DID YOU SEE: Washington Post column on what to do when marital sex wanes

Scrolling through the Washington Post website, I couldn’t help noticing a headline that reflected a sentiment I’ve heard from many a client: “Husband who hasn’t had sex in years wonders, ‘Is this normal?'”

I was impressed with columnist Carolyn Hax‘s answer, the gist of which was this:

What’s “normal” in a marriage is less important than what’s mutual.

If you’re worried, then, yes, you should be; if you’re not worried, then you shouldn’t be.

By that measure, the cause for concern at home is that you and your wife aren’t talking or touching.

Talking and sex are a fickle combination, though, with couples just as often cooled off by it as warmed up. If you tend to the former, then try this, first: Introduce more fun, physical but nonsexual activity to your lives together. As it stands now, you’re not touching, you’re not passionate, you’re putting on weight — this is about more than sex, no? It’s about losing your connection to your own bodies. When was the last time you and your wife hiked, biked, paddled, danced?

Using your body is the best way to wake it up — and not coincidentally, movement is a known emotional conductor. Get yourselves going, together, in a way that you both enjoy, and you stand to improve your connection (1) and communication (2) as much as you do your blood flow (3), all while adding an (I’m guessing) urgently needed shot of novelty (4) to your marriage — thereby accounting for the four cornerstones of passion. So. Take her hand, and go.

She has a few other things to say that make sense as well. Check out the whole column here and let me know what you think.

get-naked-emotionally

DID YOU SEE…?: Bruce Perry on how stress works

Starting from my own personal experience and extending into my professional practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve long been aware that managing stress is a crucial part of health and well-being, every bit as important as diet, exercise, sleep, and touch. But I’ve never known the scientific particulars of how stress works on the body, especially the brain, for better and for worse, until reading an article published in the latest issue of The Sun, an excellent literary magazine published in North Carolina that doesn’t accept advertising and is completely supported by its readers — the magazine equivalent of National Public Radio, without the big federal grants. Each issue contains a lengthy Q-and-A interview with someone who’s an authority on some important political, social, spiritual, or medical concern. The November 2016 issue presents an interview conducted by Jeanne Supin with Bruce Perry, a North Dakota-born Houston-based psychiatrist and researcher who has co-authored two books, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered. In this conversation, titled “The Long Shadow: Bruce Perry on the Lingering Effects of Childhood Trauma,” Perry gives the simplest, most thorough explanation I’ve ever read of how stress interacts with the human body.

The interview is long and interesting and worth seeking out in full. I’d like to share here a significant chunk specifically talking about stress. Here’s the gist of what he has to say.

On the harmful impact of chronic stress: “When you are overstressed, you no longer have efficient access to your higher brain functions. By the time you’re in a state of alarm, significant parts of your cortex – the highest-functioning part of your brain – have shut down entirely. This is adaptive if you’re confronted by a predator, because you don’t want to waste time thinking about how to respond: you want to fight or run away. But to do your best reasoning, you need access to that sophisticated part of your brain. To learn and plan, you need to be in a relatively calm state.”

On the healthy aspect of stress: “Resilience comes from stress. It’s important that parents, teachers, and coaches not be afraid of it. Exploring, getting dirty, and falling down help you build resilience and tolerate novelty and discomfort.”

To put those passages in context, read on, and let me know what you think.

bruce-perry-sun-interview

Supin: Can you explain how our stress-response systems work?

Perry: All input – feelings of hunger or thirst, loud noises, the sound of someone’s voice, some information we learn – first enters the lower, more primitive part of our brains, which determines if this input is familiar or unfamiliar. If the input is familiar, it then travels to a higher, more evolved part of our brain, where we decide based on memory whether it’s good, bad, or neutral. If the input is unfamiliar, the brain’s default conclusion is This can’t be good. Any novelty – even desirable novelty, like learning something new – activates our stress-response system.

Some stress is actually good for us – for example, the stress related to meeting a new person or traveling to a new place. Predictable, controllable, and moderate activation of the stress-response system has been shown to build our capacity to manage challenges. When a child has the opportunity to challenge herself in the presence of supportive adults, it builds resilience. It’s the dose, the pattern, and the controllability that determine whether the stress is adaptive or harmful.

Let’s say you’re a six-year-old boy, and up until now your life has been OK. Mom and Dad split up, and there was some conflict around the divorce, but nothing too horrible. Then all of a sudden Mom has a new boyfriend in the house. That’s novel, so it generates moderate stress. At dinner he raises his voice at you; that’s unpredictable. He soon starts barking orders at you more frequently. He yells at your mom. He hits you, or he hits your mom. Your stress-response system doesn’t have time to return to baseline before another source of stress arrives. You start having anticipatory anxiety about what will happen next. Your baseline level of stress increases; things that would not have bothered you much before now bother you a lot. A harsh tone of voice that may have been mildly upsetting is now overwhelming. If the boyfriend’s behavior continues, your stress-response system may start to register any angry tone of voice as threatening. You’ve become what we call “sensitized.”

Conventional wisdom might suggest that the boy would get used to the angry, violent behavior and be less affected by it over time, but you’re saying the opposite is true.

Exactly. The more our stress-response system is activated in uncontrollable ways, the less able we are to handle even small amounts of stress.

When you are overstressed, you no longer have efficient access to your higher brain functions. By the time you’re in a state of alarm, significant parts of your cortex – the highest-functioning part of your brain – have shut down entirely. This is adaptive if you’re confronted by a predator, because you don’t want to waste time thinking about how to respond: you want to fight or run away. But to do your best reasoning, you need access to that sophisticated part of your brain. To learn and plan, you need to be in a relatively calm state.

Let’s go back to the six-year-old boy in your example. What happens to him at school?

The brain is good at generalizing from one kind of experience to another. Most of the time this ability is a gift, but this boy may generalize that all male authority figures who raise their voices are terrifying. This starts a vicious cycle: The boy arrives at school already on heightened alert due to his home situation, and he can’t pay attention. The teacher gets frustrated and raises his voice. The child is now even more on red alert. It’s impossible for him to concentrate. The rational parts of his brain shut down. Instead he has access only to the parts that process information valuable in threatening situations. He’s attuned to the teacher’s tone of voice, to whom the teacher is smiling at. He’s learning to read nonverbal cues. The calm child will learn the state capitals; the sensitized child will learn who is the teacher’s pet.

Can he recover from that?

Yes, opportunities for controlled, moderate doses of stress can shift these systems back toward well-regulated functioning. The key is that a moderate challenge for a typical child may be a huge challenge for a sensitized child.

The achievement gap in schools has a lot to do with the child’s home and community life if the family is concerned about not having money for food or rent or a doctor’s visit, that creates a pervasive sense of anxiety and unpredictability. The longer the child is in that environment, the worse the vicious cycle at school becomes. Eventually the kid says to himself, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m stupid.” And he drops out as soon as he can.

What about the character-building benefits of facing down adversity, of “rising to the challenge”? Is that ever applicable in these situations?

If you start from a healthy place, adversity can be character building. But if you grow up amid constant adversity, you are less likely to have the flexible and capable stress-response systems you need to face down adversity. Certainly many children do grow up with remarkable gifts and strengths despite their challenges, but when this happens, it’s often because there were people in the child’s environment who helped create a safe, predictable space for the child at least part of the time.

Are there instances in which well-intentioned parents protect their children from stress too much?

Yes, I’ve seen upper-middle-class children develop anxiety disorders because they had never been given the opportunity to explore the world. They’d been told only, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t get dirty.” By the time these children went to preschool, they hadn’t learned to tolerate even slight discomforts. They became overwhelmed by the novelty of preschool and had meltdowns.

Resilience comes from stress. It’s important that parents, teachers, and coaches not be afraid of it. Exploring, getting dirty, and falling down help you build resilience and tolerate novelty and discomfort.

How might we apply this to whole communities?

First we have to understand that feeling connected to other people is one of our most fundamental needs. We feel safer when we are with kind and familiar people. Tension can arise from being part of a marginalized minority, whether you define that minority status by economics, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, or whatever. The marginalized group has a much higher level of baseline stress. It’s not a specific traumatic event; it’s a continuous sense of disconnection.

Our brain is constantly monitoring our environment to gauge whether or not we belong someplace. If we frequently get feedback that we don’t belong – or, worse, overt threats – then our body’s systems stay in a constant state of arousal. This increases the risk for diabetes and hypertension and makes learning, reflection, planning, and creative problem-solving harder. Over time it will actually change the physiology of your brain.

For example, for someone who already feels marginalized and is hypervigilant, even a relatively benign interaction, such as a police officer asking for your license, can trigger a volatile reaction. This is true for both the person being stopped and for the cop who’s doing the stopping. They both can be sensitized. People in law enforcement should know the principles of stress and trauma. It’s the key to understanding why some of their policies and behaviors have a destructive effect.

 

DID YOU SEE…: New York Times on workday stress reduction

Phyllis Korkki’s Applied Science column in today’s Sunday New York Times offers good sensible advice about using conscious breathing, posture, and body awareness tools to reduce stress and anxiety on the job. These are simple mechanisms that we all know about but it’s easy to forget them.

Seeking some assistance in dealing with mounting stress, Korkki says, “My first stop was Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist who teaches — or rather reteaches — people how to breathe. Dimly I sensed that the way I was inhaling and exhaling was out of whack, and she confirmed it by giving me some tests. First off, like most people, I was a ‘vertical’ breather, meaning my shoulders moved upward when I inhaled. Second, I was breathing from my upper chest, where the lungs don’t have much presence.

“In her Manhattan studio, Dr. Vranich taught me the right way to breathe: horizontally and from the middle of the body, where the diaphragm is. You should expand your belly while inhaling through your nose, she said, and squeeze your belly inward while exhaling.l way to breathe — the way children and animals do it, Dr. Vranich said. It’s when society begins to exert its merciless pressure on us that we start doing things the wrong way.

stress reduction illo by michael waraska                                  illustration by Michael Waraska

“When we are under stress at work, we tend to brace and compress ourselves, and our field of vision becomes narrow, Dr. Vranich said in a recent interview. This causes us to breathe more quickly and shallowly. The brain needs oxygen to function, of course, and breathing this way reduces the supply, causing muddled thinking. Also, the digestive system doesn’t receive the movement and massage it needs from the diaphragm, and that can lead to problems like bloating and acid reflux, she said. Stress can send people into fight-or-flight mode, which can lead them to brace their bellies to appear strong. This is exactly the stance that interferes with calm, alert thinking.”
Paying attention to these body cues and shifting your response to them is good practice. Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: gay critique of mainstream tantra classes

Tantra is an ancient spiritual practice that seeks to channel divine energy through human experience. In our time, the word “tantra” is tossed around very lightly, and its meaning shifts wildly depending on the context. In its classic definition, tantra is a school of meditation that envisions universal consciousness as an intricate erotic dance between Shiva and Shakti, form and flow. In the West, the sexual metaphor has gotten literalized so that the most familiar manifestations of tantra are tantric sex and tantric massage, which invite participants to experience sex as energy. People are often drawn to study tantra by the invitation to deepen the connection between sexuality and spiritual practice that other religious traditions tend to keep strictly apart. There are many different ways to study tantra in schools, classes, and workshops, and like any educational process the quality of teachers and teachings can vary wildly. The original tantric teachings rely super-specifically on the dance of male and female energies, which complicates matters for queer people undertaking the study of tantra, as Lisa Luxx discusses in great detail in her article “Why is Gay Tantra So Taboo?” which appears on Ruby Warrington’s website The Numinous (subtitled “material girl, mystical world”). Her description of attending a tantra training and being pressured into ridiculously literal-minded tantric exercises that reinforce hoary old gender-role stereotypes matches my own experience when I first started exploring the world of tantra in the early 1990s, when most tantra workshops derived from the teachings of Margot Anand (best-known for her book The Art of Sexual Ecstasy).

concha on behance
credit: Concha on Behance

Luckily, there are tantra teachers that speak to the experience of queer people. The Body Electric School, founded in 1984 by Joseph Kramer, incorporated tantric and Taoist teachings into a series of workshops starting with “Celebrating the Body Erotic” that taught erotic massage as a healing practice combining breath and touch to connect the dots between the physical, the erotic, the emotional, and the spiritual. While the Body Electric School originally emerged from and spoke to the population of gay men struggling to preserve sexual health and vitality in the midst of the AIDS crisis, it expanded its offerings to include trainings for men, women, and those who decline the gender binary. Other trainings have evolved that address tantra specifically from a queer female perspective, such as Barbara Carrellas’s Urban Tantra program. One of the coolest things about Lisa Luxx’s article is that the comments thread provides information and links to other tantric explorations for women all over the world that transcend simplistic gender stereotypes.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: “Prince’s Holy Lust”

Among the outpouring of tributes to the musical genius Prince, who died Friday morning at age 57, two in particular caught my attention.  One is the CNN interview with community organizer Van Jones, who talked about all the ways that Prince quietly used his money and his fame to help people all over the world, an inspiring model of selfless service. You can watch that online here.

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More to the point of this blog, in the Sunday NY Times, music critic Touré wrote an op-ed piece about how from the very beginning Prince embodied, articulated, and championed healing the split between sexuality and spirituality.

The piece begins:

“Let me tell you why ‘Adore’ is the central song in the Prince canon. Because in ‘Adore’ you get the commingling of two keys to understanding the man and his music: his sexuality and his spirituality. In the second verse he paints the picture: ‘When we be making love / I only hear the sounds / Heavenly angels crying up above / Tears of joy pouring down on us / They know we need each other.’ They’re having sex under a sprinkling of angel tears, which are flowing because of the angels’ admiration of their love.

“This is the erotic intertwined with the divine. The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex.”

Read the whole piece online here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” in the New York Times

Peggy Orenstein has written very well for many years about the issues confronting young women in American culture. An excerpt from her new book, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, was published in the Sunday New York Times today that directly addresses the question “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” While much has been written and discussed about the impact of pornography on how young men learn about and practice sex, not so much has been said about the same subject as it applies to young women.

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A passage that stood out for me:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 components the agency recommends as essential to sex education. Only 23 states mandate sex ed at all; 13 require it to be medically accurate.

Even the most comprehensive classes generally stick with a woman’s internal parts: uteruses, fallopian tubes, ovaries. Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, the ones shaped like the head of a steer, blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?

No wonder that according to the largest survey on American sexual behavior conducted in decades, published in 2010 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers at Indiana University found only about a third of girls between 14 and 17 reported masturbating regularly and fewer than half have even tried once. When I asked about the subject, girls would tell me, “I have a boyfriend to do that,” though, in addition to placing their pleasure in someone else’s hands, few had ever climaxed with a partner.

Boys, meanwhile, used masturbating on their own as a reason girls should perform oral sex, which was typically not reciprocated. As one of a group of college sophomores informed me, “Guys will say, ‘A hand job is a man job, a blow job is yo’ job.’ ” The other women nodded their heads in agreement.

I love that Orenstein is calling attention to the discrepancy between the sex education that schools offer kids and what porn teaches them. And I love that enlightened sex educators like Carol Queen, who co-founded the women’s sex-toy emporium Good Vibrations in San Francisco, take it as their mission to teach people not just about sex but about pleasure. Her newly published The Sex and Pleasure Book, co-written with Shar Rednour, is a valuable resource for anyone’s sexual health bookshelf alongside Erika Moen’s web comic (collected into two book-length volumes so far) Oh Joy, Sex Toy.

oh joy sex toy

DID YOU SEE: Out Magazine on sex work as health care

The latest issue of Out magazine contains an honest, open essay by Andrew Gurza called “Price of Intimacy” in which the author describes his quest for nurturing erotic contact and his nourishing experience with a sacred intimate practitioner.

price of intimacy illo                                                              Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

“I’d never considered the price of intimacy until I hired a sex worker,” Gurza begins. “Though I’d been learning to embrace my life in a wheelchair—a result of cerebral palsy—going without touch, or even access to my own body, was taking a toll. Even so, I didn’t come to my decision lightly. I was worried about shame, stigma, and fear, and concerned I’d pay for time and still not get what I needed. I spent weeks quieting the voices in my head telling me that using the services of a sex worker was not a good idea. Would this be the only way I could find intimacy? Would someone even want to do this with me, or would he only view it as a charitable opportunity to help a cripple? Despite all these questions, I sat in my apartment reflecting on my nearly year-long celibacy. It was time to take care of myself.”

The encounter he describes sound moving and hot. It reminded me of the movie The Sessions, based on a similar article by Mark O’Brien, a man living with cystic fibrosis who engages the services of a sexual surrogate partner.

It takes a lot of courage for anybody — whether well-bodied or differently abled — to see sexual healing from a professional. And although sex workers come in many sizes and shapes, skills and motivations, there are practitioners who know what they’re doing and can facilitate transformative pleasurable encounters.

Check out Gurza’s article here and let me know what you think. You can also check out the article I wrote on “Sex Work as Health Care,” adapted from a talk I gave at one of several Gay Men’s Health Summits in Boulder, Colorado.