A personal testimonial by
Somatic Sex Educator in training
I am often asked to describe a “typical session”. This is not an easy task, because every client is unique and every session different. Many clients share their experiences and learnings with me, some of them agree to publish parts as testimonials. However, it is rather rare, that a client shares a whole somatic journey in such a poetic way.
M.R.’s from The Erotic Alchemist describes in a compelling way her story of empowerment and embodiment. In a somatic sex education session, I support M.R. to create her very own safe space—whatever it means for her—which is quintessential for anything else which follows. I don’t create it for her, she does. Guiding her to listen to her body and sensations and emotions is a useful start in somatic work.
What do you need to feel safe? What does your body need to feel safe? The nervous system decides, not the brain. If the brain were in charge of feelings, it would be easy, we could just reason ourselves into safety. However, that’s not how the body works. Rational sentences like Don’t be afraid! or You can feel safe with me! simply don’t work for that reason.
»When Ondra said “it is for you,” he meant something different, something that I didn’t know what to do with and didn’t even know if I liked. I was so used to my sexuality being for someone else that when he explicitly said it was for me and NOT for him, I felt lost, and even a bit rejected. I was so used to getting my sexual self worth from someone else wanting to look at me, or touch me or to do something with me or to me.
In this moment, I was being offered a switch from sexual object to sexual subject and it didn’t feel good because I was so accustomed to getting my pleasure off of someone else getting their pleasure from me, rather than sourcing my pleasure from myself.«
Read the full story, how M.R. gives herself permission to leave, how she tunes into her senses, how she creates safety and trust for herself and experiments with her comfort zone. Learn, how attention can feel like love:
My Sacred No
It was my first Back to the Body retreat. I’d followed Pamela Madsen, the founder of these revolutionary retreats, since 2015, when I graduated from my Master’s program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. I’d been studying the erotic and the sacred ever since I was a little girl and fell in love with the magic of ritual on Sunday mornings at church. Even when I left the church, I was drawn to ritual and found ways to reach the divine through my body and spiritual practices. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the intersections of the sacred and sexual in the Song of Solomon. In graduate school, I became obsessed with Audre Lorde and her piece “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Lorde writes that
”The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”
Pamela Madsen herself writes prolifically and powerfully about erotic energy and penned a book (Shameless) on her own journey of erotic exploration through receiving sexological bodywork. Pamela eventually founded Back to the Body (BttB) as a way for other women to safely receive the experiences that she found so transformational by gathering together the best bodyworkers, the best practices and the best locations for her retreats. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Sexological Bodywork is a professional practice that centers the body and all of its sensations, desires, and needs. The profession was founded by Joseph Kramer. The practice centers around the practitioner giving touch and the client learning to receive it, explore sensation desire, fantasy, trauma, and just about anything that comes up on or off the table for the client. Sexological bodyworkers operate under a code of ethics and the hard and fast session rules for all trained sex bods (how I will refer to Sexological Bodyworkers from here on out) is that there is no genital to genital contact, no mouth to mouth or mouth to body contact, and practitioners use gloves for any kind of penetration, or, as Pamela coyly puts it: “no kissing, sucking, or fucking.” In fact, I have found Sexological Bodywork to be so powerful that I am currently training to be one myself!
Despite all my education about sexuality and sexological bodywork, it was still my first retreat, and I was nervous. Actually, I was terrified. I’d been dreaming about attending a Back to the Body retreat for over four years and now it was finally happening. I had moved mountains to get here. We’d sold our house, moved in with my mother-in-law, paid off our debt, and it was time to invest in my pleasure. I gathered the courage to express my desires to my husband, and he supported me. It had been nearly ten years since I became a mother, and never had I traveled alone for the sole purpose of my own pleasure. I had been wanting and waiting for this moment for a LONG time.
A few days before the retreat, I began to see the signs. Acne appeared on my once smooth cheeks. I was moody and irritable. I couldn’t get enough chocolate and there were brown stains on my panties. I wasn’t pregnant, but I hadn’t had a period for four months. My body just wouldn’t shed its lining. I was holding on to I don’t know what. Perhaps it was that I’d asked my husband for a separation and been looking at tiny apartments for my daughter and me. I’d been facing the reality of moving out of my home, leaving my son, getting a minimum wage job, and figuring out how to survive as a single mom. I was also about to move away from my best friend—my husband—because I didn’t know what I wanted sexually, and I didn’t want to have sex anymore. What else could it be but him? I mean, I wanted to have sex with strangers at the gym or in the grocery store, but as soon as I entered our home, I wanted none of it. I barely even had a self-pleasure practice. In retrospect, it makes sense. My body has a wisdom I rarely acknowledged, and it knew I wasn’t safe enough to bleed. Having to leave one’s home and figure out how to survive is not a great time to open, vulnerable, and bleeding.
My husband and I made a pact to each other before I left. We would live in the same house and raise the children together. We were after all best friends and co-parents, even if we couldn’t be lovers. “Let’s see what happens in Key West,” he said. So this trip was a big deal. I was nervous as hell about getting naked and getting on a massage table and receiving touch from a man I barely knew. Granted, I had talked with that man about what I wanted and feared, and that man was a trained and skilled Sexological Bodyworker, but my body and nervous system did not know that. I knew that I wanted to receive vaginal penetration at the retreat, since, for some reason I couldn’t understand I had psychologically struggled with penetration ever since I gave birth to our son. Even though my husband was a gentle lover who practiced exquisite consent, every time he entered me, I froze and felt triggered. I felt myself dissociate and I felt violated for reasons I could not explain.
On the first day of the retreat, I got my period. I thought, “Oh great. I’ve been trying so hard to have my period and here it is—right now when I’m about to let a strange man see and touch and enter my vagina, the vagina that I’ve worked so hard to wax and clean and, and…”
Intuitively, I knew that my period began because of the safety I almost immediately felt when I arrived at the retreat location and met the bodyworkers. My body just opened and released. I also knew that receiving Sex bod work while on my period was an opportunity for me to heal the shame that I had around bleeding, as well as around being sexual while bleeding. I was worried about how to handle it so I spoke to one of the female support staff members and they said that it wasn’t a problem. I could wear menstrual products internally or externally or not at all, whatever I wanted. I could receive internal genital touch if I wanted, or not. There was no pressure to do or be anything, and there was no problem with my bleeding.
I arrived at The Nest (a cozy area filled with pillows and blankets where the women gathered and cuddled pre and post sessions) for my first session wearing my long wine-colored robe, nothing underneath me, and nothing inside me. As I knelt on the soft mattress and curled up to the women already warm and snuggled there after their sessions, Caitlyn (one of the support staff) turned her bright face to me and asked how I was feeling. I told her I was worried because I was bleeding. She sat up and smiled. “Your blood is welcome here,” she said with such incredible love and certainty. “Really?” I asked. “Really,” she said. “Your robe matches your blood,” she exclaimed! “You are the goddess of menstruation and it is so glorious on you!” I asked her to tell my practitioner, Ondra, that I was on my period, because I was too shy to tell him face to face.
Ondra arrived and offered me his arm, and together we walked to a small room along the front porch of the hotel, bordering the street. He was careful to guide me past the piles of wet bird poop, something he was sure to point out to me every time we walked together to session. On the last day, he told me that a pair of birds who mated for life, lived there. Ondra opened the door to his room and gestured me in. I entered and stood awkwardly in the small space between the bed and where the massage table was set up. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I just stood there, hands tightly folded across my chest, and nervously looked around, trying to get a sense of my surroundings. This felt like a first date where it was agreed upon ahead of time that we would just go straight to sex. I guess that’s a hookup. I hadn’t done that before. Booty call? Hadn’t done that either.
It was clear Ondra had done his best to prepare his closet of a room for sessions. The small coat rack on the wall had been turned into a toy holder of sorts, and was adorned with purple ropes, floggers, whips, chains, a small fabric plush clitoris, and a squishy stress ball. Seeing the stress ball made me relax and laugh out loud. It was the one non-sexual item among the toys on the coat rack and laid out on the dresser, one by one. I loved silly stress balls and so did my kids.
While I stood looking around, Ondra bustled about, adjusting the blinds, the temperature and the lights—is this good? He asked? How do you want the lights? “it’s fine,” I said. I just wanted to get it over with. I was terrified of getting naked and had no idea how I was going to get from standing awkwardly in my robe to getting my robe off and getting on that table. So I just wanted to push through, as I had done so many times before when it came to sex. If I was scared or didn’t want to have sex, I just rushed through it. But Ondra was standing there, waiting for me to do something. I looked back at him sheepishly, hardly able to meet his full and curious gaze.
“So…” he said “How are you feeling today?”
“Scared. Nervous. Uncertain. I don’t know what to do or how to begin.” “I feel like you’re a stranger. I know we had a video call and I know that Pamela trusts you and you have high ethics, but…” “But I still don’t really know you.” “And I’m scared.”
“Okay,” Ondra responded, “Why don’t we play a game?”
“Alright,” I replied.
“Let’s see how our bodies interact in space. I want you to tell me to stand the distance from you where you feel safeness in your body.” As he said this, I noticed that he was about five feet from me.
“Back up,” I said.
He backed up a few steps.
Ondra backed up a few feet and then stopped, all the while looking at me. I took a breath and still my body was on alert.
I kept telling him to go further and further away from me until he was standing against the far wall of the small bathroom adjoining the room.
“Well, that’s as far as you can go. I feel safer with you inside the bathroom—in a different room than me with a door.”
There was something about the raised wooden threshold I found comforting, the visual way that it separated the two of us. A boundary.
“This is ridiculous, I said. I can’t believe myself. I didn’t come all this way and pay all this money to make you stand in a bathroom!” I exclaimed.
“Well, didn’t you?” he said. “You paid for this experience and you can do whatever you want with it. You can stay over there and I can stay in here. It’s your money. It doesn’t matter to me or anyone else here what you choose to do with your sessions. It is for you.”
Somehow I hated these, words, “it is for you.” I felt I should have liked hearing them, after all, so little in my life was for me. I realized that I had very few sexual experiences that were purely for me, and even if they centered on my pleasure, it was because a man wanted to give pleasure to me, and got something out of it—either returned sexual pleasure, the pleasure of pleasuring me, or benefit from my happiness and relief. When Ondra said “it is for you,” he meant something different, something that I didn’t know what to do with and didn’t even know if I liked. I was so used to my sexuality being for someone else that when he explicitly said it was for me and NOT for him, I felt lost, and even a bit rejected. I was so used to getting my sexual self worth from someone else wanting to look at me, or touch me or to do something with me or to me. In this moment, I was being offered a switch from sexual object to sexual subject and it didn’t feel good because I was so accustomed to getting my pleasure off of someone else getting their pleasure from me, rather than sourcing my pleasure from myself.
“I still don’t feel safe,” I said.
“You know, you can leave,” Ondra said.
“What?” I said.
“You can leave. You have complete free will. The room key is on the bed. You can step outside and take the key and come back in when you want. Or you can leave and go back to your room and we can try again tomorrow. Or you can leave the key at the desk, pack your bags, get in your car and drive home right now if that is what you want. You do not have to stay.”
“Wow,” I said. “I don’t think I have ever given myself permission to leave before. And it’s more than that. I have never felt I could leave before. Whenever I was with a man who wanted to have sex with me, I froze. I felt trapped. I couldn’t speak and couldn’t move so I just went limp and surrendered. Ever since the first time a man touched me, I’ve been frozen, unable to leave.”
I realized, right then and there that leaving was exactly what I needed to do. I needed to leave so that I could give myself what I had needed so many years ago. The ability to leave and walk away from anything I did not want. To honor the fear and discomfort in my body and put space between my animal body and the person of whom it was afraid.
“I want to leave,” I said.
“Okay. I will stay right here, without moving, until the session is over,” Ondra said.
May I get you the key?”
Ondra took a few steps forward, his hand outstretched in front of his body to indicate he wasn’t going to come close to me or touch me.
”Here”—he threw the key to me and I caught it.
”Okay, goodbye.” I said.
I turned around, feeling the strangeness of being able to move, opened the door, and stepped outside into the sunshine.
I slipped Ondra’s key around my wrist by the red elastic attached to it and walked slowly up and down the white front porch. What was I going to do now? I didn’t want to go home, but I didn’t know what to do next. I began to tune into my senses. I felt the warmth of the fuzzy slippers on my feet—too warm for a Florida day. I felt the breeze brush across my skin, and on it a sweet scent. What was it? The scent of honeysuckle! Oh how I loved honeysuckle. I remembered the white star-shaped flowers from my childhood. They grew on a bush beside my driveway and I could smell their scent wafting up on hot summer days and cool nights. I looked down, and sure enough, there was a large honeysuckle bush lining the front of the porch. A few branches poked through the wood railing, and I plucked two clusters of the fragrant flowers.
I felt such joy in my heart and pleasure in my body because of these sweet little flowers. I was ready to go back in. I fumbled with the key in the lock and then felt it click. I turned the key to the left and opened the door. As I stepped inside the darkened room, I saw Ondra, still standing there in the bathroom, and that felt like love. To stand there, as I had requested, for an entire session, if need be. To honor my requests—all for me and nothing for him. I smiled and proudly showed him the flowers, like a little girl who plucks a wild bouquet for her parents. I told him about how lovely they smelled and how they had brought me back. I placed the springs of honeysuckle on the massage table as an offering, a symbol of possibility. I would find my way onto that table. Maybe not today, but eventually, when I was ready.