MEDIA: Quest of Life podcast on THAT’S AMORE!

Harry Faddis co-hosts (with Stephen Sims, above) a radio show called The Quest of Life on WRPI-FM in Albany, NY. On February 15, I was a guest on his show to talk about THAT’S AMORE: Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Renewal, the retreat for gay male couples that I will be leading in Italy this coming June.

The interview is available for streaming or downloading as a podcast. Click here to tune in to what I had to say about the retreat, what makes long-term relationships thrive, and what obstacles get in the way. And let me know what you think.

If you’d like more information or to sign up for the retreat, you can find all the particulars here.

MEDIA: TED talk by Esther Perel on “the secret to desire in a long-term relationship”

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born psychotherapist and writer who specializes, like I do, in sex and intimacy for couples and individuals. We did a little bit of training together many years ago, and I like and respect her very much. She made a big splash with her book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. In fact, her TED talk is pretty much a digest of her book’s main ideas delivered in less than 20 minutes. She asks provocative questions: can we desire what we already have? does good intimacy always make for hot sex? She empowers people in long-term relationships to understand that it’s asking a lot of your partner to fulfill every single one of your relational needs/wants/desires. Every relationship requires a tricky balancing act between the solidity of love (all about having) and the excitement of desire (all about wanting), between autonomy and connection, between stability and adventure. Of all the ingredients that add up to what she calls erotic intelligence — mystery, playfulness, novelty, curiosity — she prizes imagination above all. I like the way she encourages people to investigate deeply and honestly how they actively turn themselves on and turn themselves off. The language forces you to reclaim the power of erotic imagination, rather than making it your partner’s job to turn you on. My favorite thing she says: “Desire requires selfishness in the best sense — to hold onto yourself in the presence of another.” Check out the video and let me know what you think.

RESOURCES: John Ballew on anal touch

john ballew
John Ballew (above) is a therapist, bodyworker, and educator who lives in Atlanta and teaches workshops for the Body Electric School. (He and I for many years co-facilitated a program in Italy for gay men called “Come to Your Senses.”) He’s got a workshop coming up that focuses on anal pleasure for men, and the mini-essay he circulated is such a good introduction to this topic that I wanted to share it here.

What is it about anal sensuality that is taboo for some people, unknown for folks, and such a delight for still others?  We’re talking about a part of our body that commands our attention – yet some of us prefer not to think about.  We can’t really see this part of our body directly, though many of us have certainly tried!  While we are in touch with this part of ourselves every day of our lives, it retains a certain mystery, doesn’t it?

Our buttocks are rich in meaning as well as nerve endings.  Psychoanalysts say that as children, mastering control of the anal muscle is the earliest experience humans have of asserting mastery in the world.  (It certainly makes parents happy when they do.)  That’s the start of a lifetime of emotional associations associated with anal experiences.

Celebrating the Body Erotic is in many ways a class that cultivates male yang energy.  Anal sex and anal sensuality are ways of exploring the counterpart: male yin.  While male yin may be cultivated by being the receptive partner in intercourse, that isn’t the only way.  Sensual touch and erotic exploration can also nurture yin.

The Body Electric School brings important values to anal bodywork.  Anal touch is about sensuality, not performance; penetration is a possibility, not a goal.  Safety and hygiene are important concerns.  And because buttocks and buttholes are best treated with great tender loving care, we learn to love ourselves and our bodies more fully when we receive, and to develop great skill in what I call “listening touch” when we give.  This is no small thing.  Indeed, we can’t love our whole bodies unless we love everything about our butts as well.

The Body Electric School is happy to offer In the Valley of Delight, a wide-ranging exploration of anal touch that welcomes both “beginners” and those who already enjoy anal sensuality.  The next Into the Valley of Delight program will be offered at Easton Mountain April 18-21.

For more information or questions, contact John by clicking here.

DID YOU SEE: Margaret Talbot on transgender teenagers in The New Yorker

In the March 18, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Margaret Talbot takes a careful look at the phenomenon of transgender teenagers – ambivalently gendered individuals choosing hormone treatments and surgical interventions at ever-earlier ages. In the late seventies, drugs were developed to forestall puberty, aimed at children who suffered from extremely precocious puberty. Then, starting in 2000, doctors began administering puberty blockers to kids struggling with gender identity. The advantage for those who go on to transition is that these drugs prevent the development of breasts and menstrual periods for FTMs and facial hair, Adam’s apples, and masculine facial structures for MTFs: “Puberty suppression and early surgery made for more convincing-looking men and women.” Because of exposure in the media, more kids with gender-identity issues identify themselves earlier.


As a longtime feminist, I’m happy to observe how the emergence of transgender identity has liberated people of all ages to embrace the gender expression that feels intuitively right for them. Gay identity has morphed from lesbian and gay to LGBTQ, and in more sophisticated circles (the West Coast, especially the Bay Area, and in certain college enclaves), the stream of gender rebellion has acquired many tributaries and gender-queer sobriquets. The farther you deviate from recognizable social norms, though, the more courage it takes to walk your own path – much easier said than done. Schoolkids are notoriously cruel when confronted with difference; many pockets of adulthood are no less welcoming to non-conformist gender behavior.

One sensitive area that Talbot tackles carefully yet directly is the overlap between transgender individuals and those who simply decline to conform to heteronormative expectations.

There are people who are sympathetic to families with kids like Jazz [who was born a boy and socially transitioned while still a toddler and appeared on “20/20” at age 6] but worry about the rush to adopt the trans identity. They point out that long-term studies of young children with gender dysphoria have found that only about fifteen per cent continue to have this feeling as adolescents and adults. (And these studies, which relied on data from Dutch and Canadian research teams, looked only at children who were referred to a clinic for gender issues – presumably, many more kids experience gender dysphoria in some measure.) The long-term studies have also found that, when such kids grow up, they are significantly more likely to be gay or bisexual. In other words, many young kids claiming to be stuck in the wrong body may simply be trying to process their emerging homosexual desires.

Walter Myers, a child psychiatrist and pediatric endocrinologist in Galveston, Texas, has prescribed puberty blockers and considers them worthwhile as a way to buy time for some kids. But, in an editorial that ran in Pediatrics last March, Meyer urged families not to jump to the conclusion that their fierce little tomboy of a daughter, or doll-loving son, must be transgender. “Many of the presentations in the public media…give the impression that a child with cross-gender behavior needs to change to the new gender or at least should be evaluated for such a change,” he wrote. “Very little information in the public domain talks about the normality of gender questioning and gender role exploration, and the rarity of an actual change.” When I called Meyer, he said, “What if people learn from the media and think, Hey, I have a five-year-old boy who wants to play with dolls, and I saw this program on TV last night. Now I see: my boy wants to be a girl! So I wanted to say in that article that, with kids, gender variance is an important issue, but it’s also a common issue. I’m saying to parents, ‘It may be hard to live with the ambiguity, but just watch and wait. Most of the time, they’re not going to want to change their gender.’”

Eli Coleman, a psychologist who heads the human-sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, chaired the committee that, in November, 2011, drafted the latest guidelines of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the leading organization of doctors and other health-care workers who assist trans patients. The committee endorsed the use of puberty blockers for some children, but Coleman told me that caution was warranted. “We still don’t know the subtle or potential long-term effects on brain function or bone development. Many people recognize it’s not a benign treatment.”

Alice Dreger, the bioethicist, said, of cross-gender hormones and surgery, “These are not trivial medical interventions. You’re taking away fertility, in most cases. And how do you really know who you are before you’re sexual? No child, with gender dysphoria or not, should have to decide who they are that early in life.” She continued, “I don’t mean to offend people who are truly transgender, but maybe a kid expresses a sense of being the opposite gender because cultural signals say girls don’t shoot arrows, or play rough, or wear boxers, or whatever. I’m concerned that we’re creating feedback loops in an attempt to be sympathetic. There was a child at my son’s preschool who, at the age of three, believed he was a train. Not that he liked trains – he was a train. None of us said, ‘Yes, you’re a train.’ We’d play along, but it was clear we were humoring him. After a couple of years, he decided that what he wanted to be was an engineer.”

I was grateful to Talbot for laying out these factual and ethical considerations because I’ve wrestled with them a lot, trying to understand them myself. In my teens and twenties, I spent a lot of time and energy and study investigating my own masculinity and femininity and forging a healthy gay identity at odds with the mainstream world and the family that I grew up in. Much as I support the right to do with your own body what you will, I’ve worried sometimes that the practice of surgically altering your body so that you look like “the boy/girl that you feel like inside” might wind up reinforcing the rigid gender-role stereotypes that oppress everyone. Who says what a man or a woman is supposed to look or feel like? Why can’t a butch girl be a butch girl or a femme-y boy be a femme-y boy? When Cher’s lesbian daughter Chastity transitioned to become Chaz Bono, to me it felt like a defeat in some way, as if Chastity couldn’t tolerate being publicly gay. My wise boyfriend pointed out to me, “She went from an identity you understand to one you don’t understand.”

Mostly, I’m aware that whatever advances we’ve made in terms of freedom of choice in sexual practice and gender expression, the pressure to conform to traditional gender-role expectations continues to wound and scar people. In my practice I hear these stories every day. The gay 28-year-old South Asian student for whom completing his graduate degree means he must go home and get married or risk losing his family. The thirtysomething Italian professional emotionally traumatized by his father’s saying to him, “Are you a fag? Because if you’re a fag, I’m going to get a gun and I’m going to kill you first and then myself.” The 70-year-old bisexual executive still at the mercy of childhood religious teaching that the only permissible way to ejaculate is during intercourse with your wife. It takes a huge amount of courage, support, and self-compassion to work through these issues one step at a time.

The full text of Talbot’s article is available online only for subscribers to The New Yorker but her blog post accompanying the article includes links to a number of videos in which transgender adolescents share their individualized journeys on the road to personal freedom.

Events: THAT’S AMORE! Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Renewal

THAT’S AMORE! – Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Renewal
A retreat for gay male couples in rural Tuscany facilitated by Don Shewey
June 8-15, 2013

For busy, active adults in committed relationships, it’s often amazingly difficult to make time to enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed and intimate way. Professional responsibilities, family obligations, and housekeeping get the attention they demand – but what about exploring and growing together, erotic play, Quality Time For Us? In this week-long retreat, couples will gain instruction and practice in creating simple, elegant, and fun intentional ceremonies in order to revitalize and celebrate loving partnerships.

Two men holding hands

I’ve been leading programs for Il Chiostro since the year 2000, some of them in rural Tuscany and some of them in urban centers (Venice, Florence, Rome, Bologna). One of the cool things about these adventures is that we’ve been going to Italy long enough that we have developed great contacts in every location so that participants are guaranteed to have an off-the-beaten-path experience. We get to interact with the local people and the landscape in a way that goes beyond typical guidebook-driven tourism.

“That’s Amore!” will take place at a new venue for Il Chiostro called Terzo di Danciano, an 18th century villa overlooking a valley between Tuscany and Umbria. (The website proudly boasts, “Are you the type of person who can appreciate the added value of a location where love and respect for nature dwell? You simply want to sleep, dream and make love in one of our super romantic rooms! They all have wonderful views.” It’s that kind of place.) The grounds, with its luscious lawns, hiking paths, and swimming pool, will provide a lovely setting for the retreat. You can find out more about the venue here.

terza danciano 3

My vision for “That’s Amore!” is to use the sheer beauty and the cultural richness of the Italian setting to inspire creativity in the way that we nourish and replenish our relationships. One thing I have learned from my own experience and from working with couples in my therapy practice is that relationships are like gardens – they don’t thrive unattended but require a certain amount of attention and renewal. It’s important to take time off from business as usual, to set aside the time and space to keep the lines of communication clear and to sustain a robust physical connection.

Easier said than done, though, right? At home you may tend to develop efficient routines and personal habits; in Italy, with “That’s Amore!” you will have an opportunity to go beyond the status quo and try on some artistic ways of expressing romance, tenderness, and joy with your partner.

We’ll begin the week with some practical instructions on the rudiments of creating ritual space: using sacred objects, formulating intentions, making time commitments. “Ritual” may sound like something only encountered in church — so what is a ritual where a relationship is concerned? Does it require candles, a liturgy, funny hats? Or can it be something as basic as, say, a massage exchange? Rituals can be simple outlines for intentional actions, devised on the spur of the moment, that employ whatever is at hand and finish up in 10 minutes – or they can involve elaborate preparation and go on for hours. We’ll experiment with many variations over the course of a week. We’ll spend part of each day exploring a different kind of ceremony using music, words, photography, movement, touch, meditation, food, and the natural environment.

The retreat is limited to six couples, each of whom will have a spacious room with a private bathroom. Although “That’s Amore!” will include exercises designed to enhance verbal communication and understanding between intimate partners, this will not be a week-long couples therapy session. The program is intended for gay male couples who would enjoy spending a week in a structured environment that supports renewing and replenishing the love you share. My intention is for each participant to leave with not only a deeper connection to your partner but also a greater appreciation for yourself as a lover.

terza danciano pool

I think one thing that participants have always appreciated about the programs I’ve done with Il Chiostro is the balance we strike between structured activities with the group and free time on your own. Each day there will be stuff we do together as a group, usually in the morning, sometimes involving expeditions to neighboring towns (Cortona, Perugia, and Assisi are all nearby). There will be some free time in the afternoon to have lunch on your own, wander around, lounge by the pool, or nap. And then we will come back together to share our findings for the day and to have dinner prepared by our private chef. Plus, there’s something nice about being in Italy with a group of gay men; gay life in Italy is so elusive it’s sometimes hard to find. Gay travelers, even today, can find themselves in awkward circumstances, like at hotels where it becomes a hassle for a male couple to organize sleeping in the same bed; with Il Chiostro, we create an atmosphere where it’s easy to be yourself.

The price for the week-long retreat is $2,195 per person, which includes seven nights’ lodging, breakfast and dinner each day, and local transportation.  Registration details and other information can be found online here.

If you have any questions at all about “That’s Amore!” please don’t hesitate to contact me.