Let Me Walk the Labyrinth (On My Knees and Blindfolded)

Let me walk the labyrinth on my knees and blindfolded. 

I walked a labyrinth for the first time in years a few days ago. In modern usage, a labyrinth is a spiritual tool, a bit like a maze with no dead ends. It takes you down a winding path to the center and then back out. Just when you think you’ve made it, the labyrinth sends you far away from your destination. People will often enter a labyrinth with a question in mind and let that labyrinth carry them through as they contemplate it. That all sounds lovely and poetic in theory, but I’ve never really ‘gotten’ labyrinths. Like many spiritual practices, labyrinths frustrate me, and not in a way that feels spiritual.

I’m a bit like Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who once said, “I get what can only be described as road rage when I’m stuck behind someone walking slowly in a prayer labyrinth.” I walk, and I try to feel something ‘spiritual,’ and then I get frustrated with myself for putting that kind of pressure on what is essentially a stroll. I crunched through the leaf litter of this outdoor labyrinth recently, struggling to let go long enough to feel the leaves–as it was, I experienced them intellectually, outside myself, as noisemakers that could interrupt other walkers. I wasn’t always like this. 

I danced through my first labyrinth, which was just a marked mat spread out in the church fellowship hall. I was a child skipping gleefully past all the adults, who took slow, careful steps, as if they were walking a tightrope. They stood for long minutes in the center like sleeping birds while I ran rings around them, giddy with the twists and turns. Now, I’m an adult, so caught up in doing it right, in making enough space for the other walkers, and trying to be remotely ‘spiritual’ on top of that. A spiritual practice that provokes that kind of excess thinking isn’t for me. 

Or maybe it just requires a little modification. What if I allowed myself to dance through the labyrinth again? That would require me to overcome that sixth sense I’ve developed over the years, the one that says “It simply isn’t done.” It sounds spirited–and spiritual–to me. Conversely, what if I gave up my accustomed sense of sight, reliant on the feel of the terrain to know I was following the path? I would have to crawl, grounded in a tactile sense. Would I fight my way through the darkness? Or would I roll around in the dirt, reveling in my sightlessness? I’m not sure I could even complete a labyrinth by myself in that state. I would need the help of other people, ones willing to see me fumble around in broad daylight, to keep watch.

I can think of nothing more spiritual. Maybe I would rage at God. Or puzzle over God’s absence. Or feel overwhelmed by love. Or just pretend to be a mole. Anything but this painfully grown-up labyrinth performance. So no more spiritual tightropes. Let me not know what to say during prayer. Let me cry through my chants. Let me laugh through my Lectio. Let me walk the labyrinth on my knees and blindfolded. 

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth design

Stone labyrinth image source

Chartres Labyrinth image source

An Aural Epistle

Note: This one’s sexually explicit and about me. Beware! 

Auralism: the fetishization of sound

I’m an aural person. I enjoy hearing words, sounds, and songs. In sexual contexts, I’d much rather hear than see. There’s something about the unspooling of the voice as arousal builds that just gets me. My sub is quite vocal, and he’s gotten louder with training. I delight in the unconscious sounds that he makes, from little gasps to broad, ecstatic moans. And I admire them. It takes guts to be so noisy. 

Sometimes, I have him send audio recordings. He always records himself when I allow him to orgasm. Several days ago, I gave him permission to play with himself, with one caveat: he would have to ‘talk’ the whole time. Now, to be clear, this was not a phone conversation. This was sexting; he would be talking to himself. I imagine that’s difficult, but he did it. 

Somehow, just knowing that he was obediently narrating his desires to an empty room aroused me almost as much as hearing him in person. While he edged, I settled in and started to explore my own body–I ended up doing a little edging of my own. The thought of him panting as he forced himself to make words was almost enough to tip me over the edge, but I wanted to wait. I told him that I expected him to speak right up to the moment of orgasm.

I can’t capture sound in writing, but the result was delicious, right down to the fuzzy microphone feedback. He told me how much he loved being fucked by me, described what he wanted me to do to him, and begged to cum. His orgasm came like a record scratch, mid-sentence. Mine followed by mere seconds, nearly silent. And then he thanked me. 

Silence is dignified, but sound is brave. Through hearing, I share in my sub’s bravery. Next time, maybe I’ll do the talking.     

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Being a Body

I had my first “Bodies and Theology” class today. It was great. Apropos of my last post, we started class with theatre-influenced movement exercises. At one point, the professor (who is wonderful) asked us to walk like dogs. While my classmates remained upright, I dropped to the floor and scurried around like a puppy. I got to be silly–and there is exhilarating bravery in silliness. We also created some body sculptures, an exercise borrowed from the Theatre of the Oppressed. Posing together without any foreplanning, we attempted to convey the concepts of “knowledge,” “theology,” and “God” through our bodies. 

“God” was the most challenging; our professor invited those who weren’t part of the sculpture to modify it. They joined our hands together until we formed a circle. As a result, the body sculpture that started as a vision of disconnected hierarchy (one person standing, others kneeling and cowering), became an image of connection and interdependence. A very different understanding of God. Rich discussion arose from the choices that we made to represent each idea, the beliefs and biases that they revealed. 

In this class, we are invited to discover God as people with physical bodies. Christianity isn’t traditionally good at that, so I’m excited about this opportunity. It also feels good to have a break from the intensely cerebral space of other classes. When we shared our reasons for taking the Bodies class, I said that I wanted to work on being ‘present’ as a body and to experience things without immediately intellectualizing them. For those who follow my kink journey, that’s also a goal I have for my current exploration of submission. My Dominant said early on that she wanted to see me “feeling without thinking.” What a terrifying thought!

Thinking and feeling are my bread and butter. My strong feelings are normally mediated through intellectual, critical thought, which is useful most of the time. It can, however, lead to a sense of distance from my body when I most want to be present, as if I’m more of a brain floating along than a full being. It sometimes means that sexual experiences feel ‘hotter in hindsight,’ more intensely erotic after I’m removed from the situation than in the moment. I hope that the movement and physicality that this class requires, my continued kink exploration, and the interplay between those two different realms will encourage me to enjoy my body and connect with the Divine in a new way–as an embodied person.

Simon Says

This thought was already rattling around in my brain before I saw that this week’s Wicked Wednesday prompt is “Authentic,” but reading that word clarified why the thought needles me. I will illustrate through anecdotes (note: some overthinking and self-deprecation here).

I have an unusual skill, which is that I’m very good at “Simon Says” (that childhood game where you have to follow “Simon’s” orders, but only if they specify “Simon says”–I could see this going in a smutty direction some time, but not today). I once won a Simon Says competition, beating over a hundred people (I knew not to stop spinning when the next command was given).

My skills had been honed by theatre camp. My first director was a champion Simon; she would call out commands at lightning speed, sometimes tacking “Simon says” onto the end to catch us off-guard or making the wrong motion. The only way one “Simon” was able to best me was by tricking me (“Simon says do this,” he said, while my eyes were closed; I opened my eyes, of course). I wasn’t just good at Simon Says; I also fared well as a statue when we played “Museum guard.” The object of that game was to be the last statue standing while the guards walked through, trying to get you to unfreeze (usually by making you laugh). 

As I look back on that time, I find it interesting that while I struggled with improv games, I was unusually good at games that required me to be focused, still, silent, and obedient, a blank slate. I didn’t even particularly like them, but I liked the simplicity they fostered and the success of winning. 

Very occasionally, I wonder, “Is that my authentic self?” It unsettles me. I don’t want to feel trapped in one mode, which those games required. I don’t want to be shamed by an inability to act decisively when I need to. I’m not clay waiting to be molded; I have my own base characteristics and agency (right?). I want to be authentic, but when I overthink, I worry that my authentic self isn’t someone that I want to be.  

What I believe to be true most of the time is that I actually have many authentic selves, and I don’t have to stick with just one. I can enjoy entering that flow state of obedience without worry, as long as I feel ethical (as when I devote hours playing techie, helping a friend to edit a musical piece to her exact specifications). I can greatly enjoy being a focused, vigilant presence–I carry basic first aid supplies around for a reason. Today, I gave two classmates Neosporin. One compared me to Mary Poppins. #Goals. I also like to be mischievous and silly. I drew enormous eyeballs on the common room white board this afternoon (and got others to join in drawing!) just for the amusing thought that someone will discover them later. I sing to myself when I can. Last night, it was some mixture of “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Elendil’s Oath.” 

For me, the key to true authenticity is a system of ethics that I choose to live by–love, justice, compassion, and curiosity, to name a few. I am allowed to express those values in obedient, fierce, dramatic, quiet, aggressive, wise, and silly ways, without jeopardizing the core of who I want to be. I am many things, but as long as I strive to live out my values, I am authentic. For the moment, that means I get to draw all the eyeballs, sing all the songs, and follow to my heart’s content, but I will not be roped into another game of Simon Says any time soon. 

Image source

Fetish Foibles, Part 2 – Cleaning Communication

Welcome to Fetish Foibles, the series where I talk about my kinky mistakes! Read Part 1 here

One thing I’ve discovered in my time as a Dominant is that I enjoy receiving practical, concrete acts of service. My sub enjoys serving. I present this scenario for your edified entertainment: my apartment needed cleaning. My sub and I decided to try a scenario during which he cleaned my apartment in the nude, that classic staple of D/s fantasy. I made him a list of things to do. He stripped naked and got to cleaning. 

I, meanwhile, caught up on homework. When he finished tidying and scrubbing, I ‘inspected’ his work, feeling like Mary Poppins in her white gloves. My sub confessed a few minutes later that he felt bad about my assessment. I realized that I had been overly harsh for the situation; I had fallen back on corny erotica tropes about cold, critical Mistresses who demanded perfection instead of treating the cleaning like the loving service that it was. While we cuddled, I apologized and thanked him for letting me know how he felt. Through that process, we discovered a few issues that made the task less satisfying for both of us than it could have been.

First, we came at the service from different standpoints. I wanted practical, time-saving service that would free me up to do other things. My sub wanted to clean as an extension of our erotic play, imagining me watching him, teasing him at various points throughout the service task. A more thorough discussion of our wants and expectations would have helped us both. 

Second, we threw nudity in without considering our task environment. If you’re gonna clean in the nude, remember the factors of chemical exposure and room temperature–my sub got cold! 

Third, I used a more critical approach to assess the work than I normally would–one that was not true to my needs or our D/s dynamic. In my sub’s case, it was reminiscent of a difficult dynamic from another part of his life that he didn’t enjoy. It is perfectly fine to negotiate a service task in which the Dominant acts very stern and critical, but that emotional dynamic should not be taken for granted or forced upon a situation where it has not been negotiated. 

Nowadays, I still assign practical service tasks that aren’t the slightest bit sexy for my sub (they’re still sexy for me; being served and obeyed is immensely satisfying in many ways), but I’m more mindful of the importance of clear communication about our expectations and desires from service.

Fetish Foibles, Part 1 – Play Partner Selection Error

Greetings, Beloved! I’m starting a little post series about mistakes that I’ve made over time as a kinkster in hopes that others will be edified and comforted. As Queen Clarisse Renaldi would say, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did…make your own mistakes!”

Today’s foible: play partner selection error. TL;DR – I suffered many fools for no good reason. #QuelleSurprise

Finding a trustworthy play partner can be a harrowing process, especially for women. So far, I haven’t had any traumatic experiences with people I’ve chosen to play and/or have sex with. I’m grateful for that. Early on, I wasted far too much time entertaining people (men) who were pushy, flaky, or just not evolved enough to engage with kink safely. 

For example, I once gave my phone number out to a guy who then revealed that he self-identified as a sociopath (a “socio”). He appeared to have no understanding of why that was a problem, and I actually tried to explain it to him

At the time, I had this strange idea that because I was a new Dominant, I had to “pay my dues” by putting up with mediocre experiences and attitudes. Please note, especially when you’re just starting to explore, mediocre experiences are part of life, even when the stars seem aligned for maximum pleasure. But there’s no need to waste time on people who don’t care about your needs. 

My first mediocre kink experience occurred on a kinky Discord server with an anonymous switch guy. I dommed him in a lengthy text-based roleplay scene (we must have texted about six hours in all!). While I enjoyed the scene, he kept wanting to interact with me as “Mistress” afterward and messaged regularly looking for dominant attention from me. I got overwhelmed and soon just stopped replying to his messages. We both made mistakes in that situation. He assumed that I would always interact with him as a Dominant without asking me what I wanted. I just went along with it and replied to his messages in the way that he wanted, feeling like it would be rude not to (until it was just too much and I had to jump ship). At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I could have said, “I enjoyed our play but I don’t have the energy to dominate you all the time” or even “Thanks for playing, but I don’t want to talk to you right now/anymore.” I was the flaky one (the flaker?) in that situation, though I don’t blame myself; he really should have known better. 

In other situations, I was the flakee. I would talk to guys who would disappear, only to pop up again weeks or even months later as though no time had passed. One guy was a combination of flaky, pushy, and unevolved. When he messaged me, I put a great deal of emotional labor into teaching him how to navigate FetLife respectfully. He ‘didn’t have time’ to go to munches. Nowadays, that would be an instant “Nope” from me. If you can make time to get fucked up the ass, you can make time to eat pancakes. Back then, I tried to be understanding. We met up briefly and scheduled a play session (we were both really interested in pegging). I bought lube, gloves, and a bulb enema for him. He cancelled at the last minute. We scheduled again. He cancelled. He tried to coax me into sending pictures of my strapon. At one point, I replied, “Too much trouble.” He didn’t message again for six weeks.

When he finally did, I was just laying the foundations of my dynamic with my current sub and told him that play was unlikely. He responded by pouting (“Oh I’m :/ well let me know if things change”). In his last message, he said he didn’t want to be “that annoying guy” but wanted to see one more time if I was interested. The sad part is, I don’t think he realizes that he became “that guy” a long time back. He was the stereotypical horny FetLife jerk, and I almost played with him. 

How do I avoid the jerks? Nowadays, I rarely consider anyone who doesn’t go to munches. And I pull back from any stranger who leaps to ‘submit’ to or ‘serve’ me for no good reason; that’s domism, and I’m not indulging it. Kink is a collaborative process. Most guys I met in my early exploration didn’t get that memo. 

I’ve also learned over time to weed out anyone who self-identifies as an “alpha male.” It leaks defensive, patriarchal shame, and I’m not taking the time to unpack that with random dudes anymore (for the record, I nope right past the “alpha females” too). My emotional labor is valuable. If a guy I’m talking to says something that rubs me the wrong way, I say so and (sometimes) give him a chance to correct himself. Seeing how someone reacts to being told “No” early on can be a great early indicator of how they’ll act later. Generally, I feel that I’m in a safe enough position to give second chances. Not everyone has that privilege, and I wouldn’t judge anyone who has more stringent boundaries. It feels good (though I roll my eyes at myself) to see how much I’ve grown in being able to set the boundaries that work for me. Do you have any “fetish foibles” to share? Had any play partner fiascos? Let me know in the comments! 

PS–Great video on how NOT to approach people in kinky contexts here

Featured image:  Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henri Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France

File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpg

Attribution: Alex E. Proimos [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] No changes were made to the image.

That Awkward Moment When Even Theoretically Discussing Punishment Makes You Cry…

[Image description: Photo is of an old bamboo rod, not recommended for heavy impact.]

Negotiations continue for #Subpocalypse2019. I’m currently negotiating a new D/s dynamic and making discoveries along the way. Today, we’ve been discussing the concepts of “bratting” and “punishment.” I asked my prospective Domme to give her thoughts. She explained the nuances of bratting well. Bratting is a slippery term that encompasses many complex ideas (including but not limited to playfulness, manipulation, flirtation, and acting out). Folks pursuing D/s, make sure you’re on the same page about bratting! But I’ll reserve thoughts on that for another post. The concept that really got to me today was Punishment. 

Now, I know I’m not the only kinkster who grew up dreading punishment, whose childhood school identity was “angel” rather than “brat.” I glowed under the praise of my teachers and rarely got in trouble. Of course, the other side of that coin was that on the rare occasions when I actually did get in trouble, I was a wreck. The punishments felt so public–through the fourth grade, most teachers used a tag-pulling system, cutesy laminated construction paper cut-outs labeled with our names. If you got into trouble, you had to “pull your tag/card/take down your airplane.” For me, having to go up and move my own name to lower level was embarrassing, even shaming. And yet, other students, whose identities were not rooted in their similarity to divine beings, got in trouble daily without a care. I’ve learned some of their habits over the years. I’m recovering from perfectionism and have grown a fiercer, more flexible approach to life–one can’t be an angel in justice ministries; only humans need apply. 

Today, however, I read this Domme’s descriptions of the scenarios that would warrant punishment (mostly outright disobedience or disrespect) on the brink of tears. It wasn’t just vulnerability related to giving someone the authority to punish. Apparently, the prospect of punishment–even entirely theoretical–was enough to put me right back into that third-grade “I disappointed the teacher!” mindset. 

So, you might wonder, why even make punishment part of the dynamic? Not all D/s dynamics incorporate real punishment (and most scenes use, at most, ‘funishment’). In vanilla life, I have limited faith in the utility of punishments to change behavior. But. I can’t imagine subbing to someone in a stable dynamic without giving them the power to punish. As a Dominant, I occasionally use punishment in my dynamic with my sub. To me, in a D/s context, punishment calls attention to a problem quickly and decisively, it reinforces the power exchange dynamic, and it helps both parties to reset and move forward. 

Does punishment itself modify behavior? Perhaps, but not necessarily. As I think back to my school days, I imagine that I would’ve made about the same number of mistakes with or without punishment. Disappointing people that I respected, on top of failing publicly, regardless of the reason, hurt.

As I think about it more, while I would hate to do something ‘punishment-worthy’ as a sub, I also realize that I’m not stuck in the ‘angel’ mindset anymore. This is a dynamic that I’m choosing as an adult. I’ll try my best, but I don’t have to be perfect. My identity isn’t built on that anymore. And when–not if–I get punished, I won’t be recoiling in defense of that identity. Punishment is not about ‘being bad’; it’s about using all the tools available in this consensual power exchange to learn and grow, even when it’s hard. I will need to be vigilant when that ‘angel’ mindset pops up, but I now have the resources (perhaps including punishment) to treat it as a way of thinking borne of perfectionism, not my core identity. 

For other takes on punishment, check out my new flash erotica series Penance and my essay “BDSM is Not Repentance.”

My Spiritual Journey with Queerness and Home Church Drama

[Image description: Photo is of a set of New Interpreter’s Bible volumes.]

This is a speech I gave this evening at a local PFLAG meeting that overlaps a bit with my “Diversity is Chosen” Pride Sunday epistle. PFLAG is a support, education, and advocacy organization for LGBTQ people and our allies.

Most of the time, I count myself pretty lucky in the faith department. I grew up in a nurturing Christian community. It’s basically “the little brown church in the vale.” As a preacher’s kid (my mom is the pastor), I was fully integrated into the church family from infancy. For example, I was a baby shepherd in the Christmas pageant. When I was coming along, there was only one other child close to my age, and we both participated in Sunday School and worship. We sometimes took up the offering, lit the Advent candles, and sang songs. We both joined the choir in middle school, and guess what! We’re both still in the choir. 

I was fortunate. Unlike many of my LGBT peers in Divinity School, I didn’t feel like I had to ‘reconcile’ my faith with my queerness. I’ve never worried that I was going to hell because of my sexual orientation or gender identity. I thought for a while that I was going to hell for other reasons–I had a sort of crisis at age seven where I worried about not believing enough–after that, it was relatively smooth sailing. Nobody in the church ever told me that I couldn’t lead, nobody criticized me for not being feminine. 

The people in my church crossed the social and political spectrum. I watched women and men lead and nurture. When I started wearing suits and ties to church instead of dresses, nobody said anything negative. But growing up in that church, especially here in the rural South, was still complicated. We couldn’t talk about LGBTQ issues in the church for years. Everyone knew that some of the church folks had grown gay children, but nobody said much about it.

The church had a vocal fundamentalist faction that was kept in check by my mom’s declaration that they would not say anything hurtful to those parents. That declaration had a mixed impact. Conversation about the issue was almost nonexistent in her presence, so I didn’t hear much from the church about homosexuality either way. The only time I remember anyone saying something anti-gay was when she was away, when one member of that faction would substitute preach. 

And I loved those people too, and they loved me. One of them helped me to tie my paisley necktie the first time I wore a suit to Sunday school. But when the Presbyterian General Assembly decided to allow gay marriage in the church, they decided to leave. That tore our church apart. It was like losing aunts and uncles. At the time, I wasn’t ‘out’ to many people in the church. Only my parents, theatre colleagues, and college friends knew that I was bisexual. I had come to that understanding of myself around my junior year of high school. I wasn’t one of those people that ‘always knew’; I didn’t have a very strong sense of my sexuality in general until high school, when I started watching a whole bunch of movies in the “Gay and Lesbian” section of Netflix

I didn’t start dating until age twenty, but my first partner happened to be a woman. I really wanted to bring her to church, to meet my family, but I knew that wouldn’t be safe and would create a difficult situation for my parents. The church got a lot safer for me when people left. I waited for the dust to settle, and then I came out to my Sunday school class before the service one day. It was awkward, though the reaction was neutral-to-positive. I said “I have an announcement to make, which is that I am bisexual, and if you don’t like it, it’s okay, I love you anyway.” I rushed through an explanation, assuring them “It doesn’t mean I’m promiscuous” even though inwardly I thought “Promiscuity isn’t a bad thing either.”

I wanted them to understand fully who I was. I didn’t want to be judged but made room for them to disagree without withdrawing my love from them. 

I’m not sure whether that was ‘grace’ on my part or an offer of compromise driven by a desire for the community not to split further. Either way, I got confirmed in the church. After college, when I did my interfaith service year, which happened to coincide with Trump’s election, I encountered non-affirming people who were unwilling to revisit their understanding of biblical scriptures. One of my own housemates confessed that she didn’t want to advocate for me as a queer person. She wanted to live and let live.

And you know what? My service year taught me that that’s not enough. If you, as a Christian, claim to love me but aren’t willing to reflect on your beliefs enough to hear me, I have to keep my distance from you. 

People love to uphold diversity and tolerance as these magical concepts that cure all ills, but my time in the church and in interfaith settings showed me that diversity is chosen. When most of the fundamentalists left my church, it lost diversity, and it lost the gifts that those people had given, especially in terms of music. And yet, it’s nice, as a queer person, not to be considered expendable. I’m not pleading with my family to care about my basic rights, and I’m not hiding my sexuality to seem more palatable to people who don’t care to learn. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the past few years–it’s okay to make things awkward. 

Of course, I still have to compromise and choose my battles as I move through the world; I have to talk about the Clobber Passages and dialogue with non-affirming Christians. That’s part of survival. But in my ministry and in my personal life, I really want to move beyond the basic premise that “It’s okay to be gay.” I don’t want the conversation to be “It’s okay to be gay if you get married and have a white picket fence because of this specific passage in Genesis about how man shouldn’t be alone.” 

I want Christian love and respect for the queer people who don’t want or can’t access the white picket fence, and that includes nonmonogamous queer people, and queer people of color, and queer people who have casual sex, and trans people who don’t “pass,” and queer people who are struggling to survive because they can’t or won’t hide. 

I want straight cisgender Christians to see us as people they can learn from, not just the ‘diversity’ on the margins of the church, but people whose wisdom is worth protecting. I want church families to see divinity in the “chosen families” created by queer people, many of whom don’t go to church or even believe in God. 

Queer people don’t have to look or act a certain way to be worth our time and investment. And I feel like I’m able to say that because I’m cisgender, white, and middle-class. I’m not risking being thrown out of my communities if I demand that people listen. I’m not worried that if I lose my faith community, I won’t have a safety net.

So I want to conclude this talk with gratitude to PFLAG for the warmth of this community, what a haven it is for me even when church is a mixed experience. I admire the work that the PFLAG allies especially have done to move through discomfort about homosexuality so that they could step up to welcome queer people into our community. And I also want to invite us all to keep growing, listening, and learning, so that we can serve, protect, and love each other even more. Amen.

Leadership is a Team Sport

[Image description: Photo is of two lounging cats. One looks at the camera, alert, while the other relaxes.]

Throughout high school, I never thought of myself as a leader. I was the quiet, nerdy artist who never could quite keep up with what was going on. I wasn’t often bullied, and I even experienced rare bursts of admiration when classmates watched me draw. But I didn’t think of myself as a leader, and I was not popular. (Cue “Popular” from Wicked.) 

During my ninth grade field trip, my teachers tried to push me into leadership by putting me in charge of the rest of the class for a team-building exercise. I stood on the ground while my classmates tried to shuffle their way across a low tightrope between two trees. My job was to tell them when to move, how, and where. 

The teachers kept adding restrictions. For example, I was the only one allowed to talk or move without direction. It did not go well. After tipping off the rope for the umpteenth time, my disgruntled classmates asked the teachers to replace me. The next attempt (with a different leader) went a little better, and the class eventually completed the challenge. Was a team built? Did I lead? Did we trust each other more after that? Not really. My teachers meant well in assigning me a directive role; they wanted me to rise to the occasion and gain confidence. Unfortunately, they didn’t set me up for success as a leader. As a ‘team,’ we were unequipped in several ways. 

First, the teachers ignored the dynamics of the class; we were all still hormonal, image-conscious teenagers. Some in the class, for better or for worse, had support and experience as leaders. I simply was not one of them. The teachers tried to impose a different dynamic without preparing us all to try it in good faith. 

Second, the teachers took away the tools I needed to communicate with the class and make good decisions. I could not read my classmates’ faces. Meanwhile, they were utterly dependent and unable to communicate with or support me. No wonder they got frustrated. 

Third, I lacked the desire to lead. Sure, that was related to shyness, perfectionism, and low self-esteem, but trying to force a shy perfectionist to lead confidently by putting them in a situation with no reason to feel confident tends to backfire. Ironically, as the only person allowed to move, I felt paralyzed. The resulting failure reinforced my belief that I wasn’t a leader. 

What could we have done differently in that situation? Any number of things might have helped. For example, we didn’t have to do that particular team-building exercise; we could’ve done the “human knot” game, where the team tries to untwist and very link does its part. 

The teachers could have asked for volunteers in the first place (I was not ready to be singled out for that particular activity). 

When we learned what the challenge was, we could have come up with a strategy or even divided leadership so that people on the ground and on the rope could observe what was happening and make recommendations. 

I could have paused the activity and asked for communication and suggestions, or I could have said “I’m not equipped for this; we need to let someone else have a turn.” 

My classmates could have handled their frustration better, perhaps stating their feelings and asking what I needed instead of just complaining to the teachers. 

The teachers could have made time for us to debrief after the activity, figure out why it was so hard, assure us that it was okay, and get input on what to try for next time. 

Shoulda coulda woulda. But thinking through what could have helped us then reminds me that ‘leadership’ is a team sport; no one ‘leads’ in a vacuum. 

I’ve had several less unpleasant opportunities to lead since that demoralizing experience. Joining Girl Scouts as a highschooler gave me opportunities to lead in a more conducive setting (yep, I joined Girl Scouts after most people drop out). 

I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses as a leader with help from friends and mentors; in my senior year of college, one of my college professors said I exemplified “leading from the middle.” With the benefit of experience, that ill-fated highschool exercise has provided a way for me to reflect on how I can set myself, my friends, my teammates, and my partners up for success.

In some cases, I am the designated leader and make firm decisions in that role. Even then, I need the support and input of others and the resilience to acknowledge when something doesn’t work. Most of the time, I share leadership with others on my team and support other leaders as we work to build the dynamics we want, protect our communities, and create spaces for growth and refuge. Leadership is not a one-person show. Instead, leadership is a matter of process and relationship, a team sport in which we all participate. 

My Experience with Pelvic Pain

[Image description: Photo is of dark purple flowers spilling from a white hanging basket.]

Content notice: In this post, I’ll talk about virginity, my journey with pelvic pain, and medical treatments that I’ve pursued. I hope that this epistle will help people to understand one kind of pelvic pain and get a better understanding of what to expect from treatment if they have that kind of pain. 

By some people’s standards, I’m a virgin. Why? Because I’ve never received vaginal penetration from a penis. Most of the time, I think that’s hilarious because I’ve had several sexual experiences and consider virginity a very silly social construct. I like to joke about how I could be sacrificed to the Kraken to save a kingdom. A knight would be pleased to rescue me from a dragon. Funny how those scenarios would involve me being imprisoned and subject to pain or death. 

In reality, I haven’t had “penis-in-vagina” sex because I have a chronic pelvic pain condition called vulvodynia. More specifically, my issue is called vulvar vestibulitis. That means that the vestibule, an area surrounding the vaginal opening, is inflamed and sensitive to pressure. This makes vaginal intercourse difficult and painful. I seem to have had it at least since puberty; I remember not being able to insert a tampon when I first started my period as a teenager. A little embarrassed but not aware that it might indicate an issue, I just thought “Well, I guess I can’t use tampons. *Shrug.*” 

As I developed sexually, I discovered my clitoris and learned how to have lovely external clitoral orgasms, but I never much bothered with trying to penetrate myself. In hindsight, that seems odd to me. I wonder whether I tried it once, felt like I was hitting a wall, and decided not to try again. At the time, any desire for penetrative sex wasn’t on my radar. Even when I became sexually active, I didn’t go to the gynecologist; I had heard horror stories of gynecologists in my hometown who didn’t care if their exams hurt their patients–when I mention that to people, they have their own stories to share. I hope to learn more about why that is soon.  

Fortunately, when I did finally see a gynecologist, referred through a routine STI testing appointment, I found one who was compassionate and understood pain. She also happened to have a divinity degree, a big plus for me as a divinity student. A female nurse and a male medical student also attended the exam. The student was nice but clearly didn’t expect to interview a queer, sexually active patient who couldn’t receive penetration. I had a bit of fun watching his reactions as I explained that I have a very fulfilling sex life sans PIV, swinging my bare legs as I sat there in my oversized cloth examination gown. I can be a little emotionally sadistic when it comes to teaching people new stuff. 

The gynecologist was very kind. She listened as I explained my inability to be penetrated and then attempted a vaginal exam, flanked by the other two. Oddly, I didn’t feel embarrassed by the three lab-coated figures looming like angels at the foot of a bed; I just thought it was nice to have a team of people who wanted to take care of me. When I said “Okay that hurts” and started to shrink back, she stopped. It had felt like sharp pressure. She said that my hymen was intact and referred me to a pelvic pain specialist. I left the appointment emotionally wrung out but relieved that I was finally taking a step to help myself feel better. 

When I visited the pelvic pain specialist a few weeks later, she also attempted an exam, briefly penetrating me with one finger. It burned. She explained that my vestibular inflammation and pelvic muscle tension had created a feedback loop: chronically tense muscles aggravated inflammation, which increased tension and pain, leading to a dread of penetration and more inflammation. Vestibulitis can have many possible causes, she explained. For some people, yeast infections (which I did have as a child) lead to greater pain sensitivity. Some people experience an unusual proliferation of nerve endings. Some have a history of sexual abuse; tensing and guarding is a protective response to the trauma. For others, contact dermatitis from irritating soaps, pads, or underwear materials is the main culprit. I would add that anxiety and socialization in a culture that teaches vulva-owners to expect pain with intercourse compounds those issues. 

I’ve become a lot more mindful of my feelings in the past few years, but I wonder how long I experienced chronic tension in my body before I had the language to explain it. I was a sensitive and anxious child who never got in trouble at school. Adults in that arena either didn’t notice my anxiety or didn’t see it as a major problem, as long as I was ‘mature’ and ‘well-behaved’. I wonder how much of the tension I experience was carried from childhood into adulthood without my awareness.

In any case, the specialist and I attacked the problem on multiple fronts; while I might choose never to have PIV sex, decreasing muscle tension and inflammation was a worthy goal in itself. 

She prescribed a hormone cream, recommended dilators and physical therapy, and suggested some lifestyle changes. I marched out of CVS that afternoon armed with Shea Moisture Soap, cotton period pads, and unbleached Seventh Generation toilet paper. Of course, before I did that, I had a very quiet crying fit in the Panera Bread–it had been hard to endure the searing pain of the exam, to feel betrayed by my body’s self-protective processes. 

As a cis woman, I didn’t feel inferior about not being able to have intercourse, but I did feel dysfunctional as a human being. In reality, people of every gender can’t have or don’t want to receive penetration for many reasons, and that’s okay. It’s not shameful. But I had to remind myself of that. 

The treatments are helping; I have been using a high-quality set of silicone dilators, and that process is gradually getting easier. Read this post to learn what I use and how. (Please note, dilation isn’t always a linear progression; some days are easier than others, and I do get frustrated with it sometimes or even skip it for weeks at a time.) 

At my follow-up appointment, the pain specialist* managed to do a full exam. As she pressed on different areas, I was able to focus and distinguish different sensations. For example, I could breathe and notice that one area didn’t hurt at all, while another, tenser area felt irritated or sharply painful. The pain hasn’t gone away, but I understand it. I know that I can make decisions about how to respond to pain without judging myself for feeling it. 

I might like receiving vaginal penetration some day. I might not. But fortunately, no matter what society thinks about the status of my body, I’m not actually a sacrificial maiden. I get to have as much or as little of whatever kind of sex I want, and I get to nurture my body. In a way, I’m grateful for the pain, as much angst and inconvenience as it has caused; it’s taught me how to find many avenues for pleasure and reminded me to treat my body with kindness when it’s hurting. That’s all for now, but I will continue to write about pelvic pain and share resources. 

*I swear, I’m going to have to write an erotica called “The Pain Specialist” now. 

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