Halloween, Permission, and Being Something Else

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen
Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Halloween was always a thrilling time for me, both as a child and as an adult. It’s not that I was that into being scared; scary things were actually way too intense for me when I was little. And candy was nice, but given the weird scares of the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to eat most of the candy I collected anyway. No: what really drew me was the opportunity to dress up and be someone different.

Costuming has always been powerful for me, especially as an actor. A different set of clothes, hair, makeup, shoes – it can all serve to change how you stand, walk, move, even think. The interaction between the body and the things we wrap it in is a source of constant fascination, changing our relationship to gender, age, place, season, cultural identity, time, and self.

If you think that’s a bit strong, think of how different you feel when you are sitting on the couch at home in your PJs, versus how you feel when you put on a suit, or dress up for church, or go out dancing on a Saturday night, or go to visit an elderly parent, or prepare to work on your car, or go hiking. If you’ve ever worn period clothing, you know how much a corset, or a loose tunic or robe, or a frock coat, or a flapper dress, can change how you stand, move, bend and carry yourself. Cross-dressing or deliberately queering gender through clothing has an effect on the wearer, as well as an effect on the viewer, depending on the culture in which it is done, the level of tolerance of the people involved, and the context. Today, a guy in my office won the costume contest dressed as Princess Leia – not, I think, because he looked silly, but because he looked so good without hiding any of his masculinity, and pulled it off proudly. Were he to show up dressed similarly on any other day, the context would have shifted, and the office would have a different response.

While it may be true that our “true selves” are inside us, what we express outwardly both reflects that internal state, and can shift it in minor and major ways. Halloween and other events like it – Carnival in various parts of the world, Purim in Judaism, and so on – offer people a chance to be something they are not, without any real consequences. As a result, it can offer a rare opportunity for people to explore something that they would like to be, or would like to play with being.

Even if you don’t go out to parties, or trick or treating, take some time this holiday to mess around with your outward appearance. What happens to your state of mind and the feeling in your body when you wear something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear? What becomes possible that wasn’t before?

So what is “embodied consent,” anyway?

For the past few weeks, I have been posting about different aspects of the workshop I will be giving this weekend at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference, which is called “Embodied Consent: Finding Your Yes, No, and Maybe.” But what is it, exactly, that I mean by “embodied consent”?

It’s an interesting question, really. As with so much concerning Rubenfeld Synergy work, the answer is more complex than one might think. The search for meaning leads to various threads, which weave in various directions, which then branch and form new patterns, until you’ve got a really weird-looking meaning-sweater.

When I really boil it down, though, I believe the answer is this: Embodied consent is a dynamic, conscious, living form of consent, an ongoing conversation between the parties engaged in whatever requires it. It means paying attention – to your own body’s signals and to those of the person you are interacting with. And it means doing so continually – never letting things shift to autopilot.

Now, this might not sound like very much fun. Especially for those who are into kink and BDSM, and are deliberately playing with ideas of consent and giving over / taking on control, having to be constantly aware of consent in every moment could seem like a chore. But I like to think of it the way I think of partner dancing: much of the time, there is a leader, and there is a follower. In order for the dance to go well, both parties must always be aware of where the other is, maintaining a connection, and thinking several steps ahead. For those practiced in this art, it becomes automatic. For those less practiced, for partners who are not at the same skill level, or for partners new to one another, more consciousness and continual awareness is required.

I look forward to seeing you Sunday morning, if you’ll be there. Otherwise, let me know if you’d like me to teach this workshop at your organization!

Embodied Consent: Where is your “yes”?

Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr
Image by Ged Carroll via Flickr

(Part 3 of my series on Embodied Consent, leading up to my talk on the subject at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women Conference next weekend.)

One of my favorite truisms about consent is that a true “yes” is not possible without the option for a true “no.” That being said, one of my primary objectives in this workshop is to help people find their “yes” – to open up possibilities, take chances, and make room for greater joy.

So, if we’ve confronted our cultural reluctance to say no, and been able to identify and locate what our “no” feels like so we can use it, then we are one step closer to being able to employ our “yes” without fear.

Because while the possibility that a “no” won’t be heard or respected is terrifying, the prospect of hearing or giving a “yes” can also be daunting. What does “yes” mean? What am I agreeing to? What does the person saying “yes” expect from me once they’ve agreed? What if one of us changes our mind?

Part of dealing with all of these possibilities is the same process as the “finding your no” exercise: embody it. Imagine something you said “yes” to wholeheartedly, and remember it in as vivid sensory detail as you can.

  • What does “yes” feel like in your body? Warm or cool? Expansive, or small and delicate, or like a cozy sweater that fits your body perfectly?
  • What does “yes” look like? What image comes to your mind? Are you glowing with light, or is the “yes” in a tiny box inside your chest? What color is it?
  • Does your “yes” have a sound? Loud or soft? For all to hear, or just for you? Is it a shout, a sob, a laugh, a song?
  • What does it smell or taste like? Sweet or savory? Metallic, or wooden, or like cotton or wool? Does it remind you of a crisp fall day in the woods or a summer evening by the ocean or…
  • Where is your “yes” located in your body? Everywhere at once, or mostly in one place? Are there other parts of you that are still unsure?

Exploring and locating your “yes” in this way doesn’t completely remove its potential complications, but it helps you meet it and talk with it, which makes its possibilities more flexible. It makes it possible to go from a vague “yes to everything” to a more nuanced dance, where you can check in with yourself moment to moment and see what the borders, contours, and limits of your “yes” are.

More than that: when you are clearer about what both no and yes are like in you, your partner can get a better sense, too – not just because your communication will be clearer, but because your whole self will be. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Embodied Consent: Where is your ‘no’?

Image by Horia Varlan, via Flickr
The puzzle of no.

(Part 2 of my series leading up to my talk on Embodied Consent, happening October 11 at the Bound in Boston: Wicked Women conference.)

So I’ve talked in this space about how hard it can be to say no. But what about to feel no?

In my work, Rubenfeld Synergy Method, we always come back to the body. The mind can play tricks, language can be contradictory, and emotions can cloud judgment. All of these things can be valuable allies in decision-making and healing. But the body is the holder of our most basic and profound truths.

Try this simple exercise. Think about a time when somebody asked you for something you didn’t want to give or do. No need to go deep into trauma territory for this: pick something that wasn’t too traumatic, but that you definitely did not want – like refusing a sales call, or being asked to stay late at work, or having to deal with that friend who is always getting themselves into trouble. Imagine the scene as richly as you can – where you were, what the air felt like, how you were positioned, what time of day it was.

Now focus on the part of you that, regardless of what you ended up saying, really didn’t want to do the thing. Focus on that feeling of ‘no.’ 

Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does ‘no’ feel like, physically? Is it heavy or light? Hot or cold? Is it sharp or blunt, curved or pointed? What is its density – thick like molasses, hard like steel, thready or fuzzy like cotton or spiderweb?
  • What does ‘no’ look like? Does it have a color? Is it bright or dark? Does it have a shape, a size?
  • What does ‘no’ sound like? Are alarm bells going off in your head? A door slamming?
  • What does ‘no’ smell or taste like? Do you get a “bad taste in your mouth”? Does something seem “fishy”? Do you smell staleness, or smoke, or something else?
  • Where is ‘no’ located in your body? Is it in your belly, roiling? Is it sitting on your chest, like an elephant? Does it make your feet feel like lead, or your shoulders feel burdened?

Once you begin to describe your ‘no’ with your senses, and locate it in your body (the sixth sense, called proprioception, comes into play here), your understanding of it can become clearer. Locating a feeling in the body helps us to concretize it, make it more real, and honor it rather than brushing it aside in favor of a polite response.

Finding your yes, no, and maybe, part 1: No

In anticipation of the talk I’m giving the weekend of October 10 at Wicked Women, I want to write some posts that lay groundwork for the concepts I’ll be working with in that talk.

The first of these is the very simple idea that saying no is hard.

In last year’s talk, Sam and I started with a great exercise that involved people asking each other for a kiss, and being required to say no. We then checked in with how it felt for people, both to say no and to hear no. The responses were powerful, especially for a controlled situation, with low stakes, where everyone already knew they were going to have to say, and hear, no. The foreknowledge and low stakes didn’t stop people from finding the refusal difficult, the rejection, disappointing.

Research performed around the turn of the millenium in Britain showed pretty clearly that saying no, even to ordinary things, is a disfavored behavior in our culture. A paper on conversational analysis, cited here by the fantastic Yes Means Yes blog, showed that even people turning down a non-sexual dinner invitation from a friend tended to soften their refusals, to pause, hesitate, hedge, placate, and explain rather than actually admitting that they didn’t want to.

It is built into our culture to avoid saying no; this makes imprecations to “just say no” nearly absurd. Think about how hard it can be to even hang up on a telemarketer or close the door on a fundraiser, let alone tell someone you like that you can’t meet them for lunch. Escalate that to telling someone you might want to sleep with at some point – or that you’ve had sex with a hundred times before! – that no, actually, you don’t want to have sex with them right now, and you begin to see the elaborate language we have built around refusal. We don’t want to seem prudish, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to put ourselves in danger, or appear arrogant by refusing before something is even offered.

Perhaps even more important, though, is the fact that for most of us, these softened hedged rejections are entirely clear. We know what these refusals sound like, and look like, and so pushing past them tends to be a matter of will rather than a missed communication. What this indicates, sadly, is what we already know if we think about it: very few rapes occur because of misunderstandings or lack of clear rejections. They occur because a small subset of men repeatedly look for cracks in those soft nos, and apply leverage until they can “wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.

But those people are not whom I’m addressing, here. I’m looking at people in communities where, while there are certainly a fair share of predators, most people are trying very hard to do things right.  People want to be “game” and try new things. People want to push past their own boundaries, and sometimes don’t even know what those boundaries are yet. People with well-established boundaries find their boundaries shifting depending on who they’re with, where they are, how many years have passed. And people are playing deliberately with power dynamics, where the person running the scene is highly responsible for their partner’s safety. It’s very easy to say, “Establish a safeword, negotiate in advance, know your limits,” and so on. It’s harder to know what to do when a scene becomes more intense than you signed up for, or when someone is suffering in silence out of pride, or when what you thought you negotiated turns out to be something else entirely, or when you are trying to deliberately push limits and go farther than you have before.

Add to this the social awkwardness that tends to permeate the geeky community (which overlaps mightily with kink and other alternative sexualities), and signals may not be as absolutely clear as was previously thought. “No” becomes not just difficult to say, but difficult to locate and identify in yourself.

Part of this talk will be about returning to the messages of the body, to get more clarity on what “No” feels like, and how to communicate it – and hear it – better.

Embodied Consent Workshop at the Wicked Women Conference


I am pleased to announce that I will once again be giving a class at Bound in Boston’s Wicked Women event this year, over the Columbus Day weekend in October. This will be a revival and revision of the class I did last year with Sam at Safety Beyond Safewords, but I’ll be doing it on my own this time. I’m hoping to dig more deeply into the attendees’ own signs and signals, and overall make the class even more participatory and simpler. (Last year we tried to cover way too much material in 90 minutes.)

This year, the convention will also be a whole weekend rather than a single day, which is nice. I’m looking forward to helping more people understand their own and their partners’ yeses, noes and maybes.

I hope you’ll join us!

Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

[Rerun] Self-care made simple

From Dr. Kathleen Young's blogOne of the most potent things I have found, both in my training and with my clients, is the utmost importance of self-care. For every acute problem, every chronic stress, every relationship explosion, cancer diagnosis, loathed job or existential crisis, self-care comes up again and again as not just the most important, but the very first thing that needs doing.

This is true not just for my clients, but for me, and other practitioners.  As they say, you’ve gotta make sure your own oxygen mask is secure before helping others.  And as the Rubenfeld principle goes, self care is the first step to client care.  And, lest we forget that other principle: each client is ultimately responsible for his or her own healing.

So it’s not all that surprising that when a client tells me something difficult, and I can feel my mirror neurons firing and my shoulders tightening, my breath growing shallow…the first thing I need to do, before I can even respond, is to check my own breath, my own body, return to my center, and respond from there.  If I do anything else, I put myself in it with them.  And, as anyone who has had someone so upset over something that happened to you that you ended up taking care of them knows, nothing good can come of that.

In my own continuing therapeutic journey, I’ve recently been introduced to Oasis in the Overwhelm, a little book by ex-Catholic nun, nightclub singer, type A go-getter, and Rubenfeld Synergist Millie Grenough.  Its essential core is four 60-second strategies for re-centering and calming yourself, basically at any time and place.

I already have a number of strategies that I use for this, and I pass them on to my clients when I feel they are needed. And of course there are more involved self-care pieces: working out more, eating better, getting enough sleep – all those things that your doctor is always telling you to do.

But for people who want solutions that they can learn quickly and use anywhere…I have to say that this is pretty fabulous.  Once I internalize them myself, I will definitely be incorporating them into my practice. Hint: they involve stretching, breathing, checking in with your body, and focusing on an object of comfort.

Go check it out.


[Rerun] Things Without (Shame)

I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Monday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

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