Sex Educator Interview #6: Dr Liz Powell

Today’s interview is with Dr Liz Powell, who co-hosts Life on the Swingset the podcast as well as doing tonnes of other awesome work. Let’s dive in to what she had to say…

Tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?

I’m Dr. Liz from sexpositivepsych.com. I’m a sex educator, speaker, co-host of the Life on the Swingset podcast, and regular guest on several other podcasts as part of my mission to help people have more meaningful, pleasurable relationships in life and work, as well as the bedroom. I’m also a coach and licensed psychologist (CA 27871)  that works with thruples, couples, and singles to help folks be more of who they really are and communicate more effectively with their partners. Because being confident in who you are is the gateway to great relationships and great sex – and great sex can change the world.

Can you tell us (in brief) your “sex educator origin story?”

I’ve been out as queer since I was 17, had my first non-monogamous relationship at 17 (dating quad), and have been involved in kink since I was in college. I was always the person my friends came to for questions about sex or to take them shopping at the adult store. Once I was getting ready to leave the Army in 2015, I decided to transition to full time work with my favorite populations – sexual and gender minorities (SGM) – and issues – sexual problems, relationship issues, trauma. I then started presenting at different conferences and from there went into teaching at venues like sex shops and the Armory here in San Francisco. I love the work I do and I feel really lucky that I get to devote my time to topics I’m passionate about!

What came first: sex education or psychotherapy? How do they inform each other?

I’ve wanted to be a therapist since middle school because I loved figuring out how people work and helping people grow and heal and thrive, so I guess in some ways the therapy part came first. However, I did my first informal sex education work in college when I was president of my school Gay Straight Alliance, long before I ever saw any therapy clients, so maybe it’s that therapy was first in my heart, but education was first in practice. Regardless, I love them both and I think they go hand in hand really nicely.

Why do you think it’s so important for psychs and other medical professionals to be sex positive, and how would you like to see the medical community change in this regard?

In graduate school, the entirety of my training in sexuality was a one weekend class. 10 hours. That’s it. When I worked in multidisciplinary teams in the Army as a psychologist, I saw first hand how little education in sexuality and non-mainstream relationship/sexual practices most medical professionals have. In the field of therapy, most therapists never ask their clients about sex, even though most psychiatric conditions impact a person’s sex life. Medical professionals have often balked at the STI testing I request from them, and some of them haven’t had current information about STIs at all. When we, as those holding a position of power in a provider-client relationship, don’t address sex, we reinforce that sex is shameful and not welcome in our room. We prevent our clients and patients from sharing important information with us that is impacting their lives in deep ways.

I think most professionals shy away from sex because they’re worried that a client will view questions about sex as a come on or something inappropriate, but research shows again and again that our clients follow our lead when determining what they can and cannot talk about. If you bring your own shame or judgments about sexuality into your practice, you are harming your clients and patients.

For instance, I recently saw a Facebook post by a psychologist I knew in the Army outright stating that they would never approve someone’s request for gender confirmation surgery because they think trans people are mentally ill. The American Psychological Association has clearly stated that the research indicates that gender dysphoria is a medical concern, not a mental illness, and that the harm is in denying treatment, but this person, because of his own judgments, is comfortable publicly stating his intention to shame and harm any trans clients he works with.

Without sex positivity in our practices, we violate the first principle of almost every code of ethics in our fields – that we do no harm, and maximize benefit. We as providers must unpack our own issues so that we can serve those who entrust us with their well being.

What’s the best thing about being a sex educator, in your opinion? The worst?

I’ll start with the worst because I like to end on high notes. The worst part of being a sex educator, for me, has been how hard you have to hustle to just start getting paid. I did a panel last year with Dirty Lola of sexedagogo.com and Rebecca Hiles, The Frisky Fairy, of friskyfairy.com, called Sex Positive and Poor where we all talked about how broke most sex educators are. Most of my friends who do sex education for their main income are constantly worried about paying their bills. Being a therapist helps with this some, as I can make a decent income from individual client sessions, but building up a private practice is slow and I went into a lot of credit card debt to get my business going. It looks way more glamorous on the outside than it feels on the inside.

The best part of being a sex educator, at least in my experience, is the amazing community of people I get to be a part of. I’ve got people in my life who I can send a message to about the crazy sex I had and they’re there to cheer me on. Or I can message them to talk about the grief I’ve been working through about my lover who died. The folks I’m lucky to call friends are some of the most kind, loving, smart, perverted, funny people I’ve ever met and I am thankful every day to have them in my life.

What’s your favourite project that you’ve done/been involved with?

My favorite is one I’m currently working on! Cooper Beckett, one of my Life on the Swingset co-hosts, and I are writing a book called Building Open Relationships. It’s a practical, hands on, nuts and bolts guide for how to actually DO non-monogamy. There are so many great theory-based resources out there (More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy), but both he and I felt like some of the nitty gritty was missing. We’re creating worksheets, conversation starters, checklists, all kinds of nerdy goodness to help people learn from our mistakes and success.

Tell us about a book that completely changed your life/perspective?

I think this would have to be something by Brené Brown, probably Daring Greatly. Something most folks don’t know about therapists in general, and me in particular, is that we can seem super open and vulnerable, but most of us (or especially me) often suck at being really vulnerable. It’s like I’ve got this great facade of openness that keeps folks outside of the REAL walls. In the last couple of years, I’ve been working really hard on moving past perfectionism and self-judgment and developing my skills at vulnerability and honesty. It’s been a really really REALLY hard journey, but I feel like a much better human, leader, therapist, educator, friend, and partner because of it.

What’s something you used to believe about sex/relationships but don’t believe any more, and what changed your mind?

I used to believe that you could use rules in a relationship in a way that could be healthy. Before I go further, I want to clarify that I’ll be using the terms Boundaries, Agreements, and Rules the way they are defined in More Than Two – boundaries are about myself, agreements are renegotiable by any involved party, rules affect parties that do not have renegotiation power.

Back when I first did some non-monogamy, I almost always had rules with my partners about what I would “allow” them to do with others or what I was “allowed” to do. Many of these rules involved sex acts, time spent together, or levels of emotional involvement. I think that most of the time these rules came from a place of feeling afraid or insecure and wanting to create an external structure to prevent those feelings from happening. What changed this for me was lots of failing in relationships to live up to rules I had agreed to or failing of partners to live up to rules they had agreed to. I also think that reading More Than Two and their clear ethically rooted explanations about rules made it really clear why using rules wasn’t within my values.

What’s the one thing that you wish everyone in the world could understand about sex/relationships?  

There is no “right” way to do anything in the sex or relationship realm, only ways that work better or worse for you and those you’re doing it with. Trying to do things by someone else’s rules or standards will only make you miserable. You have to do things the way that fits for you.

What do you think is the most toxic myth that our society perpetuates about sex/relationships?

There are so many! I think the most toxic myth is that there’s one right way to do things, and you know you’ve found it when your relationship lasts until death. By that standard, I recently had the perfect relationship – we never fought, we were smitten with each other, and after dating for 10 days he died. We lived out ’til death do us part thanks to his sudden, unexpected heart attack. We need to find the success and lessons in relationships that don’t end in death (and those that do) and stop saying a relationship “failed” because it ended or because it was different.

What’s the best sex advice anyone ever gave you?

Never fake it, tell them what to do to help you actually cum.

What’s one question that you wish people would stop asking you?

“Are you analyzing me right now?” As soon as folks find out I’m a therapist, I get this one or its companion “Oh, well I’m not going to talk anymore.” People think they’re being funny, but really, this is just silly. 1) Analyzing folks takes work and you’re not paying me. If you want to shell out some money then I’ll be happy to tell you about yourself, but otherwise, unless it’s flagrant, I’m just trying to be a regular human in the world. 2) Your discomfort around a therapist says WAY MORE than anything else that would’ve come out of your mouth. 3) These are probably the least original things you could say to a therapist. They tell me you’re paranoid, boring, and prone to subtle attempts at manipulation. So if you don’t want me to know things about you, don’t say these things.

And just for fun, because it is “Coffee and Kink”: do you like coffee and how do you take it?

I’m generally more into tea, but I do like coffee on occasion, generally either sweet and light or a nice blended butter coffee (I know, I know, super hipster).

Thanks so much to Dr Liz for her time and expertise. Don’t forget to check out Life on the Swingset podcast and her business, Sex Positive Psych.

Can the Concept of Foreplay Just Die in a Fucking Fire?

Controversial opinion time: FOREPLAY IS NOT A THING.

The lower half of a woman's face, sucking on a strawberry in a seductive fashion. For a post about foreplay

There’s a big problem with the concept of foreplay. I don’t mean the acts it entails – fingers, tongues, mouths, toys, making out, massages, undressing each other and more. All of those things, and many more, are wonderful and valid expressions of sexuality.

But those things? They are not foreplay. They are sex.

Let’s break this down. ‘Foreplay’ implies that it comes before something – namely, of course, penis-in-vagina (hereafter PIV) sex. And this is problematic on a number of levels.

First of all it’s heteronormative as fuck. Not everyone is straight and cisgender. Not every sexual pairing consists of one penis and one vagina. The implication here is that only heterosexual, cisgender people have Real Sex (TM) and everything else is ‘merely’ foreplay.

Secondly, and this may come as a shock – not all straight, cisgender people like PIV sex! Even pairings of one penis-owner with one vagina-owner does not necessarily imply that PIV will be their favourite sexual activity or even part of their sexual repertoire at all.

Personally, I love PIV sex. I come really fast and repeatedly from g-spot stimulation and Mr CK’s cock hits that sweet spot just perfectly. But there was a time – a long time – when it wasn’t my favourite sexual activity, because earlier in my development intense g-spot pounding did very little for me.

I’ll let you in on a secret – even though I love it, loads of the sex I have isn’t PIV focussed. Plenty of the sex me and the Mr have together doesn’t involve penetrative fucking – just last night, for example, he caned my ass then watched and talked dirty to me while I got myself off with my Doxy. And it was a wonderful and fulfilling session. For various reasons relating to non-monogamy agreements, the Ace spectrum and people’s boundaries, I’m only quite rarely having PIV sex with anyone other than Mr CK right now. The sexual relationships I have with other people are still amazing, hot and fulfilling. And sometimes, this queer girl even fucks other people with vaginas! (Shocking, I know.) Those sexual encounters with other vagina-owners are not, I promise you, any less amazing than those with penis-owners.

When a guy bends me over his lap, spanks me until I’m dripping and then fingers me hard while telling me what a dirty slut I am? That’s sex. When I pin a girl down while Mr uses the Doxy on her until she comes and he doesn’t even take his pants off? That’s sex. When I’m playing with another woman and I go down on her and she finger-fucks me until we both come? Sex. When he holds me and reads a filthy story to me or talks me through a hot fantasy while I wank? You guessed it… sex.

That’s why I want to kill the idea of foreplay forever. It places PIV as the pinnacle of sexual experience and everything else as something lesser, something not quite real, something before.

There is no such thing as this thing called ‘foreplay,’ because there are a million things under this amazing, huge umbrella that we call ‘sex.’

This was my final post of #Smutathon2017. If you’ve enjoyed it, please donate to the amazing charities.

The image featured in this post was offered for use via Creative Commons Licensing. It’s the pic that came up when I searched “foreplay” on Pixabay and it amused me, so it stays.

Terrifying Sexual Laws You May Not Know About

[Note: this post focuses on UK laws and is by necessity limited to my own country.]

Sexuality has been criminalised in various ways for the vast majority of human history – in particular female sexuality, LGBTQ+ identities, and anything else the wider culture deems ‘deviant.’ This post will explore a few of the more fucked up laws of the last 100+ years…

A judge's gavel and 2 books for a post on historical sexual laws

Hysteria & Nymphomania

Around a third of female patients admitted to asylums in the Victorian era suffered from this supposed ‘mental illness’. ‘Symptoms’ included promiscuity, bearing illegitimate children, or masturbating. To say that these places were prisons is probably understating the horrors these women would have suffered – at the worst end of the spectrum, rape and murder of ‘inmates’ were not uncommon. In the 1860s, clitoridectomy – the surgical removal of the clitoris – became briefly accepted as a treatment for various ‘conditions.’

Criminalisation of Male Homosexuality and the Sexual Offences Act

Any act of homosexual sex between two men was criminalised until 1967. The Buggery Act of 1533 made ‘buggery’ (sex between two men) punishable by death. This was replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which reduced the highest sentence to life imprisonment. Male homosexual sex remained a crime until the Sexual Offences Act 1967 finally decriminalised it between consenting men over 21. (The age of consent for heterosexuals was sixteen. 21 was lowered to 18 in 1994 and only equalised to 16 in 2001.)

Interestingly, sexual activity between two women was never technically criminalised in the UK. An urban legend suggested that this was because Queen Victoria held that ‘women do not do such things’. But historians now widely consider this to be untrue. Some suggest the male establishment avoided legislating on lesbianism for fear of giving women ideas. Others believe that it simply did not occur to the male lawmakers of the day. Whatever the truth, until the age of consent was legalised across the board in 1994, there was no statutory age of consent for lesbian sex.

Two high-profile men who fell foul of this law were Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1895 and died 3 years after his release, and Alan Turing, who killed himself in 1954 after being sentenced to chemical castration for “gross indecency” two years earlier.

Spousal Rape

It was completely legal for a man to rape his wife in the UK until 1991.

Read that again.

I’m not very old and that was within my lifetime.

This is because, historically, marriage was a contract of ownership and women were considered the legal property of their husbands. Sir Matthew Hale in his History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736) wrote that ‘the husband cannot be guilty of Rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself up in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.’ In other words, by consenting to marriage (and the concept of ‘consent’ is dubious at best under a system in which a man could sell his daughter off to the highest bidder) a woman was consenting to any and every sexual act her husband might wish to perform upon her.

I’m ambivalent towards legal marriage anyway. I cannot imagine ever wanting it under a system like this. Again, marital rape has only been a crime in the UK for 26 years.

Section 28

Section 28 or Clause 28 was enacted in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and stated that any local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ In other words, homosexual sex had become legal two decades previously, but discriminating against LGBT+ individuals was not only legal but borderline government mandated.

In practice, Section 28 made it illegal for authority figures like teachers to tell children that being LGBTQ was okay. This led to not only widespread homophobic bullying with little to no recourse, but also LGBT+ young support and social groups, particularly in schools and colleges, being shut down for fear of breaching the Act.

This law was only taken off the books in 2003. I was thirteen in 2003 – I’d already had some 3 years of whatever shitty sex ed schools had to provide. At no point had we been told that being anything other than straight was even an option. I was questioning my sexuality at 13. It might have saved me many years of confusion and self-loathing if my teachers had just been able to say, ‘some boys like boys and some girls like girls and some people like both and by the way, boy and girl aren’t the only gender options.’

If only.

BDSM: The Spanner Case and beyond

The Spanner case was a landmark case in 1990. 16 gay men were handed sentences of up to 4-and-a-half years in prison for engaging in consensual sadomasochistic activities. Their defense – that it was all consensual – was denied and the convictions have since been upheld. This case is complicated – there was video evidence (technically extreme pornography) and an extensive investigation of what the police initially thought was a snuff film, meaning the investigators may well have felt compelled to bring criminal charges so that the investigation had not been a ‘waste’ of time and money.

Consent is not always a defense. Under UK law, you cannot consent to assault. Judge Rant decreed during the Spanner trial that ‘bodily harm applied or received during sexual activities was lawful if the pain it caused was ‘just momentary’ or ‘so slight as to be discounted.” His judgement applies also to bodily marks such as those produced by beatings or bondage. These too, according to him, must not be of a lasting nature. In essence, Judge Rant decided that any injury, pain or mark that was more than trifling and momentary was illegal and would be considered an assault under the law. This means that while most common BDSM activities are not illegal to perform in and of themselves, more extreme acts could technically fall foul of the law – however consensual they may be.

There are very very few documented cases on the books, but involvement in BDSM is not legally protected. In theory, a person could be fired, lose custody of their children or be evicted from rented accommodation for participation in BDSM.

The amazing organisation BacklashUK campaigns for sexual freedom and believes that these laws and others like them are outdated, harmful and discriminatory. We agree. That’s why we’re supporting them with Smutathon 2017. Please donate here if you believe this work is important.

The image featured in this post was offered for use under Creative Commons Licensing.

How to Find – and Work With – a Sex Positive Therapist

Mr CK and I have officially The Best Therapist In The World (According to Us.) We really landed on our feet – when we decided to explore joint counselling as a way to ease the transition to living together and deal with some past traumas, we thought it would be really difficult to find someone who would accept us in all our poly, kinky weirdness. Instead, the first person we contacted turned out to be the perfect therapist for us (and has an office a minute from our house, which doesn’t hurt.)

Most people, however, are not so lucky when trying to find a therapist – and the more ‘out of the mainstream’ traits one possesses, the harder it is. So I thought I’d put together a quick guide to help you find, and work with, a sex-positive therapist who’s a good fit for you.

1. Use an appropriate directory

There are directories of kink-aware (etc.) professionals. Try the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (multiple countries, somewhat US centric,) the Open List (US only) or Pink Therapy (mainly UK,) or even just do a Google search with some keywords and see what comes up. If you can find someone who is already versed in working with sexual minorities, you’ll be on much better footing right from the beginning. But if this isn’t possible or you can’t find someone suitable from these resources…

2. Put everything on the table upfront.

By ‘upfront,’ I mean ‘ideally before the first appointment.’ Chances are you’ll talk to a potential therapist on the phone, or at least by email, before setting up your first appointment.

I listened hesitantly as Mr CK laid everything out on the phone to our potential therapist a year ago. Queerness? Check. Polyamory? Not an eyelash batted. Surely BDSM would be too much for her to deal with? Nope. (‘Consensual sadomasochism? Oh yes I know what that is.’) It was a difficult conversation to have with a total stranger we were potentially going to entrust with our innermost traumas and strains, but it was so, so worth having. Because when we walked into her office, we knew that none of the many facets of our unconventional sexual identities were used against us.

3. Make it clear your identities aren’t the problem.

The other piece of our success was making it clear that ‘we’re queer, polyamorous and kinky… and none of those things are at all problematic for us.’ It was context, not a statement that these things needed fixing. If your therapist pathologises your sexual identities or tries to convince you they need to change, fire them immediately and go to someone better.

4. Be unapologetic.

This applies in your initial disclosure of your identities and also any subsequent discussion in case they come up. If you act like your identities are something to be ashamed of, your therapist is more likely to react in kind or to perceive them as some kind of problem. If you’re matter of fact and unapologetic, they’re more likely to take the information on board as nothing more than useful background knowledge.

Say this: ‘Just so you know, for context, I’m queer, polyamorous and practice BDSM. Do you know what those things are?’

Not this: ‘Um, I know it’s weird, but… I do some unusual sexual stuff. Please don’t think I’m a freak but…’

5. Expect them to educate themselves

Unless you’re unbelievably lucky, your therapist will probably not be an expert on all the different facets of your identity. Educating them is not your job. Of course, you will need to talk about what words like ‘polyamorous’ or ‘kink’ or ‘sex positive’ mean to you, but you’re paying them to help you, and that includes educating themselves. If they’re asking you basic or 101 questions, suggest some resources and move the conversation on. If they make no effort to learn, they’re not a good therapist.

6. Don’t be afraid to steer the conversation

If things come back to aspects of your identity that aren’t relevant to the subject at hand, don’t feel afraid to steer the conversation back in the direction you want it to go. ‘I don’t think X is relevant here’ is a useful phrase. Again, if they insist that an aspect of your sexuality is a problem when it isn’t problematic for you, think about moving on. If they use any expression resembling, ‘you wouldn’t have this problem if you were [monogamous/vanilla/whatever,]’ I strongly suggest ditching them straight away.

7. Remember you deserve top quality care.

You’re probably paying a lot of money for therapy, but whether you are or not, you deserve the best care from your therapist. They work for you. You can end the therapist/client relationship any time you choose and there are amazing therapists out there, so please don’t settle for someone who doesn’t treat you – all facets of you – with the respect you deserve.

How has your experience of therapy been as a sex-positive, LGBTQ+, non-monogamous or kinky person? Tell me about it in the comments or drop me a line.