book-2In my post of October 21, 2012, I raised issues around one of my passions, sexuality and the female body.  Some items in the media at the time, and my belief that we need to talk about healthy bodies and sexual expression – for and with people of all ages –prompted me to share my views.

Two things have prompted this blog.  First, I recently finished the book I referred to in the October post: “Vagina, A New Biography”, by Naomi Wolf (Harper Collins, 2012).  The second: my colleague and friend Bruce Sanguin, a marriage and family therapist who, along with his wife has taught pre-marriage workshops for many years, posted a blog addressing the challenging topic of sexual intimacy in marriage.  The recurrent questions, he says, invariably boil down to two:  How do you deal with differences in sexual appetite?  And how do you keep sex hot?

From my reading, Wolf’s book offers compelling scientific research and analysis that addresses these questions.  It has to be said that the response to her book has mixed.  Some reviewers challenge her interpretation of brain function, the related science, and her conclusions.  While I am not qualified to critique this aspect, much of what she described makes sense to me.  Regardless of the scientific “doubt”, I think this is a very important book for both women and men who wish to be in a significant, healthy, and satisfying sexual relationship with a partner.  I can see why the book troubled some women reviewers, especially if they feel that they have not had a satisfying sexual relationship.

Wolf’s main argument states that when a satisfying sexual relationship exists within a committed relationship, women are more alive to their life, more creative, and are basically happier people than they would be otherwise.  What woman would not want that for herself?  What man would not want that for his partner?  She discusses the profoundly negative impact of the proliferation of easily available pornography, and the “hook–up” culture on today’s college campuses.  As a culture, but also as parents, teachers, and grandparents, we need to be aware of how internet pornography, and other pressures on young people affect their health generally, but more specifically their personal and sexual relationships.  This part of the book was a big learning curve for me.  I have been naïve about developments in this area, and now feel even more passionate about how children and young people are being educated about bodies and sexuality.

It strikes me that Wolf is taking the feminist conversation a step further in helping women not only to understand themselves, but also to take responsibility for satisfying, “hot” sex.  She indicates how men can truly stimulate what she refers to as the “goddess array” of sexual expression in their partner.  The last two chapters of the book are essentially a manual that every woman would want her partner to read!

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Sexuality and Spirituality
Writing several years ago, author Marianne Williamson said that it is no surprise that women cry “Oh God” when having an orgasm.  Wolf notes that in the matriarchal cultures of humanity’s early history, the vagina was considered to be sacred.  In the later shift to patriarchal traditions, it came to be depicted as shameful, even hateful.  She lists the myriad of derogatory words used to refer to the vagina, and how such words flood a woman’s sense of self, body, and spirit, in deadening ways.  Ultimately she addresses healing of these deeply ingrained messages, and our perhaps unhappy sexual experience: referring to the ancient Hindu spiritual practice of Tantra, she states that culture had “figured out pretty fully a set of insights about the mind-body connection in sexuality with which Western science was only now beginning to catch up.” (Pg 272)

Since marrying my husband over 25 years ago, I have felt that our relationship, and more specifically his tremendous support, love, and encouragement, have made me much more in my life and the world than I would have been otherwise.  Little did I realize before reading this book how central our sexual relationship is to that awakening of my whole being: body, mind, and spirit.  Wolf’s book rings true to my personal experience.  I see it as one more resource as I continue to heal the split left over from my Judeo-Christian upbringing, which taught me that my deepest sexual self was quite different from, and likely in opposition to, my deepest spiritual self.  These are not two, but one.  They need to be healed in us individually, and also in our culture.

Don’t give up; don’t ever give up on this aspect of your life and relationship.

Check out this PBS interview with Naomi about her book.

If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it.  If you have, please leave a comment below and tell me what you think.

Years ago I read this:  “We need to cry at least once every two weeks to stay healthy.”  When I say that in my workshops or classes about grief, people laugh – they think it is a joke.  It was not meant as a joke, not by the original author whose name and book have long since disappeared from my memory and library, or by me.

When I was a hospital chaplain I spent many hours with people who had good reason to cry – either they or someone they loved were dying or seriously ill.  I noticed over time that everybody who did cry in my presence apologized for doing so.  Of course, the situations were ones in which it was entirely appropriate to cry.  Many times in that setting, patients and their families don’t want to cause “upset”, so feel they can’t cry in front of each other.  Again, when I am teaching this I say:  “If I’m dying or seriously injured or sick and my family is not standing around my bed crying, I’m going to be really pissed off.”

All of this is to say that in what has frequently been called a death-denying culture, I suggest, we are also a grief-denying culture. Have you ever met an infant who does not cry?  Have you ever met a young child who doesn’t cry when something they want is taken from them?  It is a normal, natural, pre-verbal response to discomfort, pain, and sadness, even anger.  Perhaps we need to re-learn grief-skills, or un-learn the conditioning that helps us mask true feelings.

So how did we get here as a culture and how do we get beyond it.  First of all I think we have to recognize that grief is present with any loss, not only death – be it the loss of a relationship, a position, a pet, a title, health – anything that we value, even things like houses or possessions.   Secondly, we have to recognize what patterns we have learned so that we don’t feel the feelings, have the tears or anger.  Many of these are quite acceptable distractions, such as keeping busy at something, even if it’s shopping.  Then there are all the familiar addictions, including prescription drugs for depression, which itself may be frozen or unrecognized grief.

We might be up against not only societal expectations about tears and anger, but also our own.  We think it is weakness to be vulnerable, or god-forbid, out of control!  If we get past this and actually allow ourselves to dip into long suppressed feeling, we may fear they will overwhelm us.   I have been there.  Years ago when going through a very difficult personal time, I was deeply hurt by several ongoing situations in my life.  I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer and I cried for two days.  I thought I would never stop.  (I was also eight months pregnant which brought the emotions closer to the surface).

Tears are good for our health.  When we cry, natural endorphins are released.  These are the body’s own painkillers.  Laughter also releases endorphins. We have to give ourselves permission to feel the feelings, and we may need support to be able do this.  For me this becomes a spiritual practice, since when there is “no-one” to take the pain to, I take it to the Divine Mystery as part of a daily practice.  When I have been in “fresh” grief, such as after my father died, I found my daily journaling practice a significant aid as I lived through my grief.  Sometimes I come to that practice feeling heavy – maybe something has not worked out as I had wanted – this also is grief. I find it helps to put on music that allows me to release the tears.

I invite you to think of tears a sacred, as a gift.  I’m not sure where I got this story but I love it:  A woman in great distress over the death of her son came to her spiritual leader for comfort.  He listened to her patiently while she poured out her tale of woe.  Then he said softly, “I cannot wipe away your tears, my dear.  I can only teach you how to make them holy.”

The Benedictine tradition is based on the writings of St. Benedict, a 6th century monk.  Whenever Benedict wrote about the experience of prayer, he wrote about tears.  In fact, tears pervade the early monastic literature.  Tears were often described as the bread of the monastic life.  Puncture a human heart and it will bleed; pierce it spiritually and the result is tears.[1]

Yesterday on my way to art class on my bike, I crossed the intersection of Yonge and Gerrard.  An ambulance was just pulling away and in the middle of the road was a bent and twisted bike.  I started to cry as I kept riding.  Writing this now brings tears.  How will we ever find the compassion we need to move forward as people on this planet if we do not know how express the pain and sadness that is inherent in all life?

[1] Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition, Page 49.

I finally watched Julia Gillard’s rant.  In case you haven’t seen this, Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia, verbally tore into the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, in an engaging fifteen-minute speech.  She was  “deeply offended” by what she called his misogynist behaviour and sexist put-downs of her personally, and of women in general.  Also this past week, the media has been full of commentary on the bullying and subsequent suicide of Amanda Todd, a British Columbia teenager.  There have been others stories lately about women, how we make and find our way in society and how we are treated by others, both by men and by women.  In an engaging interview on TV Ontario’s  “The Agenda” host Steve Paikin, a panel of women discussed Naomi Wolf’s recent book “Vagina, A Biography”, and how it has been received.  I have not read the book, only a review, and it was not favourable.  The panel noted that most of the reviews of Wolf’s book written by women were unfavourable and explored possible reasons for this.  They suggested that women can be jealous of other women who are successful – not exceptional in human affairs of either sex – but that in this particular case, it was a woman who had successful orgasms and was talking about it.

So, yes, you could say, we have come a “long way baby”: a female prime minister standing up to a misogynist colleague; a woman writer celebrating female sexuality.  At the same time young women continue to be bullied and taunted about their bodies.  I’ve been thinking about all of this, and am interested in your thoughts on the subject.

On the one hand, I realize women have made much progress toward becoming equal partners both personally and professionally in the world – or at least in this part of the world.  One hundred years in this country ago, women did not have the vote, and children and women were considered chattels of their husbands or fathers.  The primary role and function of an adult woman was to be wife, homemaker, and mother.  As a “baby boomer”, I believe that I am part of the first large group of women to have had different choices about family, career, and education.  For this I am very grateful.

On the other had, I see that not only do women continue to be seen as sex objects, but that training in this notion is beginning at much earlier ages.  In the spring of this year the CBC aired a documentary titled, Sext Up Kids:  the film description reads,  “From tiny tots strutting bikini-clad bodies in beauty pageants to companies marketing itty-bitty thongs and padded bras to 9-year olds, images of ever-younger sexualized girls have become commonplace.  Add to that: ever-younger boys with 24/7 access to hard-core Internet porn.   It saturates their lives – from skate parks to the school bus – by the time they’re eighteen, 80 percent of boys are watching porn online.  Toss social media into the mix and kids cannot only consume X-rated images, but can also now produce them.  Sexting has become a Grade 7 right of passage.”  For every parent who thinks, “that’s not my son or daughter,” Sext Up Kids is your wake up call.

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I grew up in a different era, and my learning that the body wasn’t ‘good enough’ came through the religious culture.  Now it comes through commercial culture, media images, and social pressure.

So I ask, really, how far exactly have we come?  Are we not still facing the same issue in our culture, that of women being valued only for their bodies, and of being beholden to men for their sense of worth in the world?

Last week in a talk titled “Sexuality and Spirituality” I presented at a United Church of Canada congregation, I began my comments with a line that appeared on the inside cover of the fall issue of “Yes!” magazine.  The issue was dedicated to the topic “It’s your body.”  The quote reads:  “The church says:  the body is a sin.  Science says: the body is a machine.  Advertising says:  The body is a business.  The body says:  I am a fiesta.”[1]

Sadly these three areas, religion, commerce, and medicine, are locked into ways of seeing the body that are not life-giving.  Eve Ensler says:  “There are a lot of people who don’t trust the body – who see it as something shameful or something to be controlled like a machine, such as a car, to be driven.  We’re told bodies have desires that are not good, and you need to control bodies or they’ll get you in trouble.  But I think our distrust of sexuality is equal to muting life itself.”[2]

Do current cultural norms and messages continue to burden our young women with self-loathing and perpetuate misogynist behaviour?  I have spent a good part of my adult life transforming my wounds in this area into wisdom.  It is an ongoing journey and is what I offer to women in my “Befriending the Body” workshops.  In addition, my spiritual journey, my soul-life, has only deepened to the extent that I have been able to fully accept and to practice loving my physical body.

I wonder, are we taking seriously enough the upbringing and education of children and young people of both sexes, to give them the sense of worth and a sense of self-determination over their bodies and their own intuitive wisdom?  Or are they being sold out to a culture that is intent on making money off their little lives?    As a grandmother and one who has struggled for women’s rights to equality, I believe there is a lot of room for us to be more pro-active.  What do you think?


[1] Quoting Eduardo Galeano, from Walking Words.

[2] “Yes!” Magazine interview with Eve Ensler, Yes! Magazine.  Fall 2012, page 50.

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