Thought for the day: extreme intimacy

Want to have an experience of extreme intimacy and vulnerability? Spend half an hour communing with your sweetheart with all digital devices out of sight and out of reach. Try it and let me know what happens.

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GLOSSARY: on intimacy

What is intimacy? We talk about it all the time. We long for it. We fear it. But what do we mean when we talk about intimacy? There’s some part of it that is physical and erotic, but what part? Sex can be intimate, but it’s not automatically. Intimacy can include sex, but it doesn’t have to. Some part of intimacy is emotional – just having feelings, expressing them, sharing them with another person is pretty intimate, not necessarily something you do on a casual basis with just anyone. Some part of intimacy is verbal – it may not be easy to define, but you know the difference between an intimate conversation and one that’s not especially intimate.

At some personal growth seminar years ago, I heard intimacy defined as “Into-Me-You-See.” I know, it’s a little corny. But it gets to the heart of what constitutes intimacy – showing yourself to someone else, with all the openness, tenderness, courage, vulnerability, and individuality that requires. It’s great when you’re able to relax and feel free to be yourself with another person.

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I’ve learned through personal experience and through my professional practice that intimacy can be created. You can build it by hand, step by step, on purpose. That’s the essence of the workshop for gay men that I’m facilitating at Easton Mountain April 24-27, “THAT’S AMORE: Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Connection.” Starting with the process of creating ritual space, formally and informally, we will explore a dozen different ways of cultivating intimacy by devising intentional ceremonies and experiments involving verbal communication, physical touch, imagination, and artistic elements (music, pictures, movement, food, meditation, the natural environment).

The program is intended for single or partnered gay men who would enjoy spending a weekend in a structured environment that supports the quest for authentic love and affection. Each participant will leave with not only tools for connecting more deeply with other men but also a greater appreciation for yourself as a lover.

The cost of the workshop is $495-695 (depending on your choice of accommodations). For more information and to register online, go to http://bit.ly/AmoreEaston.

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.

 

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.

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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.

DID YOU SEE: Esther Perel interviewed in The Sun

Belgian-born sex therapist Esther Perel is an expert on the subject of sex, intimacy, love, and desire in long-term relationships. The author of Mating in Captivity and the subject of a very smart and widely-circulated TED talk on desire, she was recently interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun, an excellent literary magazine renowned for its in-depth Q-and-As with remarkable thinkers.

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I’m a tough customer when it comes to speaking and writing in this field, I suppose because these subjects are near and dear to my heart, and I hate the amount of misinformation, bad advice, and stale thinking that goes out under the rubric of relationship counseling. But Perel passes my bullshit-detector with flying colors.  I found myself completely engrossed in this article (“A More Perfect Union”) and in agreement with her almost every step of the way. I particularly like the way she talks about fantasies and also how she addresses the subject of parenting in contemporary life. Since I’ve quoted those passages online already, I’ll offer an excerpt here in which she talks about the subject of infidelity:

I don’t abide by the perpetrator-victim model of infidelity, in which the cheater is criminalized and the victim is given all the empathy. I also don’t believe an affair automatically means the relationship is bad. Here’s the usual view: If we, as a couple, have everything we want from each other, there’s no reason for either of us to go elsewhere. Hence, if one of us goes elsewhere, there’s something missing between us; infidelity is a symptom of a problem in the relationship.

That’s sometimes the case, but affairs often have more to do with the unfaithful individual than with the couple. People go elsewhere for sex not so much because they want to leave their partners but because they want to escape who they themselves have become. They are looking for parts of themselves that they’ve lost because of the relationship. But many adulterers are reasonably content in their marriage and monogamous in their beliefs. In my experience most have been faithful for ten or fifteen years before they’ve cheated.

If you see adultery only as a symptom, you sometimes take good relationships that have worked well for decades and make them look like failures. I don’t think that’s right…

I’ve seen couples in which I’m convinced there’s an affair going on but no one wants to talk about it. I’ve seen couples in which one person keeps asking the question and the other keeps denying it, or one keeps dropping hints and the other doesn’t want to pick up on them. I’ve had clients who are resisting having an affair, and others who can’t talk clearly about their marriage because they are intoxicated by an ongoing affair and everything else pales in comparison. Or they are irritable and don’t want to go home because of their guilt or because they don’t like their partner at the moment. Other clients might want to be in the relationship, but their partner has Alzheimer’s and can’t recognize them, and they need a way to rejuvenate themselves so they can spend an hour every day with their partner at the nursing home. I hear about kinds of infidelities that never existed before now, but infidelity itself is timeless. At all four corners of the world, at any moment, someone is either betraying a beloved or being betrayed. Infidelity: historically condemned, universally practiced.

You can read the entire interview online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.