Sunday, May 31, 2015

Becoming Orgasmic: Tantra as Therapy

Last summer at about this time I posted (in First Orgasms, and How Women Vary) about a young couple who were struggling with a common problem:  Sara's inability to have orgasms, either alone or during sex with her boyfriend Sam.  I posted the story because it had an exuberantly happy ending, but also because it was a good hook for discussing the very wide range of differences between normal women in terms of sex drive, orgasmic threshold, masturbation habits, and especially the ages at which they become sexual and orgasmic.

That post ended with a note from Sara celebrating her breakthrough and her first three orgasms ever.  But in posting it, I seem to have opened the floodgates.  Ever since then, I have been getting a steady stream of requests for help with problems that I would describe as "pre-tantra" - the kinds of sexual issues that need to be dealt with before you can move on to learning real tantric sex.

Most of these questions have been about four problems:
  • Getting to a first orgasm (Sara's problem)
  • Premature ejaculation (PE)
  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • Vaginismus
In each case, I have been struck by how much the standard non-pharmaceutical therapy used parts of the tantric sex experience.  It turns out that most of the things I have talked about in this blog - like meditation, massage, trust-building, relaxation techniques, kegels, alternative paths to orgasm, taking turns, going slow, taking the time to get fully engaged and aroused - are elements of tantric sex and key ingredients in the standard therapy models for sexual dysfunction.

Becoming Orgasmic
This was really driven home for me when I ran across a copy of a book first written back in 1976 and updated in 1988: Becoming Orgasmic: A Sexual and Personal Growth Program for Women, by Julia Heiman and Joseph Lopiccolo.  The book had been highly recommended to me by trusted friend as the most influential book of its time in terms of therapy for non-orgasmic women, so I wanted to see how they approached it.

As a teenager and college student during the "sexual revolution" of that period, I remember how daring people felt back then about discussing any kind of sexual issues openly.  Becoming Orgasmic feels much more modern than that, in part because it takes a warm, supportive, and very practical tone and never congratulates itself on being radical or progressive.  Yet it was clearly a pioneering book for its time.  Now, almost 40 years later, there are hundreds of books aimed at the same audience, and from what I can tell most of them are just clones of this one.

The book itself is a detailed program for women who have never had an orgasm and want to break through whatever barriers have been holding them back.  The first half of the book is about self-exploration, both mental and physical, involving everything from questionnaires, journaling exercises, and sex ed to structured fantasies, deep muscle relaxation, doing kegels, using a mirror to inspect one's own vulva, self-massage, basic and advanced masturbation, and a chapter on how to choose and use a vibrator.

The second half is primarily about activities with a partner, and as I read it the program they describe started to sound very familiar.  Deep relaxation, exchanging full-body yoni and lingam massages (in all but name), even starting "normal" sex with a connected-but-not-moving communion phase that sounds a lot like yab-yum.

Here are some excerpts:
At this stage, people often experience concerns about stimulating or pleasuring their partner or letting themselves be pleasured.  You may feel that you or your partner requires an undue amount of stimulation in order to feel pleasure, arousal, or orgasm.  Women in particular tend to feel "abnormal" because of the amount and kind of stimulation that they need. They may feel that they are being selfish and fear that their partner is feeling bored, detached, or resentful.  Fears and worries of this kind can put tremendous strain on your sexual sessions and it can prevent you from feeling pleasure or even experiencing orgasm.
I talked about this in some of my early posts.  Both Sara and Anna have told me how this concern or guilt about "taking too long" and "being too much trouble" distracted them and caused them to lose their arousal, stopping them from reaching an orgasm, just because they had much higher thresholds than Sam and Hans, respectively, and were feeling guilty about taking much longer than the men did.
Knowing what is "normal" helps to relieve many of these fears.  From our experience in helping women learn to have orgasms, we have noticed that when a woman first becomes orgasmic, it is not unusual for her to want and need a substantial amount of time and stimulation - an hour is not unusual. When we say stimulation, we are including hugging, kissing, massage, and breast and other body area pleasuring.  Genital stimulation itself may vary from a few minutes to forty-five minutes.  (We are not including intercourse here...)
What do you think the chances are that the authors were tantra practitioners in private and were incorporating that into their therapy practice?  Because that certainly sounds like an informal description of a full-body tantric massage!

The authors go on to recommend a therapeutic program where the partners exchange extended orgasmic massages, followed by conventional sex:
Alternating pleasuring, being pleasured, and mutual pleasuring will help insure that both of you are involved.  If all the attention is geared toward the woman having an orgasm, feelings of resentment and impatience on the male's part, and frustration and guilt on the female's part, are bound to occur. And, as we have mentioned before, the pressure on both partners to perform makes pleasure impossible.  Rather, try to focus on your own pleasure and remember that you can't force an orgasm.
"Alternating pleasuring, being pleasured, and mutual pleasuring" ... when you get right down to it, that's what we do.  That is the essence of the script for the tantric ritual, summarized in just seven words.
Communication is crucial at this stage.  You will both want to make sure that you are getting the kind of pleasurable stimulation that feels good to you. Also, at this time, try to give lots of feedback to your partner.  Feelings of boredom and detachment usually occur when one partner is feeling left out and unsure of what the other is feeling.  Reassuring your partner may mean nothing more than a grunt or moan to indicate satisfaction.  Saying a few words - such as "nice," "more," or "that feels good" - also contributes to feelings of intimacy and involvement.
I could have written that myself.  In fact, I did, almost word for word, in my posts on how to receive yoni and lingam massages!

In the section where the authors shift their attention to vaginal sex, the introduction is all about taking a long time for mutual massage and foreplay.  "Let it go on for as much time as you like - an hour is not too long."  When the woman is completely aroused and ready, they suggest starting out with penetration, but no thrusting...
At first, you can try just lying together without moving at all while the penis is contained vaginally.  During this time, you can talk or stroke other parts of each other's bodies.  Try a few vaginal squeezes around the penis and see if he can feel them. ... As you do begin to move, try slow, gentle body movement at first.
In other words:  yab-yum!  Complete with a Kegel challenge! :)

This is then followed by a long, detailed description about how to incorporate manual or vibrator stimulation of the clitoris into vaginal sex, including a discussion of why woman on top ("cowgirl") is the easiest position to do this in!

There's no way to prove it, but based on the above, and on many more passages in the book, I strongly suspect that these pioneer sex therapists were drawing on either accounts about tantric sex or their own experience with it, and that they were using that as the model for their therapy program for couples, without ever saying what they were doing or where they were getting their program from.

So... if that's where they got it, why didn't they mention the word "tantra"?

I'm guessing that it was because tantra was associated at that time with a sexually promiscuous religious cult with a bad reputation, and mentioning it would have scared off the people they wanted to reach:  normal, if somewhat frustrated, women who wanted practical help, not a lot of mysticism.

A final quote from the book:
Usually, the more orgasms a woman has had, the easier it is to have more.  
Yes, indeed, and thank heavens for that!

When you follow through the chapter outlining their therapeutic recommendations for couples, the program they prescribe adds up to somewhere between 90 minutes and three hours, depending partly on how long the woman spends on "pleasuring" her partner.  If you assume half an hour for him, an hour for her, 15 minutes for yab-yum, 15 minutes to finish, and no breaks, then that's still a minimum of two hours ... a startling prescription for an America where marital sex that lasted more than 10 or 15 minutes (including foreplay) would have been considered pretty decadent.

This was radical stuff for the time.  Oral sex was still a taboo subject for most Americans in the 70s.  Erotic massage was a seriously revolutionary idea, and most Americans still thought of masturbation as a harmful and shameful practice.  Alex Comfort's book, The Joy of Sex, was widely regarded as shocking and pornographic when it was published in 1972, although by today's standards the original edition seems tame and rather chaste.  The idea of serious medical professionals telling married women to masturbate would have been disturbing for many people, and the idea of oral sex and mutual masturbation being prescribed as therapy must have been shocking!

The key point for me is that, apparently, these authors drew on experience with tantric sex to set a therapeutic agenda for couples that hasn't changed much since.  And that means that a lot of what passes for sex therapy is now, and has been for some time, essentially an informal, unnamed version of tantric sex.

The alternative is that, once it became possible to experiment with extended sex, therapists essentially rediscovered what tantric practitioners have been doing for centuries.  If this is so, I can only assume that they converged on the core tantric ritual for the simple reason that it works and it creates powerful effects for reasons that are tied intimately to human physiology and psychology.

Those reasons go back to the basics of what we do and why it works.  See my earlier post on The Five Keys to Tantra and the series on brain chemistry that starts with Tantra and the Chemistry of Sex.  Deep relaxation, full-body massage, close attention to your partner, prolonged sensuality and arousal, and good, sustained, loving sex turn out to fix a lot of problems as well as producing a lot of pleasure.

I'm not sure why, but as an evangelist for tantric sex and for the way it can strengthen and sustain the bond between lovers, I find this convergence of tantra and sex therapy deeply satisfying!  Still, I wonder ... how successful were the authors of this book at persuading staid, middle class American couples of the 70s and 80s to spend two hours or more having sex on a regular basis?

Of course, in one sense, I'm not at all surprised that sex therapists who had discovered or rediscovered tantra would make use of it in therapy for pre-orgasmic women.  Because if there's one thing we do know about tantric sex, it's that it is in fact an extremely effective way to help women who have trouble reaching orgasm.

Most of the women I interviewed for this project had had trouble having orgasms during partnered sex before learning tantra, and more than half of them had never had a single orgasm during vaginal sex.  After learning tantra, however, every one of them now routinely expects to have multiple orgasms during a tantra session, and a solid majority of them are routinely orgasmic during "regular" sex.

Part of that, of course, is having partners who can go the distance with them, which leads me to....

Other kinds of therapy
Over the next few posts I'm going to discuss tantric sex and its use as therapy for the other three issues on my list, namely...
  • Premature ejaculation (PE)
  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • Vaginismus

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