When someone is struggling with a sexual problem, they might consider talking to a sex therapist or coach. For most such professionals, physical touch between practitioner and client is strictly forbidden.
However, in a newer and increasingly sought-out modality called sexological bodywork, the practitioner creates a safe space for the client to learn about their body in ways that sometimes involve receiving physical touch. With gloved hands, a sexological bodyworker may provide different kinds of stimulation on the genitals or elsewhere to help a client understand what they like, guide them through breathing or movement exercises, and provide verbal counseling and education.
Faye Hermine has been working as a sexological bodyworker since 2016. Based in the Boston area, they service a variety of people including queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people, sex workers, trauma survivors, those who have recently given birth, cisgender men and women, and heterosexual people, helping them to “remember pleasure,” as their website puts it: to feel comfortable and safe in their bodies regardless of past experiences that may have made them feel otherwise. Faye, who identifies as a queer, non-binary, transmasculine person, helps people unpack internalized oppression and experience their sexuality in a way that is authentic to them.
We talked to Faye about the different issues people come to them with, how these issues can be addressed, and the concepts from sexological bodywork that we can all apply to our sex lives.
Could you explain in a few words what you do?
I support people who are interested in making changes to the way that they relate to their bodies, sex, and sexuality. I don’t heal people, but I support them healing themselves. My work sometimes involves touch in the context of work on embodiment, which means being present in your body and noticing sensations in your body, and also feeling what embodied consent feels like—so, noticing the sensations your body communicates when you’re a “yes” or a “no” to something and verbally expressing that.
Can you explain more about what embodied consent is and how to practice it?
Our brains sometimes make decisions about what we do or don’t want that are not consistent with what our body or our subconscious is really up for. You sometimes notice this when you say “I want to do a thing” and your entire body contracts or feels really tense, or you find that you just can’t relax or your mind is racing. Those are sometimes indications that your body is not consenting, even though your brain says, “I consent to this.” Embodied consent means discovering the cues that your body tells you when there’s something that it affirmatively wants, something that it is curious about trying, or something that’s like, “I don’t even want to try this.” Those things can feel different in your body. If people want to learn more, they can go to schoolofconsent.org or check out Betty Martin’s book The Art of Receiving and Giving: The Wheel of Consent.
What are some reasons why someone might say “yes” when their body is saying “no”?
There are tons of reasons, especially for people assigned female at birth; we’re often conditioned socially to be accommodating and go with the flow. Those are very powerful messages. Even telling people, “You can say ‘no’ if you want to” doesn’t necessarily override that conditioning. Also, power differentials—we usually think of “boss and employee,” but even when there’s a difference in physical power, when one partner is stronger than the other and the person feels that there’s a risk of incurring violence or emotional harm. Or just not wanting to hurt their partner’s feelings, even if there’s not a power imbalance. Or not wanting to change their mind when they’ve already said “yes” to something. Their brain can tell them, “I said ‘yes’ to this, so even if I’m no longer a ‘yes,’ I have to go through with it.”
What other issues do people come to you with?
A lot of people come because their brain can’t be quiet and they have a hard time finding arousal. Other people come because they want to explore new sensations. Some people can’t keep an erection or don’t want to have sex or rarely want to have sex. I see people who can’t have an orgasm or have not yet had an orgasm. They often frame it as, “I can’t have an orgasm,” when really it’s that they have not yet had an orgasm. Some people struggle with being dissociated and not present during sex. Some people come when they’re worried about particular sexual interests of theirs.
What do you tell people who are concerned about what they’re interested in sexually?
I usually tell them that they’re perfectly normal—well, I don’t like the word “normal,” but that they’re common or healthy or perfectly reasonable—and then explore the shame they feel around it and support them in noticing the physical sensations of shame and learning to be present with the shame without it overwhelming them, if shame is present.
You’ve mentioned a few different issues, and I’m curious how you address them. Let’s start with erection issues. If someone can’t get or maintain an erection, what tends to help them work through that difficulty?
The first thing is pointing out that porn is edited to cut out all the scenes with soft cocks, and that erections coming and going is actually totally normal and part of an ordinary sexual encounter. If they’ve seen a urologist and there isn’t a physiological reason for their difficulty, another piece is working on skills around embodiment and relaxation and using breath to regulate their nervous system. Erections require blood flow, and blood can only flow to the penis when a person’s in a relaxed state. Toys like cock rings can also help. Also, I’ve had clients who have trouble maintaining erections, but their partners won’t touch their penis and expect it to be hard magically, as opposed to with stimulation and touch, and so some of it is education around how penises work and operate, as well as nervous system education and supporting them in developing a mindful masturbation practice.
Could you explain what a mindful masturbation practice looks like?
Some people think a mindful masturbation practice can’t include porn, but there are ways to integrate porn into a mindful masturbation practice. The main thing is you’re really present with the sensations in your whole body, and your penis isn’t disconnected from the rest of your body while you masturbate. Supporting somebody to have an ongoing mindful masturbation practice can support them in learning how the body works in the absence of certain things that they know are instant shortcuts for them, like, “If I think about this thing, I’ll get hard.” It gives them a way to just be in their body and pay attention to the connection between their nervous system state and their physiological arousal.
What are some ways people can masturbate more mindfully?
You can go to orgasmicyoga.com and find resources. I start by supporting people in learning how to do a body scan. You can go on YouTube and do a search for a body scan meditation. You can pause them when you get to the pelvis and give yourself the chance to notice what the sensations are in your genitals. The body scan is a foundational skill for mindful masturbation. You can learn how to do both up-regulating, excited breathing that takes you closer to orgasm and relaxing, down-regulating breathing that takes you to a relaxed place where arousal feels easier. Paying attention to your breathing and whether you are breathing is part of a mindful masturbation practice. There are some great courses at Pleasure Mechanics, eroticengineering.com, and orgasmicyoga.com on mindful masturbation. On those sites, it shows different ways of touching yourself.
What are some different ways people can try touching themselves?
If you’re used to touching yourself by grabbing your shaft hard and jerking it up and down quickly, you can learn to find other ways to touch your penis and scrotum and anal area that feel good without having to be the most exciting thing ever or the thing that is going to make you ejaculate. Find ways that are pleasurable but not necessarily orgasmic to touch yourself, and spend time going back and forth between that and higher-intensity ways of touching yourself, while staying really present and paying attention to your genitals. Also, you can explore your anal area. That’s underrated and more awesome than you probably think, and it doesn’t have to involve penetration. Even just exploring the outside can be really rewarding.
Are there mindful self-pleasure techniques that you can incorporate outside of masturbation?
A mindful self-pleasure practice could be putting on music and dancing and covering yourself in coconut oil and touching your whole body. It doesn’t have to be explicitly sexual. It doesn’t have to include orgasm. It could be the joy of swinging your dick around. It’s also helpful to attach eroticism and pleasure to existing mindfulness practices people have. So, if you take mindful walks, taking mindful walks where your focus is on the pleasurable sensations in your body can be a mindfulness-based self-pleasure practice. It could be useful to include pelvic floor clenching: clenching your butthole and clenching the muscle that cuts off the pee stream when you’re peeing and you want to stop peeing, and then relaxing those muscles. You can also include periods of intentionally slow deep breathing alternating with intentionally faster breathing.
How can you maximize the benefits of these activities?
Other elements of the practice are setting an intention ahead of time, setting the amount of time that you want to be doing it for, and reflecting afterwards and savoring it. Our brains imprint negative experiences instantly but take 20-40 seconds to imprint positive experiences, and so if you ejaculate or orgasm and then are like, “OK I gotta clean it up,” your brain doesn’t imprint all of the enjoyment that was had. To create new pathways for experiencing pleasure, it’s really helpful to stay in your body and notice your breath and notice sensations in your body after you complete your practice, and then take some notes afterwards as to what you learned from the experience and what you want to do differently next time. People need to find the practice that works for them, because doing it can be challenging. And if you say, “I have ADHD; I can’t meditate,” it’s still worth trying a mindful self-pleasure practice because it’s interesting how much easier focusing can be when the thing you’re focusing on is genital pleasure.
Does this kind of meditation have similar benefits to the typical kind of meditation where you just sit there?
In terms of helping resolve trauma that’s stuck in the body, absolutely. That’s why most trauma healing techniques involve some element of sound and movement, be it moving your eyes rhythmically or listening to sound in alternate ears. There’s something about rhythmicness, touch, movement, placement of awareness, breath, and making noise—and combining all those elements. If your objective is to move trauma and have it play less of a role in your life, a mindfulness-based self-pleasure practice has the potential—possibly, in some people—to support trauma resolution more rapidly than a traditional mindfulness practice. However, not all mindfulness practices are a good idea for folks with trauma histories. If you’re trying a practice and noticing that you’re experiencing distress, it can be useful to get professional support.
Back to the common issues people come to you with. What about someone who has a low interest in sex?
There’s no magic “cure,” and it really depends on their reasoning. Some people just plain have a lower libido, and then it’s a question of finding out whether it’s possible to meet their partner’s needs for intimacy in ways that aren’t sex, because a lot of people will use sex to get other needs met. A lot of people socialized male, their primary way of getting touch in their life is sex.
Why might someone come to rely on sex for touch?
We all need touch. Most people need more touch than they’re getting. We definitely live in a touch-starved society. If you don’t have a group of friends who are really huggy who you are super physically affectionate with and you weren’t raised receiving lots of affectionate hugs and touch from family, you get the message that the way to get your desire for touch met is through sex. And it doesn’t have to be that way. You can separate off the touch needs that aren’t related to sex and see how much sex drive is left.
What if someone feels that a low sex drive is an issue for them and would like to increase their libido?
Sometimes people are disinterested in sex because they’ve experienced trauma or because of some pattern of how their partner is asking them for sex, or if the sex isn’t good. If they aren’t enjoying it, they’re going to want less of the sex. There’s also habit, if you get in the habit of not having sex or not receiving touch. Some of that can be addressed by a mindfulness-based sexual practice. If the challenge is that the person is just plain out of the habit or they don’t know what feels good to their body, learning to masturbate in a mindful way can sometimes awaken a latent libido.
Since we talked about people who want sex less often than their partners, what would you recommend to someone in the opposite situation, who wants more sex than their partner?
Be patient and compassionate and support your partner in taking the time they need to figure out what’s going on, and don’t stigmatize the lower sex drive, but gently offer various forms of support: “There’s nothing wrong with you, but if you want support, methods of support out there exist.” Not just me, but there are online courses and other types of coaches and, especially for people with more intense sexual trauma or any kind of trauma, doing trauma work will often help people feel more comfortable and safe in their bodies, and being more comfortable and safe in your body helps you to notice when sex is, in fact, the thing that you want. Also, masturbation is a wonderful thing. And you need to understand which of your needs can be fulfilled by things that are not sex.
What are some examples of needs people might be addressing with sex, and other ways they might be met?
If you’re wanting to be seen and heard, you can do five-minute listening turns, where you listen to each other talking about whatever is on your mind without responding. If you have a need for physical intimacy, you can go and get a massage, erotic or otherwise, depending on the parameters of your relationship. You can also ask your partner for a non-erotic massage to get touch needs met. I’m also happy to help people explore non-monogamy, but that’s not the solution for everybody.
I wanted to talk specifically about your work with people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Are there particular things that help them feel more comfortable with their bodies or more present during sex?
Validating people’s experiences of their psychic genitals can be really helpful.
What are psychic genitals?
Somebody, for example, assigned female at birth, whether they identify as trans or not, may have a dick that feels from the inside of their body like it’s there and that their mind’s eye can visualize having experiences with. The mind-body connection is really quite incredible in its flexibility and capacity to develop new and affirming pathways for pleasure, and so the same applies for people assigned male at birth who have psychic vulvas and psychic vaginas. They can feel as if they are enveloping someone with their psychic parts without necessarily having a physiological experience or it having to be an anal experience. Or they’ve, in their mind’s eye, remapped their anal area to be their psychic vulva and vagina. So just validating people’s experiences and/or supporting people in developing this awareness or ability can be gender-affirming for people.
Is there science supporting that idea that pleasure is more about what’s in your brain than what’s between your legs?
They’ve certainly done studies. They put Barbara Carrellas in an fMRI machine and had her have an orgasm just by breathing a certain way, and it lit up in an fMRI machine the same as a general orgasm would. So, that, to me, is a reflection of the mind-body’s capacity to have alternate ways of having orgasms. Neuroplasticity says that we have the capacity to build new pleasure pathways, new neural pathways. In the cases of people who have had spinal cord injuries who don’t necessarily physically feel sensation below a certain point, some people can remap other parts of their body to be their primary pleasure receptors. And plenty of trans people every day—even if you don’t call it a psychic dick or a psychic vulva—often create something that feels congruent to them, in their mind’s eye, and what they feel on the inside. So I don’t think of it as an especially woo-woo thing, but from my more science-y perspective and things I’ve experienced personally, our bodies are super cool and our brains are super powerful and are able to create all sorts of interesting pathways to pleasure.