When people find out that I am a sexual empowerment coach, a lot of the time their response is: “Oh, so you do prevention?” I always smile inwardly because I know what this assumption means. No, I answer, I’m not here to prevent your sexuality — actually I’m here to encourage its fullest expression!
In our sex-negative culture, doing the work that I do demands taking a stand for pleasure, for the freedom of erotic expression, and for accepting sexual vibrancy as part of our birthright. In a world where most people’s “sex education” is too often confined to the realm of abstinence and/or disease and pregnancy prevention, I believe it’s a necessity to widen the scope of the conversation and also talk about sexuality in terms of pleasure, connection, abundance, and power — these are also human rights, along with freedom from sexual assault and trauma.
Sex-positivity can be a radical stance in a culture that is too often mired in sexual shame and repression. But this, too, involves a balancing act: walking the tightrope of pleasure and danger. To quote Carol Vance’s seminal 1977 essay:
“The tension between sexual danger and sexual pleasure is a powerful one in women’s lives. Sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression and danger as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure and agency. To focus only on pleasure and gratification ignores the patriarchal structure in which women act, yet to speak only of sexual violence and oppression ignores women’s experience with sexual agency and choice and unwittingly increases the sexual terror and despair in which women live.”
When people find out about the work I do, I know this is sometimes a question on their minds: How can she talk about sex as something positive and powerful and just ignore all the hurt and bad parts? In all of us — and especially women who grew up with certain messages about sexuality — there is a tension between the openness to sexual agency and power and the fear of assault and trauma. And that is all too often a justified fear. It is rare that I speak to a woman who does not have SOME experience of sexual trauma, of having her sexual boundaries violated in some way.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed some of the women in my programs who were doing beautiful, transformational work on themselves undergo fresh experiences with sexual assault.My heart ached as they checked in with the pain of their experiences but I was also heartened by the resilience they showed even in the rawness of assault, and by the ways they let themselves be supported instead of staying alone with it, as survivors too often do. A big part of what was different for them was their relationship to the experience, to victimhood, and the tools they had to address the situation. Part of the healing is releasing the identification with the victim self that keeps us in a place of feeling powerless.
The truth is that being sexually empowered doesn’t mean that you’re immune to hurt or that nothing bad will happen to you. Claiming your sexual power doesn’t magically disappear patriarchy or the ubiquity of sexual assault in the world. But it DOES build tools like resilience, compassion/tenderness for yourself and your experiences, and the ability to open up to more pleasure and joy. It arms you with the knowledge that you are the creatrix of your own life experiences and for most of us, those involve both pain and ecstasy, both pleasure and danger. It’s okay to have both: sexuality is deep, complex, multi-faceted for everyone. Not a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. So today I urge you to look a little closer into the depths of your own sexual self and accept both sides — the dark as well as the light.