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Answering your Sex Questions, with Kate Morrissey Stahl, PhD, LCSW, CST

Recently at Revolution, we had a sex questions box out, where people could ask any anonymous sex, sexuality, gender, relationship, etc. questions and our sexuality experts could work to answer them to the best of our ability! Recently we scanned the box and found this thought-provoking question, and I immediately knew I needed to respond to this topic that is very close to my heart.


"The overt sexual aspect of Revolution Therapy and Yoga (BDSM, graphic sex books, sex questions box). makes me feel like this might not be a safe space for me to practice yoga. Have you given any thought to how overt sexual messaging might compromise safety in this environment where vulnerable people come to study somatic practices." -Anonymous

Thank you for your question. I have thought about it quite a lot, organizationally and personally, as a certified sex therapist and supervisor, a yoga teacher, workshop leader, and clinical associate professor teaching master’s level sex therapy and trauma classes. That doesn’t mean I’ve got it all figured out–I don’t–so I appreciate opportunities to make explicit how I think about it. I’m happy to talk more individually, too.


To the question: Does talking about sex make an environment less safe? Based on my professional and lived experience, I don’t think so. Of course, refraining from talking about sex can make some folks feel more comfortable, but that is a different question. The strange fact is that sex is at once omnipresent (Billboards! Movies! Ex-presidential indictments!) and unfortunately absent in terms of spaces for meaningful dialogue and education.


Who Are We?

So all that said, let’s start with who we are as an organization. Here is our mission statement:

“Welcome to Revolution Therapy and Yoga, a somatic trauma, sex therapy and yoga space in Athens, GA. We are a multipurpose mind-body wellness studio located in the historic Leathers building near downtown. We offer therapy sessions by licensed clinical professionals including sex therapy, couple and poly therapy, grief, and trauma therapy. We also offer accessible yoga classes for connection and stress relief, and host small groups for sex therapy, meditation, growth, and recovery.

Our mission is to provide accessible community offerings for yoga and therapy with an emphasis on trauma-informed practices that promote physical, spiritual, sexual, emotional, and creative well-being. We are inspired by cooperative principles. We are dedicated to moving our organization and our community toward anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices through reflective and intentional organizational flexibility.”

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Our organization was formed to provide services to people around human sexuality, and somatic practices and educational groups can be a wonderful support for people who seek sexual enhancement and/or have experienced sexual harm, which is incredibly pervasive. When sexual harm happens, it most often happens in shame and in silence–indeed, often silence itself is the harm in the case of not teaching kids about their body parts or masturbation or consent or various sexualities, including asexuality. When people think about getting support, they hesitate because there is a barrier of silence to break through. When people have sexual questions for professionals they engage with, they often do not bring them up unless the professional does [1]. Part of our work in this community is to facilitate more open discussion about sex, sexualities, and gender.

When people have gaps in their sex education, what are the gaps usually? Well, they might be around consent or around pleasure. They are likely not around danger or infections—this is a staple of even the most basic, usually abstinence-based, sex education programs. If one doesn’t learn about sexual expression through helpful explicit sources, where do people learn? From advertisements or movies? From porn? From prohibitions described in religious institutions? From promotional materials for yoga studios, which often feature a narrowly defined body type? Many times, we are left with much to unlearn and much to learn, and that makes us more vulnerable to harm and (as importantly) less available for pleasure.


Who Are We Talking About?

When I talk about who is most vulnerable sexually, who do I mean? One group I mean is gender and sexually minoritized people, who often learned through silence or superficial messages that their gender expansion or their sexual attraction was not normal, or worse. Another is people with desire patterns that are often misunderstood like kinks or fetishes. I also mean people who have been harmed by sex—I count myself among the many in this group. People who are sexually abused or assaulted, as well as those who assault others, are disproportionately not as likely to have had explicit discussions about pleasure, sex, and consent, and instead have tried to muddle our way through without crucial information.


Much of what contributed to the harm I’ve experienced and heard about from others was more about silence and shame than it is about explicit sexual content. Example: many people experience shame for just having sexual feelings, which aren’t harmful to anyone.


There has, of course, been a terrible history of abuse in yoga communities [2], and that abuse thrives in silence. Yoga teachers and therapists are both held to account by ethical codes that prohibit sex between teachers/therapists and students/clients [3], so ethical behavior is supported by these community agreements. As a sex therapist, I think these agreements are also supported by sex education.


I recognize that there is a conversation happening on the left about the importance of not triggering people [4] and a conversation on the right about grooming people by talking about gender expansion [5], so this moment is fraught for explicit sexual talk. And yet, as a trauma therapist I am convinced by the research that says that trigger warnings have limited utility, even being potentially harmful [6], and gender and sexual expression are a human right [7].


Comprehensive discussions of sexuality are good for us as a community [8], and so although we may not be the practice space for everyone, we’re a thoughtfully-grounded community for the many who are interested in a more nuanced, humane, and explicit exploration of sexuality than is usually offered. For us, that also means reminders about sex existing in announcements of sexual classes, pride flags to celebrate sexual and gender diversity, informational pamphlets about sexual topics, and blog posts like this one about what we stand for.


One reason we’re so very explicit about this on our website and in our mission is because we know this work and these messages are not for everyone at all times, and so we would like people to know about this mission before they visit.


There are many wonderful yoga studios or therapy offices in town where sex is rarely if ever brought up in explicit ways. And yet, since there are so few that do the work we do, we proudly offer a community for, as one of our wonderful sex therapists Amanda Auchenpaugh calls it, shameless sexuality. Or to put it another way: emphasizing brave [9], rather than primarily emotionally safe if that means comfortable [10], spaces.


Appreciatively,

Kate

 

References:

[1] See for example the PLISSIT Model https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/practice-management/plissit-model-introducing-sexual-health-in-clinical-care/#:~:text=(Its%20name%20derives%20from%20the,to%20their%20patient%2Dlimited%20information

[2] See, for example: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/yoga-reconsiders-the-role-of-the-guru-in-the-age-of-metoo

[3] The Yoga Alliance code is here: https://www.yogaalliance.org/Our_Standards/The_Ethical_Commitment and therapists have several codes, including the NASW Code of Ethics: https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

[5] For a resource that lays this out and argues against it, see the Antidefamation League https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/what-grooming-truth-behind-dangerous-bigoted-lie-targeting-lgbtq-community and a resource that describes in detail what grooming for abuse is is available here: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/child_law_practice/vol-34/november-2015/understanding-sexual-grooming-in-child-abuse-cases/#:~:text=Grooming%20is%20a%20method%20used,assault%20or%20abuse%20a%20child.

[6] An example of research supporting this: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/trigger-warnings-fail-to-help.html

[7] From the World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/health-topics/sexual-health#tab=tab_1

[8] For a review of the data: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33059958/

[9] For a discussion: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781003205296-3/cultivating-brave-spaces-take-risks-challenge-systemic-oppression-andrew-campbell-ardavan-eizadirad

[10] For one of many critiques of the idea of “safe spaces”: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14675986.2019.1540102?needAccess=true&role=button


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