About twenty years ago I participated in a workshop that explored how being fat-negative as a society was connected to being woman-negative. In the workshop we talked about how the fat on many women’s bodies is different from the fat on many men’s bodies. We looked at where fat is on many bodies (not just bodies of people who identify as women), i.e., breasts, hips, thighs. After hours of sitting and listening in this workshop, I finally raised my hand and asked, What about the genital area? It was noticeably missing: it was the only part of the body not discussed in the workshop. Years later, I came across sexuality and anatomy books that show clearly that there is fat in the genital area. There was no reason why it should have been excluded from the conversation other than, perhaps, the workshop leader was too uncomfortable to include it.
One of the things I have done for money is being what in Minneapolis is called a patient instructor. Elsewhere across the country, it is called other titles such as “gynecological teaching associate.” As a patient instructor for the medical community, I have let future doctors, nurses and even chiropractors practice breast and pelvic exams on my body over a period of five years. I have written and published on this topic and the importance of teaching medical students how to do these exams with sensitivity and respect. I don’t minimize the discomfort that can exist in our culture when dealing with the genital area: I have observed many students sweating in nervousness prior to practicing these exams on me. I acknowledge that a health care practitioner touching the genital area is different from, for instance, a health care practitioner touching an arm. However, my experiences doing this work confirmed what I as a sexuality educator believed all along: the genital area is just one part of the body—not less or more important than another part. And the more comfortable we can be with all parts of our bodies including our genitals, the better we can take care of ourselves and communicate effectively whether with a health care practitioner or with a sexual partner.
I have a neck injury from a car accident that happened over twelve years ago. While the initial recovery right after the accident involved dealing with the acute injury, over the last ten years I have found that the muscles in my neck can still tighten and cause severe pain. I spend much of my day, every day, doing rehabilitation exercises, stretches and yoga. I have spent much of the past ten years learning what makes my neck injury worse and what can help it. While learning how to swim for the first time as an adult, I incidentally discovered that swimming helps my neck injury. Shoveling snow hurts. Heat helps. Minnesota winters make it worse. In the process of dealing with this severe neck injury, I have often wondered if the principles of what happens in my neck would not also hold true for the rest of my body. Why wouldn’t the same principles of muscles tightening and what we can do to help them relax hold true for all parts of the body, including the genital area?
There can be all kinds of reasons why we tense certain muscles in our bodies. Injury from an accident is one. Other reasons could be the impact of sexual abuse, desk work in an office or just living in a society that is negative towards sexuality and all bodies generally. Our emotions can come into play. Fear, anger and anxiety can all contribute to contracting muscles. Relaxation and blood flow are important to the entire body. A major focus of my sexuality education work in the past five to ten years has been to talk about the concept that blood flow is important everywhere in the body and about how massage, pressure and touch can be important to enhance blood flow and relaxation everywhere in the body including the genitals. I’ve made clear that we have options for how to do this important healing bodywork for ourselves. We can massage ourselves, have a friend, partner or lover do genital massage or perhaps pay someone to do this intentional healing touch. I do not view this as being necessarily sexual any more than I view the hundreds of pelvic exams I have received from medical students as being sexual.
I’ve asked this question in the workshops I’ve led: What if every time I went for a massage, my left arm was never massaged? What if every time I had a professional massage or received massage from a friend or partner, the rest of my body was massaged but not my left arm? After some time, would my left arm feel different from the rest of my body? I don’t ask this question because I think my arm is exactly like my genitals or that these issues are simplistic. But I insist on asking the question because I advocate for a holistic approach to healing, whether sexual healing or other kinds of healing. Being holistic means addressing all of the nonphysical aspects of ourselves, i.e., emotional, spiritual, mental, as well as all of the physical aspects of ourselves. The physical aspects of healing include every cell and part of the body, including the genital area.
What I seem to say more often than anything else in my education work is that it is not what we do or say, but how we do or say something that is most important. So it is not whether the genital area is included but how it is included that matters the most.
What makes touch intimate? Touch and intimacy are not so simplistic to me that we can assume that the genital area is the most intimate part of the body. After having hundreds of people practice breast and pelvic exams on me, I can say I stayed present for every exam so I could give feedback to the students and make sure I was not hurt. Those are not the experiences in my life in which I felt vulnerable or had a sense of deep intimacy in a body contact situation that involved an exchange of money. While those situations were certainly respectfully intimate or I would probably not have done that work over all those years, I’ve often thought that because of the intense pain from the injury, my neck is the more intimate area for me to have a practitioner work on. Of course, every person is unique, and what is a vulnerable area could be different for the same person from one time to another.
Again, I am not suggesting that the genital area is not important and unique. But I would not say it is more important or even more sexual than other parts of the body or other parts of our whole selves, including our minds, emotions and spirits. Often it is said that our brains are our most sexual organ, and perhaps our skin, considered as one organ, has as high a potential to be erotic as our genitals have. So the idea that we can keep something nonsexual by excluding certain body parts misses the point of the complexity of touch, sensuality and sexuality. It is fine that our genitals are included in sexuality at a very basic and primal level. However, I view touching anywhere on the body, eye contact, sharing breath with another person and a whole host of other activities to be potentially as intimate and sexual as anything genital, depending on the circumstances. Moreover, an interaction involving the genitals can be nonsexual if that is the intention for that particular interaction.
I can’t think of anything more important than consent and respect. However, it is not so easy to clearly label something as respectful or not respectful by what is visible or what part of the body is being touched. Respect is a subjective factor. In my writings about doing patient instructor work, I’ve described how a student could do everything technically correct and still something wouldn’t feel right to me. Conversely, a student could do something that, generally, I would advise them not to do in terms of their touch or the language they used while doing a pelvic exam, but somehow their touch or language did not feel bad to me. In both instances, I could not know the intent or thoughts of the students without asking, but I could trust myself. We each have the right to identify what feels respectful to us in every instance of our lives whether it involves touch or not. What I advocate more than anything else is for us to trust ourselves as to what feels respectful and acceptable to us in every interaction we have and certainly any that would include touch.
Healing is about healing our entire being—body, emotions and spirit. Nothing should be excluded in the healing we do for ourselves, and we all should follow our unique, authentic path that includes all aspects of ourselves in the healing we seek.
First Published on Good Vibrations Magazine, January 21, 2011
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