Taboos, depictions of extreme sensations, themes of losing
control, hidden urges and desires unleashed, body parts exposed, gasps and
Am I writing about sex? Not exactly. I am writing about the
blend of fear and horror with sexuality and why we might like it – or at least
fantastical performances of it. One of the famous places that this dynamic was
played out for eager crowds was the Grand Guignal Theatre in Paris. Known for
its naturalistic horror plays, the theatre ran from 1897 to 1962. Similar to
our more current slasher films, the Grand Guignal blended sexual titillation
with terror, and like our drive-ins, it had private booths for audience members
who might be overcome with excitement.
So why do sex and fear get mixed together for entertainment
throughout human history? All the way back to Oedipus we have enjoyed horrific
tales of passion and punishment. Let’s be clear, real situations of human
cruelty or violence are not entertaining to most of us who have empathy (however
much the news media currently packages it as entertainment). But the
fantastical and extreme offers something to our psyches that we humans seem to
yearn for – a way to face and engage with the Shadow safely.
Sexual impulses and violent impulses have both been seen as
outside our rational mind and been repressed by society, left to be explored in
the dark without much guidance. And yet they both continue to feature
prominently in human history. Both involve the body and witnessing the body in
ways that are outside of the normal day to day experience. Sensations and
reactions to pain and pleasure can be surprisingly close, both can sweep us
away, take us over. Excitement and mild fear can feel very similar in the body
too and make us feel deeply alive.
We are drawn to the Shadow, the risky edges of human
existence. We have things to learn there and by engaging safely with the
extremes of human experience we can bit more aware. Maybe for audience members,
at Oedipus or the Grand Guignal, it was simply a matter of breaking one taboo,
so we may as well break another. But maybe we all get something more out of
visiting our edges. At least we keep doing it…Time to see what horror movie is
This one is inspired by the classic horror film, The Bride of Frankenstein, and that epic scream face Elsa
Lancaster made famous. The story is a sad one. Poor Frankenstein monster was
lonely and the doctor created a bride for him. But once she was made and
brought to life, seeing Frankie stumble and mumble at her apparently didn’t
appeal. Cue, Scream. And classic horror movie destruction.
For us human folk, happily not in a horror movie, this
dynamic can play out in more subtle ways. Sometimes our seduction skills are
lacking or just in hiding. Like Frankie we attempt an awkward hand pat or
grunt, “want to do it?”. And like the Bride, we can respond in less than kind
ways. Rejection hurts, whether you are the only 2 monsters on the planet or
not, and like Frankie rejection can make us feel, “she hates me”. So what can
we learn from their sad tale?
It can be important to let our partner know that they may be
appealing but the lackluster seduction routine is not. Talk about how you like
sex to be initiated. I am not suggesting you expect flowers covering the bed or
a striptease each time you have sex, but there may be some things that help to
get your mind on sex and some things that hinder it. Be specific. Share with
your partner what words turn you on and which ones don’t. What types of touch
feel arousing? And, equally important, what types of touch turn you off? Do you
need a bit of conversation before you engage sexually or maybe you prefer your
partner to not be wearing the sweatshirt with baby spit up on it. Speak up,
focus on what you like, while being upfront and non-blaming about what you
don’t like so much.
And if you are just not in the mood, that is ok. But don’t’
scream or hiss in your partner’s general direction. Try saying something that
lets them know you do want to connect with them sometime soon, just not right
now. Really ask yourself, what would help me get in the mood? Could it be as
simple as, “I think I need an hour to soak in the tub and relax and then we can
connect”. Or maybe you know a night later this week will be better. Think of
trying to include an addendum to each No. Try for a “Not now, but maybe…?”
If we can learn from the bride and avoid being unfriendly
about it all and learn from Frankie and try just a little harder to be
seductive, it will help keep everyone happy and connected.
This week we celebrated National Coming Out Day. This
holiday was established in 1988 when the Gay Rights movement was very focused
on the need for visibility. You may remember the slogan, “The Personal is
Political”. It is true that the more people recognize the gay people in their
lives, the more they see gay people as part of their community, the less
prejudice we should see. I see positive changes here in my lifetime, for sure.
But you may note how many years it really took for us to have openly gay
celebrities, politicians, and public figures in the media on a regular basis. A
lot of time has passed since 1988 and we are still growing our awareness. We
are still developing safe space for sexual minorities to “come out”.
The conversation I would really love to see happen around
National Coming Out Day is about how much coming out is actually a daily
process. Yes, daily. Not at all a one time finish line one crosses. There are
significant coming out moments in one’s life, with family or a potential
romantic interest. But in truth, coming out has to be a constant choice
involving assessment of whether or not one is in a safe place to show this
aspect of one’s self. At each new class or job, will I mention my orientation
here? Walking down a street, will I show my love for my partner here? Standing
in a checkout line, will I get bad service or a bad attitude of we hold hands?
Meeting a new landlord, neighbor, teacher, student… in many cases, a decision
to share or not. A choice that can feel like protection, but can also feel like
In the past the metaphor of being in the closet was more
relevant as many people had to live nearly entire lives hiding this piece of
who they were, with few moments of getting to step out into the light so to
speak. Now for many people the metaphor of armor may be more relevant,
something that one must put on at certain times, heavy and constricting but
also providing protection. The armor will not stop the pain of impact, but it
may curtail severe damage. And it can be exhausting to have to carry it with
you, heartbreaking and restricting to have to fit yourself into it yet again.
So in honor of National Coming Out Day this year, let’s
acknowledge the ongoing nature of the risk taking that coming out involves
and the subtleties of sharing who we are
and the relationships that are important to us. Let’s come together to send
energy to our friends and neighbors or ourselves for staying strong while
having to continually assess if it is safe to be open. Let’s do our part by not
assuming heterosexuality and thereby quietly crowding out other relationships
and perspectives. Let’s be sure to honor that coming out is a part of a life,
not an event that can be encompassed in a day. And let’s hope that by National
Coming Out Day next year, things are even better and there are less and less
days when the armor is needed.
When I am teaching professionals about being open to and
aware of the broad spectrum of the kink community, I often feel people’s
discomfort or struggle to understand pain play in sex. For those not so inclined,
this can seem contrary to what they are hoping for in their sex experiences.
But for others, the sweet intensity of being taken to a physical edge is
Most of our experiences of pain come without our consent,
with lots of unknowns attached. These experiences of pain involve fear as well,
fear of what is happening to us, fear of how long the pain will last, fear of
the pain getting worse, fear of our lives changing because of this pain, fear
of losing control. This type of pain feels like damage is being done to us. And
it is out of our control, something that is happening to us and all we can do
is try to tolerate it as we wish for it to stop.
Pain without fear is something else entirely. Within a
sexual exploration, if done appropriately, everything is done completely within
the context of choice. In receiving pain or intense sensation, you first choose
a partner you can trust to stop if you ask, to go slow enough for you to take
in the sensation and track your responses and edges, and who is there to give
you something you want. You know sensation will stop of fade when you need it
to and so have a freedom to experience it differently.
Let me put it in a sensual, but non-sexual context. When I
studied deep tissue massage, I got to experience people digging in to just
about every part of my body. Sometimes this caused pain, more pain than I had yet
experienced at that point in my life. Strong fingers reaching in to get
underneath your Achilles tendon – this is a special kind of pain, trust me. But
I was never afraid, so I was able to feel the intensity, breathe, and open to
it. And I knew that if it got too intense I could say, “stop” and it would.
This ability to open to the sensation without fear blew my mind. And I learned
to love the clear focus this provided me, totally in the moment, and the shift
in my mood, energy, and awareness that came with it.
Some of you may have experiences of intense sensation that appeal
to you, times when you could note the difference between fearful pain and
exciting intensity. You may never choose to bring this into your sexual
exploration, or maybe you will. Either way, maybe this understanding will help
you be more aware of a range of sensation play, including pain, that can be
available to each of us.