I See You
Now stream online anywhere in the US and Canada through the Lunenburg Doc Fest. Click here for access.
In April 2022, I facilitated a 5 day retreat for women and gender queer artists about sexual health and their relationship with their bodies. Although I have facilitated many retreats, it was my first time in a documentary. The director Amy Trefry and I strategized about how we might support the participants feeling emotionally safe enough to share while being filmed about such a personal topic. It turned out that we didn’t need to worry.
We began the first evening of the retreat exploring gender identity and sexual orientation. I was aware of an age gap for me at 69 and the folks in their 20’s and 30’s in particular. As a lesbian feminist activist in the eighties and nineties, we explored these issues. Now a few generations later, I can see major shifts.
There is a healthy confidence and willingness to speak their needs in relationship, including about sex. There is an assumption of equality. There is a fluidity around gender and sexual expression. This is what I like and don’t like. What about you? How are we going to please both of us? Their courage, and what they take for granted, is exciting and inspiring.
Each person created art during our time together, and this was shared on the last day. Everyone was so open and authentic, I was touched and brought to tears by each of their performances and creations. Marlee O’Brien and Kim Cain created paintings and spoke with us about their meaning. Rosanna Burrill and Kiana MacDonnell wrote songs and sang them for us. Percy Mullally shared a touching spoken word piece. April Hubbard is a circus arts performer and created a powerful movement piece. The director Amy Trefry did a masterful job editing the 5 days of retreat to beautifully capture each person’s story.
In preparation, I researched current thinking on sexual pleasure and health, and focused in on Dr Emily Nagoski’s excellent book Come As You Are, the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. EmilyNagoski.com
I learned many things from Emily’s book and work. One of the most relevant for me personally was about the gas pedal and the brakes. There is neuroscience here and gender differences. People conditioned and raised as girls/women tend to have higher brakes, which makes sense given the way women are seen and used as as sexual objects in our culture. This has and is changing — and — we live in a patriarchal rape culture. This harms us all.
Some people view a broader range of stimulus as relevant to sex making it easier for them to anticipate sexual pleasure. Men are more likely to be in this category although this is true for many women.
Pleasure is a process and interaction influenced by 3 systems.
Enjoying system: Does it feel good? How good? Does it feel bad? How bad?
Expectations: We link what’s happening now to what should happen next based on cultural conditioning and our personal history.
Eagerness : Fuels the desire to move toward (seeking affection or stimulation) or away (seeking safety).
When we’ve had sexual trauma, we have sensitive brakes. It takes a lot of concentration to tune in to sexual pleasure, making a conducive context important. Emily has several excellent worksheets on her website to explore this for ourselves, and we did this during the retreat.
It helps to know about the nervous system and fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn responses. Looking back, I have such compassion for myself as a teen with so many traumatic sexual and social experiences. I see why I was in a freeze response and disconnected from my body and pleasure. In my unconscious mind, I associated harm and abuse with sex instead of care and pleasure.
For those of us with sexual trauma, it takes an almost perfect context to relax and enjoy ourselves sexually. It’s not that there is something fundamentally flawed with us. We have sensitive brakes and there are reasons for that. With everything in life, our primitive brain is trying to protect us. It takes conscious attention and exploration to experience sexual safety and pleasure. It helps to know this because it helps to let go of shame.
Sexuality is intimate and powerful. Sexual health includes freedom in our gender expression and sexual orientation, healing trauma, feeling connected in and with our own body, and claiming or reclaiming sexual pleasure.
I feel honored to have been part of this experience and I am excited to see everyone again at the screening in a few weeks. If you’re near Halifax, join us in person. If you’re in Atlantic Canada, you can watch the film online. If you’re not, keep an eye open for the documentary at a film festival near you.
When I returned from the retreat, we focused our Sunday community class on the retreat topic. Watch the recorded portions here.