EVENTS: the creative use of ritual

What is the difference between a habit, a pattern, a routine, and a ritual? They exist along a spectrum of behavior, but a key distinction is that habits, patterns, and routines tend to be self-perpetuating to the point where they happen without effort or conscious choice. A ritual, on the other hand, is a ceremony with a specific intention to create or honor a special occasion.

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A birthday, for example. There are a bunch of traditional ways we celebrate birthdays — with gifts, a cake, making a wish, and blowing out candles (not to mention, these days, the cascade of Facebook greetings). It can be fun and fulfilling to embrace the traditional birthday celebration. But I had a lovely experience this week with a friend who wanted to acknowledge his birthday in a different way. He asked me to co-create a ritual with him acknowledging and honoring his family heritage. He was very specific about verbalizing his intention:

“I would love to have you witness and respond to meeting and seeing the menfolk ancestors that created the lineage that I followed down onto our Earth plane and then have you meet my womenfolk and childhood in an historic way. To reflect, shed, illuminate and strengthen my ability to heal/transform. I don’t quite know what this all means, but I am compelled at the moment to acknowledge and honor the life that is past, mine and theirs. ”

I was thrilled and honored to be invited to share his birthday this way. He arrived at my house with a shopping bag of materials. I’d laid out a table covered with a colorful fabric on which to create an altar for the occasion of this ritual. He brought some gems that were meaningful to him and some aromatic wood to burn. And then we spent an hour looking at pictures of his parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents, and some other relatives. He said their names out loud and told stories about how they were related to each other and what impact they’d had on him growing up, and he showed me some pictures I’d never seen of himself as a child. And he read aloud a beautiful poem of birthday blessings that another friend had e-mailed him just that morning. I gave him a hand-written card I’d made and a wrapped present of a music DVD that I thought he would enjoy.

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It was amazingly fun. I learned a lot about my friend that I didn’t already know, and there was a sweetness and intimacy because we took the time to do something out of the ordinary, using pictures, storytelling, beautiful objects, sensory enhancements, and meditative awareness very simply to create some magic and to deepen our connection.

This is exactly the kind of experience that is at the heart of “THAT’S AMORE! — Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Connection,” the workshop for gay men that I will be conducting at Easton Mountain Retreat in upstate New York April 24-27.  In the course of three days together, I will be teaching the basic skills of creating ritual space and then guiding participants through the process of devising a whole string of intentional ceremonies to explore intimacy and connection through verbal communication, physical touch, and the use of artistic imagination (involving music, writing, movement, photography, meditation, food, and the natural environment).

The workshop is the evolutionary product of my private therapy practice — offering sex and intimacy coaching to individuals and couples — and “Authentic Eros,” the workshop I taught for many years with my friend Kai Ehrhardt. It’s especially designed for the benefit of two kinds of people:  partnered guys in long, loving relationships whose physical/erotic/emotional intimacy has gone somewhat dormant and wants to wake up; and single guys who really want to be in a relationship but can’t seem to get past the second date and want to discover some new ways to build intimacy and connection over time. It’s my intention for each participant to leave with not only tools for connecting more deeply with other men but also a great appreciation for yourself as a lover.  The cost of the workshop is $495-695 depending on accommodations.

For more information and registration, go to: http://bit.ly/AmoreEaston.

 

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The dance of intimacy, the roller-coaster ride of romance

Don’t you want to fall?
Don’t you want to fly?
Don’t you want to be dangled over the edge of this aching romance?

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Last night I saw Matt Alber’s concert in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. The bearishly handsome, golden-voiced Texan doesn’t hide his love for men in the songs he sings about the quest for intimacy, to be seen and known. His best-known song, “End of the World,” uses the metaphor of an amusement-park ride to talk about the terrifying and exhilarating process of getting to know someone:

I don’t want to ride this roller coaster
I think I want to get off
But they buckled me down
Like it’s the end of the world
If you don’t want to have this conversation
Then you better get out
Cause we’re climbing to our death
At least that’s what they want you to think
Just in case we jump the track
I have a confession to make
It’s something like a cork screw

I don’t wanna fall, I don’t wanna fly
I don’t wanna be dangled over
The edge of a dying romance
But I don’t wanna stop
I don’t wanna lie
I don’t wanna believe it’s over
I just wanna stay with you tonight

The second half of the song kills me with the nuanced way it talks about the courage and vulnerability it takes to pursue love and connection after your heart’s been broken when other relationships haven’t worked out.

I didn’t mean to scream out quite so loudly
When we screeched to a halt
I’m just never prepared
For the end of the ride
Maybe we should get on something simpler
Like a giant balloon
But I’ve got two tickets left, and so do you
Instead of giving them away to some stranger
Let’s make them count, come on
Let’s get back in line again and ride the big one

Don’t you want to fall, don’t you want to fly
Don’t you want to be dangled over
The edge of this aching romance
If it’s gonna end, then I wanna know
That we squeezed out every moment
But if there’s nothing left can you tell me why
That it is you’re holding onto me
Like it’s the end of the world

This is exactly the territory we will be exploring in “THAT’S AMORE! Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Connection,” the workshop I’m conducting at Easton Mountain Retreat in upstate New York April 24-27. (When I say “we,” I mean me and the guys participating in the workshop, not me and Matt. <smile>) It’s an opportunity to learn and practice using verbal communication, physical touch, and creative imagination to devise limited-time experiments in deepening the dance of intimacy and navigating the roller-coaster ride of romance. For more information about “THAT’S AMORE,” go here.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already seen it, also check out the video for “End of the World,” which is one of the most beautiful, succinct, and swoonily romantic gay films ever made:

RESOURCES: “Meditation is the best foreplay”

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I consider Pamela Madsen a kindred spirit in the realm of pleasure activism. She is a tireless champion of women’s erotic self-empowerment and an excellent writer, voluminous blogger, and author of the cheeky memoir ShamelessHer recent blog post on meditation and sexuality makes some excellent points.

Meditation is the perfect entry point to many profound sexual experiences. Successful meditation and successful sex all start with the same three key entry points:

1. Get comfortable.
2. Slow down.
3. Connect to the breath.

When we are able to approach sex just like we approach meditation (without rushing to go somewhere fast) we are able to touch deeply ecstatic or erotic states where we have “alterations in bodily perception” and a “diminution of self awareness” according to researcher Gemma O’Brien who studied the link between sexuality and meditation…

According to the study, when you meditate, the left side of your brain becomes activated and when you engage in sexual activity, the right side of your brain runs the show. Both of these brain responses helps you to stop the constant thinking or talking in your brain. And herein lies the key—when you are able to stop the chatter, and float into what can be called “falling into the gap,” “states of higher consciousness,” “erotic trance states” or even what is known as “sub space” your brain helps you by allowing you to lose physical and mental boundaries. That is where we can find enlightenment or dare I say it—bliss.

Check out the whole blog post here and let me know what you think.

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LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: chronic illness and its impact on sexuality

Contemporary Sexuality, the newsletter published online by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT, of which I’m a member), has posted in its latest issue an article that spotlights a little-discussed issue: “How Chronic Illness Can Affect Sexual Function.” I’m glad to read such a thorough and thoughtful consideration of the topic.

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I have worked with a number of men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. That’s a situation that clearly, undeniably, and almost universally forces men to deal with sexual issues before, during, and after treatment. That’s an easy example. But I’ve also worked with people struggling with how to reclaim or manage their sexual feelings in relation to other health challenges — one woman who suffers crippling migraines and who wanted help keeping her erotic body alive even when the headaches erased virtually every ounce of recognizable libido; other women navigating the mysterious straits of menopause or post-childbirth sexuality.

The AASECT article by Steph Auteri focuses primarily on cancer patients but opens out to discuss people dealing with the full spectrum of health challenges and their impact on sexuality. Auteri, a sexologist and author, lists a number of not-so-obvious symptoms that can affect sexual functioning. A couple of other passages that stood out for me:

Dr. Sage Bolte, a sexuality and oncology counselor, points out that, “All chronic illnesses have this shared theme of grief and loss. And then, you’re tasked with establishing a new normal. What this means may change on a daily basis.”

Much of this is ignored when a patient is first diagnosed, partially because it doesn’t seem so important at the time, and partially because most medical providers don’t even think to bring it up. Dr. Anne Katz, who regularly gives lectures to oncology care providers, says, “Medical school and nursing school curricula are woefully inadequate when it comes to teaching about healthy sexuality. We need to ask our patients about their sexuality. Otherwise, they think either that it’s not important or that it’s taboo.”

And:

“For practitioners, one of the greatest gifts they are going to give their patients is initiating that conversation,” says Bolte. At the very least, she says, they should be asking their patients if they’ve noticed any changes in sexual function since their diagnosis. “Once that conversation happens,” she says, “the sense of relief you see on their faces… they didn’t realize it was normal. They thought they would just have to deal with it. They thought it would always be painful, that they’d never want to have sex again. Having that conversation opens the floodgates of conversation no one else has been willing to have with them. It gives them permission to be sexual beings.”
You can read the whole article online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

SEX IN THE THEATER: Thomas Bradshaw’s INTIMACY

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Thomas Bradshaw is a 33-year-old black American playwright who might as well have his middle name legally changed to Provocative, because no one seems to be able to talk or write about his work without conjuring that adjective. The most recent of his eleven plays, Intimacy, has been playing Off Broadway for the last two months; the production at the New Group concludes its run Saturday March 8. I’m fascinated by this play not just as a theater scholar but also as a sex therapist. Bradshaw’s plays almost always address hot-button issues of race, class,  and sexuality very directly and explicitly. His previous play, Burning, performed at the New Group two years ago, took off from the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom and included several extremely graphic scenes of simulated sex by naked actors only a few feet away from the audience. Intimacy goes even farther by taking as its main subject the prevalence of pornography in American culture specifically as it plays itself out among three suburban families.

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Let me see if I can summarize the plot succinctly. Matthew is a white high-school senior and aspiring filmmaker whose Wall Street financier father, James, is still deep in mourning for his wife, a doctor run over by a reckless driver. Matthew spends a fair amount of time masturbating while spying on his classmate and neighbor Janet, the voluptuous blonde daughter of a mixed-race couple, Pat and Jerry, though he’s dating Sarah, the daughter of Fred, the Latino contractor who is renovating his father’s house. Sarah is determined to remain a virgin at least until prom night, but since she and Matthew are both hormonally alive teenagers, she shows him how to engage in frottage to enjoy sexual pleasure together while preserving her virginity. Although James has become a born-again Christian seeking solace in the church, he also consoles himself by looking at pornographic magazines. He becomes outraged when he discovers that Janet has a budding career in porn, which her schoolmates (including Matthew and Sarah) know about and accept, as does her mother. James confronts Jerry about his daughter’s scandalous profession, and Jerry becomes furious until Pat reminds him that they enjoy looking at pornography together and that his objections are hypocritical. Meanwhile, Fred’s wife works day and night at WalMart so he lets off steam by masturbating to gay porn. Rather than waste money on college tuition, Matthew has talked his father into buying him an expensive camera and giving him start-up funds for a first film, which Matthew decides should be a porn film about frottage starring Janet with everybody else in the play as supporting characters.

intimacy cast

Thanks to the brave cast and the uncompromising direction, the show is full of alternately hilarious and squirm-inducing sex scenes that they can’t help eat up a lot of the audience’s attention. The actor playing Matthew (Austin Cauldwell, making his professional debut) handles his prosthetic penis with aplomb, twice sending projectile liquids flying through the air close enough to produce squeals from people sitting in the front row. Two or three scenes of simulated sex being filmed are interspersed with clips from actual porn projected onto a large screen. It’s difficult to pay attention to a conversation Matthew and Sarah (Déa Julien) have while standing in front of a screen showing a scene from Deep Throat. And the actor playing Fred (David Anzuelo) actually manages to drop trou and display a throbbing erection on cue, not once but twice during the play, which I must say I’ve never witnessed before in all my years of theatergoing – at least not outside the late lamented Gaiety Burlesk strip joint in Times Square. This is clearly wicked fun on the part of the playwright and the director Scott Elliott, who writes in a program note: “There is nothing you’ll see in Intimacy that you haven’t seen before; it’s just that when it’s onstage, it is impossible to ignore.” It’s only after you’ve recovered from the shock of seeing rampant nudity and sexuality acted out on the stage that it’s possible to assess what the play is getting at, which turns out to be quite a lot.

Bradshaw’s playwriting is deceptively simple on the surface. He portrays recognizable human beings speaking everyday language in familiar settings. But his characters speak the supernaturally straightforward language of comic books – no poetry, no subtext, no beating around the bush. “I’ve got to get fucked on camera now,” Janet (Ella Dershowitz) says to her father (Keith Randolph Smith). “I don’t need your patriarchal double standards distracting me.” It takes a little while to realize that even though the tone has the cheerful brightness of TV sitcoms, the subject matter is distinctly adult, and there’s an edgy humor to it. In these ways, Bradshaw is a kindred spirit to non-naturalistic comic playwrights like Christopher Durang and Wallace Shawn.

Bradshaw manages to pull off two other seemingly contradictory strategies. His plays have a kind of earnest teaching quality reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s politically minded Lehrstücke, “learning plays” that impart practical or ethical instruction to audiences. Intimacy contains a string of what almost seem like public-service announcements, brief conversations that convey small important lessons: how homophobia contributes to transgender suicides, when to schedule a colonoscopy, how different people live out their bisexuality, the statistics about guns in the home being used against their owners, the various ways to engage in frottage (non-penetrative sex), the sensitivity a woman requires for sex after having an abortion. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one play!

Simultaneously, Bradshaw steals a page from classic French farce by having his earnest, plain-spoken characters take actions that seem perfectly rational at first but slowly escalate from slightly absurd to completely outrageous. The desire of Pat (Laura Esterman) to support her daughter’s dreams unconditionally seems reasonable enough. But that leads directly to viewing one of her porn videos with her husband and encouraging him to stop thinking “I’m watching my daughter have sex” and replace that thought with “I’m helping her further her career,” which is a little more dubious and sounds like something a character in a Joe Orton play might say. As a precocious student of cinema, Matthew admires the films of Jonas Mekas, Lars Von Trier, and Rainer Fassbinder, but when he decides that making porn is his calling, he looks back to 1970s skin flicks with a rosy-eyed view of porn as art about “watching souls connect,” which is a debatable way of describing Deep Throat.

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For me, the most interesting aspect to the play was its acknowledgement that everyone has some kind of relationship to pornography these days. And the characters model the kinds of conversations we might have with each other about pornography if we weren’t afraid to talk about it. I appreciate that these conversations don’t fall predictably into one category (Yay! Porn is great!) or another (boo! Porn is bad!). Jerry and Janet’s discussion about whether porn exploits women brings up compelling points without favoring either position. The conflict for James (Daniel Gerroll) between his religious beliefs and his sexual desires is genuine, as is Janet’s wondering whether what drives his interest in porn isn’t so much addiction as simply loneliness and lack of physical affection since the death of his wife. The play addresses sexual shame in a way that is humorous, blunt, and poignant, as when Jerry confesses to Pat, “I thought you would think less of me if you knew I had an obsession with licking buttholes.”

The farcical elements of the play are Bradshaw’s way of provoking dissent and debate among the viewers (again, a Brechtian theatrical strategy). When Fred asserts that it’s OK for his teenage daughter to appear in porn as long as there’s no penetration, the playwright is asking you to decide: is that reasonable or ridiculous? Is extreme permissiveness good parenting, or not? The parents arrive at the conclusion that if they enjoy pornography, it’s only fair to assume that it’s OK for their kids. True or false? And how does that apply to casual racism and financial exploitation?

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The play cleverly juxtaposes the organic/fumbling/authentic sexual interactions among the characters with the stylized costumes and behavior of the porn scenes that Matthew films, highlighting the contrivance and behind-the-scene maneuvering required to make sex look “real” on camera. After shooting scenes involving all the characters (including oral and anal sex, frottage and ejaculation), Matthew makes a speech that hilariously parodies a director’s wrap-up:

When we began this artistic endeavor I thought it was about frottage. But after being with all of you, and witnessing the emotional and transformative breakthroughs that we’ve gone through together, I now see what my film is really about. It’s about Intimacy. It’s all about intimacy.

I don’t think the playwright intends us to take this speech at face value, though. Matthew may think that everybody in the neighborhood getting naked and having sex together on camera constitutes intimacy. Does the playwright agree? Do you? Discuss.

MEDIA: “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives?”

Reporter Jill Hamilton interviewed me (by e-mail) for an article she wrote for the online magazine Dame recently. The magazine primarily addresses itself to a heterosexual female audience (“For Women Who Know Better”), and the article definitely skews in that direction, leaning heavily on commentary by Dr. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and founding member of Stop Porn Culture. Hamilton contacted me because she wanted to get some perspective from a male sex therapist. I personally choose to pitch conversations and pronouncements about pornography in a way that acknowledges and honors sexual pleasure, and I try to combat the sex-negativity that can creep into anti-porn arguments. But I absolutely believe that the ways gay men consume pornography and the ways it affects gay male behavior and relationships — for better and for worse — are distinctly different from the ways that pornography affects dealings between hetero men and women. So I read Hamilton’s article with a lot of interest. It reminded me of the smart, cogent, and well-considered objections that observers like Dr. Dines have about the culture of porn. The article is called “Has Porn Ruined Our Sex Lives?” Check it out here and let me know what you think.

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DID YOU SEE: New York Times article on sex ed before pornography

A thoughtful and sensible article by Lara Vapnyar in today’s New York Times (“Soviet-Era Sex Ed”) gives a Russian-born mother’s observations on the difference between how her generation learned about sex (in the dark, with no help from parents and schoolteachers) and how her daughter is being taught (in New York City private school, anyway). Check it out and let me know what you think.

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