The Angst of Freedom

Pause: If you haven’t read my post about The Point of No Return, maybe hop over and do so now because it ties heavily into this post.

It’s the paradox of existential philosophy: No one can take away the freedom you have within yourself. But you are not necessarily free. People can and do exert a tremendous amount of influence and sometimes direct control over your decisions, consciously and unconsciously.

Those who have been at the point of no return know that there is a place in your soul that you can reach where you will do what your heart tells you to do, regardless of the consequences. In my case, it was breaking free of a cult. I was free and not free to do so in many different ways. It was only when I decided that the reasons that made me not free weren’t strong enough to prevent me from exercising my freedom that I was able to shake off the invisible binds that tied me down.

I’m well familiar with that place of desperation. It’s terrifying, but on some levels exhilarating because I’ve found there is more freedom in a moment of desperation than in maintaining balance.

It’s as much the problem as it is the solution.

I’m not of the Buddhist opinion that attachment is bad. I think attachment can be a beautiful motivator and protector. Attachment drives us to make something work. Within a relationship, attachment makes two people try to work through the difference of their first fight rather than walking away from each other. It’s worth it to sit through that discomfort and do that messy work because of the attachment.

Attachment becomes unhealthy, though, when it detaches us from ourselves—when we become powerless to our own attachment and thus powerless to the one to whom we are attached.

In relationship this might look like suppressing one’s own needs in pursuit of making someone else happy or (hear me out on this) submitting to abusive behavior.

I am not trying to say that those who are survivors or victims of abuse have allowed that to happen to themselves or that they have knowingly or willingly given up their power.

I am trying to say that attachment is often what keeps people in toxic situations, hoping beyond hope that things will get better. The fear of losing that attachment can be as strong as an iron cage, and toxic people exploit that attachment to undermine an individual’s autonomy.

The oft asked question, “Why didn’t she just leave?” has a complicated answer, but part of the answer, I think, comes down to “She didn’t feel free to.”

The same is true on a larger scale for groups. The process of leaving a cultic or toxic group often involves a process of recognizing that things aren’t well, trying to ignore that things aren’t well, attempting to influence change from within, experiencing the backlash of trying to change things from within, and exiting–not always in a linear order, and sometimes often repeated because leaving isn’t easy. Toxic or abusive relationships or environments hook themselves into your soul—into your hopes and dreams and ideals. That’s how they keep you there. Leaving ends up feeling like leaving yourself.

Physical restraint is certainly one way of removing someone’s freedom, but there are other ways, more subtle and more insidious. The only thing necessary to capture someone is to convince them they are captive–or worse yet, to convince them they aren’t captive but “loved.”

On the flip side, even in the most captive spaces, no one can forcefully capture a person’s mind.

And that is where the truth of the opening paradox lies.

Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I don’t think she was talking about conscious consent. Few of us who have ever been insulted have sat down and thought, “Gee, I think I will consent to this barb, but next time I won’t.”

What she was talking about was the power that comes with being grounded in who you are and in owning your freedoms (which comes hand in hand with owning your limitations). When you know that your mind is your own, no one can infiltrate it no matter what they might be able to do outside your body.

Freedom is not always about being able to do whatever you want. Although ideally we should all be free to conduct our lives how we see fit, even when that is not the reality—when the reality is that there are limitations on our choices—we can still have freedom in making the choice from the options before us in full clarity and autonomy.

At my point of no return, my choices were severely limited. I could stay, try to force myself to submit to more abuse. I could kill myself and exit the scene entirely. Or I could escape and try to rebuild a new life. All three were a death on one level or another.

I won’t rehash the ways in which facing suicide helped me make the hardest decision of my life. You can read about that in the other post. But I will say that owning the power I had to leave was directly tied to realizing that the things that held me back weren’t worth the price I was paying in sacrificing myself—my freedom.

I’ve learned since that the world is hard to navigate when every decision isn’t as catastrophically big, but the process repeats itself on smaller levels. I find myself going through cycles where I get attached to something—a relationship, a dream, an ideal. I throw myself into it. I either find a way of being authentic within it or I find myself becoming increasingly disempowered and controlled by it. I struggle with how to regain my power.

At some point, I realize that my power and freedom are just waiting for me to step back into myself again, which often involves letting go of my attachment, which in turn involves grieving my own hopes as much as the attachment object itself.

I don’t go all the way to the point of confronting death each time…but I think because I’ve been there, I can recognize the confrontation with symbolic death in each cycle. In a metaphorical sense, attachment is life; freedom is death. The existential concept that we are free but not free isn’t actually a paradox—it’s the life-death-life cycle. It is the cosmic balance.

 

A Sex-Positive Reading List

I’ve been on a quest to reclaim my sexuality over the last several years, which has been a beautiful and wonderful journey. That journey has required a lot of education and re-education, both about the physical basics of “doing the deed” and about the attitudes I was taught to hold towards sex and my body. There have been a number of books that have been particularly influential in that quest, which I list below. I highly recommend them to anyone else on a similar quest to positive and celebratory sexuality.

The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

This is, hands-down, the absolute best relationship and sex book I’ve ever read. While the majority of relationship advice in other books is formulaic (do this and you’ll be a strong couple and have great sex; don’t do that or you’ll end up divorced, alone, and very sad), this book recognizes that everyone is different and has different needs, desires, and goals in relationships. Despite being a “guide to polyamory”…or maybe because of being a guide to polyamory…The Ethical Slut offers great tips on boundaries, honesty, working through and owning your own emotions, working through differences with your partner/s, exploring your sexuality, and so much more. Whether you’re single, monogamous, polyamorous, or just plain promiscuous, this is a great book to read to gain a fantastically positive attitude towards sex. Show that judgmental, puritanical voice in your head the way out with a book that celebrates all consensual relationship styles and sexual desires.

Vagina by Naomi Wolf

A little heterosexist, but overall a really great way to start to get to know the female body and introduce yourself to the ways in which others, past and present, have found to honor and love female sexuality. It touches on anatomy and history enough to give you some really interesting information without making you feel like you’re reading a textbook. This is the book that introduced me to the possibility that the physical trauma of my sexual abuse could be treated, and it is thanks to this book (as well as gynecologist who was up on the latest developments) that I was able to seek physical therapy to treat my injured pelvic floor.

What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman

This is a really great book that touches on a lot of the stuff that I loved so much in The Ethical Slut but in a way that is less overtly trying to reclaim the idea of “slut.” Each chapter has exercises and journaling prompts to explore your sexuality as well as references to great resources. It has one of the most in-depth guides to talking about sexual safety and sexually transmitted diseases that I’ve come across, which is great if, like me, you were basically led to believe your body would mimic pregnancy if you masturbated and that you could get an sti by holding someone’s hand.

What I love most about this book is that she doesn’t just expect readers to know how to have the conversations necessary with their partners. She infuses the book with excellent information but also incorporates advice on how to have those conversation with partner/s and suggestions of how you can practice them in advance. So, instead of just telling you to tell your partner what you want to do with him/her or if you want to stop at any point, she actually guides you through ways of communicating your needs and desires…which is also really important if, like me, you were basically taught that you didn’t have a right to have your own desires and that sex was something you endured because God expected you to fulfill your wifely duties. Friedman is also wonderfully inclusive of all genders and sexualities.

Women’s Anatomy of Arousal by Sheri Winston

If The Ethical Slut is the best relationship and sex book I’ve ever read, this is the best body and sex book I’ve ever read. Written with incredible beauty and wit (and illustrated with some of the best erotic art in history), this anatomy book is hardly the stuff you’d find in a textbook…yet surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) it covers far more information on the structure and function of a woman’s arousal and reproductive system than I’ve seen anywhere else. This book goes into depth on what Naomi Wolf only touched on and explains in mesmerizing detail how arousal works. Throughout the book, exercises are given to help you learn about and explore your own body and arousal network. Although this book is more about solo learning and play, tips are given for partners to learn how to navigate this amazingly complex system as well.

Succulent Sexcraft by Sheri Winston

I just started reading Sheri’s second book. Although I haven’t finished it yet, I feel pretty confident in recommending it to those on their own sexual journey. The same beauty and wit are present in the writing, but rather than being solely focused on women and women’s anatomy, this book is for anyone, partnered or solo, who is interested in expanding their sexuality in a more positive way. I can’t say yet what will stand out the most to me about this book, but so far it accompanies all of the others beautifully and is inspiring me with yet more reasons to love and honor my sexuality.

To the Rest of Us on Mother’s Day

I was walking through the grocery store the other day, passing through the produce section which also happens to be the flower section, when I got this overwhelming urge to buy a bouquet of carnations.

I don’t normally even like carnations that much, but I was practically giddy at picking out a bouquet of purple carnations.

And then I remembered, oh yeah, it’s Mother’s Day.

My church used to hand out a carnation to every mother on Mother’s Day, and one of my longest standing though really-not-that-serious wounds was wanting one of those flowers soooooooooo badly as a little girl but not being allowed to have one because I wasn’t a mother.

I’ve tried my best to forget Mother’s Day in the past several years. As so many of us know, it can be the most bitterly painful holiday–whether it’s because we wanted children and couldn’t have them, lost a child of our own, lost a mom too young, never knew our moms, or had moms that we probably would have been better off not knowing. It’s a pain that can’t be expressed in words, and we’re assaulted with our pain for weeks leading up to this day.

This isn’t one of those “It hurts, I know. Let’s sit around and cry together” kind of posts. I’ve read my fair share of those and drunkenly sobbed my way through The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (which is just unrealistic enough to make it all the more appealing when it comes to mother-daughter relationships).

But I’m really not feeling that today.

I don’t think the pain is inconsequential, but I also don’t feel like it’s fair that the whole world gets so focused on this overly idealized archetype of a perfect mother while all the rest of us have to sit in dark rooms trying to avoid reminders of how our lives failed to bring us that ideal in various ways.

So, I’m declaring a new holiday to cover Mother’s Day, and I’m calling it Radical Self-Indulgence Day.

Man or woman, parent or not…

Go out and buy that fucking bouquet of carnations.

Make yourself a card or a nice dinner.

Take a luxurious bubble bath and declare a strike on chores for the weekend.

Go out and take a hike—celebrate Mother Nature.

Have a Harry Potter marathon. He probably hates Mother’s Day too, fyi.

But get away from the fucking hype and do something awesome for yourself—with yourself.

It won’t fix whatever it is that makes Mother’s Day suck, but we all need a little extra love this weekend…if only because of that. So find some way this Sunday to let yourself know that you are loved and worthy of good things.

A New Moon Tarot Spread

I developed the spread below in order to tap into the power of the new moon this weekend. I invite you to pull out your deck and see what this underappreciated stage of the lunar cycle has for you this month.

                1

                 2                              4

                3

 It’s supposed to look like the moon! Not shown is the optional fifth card.

  1. What is gestating: This card represents things that are in the works and that need the darkness of the new moon to continue to ripen. Basically, leave well-enough alone. Don’t focus too much on them. Just let them incubate.
  2. What is hidden: This card reveals an aspect of your life that you are blind to—something perhaps that it may be good to begin shining a light on as the moon waxes again. It’s likely an area that is spreading difficulties in multiple parts of your life.
  3. What needs to be shed: This card represents the things in your life that need to come to an end and be released. Take some time to symbolically shed and mourn their passing this weekend. Don’t carry them into the new month with you.
  4. What needs to begin: This represents the new seeds in your life that you are sewing right now. Have you already started to bring them into the works? Or are the seeds still waiting to be planted in the rich soil of your life? Got on that. It’s planting season.
  5. Optional guide card: If you feel the need for more information or guidance on how to begin using the knowledge gleaned from the four cards above, you can draw an optional guide card. It may apply specifically to a single card in your spread, or it could tie them all together somehow.

The Demonization of the “Feminine” in the Battle of the Sexes

One of the great debates of our era is in regard to differences between men and women. Scientists and psychologists set up countless experiments to see whether men and women have different intelligence levels, strength levels, skills in vocabulary or object rotation, mathematical abilities, brain sizes, relationship drives, sexual desires…you name it, they’ve probably tested to see if there’s a difference between the sexes.

There tend to be two sides to the argument:

  1. Men and women are different
  2. Men and women aren’t different

Both sides find statistical evidence and cogent arguments to support them.

But what neither one realizes is that the argument isn’t really about whether gender differences exist. The real argument is unstated, thus unrecognized and unable to be resolved.

There’s a logical fallacy at play here called an unaccepted enthymeme. Okay, there’s two unaccepted enthymemes.

The first is that gender is binary.

But the second, and I think in regards to the sexism debate, the most important one is: If men are different from women, men are better than women.

The two sides of the debate are really rather absurd on their own because the answer to both sides is ‘yes.’

Yes, men and women are different from each other. In general women have a uterus, though that is not true for all women. In general men have testicles, thought that is not true of all men.

Yes, men and women are very similar on many levels. There’s enough evidence now to suggest that mathematical abilities only differ because of classroom socialization. Everyone has varying levels of testosterone and estrogen within them. We all have a basic human need for connection. And it’s a myth that men are only interested in sex and not in relationships.

But when you add in the unstated value judgment that men are better than women, that “masculine traits” are better than “feminine traits,” then the debate becomes so much more than just the absurd question of whether something objectively is or is not.

Feminists could argue until the world ends that women are just as capable as men, but unless we actually address the underlying assumption that certain traits are “less than” others, we will never be able to actually resolve this issue.

And this is where the construct of gender comes in because those devalued traits aren’t even exclusive to women. They are human traits, but because they’ve been stereotyped as “feminine,” they’ve been deemed worthless—so even men who possess those traits are looked down on in our hypermasculine culture.

Take emotionality for instance.

If a guy cries, he’s made fun of for being a “girl.”

If a girl cries, she’s accused of being “too emotional” or “too sensitive.”

Being in touch with your emotions is not a quality that we associate with a savvy business person or a political leader because, as a society, we value emotional intelligence less than analytical intelligence.

For that matter, we value quantitative research (stats and numbers) more than qualitative research (interviews and actually listening to someone’s experience of something).

We value aggression more than negotiation—just look at how many “action” movies exist that immediately resort to shooting people up as opposed to sitting down around a table to resolve differences.

We value conquering more than nurturing, competitiveness more than cooperation, judgment more than understanding, assertiveness more than congeniality.

As women attempt to work their way towards equal representation in the workforce and government, they are essentially told to be more like “men.”

But the traits that men (and women) are supposed to avoid are human traits! They are necessary to our society as much as the other traits are. They’re the glue that binds humanity together, without which our elevated primate species wouldn’t survive.

Somehow, I think ancient cultures understood that better than we do now. Perhaps being closer to death by predator, act of nature, or just plain bad luck did something to help them recognize how important a balance of both was.

There is a time for emotion and for logic, for assertion and for congeniality, for aggression and for negotiation. There are times when we should conquer and times when we should nurture, when we should compete and when we should cooperate, when we should judge and when we should seek to understand.

If men and women could be equal but different (not in the icky Complementarian way) without it being good or bad, would it really matter so much about whether there were differences? If people could be equal but different, with different mixes of different traits unique to them, without being shoved into boxes of masculinity and femininity–If we thought of the “feminine” traits as being as valuable as the “masculine” traits, would we even feel the need to defend ourselves when we were called “sensitive”? Goddess forbid that actually be a compliment and a sign of capability rather than an insult and an assumption of weakness.

I used to be interested in whether men and women were different. I wanted so badly to prove that those differences didn’t exist.

Now I just wonder why it matters.

Four Ways to Legit Pamper Your Vagina

Every year, as some are aware, I have a month dedicated to honoring the female body and celebrating the vagina. It usually involves a party, reading, and lots and lots of crafting, followed by a post (like this one) passing on something I created, learned, or did in the hopes that more women will get inspired to celebrate their beautiful bodies.

This past year, I’ve also been undergoing physical therapy to treat damaged muscles in my pelvic floor. I discovered that physical therapy involved a lot of self-care in order for it to be effective. I also discovered that many of the books I’ve read don’t really go into vaginal self-care in depth, and it reminds me that, even with some fantastic sex/body-positive books for women, we still have a long way to go in disseminating all the information a vagina-possessing person could use.

So today, I’m going to share some of my favorite yoni luxuries.

1. Massage!

I love massages. If I could afford it, I would be getting a professional massage on a weekly basis. But for some reason, I had never thought to try massaging my belly and pelvis. I’m guessing most women haven’t because it’s not exactly the kind of thing you see Cosmo printing on the front cover.

However, there are lots of little muscles in the lower abdomen and around the outside of the vulva that can get tired and sore. The pelvic muscles benefit from a little bit of kneading just as any other muscle (especially around menstruation).

Obviously, it’s easiest if you have a partner who gives good massages and wouldn’t mind offering a non-sexual spa hour to your outer pelvis and abdomen; however, if you don’t have the partner or the willingness from the partner, there are ways to give the gift of a massage to your own belly. You can even create your own massage oil with coconut oil, olive oil, or sesame seed oil.

2. Yoni Steam (aka, vaginal steam)

Douches are bad for your vag. Let’s just put that out there. The vagina is a brilliantly functioning, self-cleaning machine and DOES NOT need to be washed out. Douching will only knock out of balance the flora of bacteria and yeast that keep that pussy healthy.  (Just look at these wet pussycats to get an idea of how angry your vagina gets when you douche.)

That being said, steams are awesome and super simple. Basically, bring a pan of water to a boil. Remove from heat (and probably turn off your stove), add in some herbs or essential oils. Some of the ones I’ve loved and that are beneficial for the yoni are rosemary, rise calendula, and lavendar. Then sit over the steam pot, naked at least from the waste down, at a comfortable distance from the heat so that you feel it but aren’t in pain. You can get special chairs with holes in them, or you can just improvise in your own way to find a comfortable arrangement. The steam rises and relaxes the muscles, and the essence of the herbs works its magic on the mind and body. If you want to contain the steam for longer, wrap a blanket around your legs.

There’s been a recent surge of interest in yoni steams as a “beauty treatment,” which saddens me because it’s such a luxurious experience of self-indulgence and love on its own that it almost seems sacrilegious to turn it into yet another beauty standard. But it remains one of the “beauty treatments” that actually offers pleasure and health benefits, like a sauna for your lady bits.

3. Baths

This one seems so common-place that I shouldn’t have to put it down, but I do because I was told for years that baths were bad for women only to find out that it’s just the opposite. The first thing my physical therapist assigned to me when I began treatment was to take lots and lots of baths. Heat and water are healing and supporting, and I don’t know why we have developed a fear of their power.

4. Yoga

Add this to the list of health benefits for yoga: makes your vagina happy.

It’s more about the stretching actually, but yoga is my favorite way to get the stretching in. Poses like cobra, the arching cat, happy baby, child’s pose, goddess pose, garland, and basically any pose the stretches the abdominals or relaxes the pelvic floor is great.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So go pamper yourself. Or help your partner/friend/whatever pamper herself. Not everything that happens “down there” has to be sexual or medical. Sometimes it’s just plain sensual. Happy yoni-loving!

Social Media as Relational Hide and Seek

When I first left the cult, connecting with groups of survivors over Facebook was one of the few ways that I was able to maintain a sense of connection while being simultaneously shunned by many of the people I loved most. It was a lifeline, and I’m unashamed of how much of my time I spent on Facebook during those years.

However, Sherry Turkle recently delivered a TED talk about how social media can create the illusion of connection and intimacy while distancing us from each other as well as ourselves. Her talk hit a nerve with me. She mentions her former (and currently still surviving) hopes that social media and technology would provide ways in which we can deepen our self-reflection, thus deepening our intimacy with others.

But that’s not what she has been observing in our current trends. In her estimation, social media has become the drug that prevents us from recognizing how lonely we are or how vulnerable we are.

Social media has changed considerably in the six years that I’ve been using it.

Or maybe I’ve changed.

It’s kind of hard to tell because I am guaranteed to influence my own experience of social media.

It never occurred to me how much Facebook was different until I tried to switch to Ello. In the beginning of my Facebook days, I remember having actual conversations, some deep, some not so deep, and posting reflective thoughts…probably on the level of a blog.

But at some point, that changed. The format changed, but so did the posts. Which came first? I don’t think it’s possible to tell for certain. But there’s no denying that now my online activity consists mostly of watching silly videos, posting and/or liking pictures, and scrolling through an endless stream of meaningless information.

The deep conversations still happen, but not to the same degree that they did.

I’ve always been the person who defended Facebook whenever others criticized how shallow it was, how time-consuming, or how “not real human” it was…because my experience had been that it was incredibly meaningful. But in watching Sherry’s talk, I realized that my current use of Facebook has become shallow, time-consuming, and human distant.

At this point, I could probably go on a hiatus in order to focus on my real relationships. I wouldn’t be missing much of what happened in the time I was gone, and I probably wouldn’t be losing many relationships since I can contact most people in other ways…like by writing letters that say real things in them.

But more important to what Sherry is, I’ve noticed that Facebook is where I sometimes turn when I’m lonely.

As an introvert, there are times that I want to be alone. I become incredibly unpleasant to be around if I don’t get solitude to reconnect with myself.

However, as an introvert, it’s also hard for me to reach out when I want social connection, so in moments of acute loneliness, I hop onto the Internet to feel less alone. Part of that is from the habit of knowing that the Internet is where I would find comfort during my transition. I wouldn’t trade that aspect of social media for anything.

But Sherry  is right, I also sometimes use it to distract myself from my own vulnerability. There are times when I want to be around friends, but seeking companionship comes with the risk of rejection…

So I prefer to like a friend’s status, post a song that expresses my mood, or upload a picture of what I’m doing rather than pick up the phone and take the chance of hearing “no” when I ask if someone wants to hang out that night.

I long for the intimacy of close friendship, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate live friendships as well as the online ones. But at some point in the process of Facebook becoming the lifeline that kept me from being entirely isolated, it also became the barrier that keeps me isolated.

Sad, I know.

Especially since I know that most of my friends aren’t really rejecting me when they say, “no.”

But Facebook arranges it so that I don’t have to look into why it’s so painful and scary to face that because it has given me the means to pretend that I’m being very social and very open about my life and feelings without ever actually knowing who pays attention and who doesn’t.  It also gives me the means to hide from my own realization that I’m playing this game.

Thankfully, I think Sherry had the solution right. I can transform my experience of social media by transforming my relationship with myself and others. Rather than using Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram, or Ello) to escape from my own loneliness, I can use it to deepen my self-reflection, to increase my vulnerability to my relationships, and to explore the incredible depth of real, messy relationships.