The Importance of Rituals During this COVID-19 Thanksgiving

COVID-19 Holiday Season

Now that the presidential election has been called, Americans are gradually coming to terms with the results whether that’s letting out a celebratory exclamation of joy or sadly mourning the loss of their candidate. While many citizens are still worried and anxious due to the president’s refusal to concede, the holiday season is beginning with advertisement campaigns. Family members’ anxiety may be further fueled by the increase in COVID cases and deaths. The uptick may result in texting, chatting, and/or Facetiming one another with last-minute plan changes to the traditional Thanksgiving gathering.

In what has already been the most challenging 2020 year–given the COVID-19 pandemic, job losses, quarantine, and deaths of so many–the prospect of holidays spent apart from extended family and chosen family members can feel like a big mountain that feels too big to climb. As we begin to think about the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa, it is really important to give space for both the sadness of who and what will be missing, AND consider what can be created anew to provide nourishment for the soul.

Pre-COVID Holiday Stress

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While pre-COVID Halloween is usually celebrated with the nuclear family or among adult friend groups, the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are usually gathering times for extended family.  Holiday gatherings offer emotional and psychological grounding that is part of the foundation of our identity within our community. Meeting with those we love also reinforces our self-esteem.

The holiday season is difficult enough for many. It is notoriously the season of breakups, folks challenged by Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), facing ostracization due to gender non-conforming status or sexual orientation, and increased alcohol intake. Unsurprisingly, forced joviality often has the opposite effect, making one feel inauthentic and disconnected from oneself and those around us. The numerous additional stressors of 2020 present an even greater threat on Americans’ mental health than previous national crises. According to a recent study by Czeisler et al published by the CDC,  “the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder (in 2020) was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%)”.

Rituals For Holidays and Lifecycle Events

In her paper “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19,” family therapist Evan Imber-Black writes of the importance of rituals. “Special time demarcates ritual time from regular time, enabling us to look forward to a ritual, whether it is daily, seasonal, or yearly. Special place may be a church or a hotel or restaurant or graveyard—or it may be a backyard, a kitchen table, a living room, all transformed by a ritual to become a special place.”

I have always let my clients know that it is helpful for one’s sense of agency, connection and continuity to consider restrictions as creative opportunities to come up with new rituals. As a former choreographer, dance pieces commissioned on a tiny stages required me to imagine movements I never would have created. Rituals like art provide us with structured time. Art is a way of marking the time as special and out of the ordinary, and imbue meaning that reflects our deepest values. They fortify our identity, and strengthen the connections to the people we love.

When past clients have had to face miscarriages, abortions, separations or coming out, I’ve encouraged them to create a ritual that is meaningful to them. Then, client could perhaps repeat each year to honor the pain, loss, relief and joy of a lifestage milestone that hasn’t been recognized in society or certain religions.

COVID Creativity; Innovative Rituals to Bring People closer During Holidays and Lifecycle Events.

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Around the world, families are coming up with creative ways to celebrate the holidays together in various states of distance: physical (due to a global pandemic) and, in some families, political (the drawn-out 2020 U.S. election). People across the world created new rituals for Easter, Ramadan, and for life-cycle events like weddings and funerals.

For instance, Ramadan, a holiday that starts on the evening of 4/23 and culminates on 5/23, sees Muslim fast during the daylight hours. As mosques closed due to COVID-19, those observing the holiday found ways to pray at home. Practicing Muslims focused on individual prayer habits and turning the isolation into inner peace. For Easter, families celebrated from a distance by decorating homes, playing virtual Easter-themed games like bingo, and hosting online family gatherings on Easter Sunday. Weddings and funerals became virtual affairs as well, with slideshows, streaming, and postponements becoming the norm. During the earlier days of COVID-19 I attended two shivas and a funeral via Zoom. They actually felt very intimate. One shiva created breakout rooms where I could speak with the mourner one-on-one. This is a good example of restrictions providing fodder for newer meaningful rituals.

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The wedding industry developed a new vocabulary in light of the virus. Many to-be-weds celebrated with “minimonies,” microweddings, or elopements. Graduation ceremonies this May took to the road, with teachers and families driving down neighborhood streets to mark commencement. Former President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. addressed graduates in livestreamed speeches. Students recreated proms and yearbooks over social media. Witty pregnancy announcements went viral, with jokes about parents not social distancing and buying the wrong protection.

Thanksgiving Rituals

Thanksgiving as a holiday is not considered religious by most Americans. However, some experience it as a spiritual ritual that binds families and friends to one another. Due to an increased number of COVID cases in many parts of the country right now,  some families may choose to celebrate apart from one another according to updated CDC recommendations. However, there is still a need to create an intentional family ritual and celebration.

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There are creative ways to create rituals and a sense of togetherness over Thanksgiving to celebrate this spiritual awareness. For instance, for my family’s Passover Zoom, my brother and I planned songs and improv assignments for each family. This way, every family contributed something fun or meaningful to the holiday.

Here are some ideas to create anticipation, connection and meaning to your 2020 COVID-19 Thanksgiving;

  • Order craft supplies online and have them delivered to each family member’s home ahead of Thanksgiving. You can create themed DIY projects together via Zoom. For example, you can buy the makings of a fall wreath and each family can work on it together while catching up on Zoom displaying their crafting ability.
  • Safely prepare dishes and deliver them to family and neighbors in a way that does not involve contact with others. For example, leave them on the porch.
  • A game of charades is always fun, and can be played virtually.
  • Karaoke is a good way to bring music into your celebrations–belt out your favorite tunes over Zoom.
  • Schedule a time to share a meal together virtually.
  • Have people share recipes ahead of the big day. This way, they can cook their turkey, dressing, or other dishes alongside one another via video calls.
  • Once seated for dinner with your loved ones online, go around the screen and say what one is thankful for. This would be a wonderful new ritual to emphasize family bonds and heal potential family rifts.
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Come up with mindfulness techniques to ground oneself and keep anxiety, worries and fears down.

You may also want to create a space for mindfulness during the holidays. This could be a private mindfulness breathing exercise each morning. Alternatively, one could host a mindfulness session with the family at the outset of the virtual gathering. Carving calm from the chaos is, as Dr. Jamie D. Aten writes, a necessity. “When disaster hits, life can feel chaotic, and our energy is used up fighting fires. But when the flames die down, it’s important to make space to do some of the things we once enjoyed doing.”

 

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One in four older adults report anxiety and depression amid the 2020 pandemic. Historically, epidemics are accompanied by higher suicide rates. Researchers predict mental health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. The holidays are a high-pressure microcosm of the difficult year we had. Adjusting to a new normal is only possible by keeping track of your own mental health.

On the eve before election day, I led a mindful grounding session for colleagues who were feeling anxious. This was a way I could give service and help others remain centered. Sending food to tireless hospital workers working over the holidays who are now swamped with COVID cases is another nice way to give back to your community. Be sure to reach out to neighbors, especially those who may live alone. A simple text or phone call could be enough to brighten their day. If you don’t feel able to deliver food to those homebound or homeless, find ways to donate time or money so those folks can have a holiday meal. These are ways, with the support and willingness of a community, to still come together.

Get the whole family involved in exercise during the holidays.

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A recent study showed that the pandemic has had a clear impact on diet and physical activity and therefore cardiovascular health. Exercising during COVID-19 to weave into creative ways for the whole family to move together during a Zoom family gathering. Some examples might be:

  • A younger family member can bring a dance move learned on TikTok to teach everyone else.
  • A young adult or avid music fan can create and share a music playlist for the family to dance to over Zoom.
  • An older member of the group can bring a family story or poem that they feel exemplifies the spirit of the holiday.

 

 

 

Facing a Post-Election Holiday Season with Compassion.

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Because this Thanksgiving holiday takes place in the aftermath of a highly unprecedented election, it is important to create boundaries around political discussions before you all gather together (whether it’s virtual or in IRL).  Let family members know in advance that you plan to listen but would appreciate not discussing politics at the gathering.

It may be a opportunity this year, that relatives who have different political beliefs’ are at a greater physical distance. Physical distance might give family members a chance to focus on missing one another rather than attempting to win debates. We can use holiday rituals as an opportunity to heal political fissions by focusing on what we all have in common. This could be a great exercise in compassion. Meditation teacher and published author Sharon Salzberg emphasizes that compassion does not connote agreement; in fact, she says that agreement is not even a part of feeling compassion. “We are all linked, and compassion is the natural response of seeing that linkage. It is caring and concern rather than a feeling of separation into us and them…[Compassion] is the result of the recognition [of the interconnectedness of everything].”

Here are two guided gratitude meditations for the family or individual preparing for the holidays this year: Greater Good in Action and YouTube.

Developing mindfulness skills in advance of that Zoom holiday gathering or phone call might be the most powerful gift you can give yourself and your family/friends.

Please keep several mental health resources handy this upcoming holiday season.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
  • SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline: (800) 662-4357
  • National Eating Disorders Center Helpline: (800) 931-2237
  • Crisis Chat: visit link
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Why Are Women Still Staying Silent About Their Sexual Pain?

When it comes to women talking about sexual pain, omission is a form of communication. 

 

Vulvodynia = Women’s sexual pain.

 

Our society still grapples with the experience of female sexual pain. Specifically, Vulvodynia (vulvar pain) affects some 16 percent of women. “Vulvodynia is chronic vulvar pain without an identifiable cause,” reads a statement from the National Vulvodynia Association (NVA), a non-profit created in 1994 to help improve the health and quality of life of women suffering from sexual pain. “The location, constancy, and severity of the pain vary among sufferers. Some women experience pain in only one area of the vulva, while others experience pain in multiple areas.”  While some sexual pain may be located on the vulva or in the vestibule (the vaginal opening), some women may feel pain internally as well. Unfortunately, millions of women experiencing pain during sex are being misdiagnosed.  And so, millions suffer in silence.

Dyspareunia is an older term to describe all types of female painful sex. The most recent diagnosis of genito pelvic-penetration pain disorder (GPPPD) is the clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Version 5. It is the name of the conditions formally known as vaginismus and dyspareunia. Vaginismus results from involuntary contraction of the vaginal musculature. Primary vaginismus occurs in women who have never been able to have penetrative intercourse. Women with secondary vaginismus were previously able to have penetrative intercourse but are no longer able to do so.

 

How Women’s Sexual Pain Shows up in the Medical Realm

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Epidemiological studies indicate that only 60% of women with vulvovaginal pain seek medical help and among those, 40% never receive a diagnosis. The lack of support from the health care system may contribute to feelings of invalidation and stigmatization often experienced by women with Vulvodynia. When it comes to pain specific to female anatomy, like the vulva, diagnoses frequently veer off-course. Doctors suspect menopause, PMS, depression, or anxiety. Yet surprisingly, many of the women sex therapists see are actually younger than 40 and nowhere near peri-menopause or menopause.

This gap in a detailed assessment process leaves a woman with the wrong diagnoses and still in pain, with the additional psychological pain and loneliness of being misunderstood. Women presenting with genital pain frequently experience rejection from their biopsychosocial environment. This contributes to a belief that silence is better than being misunderstood and embarrassed.

“There’s a huge problem,” Dr. Elizabeth G. Stewart, M.D., told attendees at a session on vulvovaginal disorders at Internal Medicine 2011. “There’s virtually no vulvovaginal training for clinicians.” Due to the minimal training doctors receive about women’s sexual health in medical schools, doctors may feel stymied when their female patients report having genital pain. Stewart also added that “clinicians also tend to rely on patients’ self-diagnosis and manage their problems by phone, or don’t do a physical exam before treating, which leads to incorrect therapies.”

What might cause Vulvodynia?

In a recorded webinar presented by Center for Love and Sex (CLS) created for professionals with my colleague gynecologist Dr. Chris Creatura titled “How to Help Women with Sexual Pain and Low Desire,” Creatura let therapists and gynecologists know that while examining a woman with vulvovaginal symptoms, a doctor must consider many differential diagnoses. Although we still don’t know exactly what causes all Vulvodynia symptoms, she explained that some contributing factors include:

  • An allergy
  • Atrophy
  • A drug reaction
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Infection
  • Low estrogen
  • A dermatological source
  • Disease elsewhere in the body
  • A drug
  • Cancer or a precancerous condition
  • A combination of these factors

 

How Women’s Sexual Pain Affects Their Partners and Relationships

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Many women often keep the reality of the level of sexual pain or discomfort from their partners (whether they are new partners or longtime partners or spouses). Omission in the realms of sexuality and intimacy is a mechanism women resort to in order to feel more accepted by a partner and society out of fear of rejection, shame, and exclusion. Recent research cited in Michael Castlemen’s recent post also illustrates that it is a reaction to a patriarchal society that privileges men’s sexual pleasure over women’s desire and pleasure. Women reported that the reason they don’t tell their partners about their pain is because they felt “they should subordinate their erotic pleasure to their men’s.”

In fact, studies show that male partners of women who experience sexual pain are also deeply affected by their own shame when they are aware of the pain. In a recent study published in the Journal of Pain researching women with Vulvodynia and their partners, women experienced greater pain when they also reported pain-related shame, while their partners experienced distress when they felt shame related to the pain they were causing their partner through sexual activity. Furthermore, on days they had sexual activity both partners reported greater levels of sexual distress. The authors of the study state: “Qualitative studies have reported that many of them feel inadequate, are apprehensive to speak about their pain, and fear this condition spells the end of their romantic relationship.”

 

How Can Sex Therapists Help Women and Their Male Partners

As a systemic sex therapist, I consider the reach and power of a woman’s genital pain, the impact on her partner, and their relationship. It is critical for a sex therapist to first validate and empathize with the woman’s pain, since most women feel like a complainer or at times even like a hypochondriac. To uncover the source, experience, and history of the pain, the sex therapist should conduct a thorough sexual status and history assessment. (The Center for Love and Sex offers two recorded webinars on these interventions for medical professionals including therapists, sex therapists, pelvic floor physical therapists and doctors.) But then they also need to conduct assessments of her partner.

Frequently, for women in committed sexual relationships (in the cases I provide here, the partner is male), the vulvar pain also has an effect on a man’s sexual functioning. Male partners, feeling guilty for causing pain in their partner during penetrative vaginal sex, may experience erectile dysfunction, uncontrolled ejaculation, or low desire. It is important for women to seek help not only on their own but with their partner as well.

The Plan

The research cited above provides a strong argument for therapists to work with both partners in couples systemic sex therapy. Within this type of couples sex therapy, it’s critical for sex therapists to:

  1. Provide sex education about Vulvodynia to both partners so they understand that this is a medical condition and no one’s fault.
  2. Refer the woman suffering from pain to a well-trained sexual health medical professional able to diagnose and treat Vulvodynia and GPPPD.
  3. Explain how the disorder impacts the entire couples’ system.
  4. Encourage the couple to use the therapy space to address both partners’ feelings of shame, anxiety, and sense of brokenness. Give them hope that these conditions can be treated, and that their reactions are understandable.
  5. While treatment for Vulvodynia is ongoing, outline a treatment plan to work on the pain treatment, their couple communication, and sexual alternatives.
  6. Teach them mindfulness techniques in order for them to become more relaxed and embodied and focused on giving and receiving sexual pleasure. There is a whole body of research and a recent book written by Lori Brotto showing the benefits of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) for women suffering with sexual pain.
  7. Advocate and support women as they work with allied health care professionals.

 

Creating a Holistic Systems-Oriented Medical Team to Help a Woman and the Couple

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In the second of CLS’s webinars on sexual pain co-presented with Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist Amy Stein titled: (“The Collaborative Clinical Care Model Between Therapists and Pelvic Floor Physical Therapists”), a case example showed a client (all identifying information was removed) experiencing severe genital pain who described feeling like a freak amongst her sexually active college peers. Another woman described a breakup with a boyfriend, suspecting the cause to be her pain during sex and the consequent lack of sex. In another example, a high-achieving professional woman worried she would lose her supportive fiancé once he started business school. In almost all cases, these women felt extremely isolated.

Therefore, silence about pain, shame, and distress creates a vicious cycle of communication and intimacy breakdowns. Excellent communication skills and having a team may ameliorate and amend communications. The system around a woman in pain–her gynecologist, therapist, physical therapist, sex therapist, and her partner(s)–must all work holistically to treat Vulvodynia and sexual pain. Sex therapists can create and coordinate care among all these providers. They can encourage women to speak authentically about the sexual pain to their sex therapist, their medical providers, and their partner.

 

References

Kearney-Strouse, J. (2011, June 1). Vulvovaginal disorders common but commonly misdiagnosed. ACP Internist.

Millions Of Women With This Condition Are Being Misdiagnosed: Here’s What To Know About Vulvodynia. (2018, March 14). National Coalition for Sexual Health.

Paquet, M., Rosen, N., Steben, M., & Bergeron, S. (2019, April 1). (174) Let’s Talk about it: Daily Associations between Shame and Pain and Sexual Distress in Couples Coping with Vulvodynia. The Journal of Pain. Brotto, L. (2018) Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire, Greystone Books: Vancouver

Vulvodynia Treatments. (2020). The National Vulvodynia Association.

What is Vulvodynia? (2020). The National Vulvodynia Association.

 Brotto, L. (2018) Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire, Greystone Books: Vancouver

 

 

What’s in a Name? Is Out of Control Sexual Behavior Treatment Really Different from Sex Addiction Recovery Programs?

What IS so important about the name of a pattern of sexual behavior? A new term called Out of Control Sexual Behavior is closer to the clinical frame I have used to help clients coming in to CLS for help to stop their compulsive sexual encounters.  People diagnosed–casually, jokingly, or professionally–as suffering from “sex addiction” might want to think twice about what this term implies and how it in fact will impact their therapeutic treatment,  how they feel about themselves and the relationship with partners (if they are in a relationship).  

Although most people in the field of sexual addiction cite Patrick Carnes as a the father of the term sex addiction, it was actually a Cornell psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Hatterer, who defined homosexuality as a pathology, conflating homosexuality/queerness with “addictive hypersexualized living” and “addictive sexual pattern.” The term he wrote about argued that a sexual orientation was an illness. He unfortunately stood by this opnion both before and long after homosexuality was removed as a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).

But Carnes popularized the term sex addiction, putting it on the map in America by creating a list of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that he cited were proof of of a pathological diagnosable disorder.  He created the Sex Addiction Screening Test (SAST) that attempts to create a differential assessment of addictive vs. non-addictive behaviors.  However, this assessment is still prone to pathologizing certain sexual behaviors deemed alternative, or kinky.  

Many of the treatment recommendations in his curriculum and at many of the sex addiction programs or 12-step groups around the country are based on heteronormative expectations in sobriety including only having sex with one’s spouse, no casual sex at all and/or no masturbation with or without porn.  There has been a long debate between Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) and AASECT Certified Sex Therapists and Counselors. As part of their training, CSAT therapists have historically not received training in established Sexual Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, sexual anatomy, ethics nor education on the diverse practices of sexual health.

These are requirements in the AASECT Certification Training.  

I would argue that Carnes regards the sexual behavior itself as the illness.  Sex therapists view the sexual behavior as a symptom. 

Sex therapists utilize a Sexual health model that understand that even though some people may feel tremendous shame about the erotic interests and sexual behaviors they enact,  frequently there is nothing inherently pathological about them.  The behavior may feel out of control because it’s against one’s values or it may be tied with an underlying untreated diagnosis.  The term and treatment of sex addiction may not thoroughly assess and treat underlying established diagnoses like: Depressive Disorder, Biploar Disorder, Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Panic Disorder or PTSD. Many clients who report years of Out of Control Sexual Behavior may have in fact experienced attachment trauma by a loved one who abandoned them,  severe neglect or physical or sexual abuse early on. 

The organization solely responsible for certifying Sex Therapists in the U.S., American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), released a statement calling for the retirement of the term “sex addict” referring to it as a treatable illness including this section: 

AASECT:

 1) does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder, and 

2) does not find the sexual addiction training and treatment methods and educational pedagogies to be adequately informed by accurate human sexuality knowledge.

 Therefore, it is the position of AASECT that linking problems related to sexual urges, thoughts or behaviors to a porn/sexual addiction process cannot be advanced by AASECT as a standard of practice for sexuality education delivery, counseling or therapy.”

There have now been several suggestions put forth by sex therapists and/or researchers for behaviors that contributes to negative outcomes socially, professionally and relationally.  These include: 

  • Compulsive Sexual Behavior (Eli Coleman): “…the experience of sexual urges, sexually arousing fantasies, and sexual behaviors that are recurrent, intense, and a distressful interference in one’s daily functioning”
  • Hyper-Sexual Behavior (Martin Kafka): “a sexual behavior disorder with an impulsivity component.”
  • Out-of-Control Sexual Behavior (Doug Braun-Harvey): “a sexual health problem in which an individual’s consensual sexual urges, thoughts, and behaviors feel out of control [to them]” (p. 10, Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior).

These are all different names that do NOT include the term addiction  but instead utilize a model that points to underlying disorders, internalization of shame in the face of not living up to one’s values and the ambivalence around changing. They also point to behavior that is more linked to underlying psychiatric disorders than a process oriented addiction.  

I believe two of the greatest strengths of the Out of Control Sexual Behavior model are that it not only addresses potential underlying causes of compulsive sexual behavior, but also that it is focused on organizing around and encouraging the individual’s unique expression of sexual health through wanted sexual behavior–which the Sex Addiction model fails to do. 

When a client comes in to our office self-identified as a “sex addict” we look at the whole person, their family of origin, their religious beliefs, how and when the pattern of sexual behavior began, whether they have a history of abuse, whether their symptoms line up with a proven psychiatric disorder and how the secretive nature of their sexual practices play into the beliefs they have about sex, fantasy, consent, monogamy and desire.  We ask them to create a sexual health plan that allows for all the disparate parts they’ve been splitting off into secretive sexual behaviors to come together into one person who is supported in their search for personal integrity and potential treatment for underlying issues. 

What CLS therapists offer is individual therapy and couples work to help clients who are struggling with sexual behaviors that are negatively impacting their mental health, their job, and or their relationships.  We work frequently with clients who are having affairs, hook-ups or encounters with sex workers that feel split off from their own sense of what it right, and hurts their partners or spouses when it’s discovered. On Oct. 20th, I’ll be co-leading a small group-oriented men’s therapy group that creates a safe space for all those in distress to come together and reassess how their sexual habits have gotten out of control and learn new skill to help their behavior align with their own values. Sexual shame thrives in secrecy, and addressing it head-on with others sharing the same difficulties helps to chip away at the shame while allowing a space to consider and create new choices that are supported in a sexual health plan that belongs to you. 

I am co-leading the 6-week Men’s Out of Control Sexual Health group with my colleague Shimmy Feintuch LCSW. It is designed for those identifying as male who feel that their sexual behaviors are out of control and that they want to get more information on why they’ve continued these behaviors despite its negative impact.  If you feel this group could help you or someone you know please email my intake coordinator for more information: coordinator@centerforloveansex.com 

The goals for this group include:

  • Having each member define what their sexual health goals are
  • Identifying the internal conflicts they have regarding these goals and their current behaviors
  • Learning about potential underlying disorders which may have never been diagnosed and treated before that contribute to their behavior like: Depression, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, ADHD, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder and finding sources for treatment
  • Learning new stress and coping mechanisms including: mindfulness, CBT, Embodied recovery for trauma-induced dissociation
  • Developing integrated and positive coping in their sexual lives
  • Relational skills to communicate sexual desires to existing and future partners
  • Increasing one’s core Sex EsteemⓇ 

While the last task force of the DSM (#5) considered the term Hypersexual Disorder, they felt there wasn’t enough solid evidence to prove that this best describes a clinical pattern of behavior.  The most recent International Classification of Disorders-#11 did include Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder, defining the pattern as repetitive sexual activities that may become an essential focus of a person’s life to the point that they neglect their health and personal care or other interests, activities and responsibilities. Other symptoms may include continued repetitive sexual behavior despite negative consequences or receiving little or no satisfaction from the behavior.”

So while there are many diagnostic names and criteria still being studied by American researchers and clinicians for a pattern of compulsive sexual behaviors, NONE of these terms include the wording or clinical treatment framework of addiction.

Impact of PRIDE, BLM & SCOTUS’ landmark LGBTQ Rights Decision on Sex Therapy Clients

It’s PRIDE 2020 and included in the rise of consciousness among so many citizens in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer and the current swell of Black Lives Matter protests around the country is another reason to be hopeful.  In a huge victory for LGBTQ+ employees, the Supreme Court handed down the Bostock v Clayton County decision to include legislative protection for ALL LGBTQ+ folks in America. The majority decision written by Neil Gorsuch stated: 

“In Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

In the Bostock v. Clayton County case SCOTUS considered Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination that occurs “because of [an employee’s] race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” While the Civil Rights Act didn’t set out to protect people who had same sex attractions and alternative gender identities, the context of equality embedded in this law is what was considered paramount.  

As a sex therapist who works with straight and LGBTQ+ clients who struggle daily with shame around their erotic desires and gender identity, this decision provides a long awaited public affirmation that their jobs are legally protected. I have heard many a client articulate why they need to keep their sexual behaviors on the down low, or dress one way at work for fear of appearing too gay, fem, butch or non-binary.   As a white therapist who sees Latinx, Black, and Brown clients individually or with their partners, I’m aware that sharing sexual experiences and challenges can be a harder bridge to cross due to racist experiences they have had with the majority of past authority figures along with generational racist trauma genetically inherited through their DNA.  I may also add to this load with unconscious statements that a client may feel angry about but won’t reveal to me. The fear a client experiences of being judged, blamed or dismissed by one more white expert is palpable in a session and I try to ensure the racism ‘elephant in the room’ is addressed early on by encouraging clients to let me know if I’ve said or done anything that triggers or angers them.  I ask them how they feel I am white and how they came to choose a white therapist. 

With this latest Bostock v. Clayton County decision, the Supreme Court justices have cleared a path for the wider protection of the Equality Act which will need to be finalized in the Senate since Congress already passed it last year.  According to Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal: “We have a long way to go in securing the full and undeniable civil rights of LGBTQ people, especially those in our community who are Black, Indigenous and people of color for whom their sexual orientation or gender identity is only one of many barriers to equal opportunity in this country.  But today’s victory is a necessary step forward on the journey toward equal justice for all without caveats or qualifications.”

Most American citizens understand that discrimination is wrong, so the hope is that with the Equality Act,  the loopholes and cracks not addressed in this decision will be covered by comprehensive federal protections. The Equality Act updates and expands protections in the workplace not only on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but also on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion in the workplace, the marketplace, and beyond.”

The Stonewall Inn, NYC

Last June we celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Riots begun by gay men, and trans-women who with their protests proclaimed they had had enough and refused to be beaten, arrested and killed sorely because of who they chose to have sex with and how they identified in gender expression. Stonewall marked the beginning of the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement.  Today we are in the midst of  a new chapter of a multi cultural response to continued violence and discriminatory arrests of BIPOC in every American city despite facing a deadly COVID 19 viral pandemic. 

However, just last year alone at least 18 transgender people the majority of whom were people of color, were murdered in the U.S. This SCOTUS decision could be the most hopeful moment in decades to pass a law that protects all LGBTQ+ folks and impacts Black and Brown queer folk at a time when the wounds of racism have been violently torn open once again.  When the outside world brings confirmation, validation and freedoms into the therapeutic work my associates and I do with our clients, it is a day to celebrate, even if it is cautiously.  I say cautiously because of a case that is coming down the pike to the Supreme Court next fall challenging the rights of religious organizations who feel they should have a broad right to engage in anti-LGBTQ discrimination. 

Remember that case brought by a bakery owner in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding because his religious opposition to same sex marriage? Yep, that one. Well that’s the issue coming up again this fall to the Supreme Court in another case and Gorsuch sided with the religious bakery owners last time. So by all means let’s celebrate but the battle for racial, sexual orientation and gender identity equality is very much a slow work in progress.

                   Happy Pride 2020 !                                                                                          BLACK LIVES MATTER 

BLM Protests in the streets of NYC
Photo taken by @ELanser Instagram

 

 

 

 

The Attraction to Sex Parties: My Interview with Emma Sayle, CEO of Killing Kittens

As a sex therapist I’m privy to a variety of different sexual lifestyles that our sex therapy and sex coaching clients practice.  I had been working on this blog about sex parties based on an interview I did with Killing Kittens founder Emma Sayle right before the COVID-19 self-quarantine began.  I followed up with Sayle via Skype in order to find out how the stay home order had affected KK’s community. I am including both the Pre-Covid-19 Live Interview and Part 2 Online Covid-19 Skype Interview on the topic of group sex historically and what’s occurred online now that the shelter in place requirement has extended to both sides of the pond.  

History around Sex Parties 

Interest in sex parties and/or orgies has been around since the times of the Greeks and Romans. However it’s a less-studied topic in modern sexuality research. Recently the anthropologist Kate Frank published a book on the topic titled: Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through The World of Group Sex in which she explores the history and range of behaviors that people practice in modern day sex parties. Frank defines group sex as “erotic or sexual activity that implicates more than two people and consists of various possible configurations of participants and observers”. 

Research on Group Sex, Sex Parties and Threesomes

While the majority of Americans prefer engaging sexually in private, there are a percentage of folks who enjoy engaging sexually in a group setting (either on their own or with a primary partner). Colloquially participants refer to these events as play parties.  In a recent cross-sectional, Internet-based, U.S. nationally representative probability survey of 2,021 adults (975 men, 1,046 women), many more men reported having ever engaged in a threesome (17.8% vs. 10.3%) or group sex (11.5% vs. 6.3%) while there was less of a difference between men and women ever having gone to a sex party (6.3% vs. 5.2 %).

 Perhaps this is because coupled partners may attend a sex party more frequently as a pair than as individual partners. Some couples report that these types of group sex dates can be a their top erotic interest or another way they “spice up” their sex life. Sex parties are commonly referred to as play parties and partners are called play partners. I would include threesomes under the umbrella category of group sex because sometimes couples may go to a party to find a third partner with whom to “play” rather than looking exclusively to play with another couple. According to Pornhub’s 2019 Year in Review page, the threesome genre was within the top 15 search terms coming in at #13. 

 There are many more options for Americans these days to intentionally experiment with strangers at public or private play parties in which attendees are vetted beforehand. Some sex parties can be organized by friends at a private home where there are perhaps six or fewer degrees of separation between guests and vetting isn’t required. Whether attendees identify as being: Polyamorous, in the “lifestyle”, “swingers”(a term used more by boomers), consensually non-monogamous or as being “into playing”, there are a variety of fantasies or specific sexual acts and scripts partygoers explore at sex parties. While some sex parties are exclusively organized for gay men or straight couples, others offer folks who are bi-curious, sexually fluid or bisexual to explore the wide spectrum of sexual interests.

 In a 2009 non-randomized study researching swinging culture, Professor Edward M. Fernandes  found that about 50% of the women engaged in woman-to-woman play only while about 8% of the men reported engaging in man-to-man contact only.  According to an analysis done by researchers D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges on the results of the 2018 General Social Survey data, almost 6% of women responding to the survey identified as bisexual compared with 1.5% in 2008.  And the most recent data on the question of sexual fluidity hints at the fact that about 14 percent of women and about 10 percent of men express some degree of same-sex attraction although many of them may identify as mostly straight. According to sexuality researcher Lisa Diamond “ the largest group of individuals walking around with same sex attractions are individuals who you would never know had same-sex attractions. They identify as heterosexual. They think they’re mainly heterosexual, but they’re, like, hetero-flexible.” 

The Connection between Sexual Fluidity,  Female Sex Esteem®

and Sex Parties 

One businesswoman innately understood that women were more sexually fluid in their fantasy life and if given the right opportunity, would enact these desires if given the right context. Emma Sayle had her ear to the ground at the right time just as the television show Sex in The City began inspiring women to talk more openly about sexuality. From discussing these shows with her peers and listening to their more candid conversations, she gleaned the fact that women are more curious to explore sex with other women.  While the audience for Sex in the City was predominantly white, resourced urban women, the underlying theme of single women’s being independent and unashamed to casually date and have sex was catnip to Emma Sayle, CEO of Killing Kittens.  Emma recognized a wave of female sexual empowerment that the show helped to unleash. This desire for more sexual fluidity and empowerment are key ingredients to what I teach in Sex Esteem® workshops and panels so was eager to find out more about KK’s origins.

Killing Kittens is a UK-based sex party and online dating and discussion community that brought her parties stateside to NYC two years ago.  The parties have flourished and she maintains the same model she did originally, creating parties for heterosexual and lesbian couples and single women to explore their sexuality in female-empowered, elegant surroundings.

Killing Kittens Panel: The Date Debate

I got a chance to sit down with Emma for an intimate interview after she had invited me to be an expert on her Valentine’s panel, The Dating Debate in a hip downtown hotel in NYC in pre-Corona February (which seems like a long time ago now). In the interview she explains the feminist origins of her very successful sex party model.  Soon after the COVID-19 required all clubs, restaurants and gatherings to close down, I got back in touch with Emma virtually to create an addendum to this blog. This is an edited version of both interviews. Enjoy and as always, I invite your questions and reflections. 

 

S: Can you tell me how you came up with Killing Kittens in the first place?

E: It was founded in 2005 and it was a long time coming, it wasn’t a sudden thing it was I went to an all-girls boarding school for ten years whilst my parents lived in the middle east, I kind of had this unbalanced view of women and what we could do. At school I was taught I could do whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do, then you’d go home and see sort of the women were second class citizens and how they were treated out in the middle east.  And I had friends and sort of grew up running around with them. And the fire got lit very early and kept being flamed. That fire in this sex life isn’t right and it’s unbalanced, it’s not fair kind of thing.

S: How did this belief affect you once you became more sexually active?

E: I’d be out and about at university in my early twenties and seeing that if girls had a one-night stand they were sluts and all the slut-shaming going on. But if boys had a one-night stand they were legends and high-fived and I’d hear guy friends of mine saying: ‘Oh I’ve met a really  nice girl but she’s not girlfriend material.’ and I’d be like: ‘Why isn’t she girlfriend material?’ ‘Because she’s slept with loads of men’….That’s how society was.

S:What was the turning point from witnessing the double standard into creating a response to it?

E: Sex and the City came out and suddenly women were talking about vibrators and having sex lives and it became okay to talk about at the same time I was doing PR for a big erotica exhibition in London.  And I again saw loads of wonderful amazing people and businesses but it was all run by men. It was all run by men claiming to be female friendly.

S: Tell me why you felt it wasn’t female friendly.

E: It was all the porn stuff ,  brightly lit with white lights. And the more I saw it and that world, it was very black and white for men. If they saw sex going on, they’d be turned on. Women were much grey…. We kind of operate across the spectrum and our brain is our biggest sex organ and we need to be turned on. It’s the touch and the feel and the smell and it’s the mood. I was watching this and there was a massive difference.Everything out there was very male and in your face. …it wasn’t turning me on.

S: It wasn’t serving you, you weren’t the customer they were targeting with this type of entertainment.

E: Nooo. There were two dildos in your face, and it was nothing subtle, and I thought that’s what’s missing. Female-friendly in the end is that subtlety.

S: So for people in America who may still know about the term Killing Kittens, can you tell them where the name came from? 

E: That was the lightbulb moment, I was at a wedding in Ibiza with a loose hedonistic crowd. And who were all very strong, sexual women who sort of  slept with each other. And no one had really been asleep for 3 days and someone phoned up the groom who hadn’t made the wedding and asked: Are you guys just sitting around killing kittens at the moment? So we had this discussion and thought about what killing kittens was.

It’s a very old cyber slang meme, that every time a female masturbates, God kills a kitten. Or anytime anyone masturbates, God kills a kitten.

That’s where the name came from.  

I was like, right that’s it. I like it, it’s crazy but it’s kind of about pleasuring yourself, that’s what it stands for. And I liked the two Ks. K is a very strong letter. I want to set up an offline, online community that is all about women exploring their sexuality in a safe space. And it’s all about them, and they make the rules without any fear of judgement. 

S: Talk about the rules. Tell us how you created a boundaried setup for people and
what the parties are like.

E: The rules are still the same and they’re the same at all the events. And the same across online.Men can’t approach women they have to wait for the women to make the first move. And not letting in single guys, it takes that testosterone factor out. And they’re the main rules. 

S: I like the fact that you flipped the erotic power.. I talk about the term I use, Erotic Triggers which are a combination of the 5 senses and add psychology and emotional intimacy.  I discuss power exchange with Sex Esteem workshop attendees and what you declared to women was that  you now have the power to make decisions about where you want to go, and how you want to set it up.  

E: Exactly.

You discussed that good friends distanced themselves from you when you began this business which helped to spur you on even further. Can you articulate what you think it was that they were distancing from? 

E: I think people are scared, the majority of people like a comfort zone, or the norm.  

 Follow Up Post COVID-19 Shelter at Home Interview


S: Has there been more or less activity on the KK platform since the advent of COVID-19? 

E: We have seen a 330% increase in user activity online and 425% more messages being sent.

S: How many new members have joined? 

E: There’s been an 18% increase in new member sign ups.

S: How do you explain the increase in folks signing up for KK when there are no longer any in-person events going on? 

E: KK from day 1 has always been about community and has always had a strong online community, we now have over 160k members and over 60% of revenue comes from the digital side of the business so the events with approx 1000 attendees a month globally out of 160K online members are actually just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Our chatrooms have always been busy as well as the direct messaging so now people are in isolation they have turned to the online side of KK to be part of that community.

S: In our pre-Corona interview in NYC you mentioned that there was at least 50% or more business on the dating platform versus the in-person parties, are people using the dating platform not necessarily identifying as folks into sex parties? 

E: Yes, most of our members do not ever attend a KK party, they join the online platform for the dating, social community side of KK, to belong to an open minded, sex positive ,non- judgemental environment that has women at its core.

S: Has KK begun to offer virtual sex parites? 

E: Yes we are doing weekly zoom house parties, featuring KK performers, DJ playlists and up to 100 members, hosted by some of our community kittens. We are doing uk , Australia and NYC parties now along with girls-only virtual cliteratti events.

 S: How have you encouraged continued engagement of your members? 

E: We are doing weekly virtual house parties, weekly virtual workshops and weekly insta live chats where I speak to dating, relationship, sex experts from around the world, along with more educational blog posts too so theres a lot of virtual activity within kk going on!

 S: Are any people going on first time virtual dates ? 

E: Yes, there’s a lot of hanging out, Netflix film watching dates, virtual drinks dates and just a lot of chat going on. Old school dating of actually getting to know people and not having 4 drinks before jumping into bed with them on night 1!

 S: What changes can you envision for sex parties in general and for KK in particular
 once we all emerge from self-quarantine? 

E: I think our parties will not change we will just keep a lot of the virtual offerings as it is a good way to engage our whole community which we haven’t really done before rather than seeing it all by city. The virtual world brings together the global community regardless of location.

References for blog:

https://inequalitybyinteriordesign.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/2018-gss-update-on-the-u-s-lgb-population/ 

https://qz.com/1601527/the-rise-of-bisexuals-in-america-is-driven-by-women/

https://www.ttbook.org/interview/new-science-sexual-fluidity

 

 

 

6 Reasons You Fake Liking a Gift Are Mostly Why Women Fake Orgasms

In the classic scene in the film When Harry Met Sally the character Meg Ryan portrays performs the most audacious, guttural, delicious FAKE orgasm in the middle of New York’s famous Katz’s Deli. (If you have never seen it,  you HAVE TO, it’s hilarious). Sally does this to prove her point to Harry (played by Billy Crystal) that at one point or another, women have faked an orgasm with a male partner. Before this public fake orgasm, performance she attempts to explain to Harry that despite his arrogant confidence that all his past partners have orgasmed with him,  most men don’t realize when a woman has been satisfied nor do they bother to ask what she needs to climax . (Not every woman wants or needs to orgasm but it sure feels good to be asked).

RESEARCH ON FAKING ORGASMS

In a recent study authored by Debby Herbenick and others from Indiana University exploring why women have faked orgasms, it occurred to me that several of the reasons reported are pretty similar to the reasons people express for not telling a gift giver they’d prefer something else.  I’m not saying it’s exactly the same, but there are lessons here, humor me a bit.

With Thanksgiving behind us and Black Friday upon us, gifts will now be bought, wrapped, and eventually presented to those we love.

So I decided to focus this month’s blog on giving and receiving gifts AND giving and receiving arousal for orgasms; female orgasms in particular.

I know, you’re reading this, thinking: What is she talking about? Let me explain.

GIFT RECEIVING ETIQUETTE

When you receive a gift, the polite thing to do is of course thank the giver. You may unwrap the gift in front of the giver(s) and many other friends and family gathered for Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa. And then you’re expected to express pleasure and delight at the sight of the gift, even if you’re not that pleased with the gift. Why?

Here are some common reasons:

  1. you don’t want to be ungrateful (We’ve been rightly taught that “it’s the thought that counts”)
  2. the person that gave you the gift is someone you really like so you don’t want to hurt their feelings
  3. you figure the person will figure out what you actually DO like over time
  4. being the center of attention is so uncomfortable anyway you usually want the whole unwrapping-a-gift-in-public experience to end as quickly as possible
  5. you want to make the giver feel good about themselves in the choice they made while shopping for you.
  6. insecurity prevents you from letting the giver know that while you’re thankful, you’d prefer something else and they didn’t offer you the opportunity to exchange or return it.
  7. having had had little experience in receiving gifts because due to a background of minimal resources and/or poverty where gifts couldn’t be afforded, you don’t know what the protocols are or that you are entitled to ask for what you’d like.
WHY DO WOMEN FAKE ORGASMS?

When a man makes an attempt to pleasure a female-identified partner,  the woman may have many of the same reactions when she doesn’t reach an orgasm. In Herbenick’s study, they researched how many women fake their orgasm, the reasons for doing so and women’s histories of not communicating about their sexual needs. They found a whopping 58.8% of women reporting having faked an orgasm with a partner in the past.

Some of the reasons they gave in this study are hauntingly similar:

  1. 57.1%, wanted their partner to feel successful
  2. 37.7% liked the person and didn’t want them to feel bad
  3. being “young and insecure”
  4. being “young and thought I was ‘suppose’ to,”
  5. they didn’t know what an orgasm was supposed to be like
  6. wanted sex to be over “so he would leave me alone,”

There were 4 more reasons women gave in this study that varied from the gift-receiving reasons described above which involve biological, psychological, coercive and/or traumatic reasons:

  • 6% wanted sex to end because they were tired
  • a partner “almost demanded them,”
  • difficulty having orgasm due to being an incest survivor
  • no longer felt in love with a partner.

There are those in my field that feel women shouldn’t experience their orgasm as being “given” to them. I do agree that women are responsible for their own advocacy and empowerment when seeking sexual pleasure. It’s this same argument that reminds women that remaining passive is not an option in their workplace if they want the wage gap to be eliminated.  As a reminder, when compared to every dollar a white non-Hispanic man earns: a white American woman earns 82 cents, a Black woman is paid 61 cents, a Native woman 58 cents, and a Latinx woman earns 53 cents.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WOMEN’S AND MEN’S ORGASM FREQUENCY

Returning to the subject of women’s pleasure,  a recent study of 3,000 single men and women in the US researching the frequency of orgasm during partner sex with a familiar partner, the authors found that 62.9% women reported orgasming while 85.1% of the men reported orgasming.This study proved what is now termed an “orgasm gap” in American women’s sexual pleasure. Based on the above research on women faking orgasms, and the clinical stories heard in our CLS therapy offices, there is an obvious need for sexually active humans to develop more Sex Esteem® in approaching their own pleasure.

SEX ESTEEM® TIPS FOR GIFT GIVING AND RECEIVING

I believe you can both conceive of receiving sexual stimulation and erotic seduction as you would receiving a gift while at the same time, expressing your empowerment. So with this BOTH/AND lens,  I created some curated Sex Esteem® mindful techniques to practice in this holiday season as you launch your shopping days this Black Friday and begin to purchase gifts. The tips also include the mindful acts of giving and receiving during Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza.  These skills can be then expanded and practiced with your boo as you approach conversations about expanding your sexual relationship.  Here are my tips for the giver:

  1. Ask them if there’s something specific that would make them feel special
  2. think about what your partner might like by imagining what you’ve seen them wear, use or heard them talk about in past discussions.
  3. Ensure that you purchase a gift that offers a gift receipt so it’s easy to return
  4. If you live in a different city be sure that you shop at a national chain that has a location in their town or that makes returns easy if it’s an online purchase.
  5. When you give it to them let them know you really want them to enjoy the gift and to feel free to return or exchange it .
  6. Reassure them they shouldn’t feel worried about hurting your feelings by keeping it if they don’t truly like it.
  7. Let them know their pleasure is the most important aspect of your giving them a gift and you want them to feel excited by the gift.
  8. Tell them giving them a gift is really all about them, not you.
  9. If you know they’re shy about being in the center of a group, find a private space to give them their gift. If they’re one on one, they won’t feel “on the spot” and can more authentically express their feelings.

And here are my Sex Esteem® tips for the receiver:

  1. Thank the giver for giving you the gift and taking the initiative.
  2. Let them know that you recognize they put a lot of thought, effort and/or expense into the gift.
  3. Express how much you care or love them for wanting to give you pleasure this holiday season. Let them know how grateful you feel to have them in your life.
  4. Compliment them on how nice the gift is, but that you may not be able to use/wear it much. Thank them and let them know you’d prefer another color/size/style.
  5.  Let them know you know they are focused on your pleasure and ask them kindly if you showed them something you would enjoy more.

Happy Holidays, I wish you a mindful and pleasurable gift receiving and giving season!

11 Facts You May Not Know About Stonewall: Celebrating Stonewall 50

Much like women’s history, much of LGBTQ+ history has simply not been well-documented. This month we celebrate Stonewall 50, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.  I thought it would be a great time to revisit some important facts about Stonewall – and what you may not know.

  1. The Stonewall Riot  wasn’t just one night.

Though documented historical accounts of the riots agree that the violent police raid of the Stonewall Inn broke out in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, the riots gained momentum, with the crowd growing into the thousands, drawing out the battle on and off across five more nights.

  1. The crowd wasn’t limited to just gays and lesbians.
Marsha P. Johnson one of the instrumental activists of the Stonewall Riots

While the Stonewall Riots are largely regarded as the start to the gay rights movement, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were instrumental catalysts in the uprising, were actually transgender women of color. Though there are many accounts of how the Stonewall Riots began, Johnson and Rivera were the first protesters to physically resist the police raid – in fact, Johnson is said to have thrown the first brick.

  1. Sex workers’ rights were also born out of Stonewall.

Though the issue of sex workers’ rights is still a relatively modern debate, sex work was actually a survival tactic for many civil rights activists at the time. A vast number of LGBTQ+ youth were living on the streets of Greenwich Village after being kicked out of their homes, and the majority of them, including Johnson and Rivera, turned to sex work in order to survive.

  1. The riots had nothing to do with the death of Judy Garland.

  A long-standing myth that the Stonewall Riots were sparked by the death (and funeral on Madison Avenue and 83rd Street) of Judy Garland has been debunked by many in the community, including Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a reliable witness and protester who was in attendance for each of the six nights. While it is somewhat understandable that the death of an unmistakable gay icon like Judy Garland may have provoked enough outcry to bring about the violent riots, Stonewall was more so centered around trying to survive as an LGBTQ+ community in a contentious environment like New York City. 

  1. After 47 years, the Stonewall Inn and the LGBTQ+ community received its first national monument.

On June 24th, 2016, the first national monument in honor of the United States LGBTQ+ community was opened in Greenwich Village. President Barack Obama designated 7.7 acres along Christopher Street as an LGBTQ+ historic site, encompassing the Stonewall Inn, and the block bordering the Christopher Street Park, including the Park itself, where the 1992 Gay Liberation statue stands, consisting of four figures – two men and two women – positioned in natural, easy poses.

  1. At the time of the riots, homosexuality was actually illegal.

Though LGBTQ+ equality remains a human rights issue to this day, it wasn’t long ago that homosexual sex was considered illegal, punishable by law, in a majority of states. It was also classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders up until 1973. Some states are behind on legislation, even now – 13 states in the U.S., as of 2014, still have anal penetration listed as an illegal act of sodomy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma.  On June 26th, 2003, the Supreme Court found the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law unconstitutional and established, for the first time, that LGBTQ+ citizens had just as many rights as heterosexual citizens. While the landmark Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas ruled these laws unconstitutional, therefore rendering them impossible to be enforced, the aforementioned states still have not repealed their anti-sodomy laws.

  1. The Stonewall Inn was originally owned by the Mafia.

Given the hostility surrounding the gay community at the time, many popular gay bars and other establishments had their licenses suspended or revoked for “indecent conduct.” The New York Mafia saw a business opportunity in owning and operating establishments catering to the gay community. The Stonewall Inn was considered a sanctuary to many gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals in the community, and if individuals weren’t recognized or assumed to be gay through the peephole on the door, they would not be let in.

  1. Most community members in the crowds during the Stonewall Riots are no longer alive.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, now 71 years old, is among the very few still alive who participated in the riots. He explains that many of these rioters were gay or transgender youth living brutal lives on the streets, and if they did make it through the brutality of surviving in such marginalized conditions, they faced the AIDS crisis barely a decade later.

9. The Stonewall Inn had only one exit – the front door.

The Stonewall Inn, NYC

Since the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by the Mafia, care was not taken to ensure health and fire codes. Before backup law enforcement arrived, rioters barricaded the police and other patrons in the bar as shouts turned into physical fights, including the throwing of bricks and other heavy objects at police officers.

10. The first gay pride march was a solemn, politically-driven demonstration in honor of the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Gay Pride March NYC

While this year’s Pride 50 NYC  Parade will be celebrated as a festive, rainbow-strewn party, it started out as a simple commemoration of the brutality of the Stonewall Riots. Originally called Christopher Street Liberation Day, June 28th, 1970 marked the first celebration of LGBTQ+ pride, which now celebrates equality, dignity, community, visibility, and joyous emancipation.

11. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychoanalytic Association.

The APA considered homosexuality as “phobia,” “sexual deviation,” “sociopathic personalitydisturbance,” and “neurosis.” Transgender folks were simply regarded as another version of patients who needed to be cured of their homosexuality.   This led to the diagnosis of homosexuality to be included as a “sexual deviation” in the 1968 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  After Stonewall, activists disrupted the 1970 conference of the American Psychiatric Association demanding they de-pathologize homosexuality by removing it from the DSM. It wasn’t until this week on June 20th, 2019 that the President of American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) made a formal apology for the many years of conversion therapy clinicians used to practice. At the annual conference,  Lee Jaffe M.D. stated: “Regrettably, much of our past understanding of homosexuality as an illness can be attributed to the American psychoanalytic establishment. While our efforts in advocating for sexual and gender diversity since are worthy of pride, it is long past time to recognize and apologize for our role in the discrimination and trauma caused by our profession and say ‘we are sorry.’”

 There’s now a new children’s book, for 5 to 8 year olds, titled: Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph.

For more information on Stonewall, check out these first-person narratives about the Stonewall riots, as well as poetry and creative art that came out of the oppression.

Why I’m Marching

There will be a Women’s March and two Women’s rallies In New York City tomorrow supporting women’s rights. A conflict that ensued after one of the co-founders of the original Women’s March on Washington Tamika Mallory was accused of anti-Semitic views due to her alignment with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. There were also accusations of anti-Semitic remarks made by Carmen Perez, another organizer. lastly a third organizer Linda Sarsour has stated her support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.

There have been so many published articles on the conflict over the past two years between these initial Women’s March activists and co-leaders of the first 2017 Women’s March and the leadership of many community groups supporting Jewish and LGBTQ+ women. This led to a new organization called the Women’s March Alliance to take on the mantle of organizing the 2018 and 2019 marches. Tomorrow Alliance sponsored march will begin on the Upper West Side of NYC. The gathering affiliated with the original organization Women’s March group will be a rally downtown at Foley Square and is led by women of color.

There have also been women with disabilities who claim they were not granted a permit to march who have organized a rally of their own in Grand Central Station tomorrow.

I’m a family therapist who views conflict and repair through a systemic lens. What this means is that a conflict expresses a challenge and a hope for change, whether between a couple, a family or any other system. The whole system needs to change the previous patterns for full healing to take place. It’s not the fault or blame of one person or one group or one side. If there’s going to be real change it will require dialogue, empathy and compromise.

It saddens me that the American tent for the Women’s March, a reckoning the likes of which had never been seen, echoed across the globe now presents as no longer big enough for all of us. The feeling that day on 2017 after Trump’s inauguration when people of all genders took to the streets to protest all the misogynistic, sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic rhetoric that had been spewing throughout Trump’s marching side by side was cataclysmic in its enormous hope that each of us could be a change agent. Each of us could repair the world whether in our small communities, organizing politically or running for office.

When I attended fundraisers this past year to hear women run for local office for the first time in their lives, each one of them said:

 

“I just thought, I could no longer wait for someone else to change our lives.

I must do this”.

This to me is the sound of hope, change and healing. But it is only THROUGH conflict, engagement and action with those that have different views that longstanding experiences of hurt, hate, disenfranchisement, assault, harassment and harm to one’s body can be both authentically witnessed AND repaired.   It would be immature to think that the vast differences in beliefs that women hold regarding Israel’s political policies, Zionism and Palestinian challenges would NOT unleash tremendous energy and anger. As Rebecca Traister reflected about her discussion with co-chair Linda Sarsour in her elegant piece in The Cut recently:

 The painful reflections and calls to responsibility were meant to bring anger to the surface as part of the process of marching together, rather than allowing that anger to fester and separate a group that could, united, wield power.”

But I believe that the tent has to be large enough to hold all women’s courage to address the inequities and injustice in this world for all of us.

This is why I’ll continue to march and rally. With those that come from very different places and those that come from similar spaces.

I’m marching for those who can’t.

I’m marching to protest #metoo assault and harassment.

I’m marching to support women with less/no privilege

I’m marching to support those that need a living wage.

I’m marching for those that are targeted for the color of their skin, their religion, their orientation, their gender.

I’m marching to inspire and be inspired.

I’m marching for healing because this world is fractured.

I’ll end this blog with a quote by Martin Luther King whose legacy we honor this Monday:

“We may have all come on different ships but we’re in the same boat now”

 AND A QUESTION TO KEEP YOU THINKING:

 Why are you marching?

How to Visit Family & Have Vacation Sex this Holiday Season

Now that we are approaching the holiday season a lot of folks have planned to visit extended family to celebrate Thanksgiving, Mawlid-al-Nabi, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s. As a couples and sex therapist, my associate therapists and I continually hear common themes and concerns among our CLS clients regarding upcoming plans and their sexual lives.

In a recent report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 48.3 percent of families with heterosexual couples, both husband and wife were employed.  While the remaining American families may have a parent that is child rearing or unemployed, most couples in our Center (including those couples without children, those that identify as LGBTQ, and those that have consensual non-monogamous relationships) report feeling exhausted by long hours, demanding bosses, and a lot less time for self-care than in that past few years.  Most workers have limits on the number of vacation days they’re allowed to take in a calendar year so saving these days for going home for the holidays with the fam can take a good bite out of that bank of person time off .

The essential questions my associate therapists and I often hear from couples in our offices at CLS is:

“How can we have a real vacation during a visit to our families for the holidays?” 

They are asking essentially: are the two terms literally an oxymoron when combined?
Here are a few common questions partners have posed in recent sessions leading up to anticipated Thanksgiving and Christmas visits to family on their valuable vacation days off work and my responses:

Why do we have to do what everyone else in your family does for every minute of the day? 

Set up a dinner with each other before your travel date to specifically discuss what kind of rhythm each day could have, what parents or relatives may expect of each of you, and what each partner is hoping to get out of the vacation/visit. Then brainstorm compromises around taking time away from the whole group at less peak events (going for a drive after post-Thanksgiving breakfast, scheduling a couples massage Christmas Day afternoon in lieu of watching a movie with everyone else).  Lastly once you come up with a plan, make sure the partner whose family is being visited tells their family what to expect a week or more before the holiday with specific details so that they have time to get used to it.

Credit: Deposit Photos

I don’t want to stay up late drinking since I want to use my vacation to exercise every morning but how can I do that without getting flack?

Many families have a tradition of heavy drinking during these holidays.  For relatives who are either less into partying or actually in sober recovery, family holidays can be really challenging.  Some people are trying to eat healthier by staying away from high caloric food and having lots of alcohol and high sugar foods around can be a high pressure situation.  For those whose ideal vacation is to maintain or catch up on an exercise regimen, the ongoing lounging on the couch and watching football or movies can prove to feel like pressure to join in.  Will you get a guilt trip from a parent or continual ribbing by siblings for going to bed earlier than the rest of the family or joining the breakfast crowd an hour later due to your morning run/yoga/cycling session?  Once you tell your family you’ll be following a particular rhythm over your break, let them know you’re looking forward to spending time with them and perhaps invite them to a class or run with you so that you have an ally in that domain and start a new tradition.

How do we prepare and protect our partner when it comes to touchy topics? 

Many partners feel like they either have full permission to express what they want with their in-laws while some feel like they have to walk around on eggshells for fear of stepping on a sensitive topic and blowing a landmine that explodes.  For example, a boyfriend expressed his openness about a friend’s decision not to have children during a family meal at his girlfriend’s parents’ home last Thanksgiving.  His girlfriend’s mother blanched and immediately excused herself from the table while his girlfriend shot him an accusatory look.

The mood turned into a frigid stone silence and the boyfriend was wondering what he had done wrong.  When they returned to their room, the girlfriend began blaming him for being so emotionally clueless regarding bringing up the topic of children since her mother had always expressed her desire for grandchildren and the idea of not having grandchildren depressed her.  He became defensive and argued that he was clueless because she hadn’t given him any clues!

I invite the partner whose relatives are being visited to act as an emissary and to prepare their partner by setting boundaries on subjects that might be hot topics and to be an ally to their partner when discussing issues and/or plans each day. This is the way partners can care for their mates and relationship while also keeping the peace with their family of origin culture.

How do we help our partners or spouses feel like this time is also made special for them? 

Credit: Deposit Photos

Plan to take some time as a couple away from the larger family unit to have some fun. This could include a visit to a local site, a hike at a nearby park or a grabbing a pint at a favorite pub.  One couple decided to go out dancing at a club they used to frequent as a teenager after their parents headed off to bed one night, another partner booked a couples massage Friday afternoon while the rest of the family went Black Friday shopping assuring their relatives they’d be back to help prepare a family dinner.

 

How can we have sex when we’re sleeping in a guest room near the family room? 

Use this vacation/visit to add creativity to your sexual repertoire:

  • Create playful rules about noise and use blindfolds and tape to limit sight and sound to enhance sex play.
  • Plan to give one another sensual massages with oil from a warm wax candle as a fun way to create outercourse or foreplay while the rest of the family go to sleep, then you have options for what comes next.
  • Stay home while the rest of the family go out for a pickup football game and have a quickie in the shower.

Wishing you a restful, emotionally and sexually satisfying holiday season with your lover and your families.  Happy Holidays!

How to Get/Give Comfort from Your Partner After a Mass Shooting (Post Pittsburgh)

When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the world seems more fragile

When Robert Bowers, the gunman who ran into The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Saturday he murdered 11 innocent people and wounded 6 more.  The event also tore into the fabric of the American community’s sense of safety, respect and collective faith in the country.

Each time there’s been a traumatic event in the US whether it’s a terrorist threat (the bomb packages allegedly sent by Cesar Soyac last week),  the Las Vegas shooting one year ago at the Harvest Music Festival and the riot allegedly incited by white supremacists RAM members in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, clients come in to sessions and are palpably frightened.  They are seeking a place to express their feelings of rage,  fear and vulnerability (many of the bomb packages were mailed to locations all around Manhattan).  The rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue described receiving letters of condolence and support from people all over the world.  The media shows communities spontaneously gathering to hold candlelight vigils in cities around the USA.  What does a therapist who specializes in sex therapy advise after a traumatic event that shakes a nation like this?  How does this even connect with one’s sex life?

Vulnerability and Sex 

One of the main challenges for clients in my group practice Center for Love and Sex, is the longing they have for more meaningful sex.  This can come in the form of wanting more frequent sex with their partner or spouse.  It can also present as the desire to express a long-held fantasy to a partner in order to feel more whole in their sexual expression. It also can be described as the wish to lower one’s anxiety so as to feel more present and freer in partnered sex.  For many of these presenting problems, anxiety is a large contributor to the challenge.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American,  anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million US adults aged 18 and older.

One might not be surprised that folks who already suffer from anxiety will feel a spike in their anxiety levels when a mass shooting or terrorist attack occurs.  According to a Gallup Poll taken soon after the Las Vegas mass shooting 39% of Americans are either very worried or somewhat worried that they or someone they love will become a victim of a mass shooter.  These levels were similar to a poll taken right after the San Bernadino mass shooting.  So how do people with anxiety seek out comfort?  What is interesting to me is that while most of my female clients (whatever their sexual orientation) feel comfortable in seeking out comfort verbally from their partner or friends, most of my male clients are reluctant to ask their partner/spouse directly.  However, they may ask indirectly by initiating some type of physical touch,  whether a cuddle, a hug or some sort of more direct sexual signal.  Why might that be?

Men and Comfort, an oxymoron?

Most men are acculturated to repress their fear outwardly. They’re taught that to be “real” men they need to be tough and indifferent because that is the way you win and get ahead.  Never show your hand when it comes to cards, in business and at times in romantic relationships.  Thus there’s a small menu of emotions that are socially sanctioned in American life (although there’s some variance depending on your cultural background).  Some of these common emotional expressions include: anger, rage, disdain, belittling others (either in humor or with aggression), frustration, disgust and physical extensions of these emotions.

American men (this includes those that identify as gay, bisexual and queer) are  taught that they have to be the ones that their partners can lean on.  But in the years I have worked with men from diverse ethnic, cultural, religious and orientations, I have witnessed there’s one place they can experience a wider menu of emotions. This is in the sexual and erotic realm.  Through a sexual scenario a more vulnerable side (even if most men aren’t even conscious of it) emerges, and sex isn’t just something he is performing or doing. It becomes the place he goes to be held, rocked, whispered to allowing him to feel accepted, loved and yes comforted.

Meaning of Sex and Death Anxiety

When I work with men I help them become more aware of their own fears and how they might learn how to express their worries and concerns to their partners in other ways beside being  withdrawn, belligerent, complaining or in some cases angry when their partners turn them down for sex.  I help them uncover what sexual activity with their partner means to them in the larger significance of their lives.  For some it is a return to connection that is beyond having to prove themselves, for others it’s a space they can be gentle givers of pleasure, for others it’s where they’re given free reign to lead which quiets their fear of lack of control in the outside world. And for others it’s a haven from death. 

Death Anxiety and The Lack of Living Fully

Irving Yalom, the famous existential therapist and writer has written about his theory of death anxiety can keep people from truly living deeply, including shutting off their sexual desires.   He wrote: ““…the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.”  But when faced with death either through a terminal illness or at the top of the World Trade Center, a man urgently calls their partner and/or family to tell them in an emotionally authentic voice how much they love them, finally freed of society’s chains of decorum.

Ask for Comfort without Shame

When a massively violent event occurs like the Tree of Life Shooting last weekend, it tears into our day to day lives and threatens our own sense of safety. It is the human condition to want to reach out, to hold a partner close and to give and get comfort through touch. It’s our primal urge when we’re born and it’s a haven against our own fears regarding our own eventual deaths. I always let clients know that inside all of us are the children we used to be; playful, eager to learn, and longing to be comforted when we’re frightened.  This need is not something to be ashamed of.  The increase in mass shootings are fear-inducing for all Americans and for all humans.  If you have a partner, let your guard down, tell them of your fears and invite them to comfort you and offer yours to them.  If you don’t have a partner, reach out to friends, your community, attend one of the hundreds of interfaith vigils that are still occurring across the country and offer to give and receive a hug.  The only way through this is to confront pure hate with pure love and authentic comfort.