I am one of those people who knew they were different from the age of 4 or 5. I didn’t have the language to label it as queer or gay back then, but the feeling and knowledge were there. And isn’t that astounding in itself? That we are already so conditioned in gender and sexual roles by the age of 5, that a part of me already knew that my feelings were different?
Many parts of my identity set me apart, such as my cultural background, my migrant experiences, my health conditions, but being queer is the one which has placed me on the outside, at the edge of belonging, for most of my life. Other lived experiences and identities tend to find each other at the edge of belonging, and this is where my curiosity for people was born, as well as my rage towards injustices.
I began working directly with others as a youth worker, when I was a young person myself, and whilst I never really planned to become a therapist, it is a vocation which I feel I always had. I began working within the LGBTQI+ community around 15 years ago, in both youth work and advocacy, and later as a therapist, and have seen many things change in that time, including language and labels. I came of age in the time of acceptance and assimilation when labels were often seen as too problematic and attention seeking. Belonging, back then, felt like an erasure of something deep and meaningful. At least, it did to me. History was always one of my favourite subjects at school, and when I’m passionate about something, I like to know the full picture. Getting to know aspects of the queer community from different cultural contexts, time periods, and perspectives, always gave me a sense of strength and purpose. What a gift to be part of a community, which not only challenges gender and sexual roles, but which lives by principles that many still call heretic to this day!
Additionally, because I am gay and queer, I have always questioned things that were apparently the standard: gender, sexuality, and relationships. Every accusation of being too feminine made me question femininity, masculinity, and everything in between and beyond; every accusation of deviant sexual behaviour, made me question the politics of so called normal sex and sexuality; every time I’ve encountered a non-monogamous relationship or partnership, I’ve questioned why aren’t relationships more diverse, indeed! In my years of interacting with both queer and non-queer people, I’ve found that the former group tends to question these things a lot more often. We have a lot of queer thinkers, activists, and artists to thank for our current world of gender, sex, and relationship diversities.
It is because I am so attuned to gender and sexuality dynamics, that even though my work as a therapist has not all been in these areas, I have always been intrigued by issues and experiences around sex, gender, sexuality, and relationships. The prevalence of histories of sexual trauma and abuse within addiction services completely changed my view of the world; the incongruence between physical and emotional intimacy in the gay male community is still puzzling to me; the slightest mention of any of these topics in children’s mental health causes everyone to panic and freeze; and clarity and boundaries in relationships is probably one of my top areas of work as a therapist.
All of this has led me to the next stage in my career: psychosexual therapy. This entails using focused or longer-term psychotherapy to help address sexual problems. Or perhaps using a more holistic perspective, it is about addressing our relationships with sex and sexuality, as well as our sexual and romantic relationships with others. So, it is not just about problems we may be having, but also about being proactive about the joy and pleasure we could have. If anything has become obvious to me already, is that another powerful social conditioning most of us have is the medical model of sex. The medical model of sex dictates that sex is reproductive (particularly for women), and thus penetrative. The model is in itself a binary, and anything outside of that… well, I think most of us know the potential judgement and shame attached to sex for pleasure’s sake. And so, because sex has been traditionally seen through the prism of medicine and penetration, this type of conditioning tends to erase an entire spectrum of possibility to experience desire, pleasure, and fun. Isn’t it exciting that sex and sexuality can be so much more than what we were taught to believe, and have barely considered?
I am really excited to be learning a homeodynamic model of sexuality which states that there is constant communication between our brain, organs and body systems, emotions, and thinking processes, and back again, all in nanoseconds. In reality, all sections or elements are triggering and responding to all the others, all the time. Rather than look for homeostasis, it is suggested that human experience is homeodynamic – constantly in movement, in internal and external interaction (Laffy 2013). In this model, we consider the mind (beliefs and values), the brain (reflexive instincts and memories), the body (anatomy and physiology), and emotions and feelings (the experience of the energy that gets set in motion through the body).
I mentioned some of my queer experiences above not to say that I only work with queer individuals and relationships, but to say that there is already something expansive about being queer which helps me to explore this wide spectrum of possibility of sexual experiences and pleasure. It is interesting to me as a practitioner, and person(!), that we place so many expectations on our sexual experiences, without ever going through a good enough education or exploring for ourselves what many of these things mean to us as individuals.
I am curious: what are your personal experiences of sex and sexuality?
Inspired by my supervisor Kelli Swain-Cowper, who used to do a similar activity on a Postgraduate Diploma with counselling trainees to help them explore their sexuality and gender identity, I would like to invite you to initiate this exploration for yourself, through a sex and sexuality map of your life so far:
- It’s an individual activity, but because it may get very deep, I would suggest doing this alongside a trusted partner or friend, so you can talk to each other afterwards. In therapy, I would be there to support you, for instance.
- Be creative: use creative writing, or drawing/painting, or collage, or even songs, or any other means that resonate with you.
- There is no right or wrong. Begin somewhere, and see where it takes you. To help you focus a bit more, maybe think of 5 key events/experiences which formed your sexual identity. Feel free to do more than 5!
- Some points of reflection to consider as you create your map:
- First times: first time you thought about someone romantically and/or sexually; first time you realised someone thought of you romantically and/or sexually; first time you masturbated; first time you liked someone; first time you had sex; your first orgasm, etc.
- What experiences reinforced the binary of male/female reproduction, and what experiences might have gone beyond the binary?
- Same and different sex and gender: have you had experiences/feelings/thoughts/fantasies across the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality?
- What was difficult/painful?
- What was amazing/beyond words?
- Please remember that the map continues to develop throughout your life. We are in constant motion.
I feel there is much to say about sex and sexuality, given that so much of it is a taboo to many of us. This article is an invitation to all of us to start reflecting on our personal experiences, as well as sharing them with others. Like with any therapeutic process, exploring sex and relationships can be done by focusing on something specific, or by engaging in a long-term exploration. Either way, it will always be a continuous discovery of aspects of yourself, and whilst it may bring up lots of fear and discomfort, I believe it is essential to also (re)connect to the joy and pleasure of sex and desire. I always advocate for small and consistent steps to allow for proper integration of our lived experiences, so start with the map above, and see where that takes you.
Let me know how you get on!
Reference: LoveSex: An Integrative Model for Sexual Education, by Cabby Laffy
Illustration by Kate Smith @_katiesmith_illustraion_