Feeling Into Your Intimate YES
As a surrogate partner and intimacy coach, I spend a lot of my time talking to others about identifying, articulating, and moving toward their intimate desires. As someone whose education is firmly rooted in the geekery of molecular biology and microbiology, my musings on these topics sometimes take interesting turns…
I was recently discussing our quest for an authentic “yes”—a heartfelt leaning in to intimacy—with a friend and colleague. Naturally, my thoughts turned to Azotobacter vinelandii…like it does for most people, right? Be patient with me, we'll get there. First, let me say that Azotobacter are cool little bacteria. They’re natural soil dwellers and can help plants fix nitrogen, so they play an important ecological role. They can scoop up random DNA and incorporate them into their own genetic code. They can even create their own biodegradable plastics. Like I said, pretty cool. But what do they have to do with human intimacy?
Azotobacter, you see, even though it’s a single-celled microorganism, has a way of “swimming” through its environment using a type of mobility called “tumble-and-run.” When bacteria move like this, their default is just chilling out, tumbling along randomly. What’s cool, though, is what happens when they bump into something that’s either harmful or beneficial. When they tumble toward a toxin in their environment, they’re often not aware of it at first. As they tumble closer, a very basic system is triggered that causes them to recognize harm, so they change the way they move and “run” away. Similarly, if these simple organisms find themselves moving toward a food source, their random tumbles become a more intentional “run” toward the source of nourishment.
It turns out that “tumble-and-run” isn’t just for single-celled organisms. As a matter of fact, it’s a great metaphor for what Emily Nagoski calls “curious, seeking” behavior in her amazing book, Come as You Are. Nagoski says that we’re all hard-wired to be curious and receptive when we’re in an environment where we feel safe. When we’re presented with something that feels good, we move toward it…and move away from the things that feel bad. It’s true for humans, it’s true for rats—it’s even true for bacteria.
The idea of these three innate modes seems to be present all over the natural world; curiously taking in sensation, avoiding harm, and moving toward nourishment. These behaviors are not only physically relevant (it’s 2am and I’m rummaging through the fridge to find a late-night snack), but also psychologically relevant (I’m mingling at a party until I find someone I find a connection with). While these three modes play out in many small ways in our lives, we see their most intentional recognition in the BDSM community. In this world, where people explore their own comfort zones in ways that are frequently outside what is considered “normal,” communication, consent, and awareness are essential. If you’re doing kink well, you need to be very aware of your three modes: “run toward,” “curious seeking,” and “run away.” In the kinky world, these are known as your “Want, Will, and Won’t” list. Your “Wants” are the things that you know make you feel good. Your “Won’ts” are things that you know are harmful to you. Your “Wills” are the things that you’re open and curious about. Sound familiar?
So, if there’s already a great example of how to express your authentic “yes” and “no” desires used by kinky folks and it’s based on a natural response scheme that’s so basic even a single-celled microorganism can do it, why is it so hard for most of us to identify (let alone communicate) our deeper “yes”? The problem is, we’re not single-celled organisms…we’re far more nuanced, intellectually (and spiritually) aware. This means we’re capable of greatness well beyond what a microbe is capable of, but it also means those three basic “Want, Will, and Won’t” impulses can easily be subverted. As an example of this, Nagoski cites experiments where rats in calm, familiar environments would curiously and openly seek out stimulation and react appropriately to both good and bad when they encountered it. The same rats, when they were in an environment that stressed them out, would treat everything as if it was a threat (and here’s the kicker), even if it was pleasurable in a different context. Let that sink in for a moment. Research says that when rats (and yes, people too) are in a stressful environment, they (and we) are neurologically incapable of identifying things that give them pleasure. We can’t find our “yes.”
Unfortunately, our culture constantly bombards us with stimuli that register as stress to our brains, especially in the context of intimacy and sexuality. Body shaming. Shame from religion. Slut shaming. Shame about our sexual identities and orientation. Mixed messages—how much we “should” want to be sexually intimate with others versus how much pleasure is “appropriate.” The very dynamics which govern our gendered interactions create an unsafe environment for a huge subset (if not all) of our population. Recognition of this toxic environment and its effects are seen in the #MeToo movement. While awareness of how pervasively stressful and dangerous our environment is continues to spread, one thing is for certain: with so many baseline stressors bombarding us, it seems like everything in our society works to block us from finding our intimate “yes.”
So, how do we get ourselves back on track? How do we begin to unravel the lifetimes of cultural conditioning that we’re steeped in? How do we move out of a stressed-out, avoidant response cycle and get to an open and receptive place where we can identify our wants...our “yes”? The answer is simpler than you may think: with mindful, receptive feeling.
As a surrogate partner and intimacy coach, a huge part of what I do is to guide people back to their bodies—to help them listen to their basic, hard-wired feelings, and use their own bodies and self-awareness as a reference point for their “Want, Will, and Won’t.” Together, we essentially re-contextualize their environment by shifting their gaze from the destabilizing external messaging that is absorbed and processed in the brain back to their bodily, felt responses. I use touch to help clients re-write their stories surrounding touch and desire. Masters and Johnson, pioneers of research in the field of sexuality, realized how important this touch (specifically, something called “sensate focus,” which I’ll write about in future posts) can be. In their landmark publication Human Sexual Inadequacy they write,
“The use of sensate focus is based upon the assumption that memory of pleasure in sensate experience probably represents the only psychological constant in human sexual response, all other psychological investment being highly individualized for each person… On this premise, sensate focus provides an opportunity for clients to experience the equivalent of a developmental point of sexuality, rediscovering or creating anew the understanding and contextualization of sexual feeling. It provides [individuals] with an opportunity to appreciate, or to develop and appreciate, personal receptivity to physical sensation.”
Back in 1970, Masters and Johnson knew what countless other research has since proven—that to find your true “yes,” no matter what the expression of that “yes” may look like, it needs to be rooted in the body, not the brain.
These lessons are unfamiliar, especially in a culture that teaches us to observe and process the world with our brains. It seems almost too simple, too basic, to be so powerful. Sometimes the most important lessons, though, are the simplest. It can be done and we can use our brave little Azotobacter as a model. Start in a place where you feel safe and comfortable. Slowly tumble your way through feelings, noting the things that do (or do not), feel good. Trust your body’s signals when it tells you to move away from the harmful, and always move with curiosity and openness as you tumble into your emphatic and joyous “yes.”