, what led her to do nine years of stripping, what were the valuable lessons she learned and what were some of the more difficult parts of having that job.

My sexuality education work gives me one of the most important lenses through which I read this book. Erika admits in the book that stripping is a job most people would never do. I too have had a job that most people would never do.

One of the things I have done for money is let future doctors, nurses and chiropractors practice breast and pelvic exams on my body, teaching them how to do the technique so that it will not be painful to future patients and also teaching them the importance of skills like communication, sensitivity, being nonjudgmental and showing respect.

Before and after my five years of experience working as what is called in some parts of the country a gynecological teaching associate, I have done sexuality education on a range of topics. I’ve educated people on unlearning homophobia, biphobia and sexphobia for five years. I’ve presented on the importance of self-pleasuring, healing the entire body and looking at pleasure, touch, intimacy and sexuality as being complex.

I have always asked questions as a part of my work in trying to delve into solving some of the complex sexuality problems that exist in the United States. In one workshop, I even included dying as well as sexuality when exploring the concept of consent in how we live all parts of our lives.

In particular, my experience as a gynecological teaching associate got me asking even deeper questions. What did it mean that I got paid money to let people touch my genitals? When did it feel most respectful, and when did it not feel respectful?

Soon I was asking questions such as: How was my letting future doctors and nurses practice pelvic exams on me similar to or different from sex work? And what was sex work anyway?

These questions led me to present at a conference for sex workers. I also presented at a conference held by the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance in Washington, D.C., an organization that supports a range of sexual freedom issues, including sex workers’ rights.

So, from all of these perspectives, the part of Erika Lyremark’s book that resonated the most with me was Stripper Tip #65: Don’t strip off the clock. She writes (p. 121):

But the one thing I didn’t like was the expectation that I would act like a stripper outside the club.
            At work, indulging someone’s fantasy was my job. Period. Outside of work, I was college-bound, book-loving Erika. I was not a topless exhibition waiting to happen and I was not pleased when strange men at a party would ask me for a dance.

These are the topics I talk about the most in my sexuality education work: the importance of honesty, respect, consent and the fact that it does not matter as much what we do or say as how we do it or say it.

I’ve learned about what is important after years of searching for answers to our serious sexuality problems in the United States, which include incest; rape; HIV/STIs; unplanned pregnancies; relationship problems and problems with intimacy; touch deprivation; discomfort with the body, emotions and sexuality; the lack of pleasure in our society and difficulty in experiencing orgasm.

It does not matter to me if someone exchanges sex for money. What matters to me is that there is respect, consent and dignity in every situation. It does not matter to me if someone is a stripper, exotic dancer or burlesque performer, or takes their clothes off in public for an audience or for money. What matters to me is that there is respect, consent and dignity in every situation. It does not matter to me what someone wears or if someone is in touch with sensuality or eroticism or sexuality in how they express themselves in the world. What matters to me is that we find a way to treat each other with respect in all situations—at home, at work, out in the street, at social gatherings, in relationships and in dating.

It does not matter to me if I am talking about sex and sexuality publicly or in my writings or undergoing pelvic exams for money. What matters is that I am shown respect.

I am a sexuality educator. I know that sometimes we start at zero with learning these skills of communication and respect and how to manage intimacy and consent in all parts of our lives. I find myself talking to people at bus stops, at temporary jobs and at parties because I feel so passionate about these issues. So it does not matter to me if someone needs to learn these skills from scratch or whether we make mistakes when trying to have fun and find love, sex and intimacy in our lives. What does matter to me is that we have an intention to learn, grow and do our best. We need to show respect and have consent in all situations in and out of the stripper club.

Stripping may have been mostly a job for Erika Lyremark, as she makes clear over and over in the book: her purpose for doing it was to make money. However, as a sexuality educator trying to solve some of the most serious sexuality problems in the United States, I will go on record as saying that I support people doing what they choose for work and money as long as it is consensual. The problem is not sex work or stripping or an exchange of money for sex or for anything else, including business coaching. The problem is when people feel they can be disrespectful for any reason.

Think Like a Stripper is officially for sale!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Food and Sex

I have not been hesitant to write and talk about sexuality topics such as self-pleasuring or the concept of healing the entire body, including the genitals. But I also believe that our pleasure has many sources, not just the genitals, and it is important to emphasize pleasure beyond the genitals.

I respect and honor many simple pleasures, and I love to connect with professionals who work on the multifaceted aspects of healing, not necessarily having anything to do with sexuality. It is incredibly important to have knowledge and awareness of our minds, bodies and emotions. Any time we do something that allows us to be present in the moment and in our bodies and minds, we support sexual healing, even if what we do is not directly related to sexuality. Some of the healing options I personally use and respect are yoga, meditation, exercise, bodywork, massage and relaxation. And I believe in embracing the simple pleasures in life such as movement, the warmth from the sun or a sauna, sensations of all kinds and the pleasure of food.

There is a saying that we teach what we need to learn. I have been healing from and learning about a whole range of experiences over the course of my adult life. I’ve been a recovering alcoholic since 1984 and hope to continue that journey one day at a time for the rest of my life. My life journey has been about healing all aspects of myself, including my mind, emotions, body, sexuality and relationship with food.

I am as careful and conscious about sharing food with someone as I am about any other intimacy I may share with someone. I value all the forms of intimacy I encounter each and every day; I don’t take them for granted even if they are small or brief. I am conscious of the interactions and sharing of intimacy I have with people whether friends or family, in the workplace or at one-time meetings with people on the bus, in the street or at a conference or event. Some of these seemingly less significant forms of intimacy may be conversation, eye contact, silence, humor and sharing food. However, I consider all of these just as important and intimate as physical or sexual intimacy and possibly even if with a stranger or very brief.

To really embrace our full sexuality, then, means doing more than being sexual or engaging in self-pleasure. It means being present in our minds, bodies and hearts. It means experiencing full embodiment. It means healthy self-esteem and a sense of being worthy. All of these important elements can be found in all the other forms of intimacy I have mentioned as well as in sharing our experiences with food.

Embracing sexuality means self-love and trust and letting go in order to feel pleasure in every moment. It means nourishing ourselves in every way, with sleep, enjoyment, relaxation, hopeful thoughts and food. Healing our connection with food and bringing awareness about food into our lives are just as important as opening up to our self-love in other ways, including through sexual pleasure with another person or ourselves.