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Bodywork and intimacy (2022)

You can listen to this musing here or read it below.

There is an idea that intimacy is about being understood deeply, like knowing another and being known by them in return. Maybe there is a promise of relating effortlessly. No conflicts, just peace. For example, I often hear people romanticize dream-like conversations with strangers that continue long into the night as something that reached a certain kind of truth, deeply hidden beyond many many layers of muddy and mundane topics. And to achieve this intimacy, one must gather as much information about the other as possible, like a detective or interviewer. Then, with all this knowledge, one will be able to co-exist with the other by knowing what to do. However, I think this idea of intimacy is wrong, and what convinced me was an interview with Leo Bersani, the co-author of the book Intimacies. And I think this other idea about intimacy is greatly reflected in my bodywork sessions, how I teach BDSM, and how I relate privately.

Foucault, in The Birth of the Clinic (I think), and the feminist philosopher Roslyn Wallach Bologh (that analyzes Max Weber), write about the subject-object relationship. Take the example of a doctor and a patient. Given the power of education and knowing, the doctor is educated to evaluate and eventually cure the patient. The patient is not an equal “subject” but rather an “object” to be studied and fixed by the doctor. Another example, when learning medical massage therapy, I remember this muscle called pectoralis minor sitting underneath the breast. I had to grab and move the boob to massage the muscle. Terrifying. But only if I related to my client as another subject evaluating me. However, if I saw them as an object and the breast as a piece of meat or a logistical problem, then it was no problem, and my client felt safe with me because there was no intimacy. The more I thought, “Oh, what will they think about me”, the more I asked to be evaluated as an object, therefore turning the therapeutic relationship around. Some ten-twenty trial sessions passed before I felt safe forming the subject-object relationship with clients, and since then, massaging pectoralis minor hasn’t been a problem.

However, this changed again when creating my therapeutic rope bondage and even more in the initiation for submissives. Because over time, clients are increasingly finding me to work on intimacy. Either because they are traumatized by intimacy and want to build a new relationship with it. Or because they are stuck in a subject-object way of relating to the world. In capitalistic patriarchy, objectification is the way to go. To shape the surrounding things into understandable and useable objects that give maximum reward for minimum effort. And to be successful at this, one learns the subject-object relationship, just like I did in the medical massage therapy education, and it’s even more defining in the universities then things get even more scientific. Don’t get me wrong; I love science for solving specific problems, even in bodywork with a malfunctioning muscle. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t create intimacy.

Instead, intimacy comes from a subject-subject relationship, as two things constantly being influenced by listening to the other. And I think knowing, or thinking that I know, interrupts the listening, as once I know, listening is just wasting time and energy. So, again, coming back to medical massage therapy, learning how to fix lower back pain by relieving the psoas muscle is excellent and efficient. But not intimate. And it’s the same with sexual intimacy; once one knows how to get their partner off and simply repeats it over and over, it becomes efficient and practical but not intimate. On the other hand, the dream-like conversation with the stranger is intimate because they don’t know each other, so they have to listen.

So when my bodywork sessions are aimed toward intimacy, the key is establishing the subject-subject relationship. The clients often ask for permission to feel me, not with their hands, but by feeling my presence in proximity to them. And, of course, they should. But, at the same time, they feel that I’m listening to them by feeling them. In my experience, people are so unused to being listened to in this way, so they often describe what I do as reading their minds. Instead, they are so used to the subject-object relationship from most doctors and therapists and unfulfilling love relationships.

One thing that made me laugh in the interview that inspired me to write this musing is that the interviewer is a psychoanalyst working with the subject-subject relationship (maybe all psychoanalysts do that, I don’t know). So at the beginning of the interview, she states that it feels so alien to interview someone, to ask them questions to extract knowledge because this is studying them as an object. And I understand her. I became very good at analyzing people’s bodies by studying medical massage therapy. But I learned to listen through the practice of rope bondage and tantric BDSM.

Roslyn Wallach Bologh describes heteronormative sexuality also as a subject-object relationship. The man should find and study his female subject until he can drive her as a race car to impress his buddies and feel accomplished. That’s also a reason that men don’t focus on their emotions because they are seldom or never the object. And that’s also why they primarily take indirect pleasure in observing their partner’s reactions. And the same thing is true in heteronormative BDSM, with the dominant man whipping his submissive girlfriend. Of course, this often leads to much performance anxiety and feeling lonely and objectified. I remember a couple at the Point of Surrender couples retreat; they were so much in love, but the guy was a massive doer and very successful in his career, and he wanted to learn how to be a doer in BDSM also. How to whip the right way, tie all the knots, and give the correct orders. And she felt the demand to react in the right way, to validate him—massive performance anxiety for both. Eventually, it broke for them; he cried out, I will never be good enough at this, and she replied, but I just want to feel you.

To end this musing, I’m coming back to my bodywork. In my experience, intimacy doesn’t need to be sexual. Sexuality in relationship to bodywork is already complicated because of prostitution, unfaithfulness in relationships, and how it’s portrayed today with over-dramatic fiction and pornography. Retreats and play parties are outstanding opportunities to learn about and celebrate sexuality; doing it inside a therapeutic relationship is more complex. Many people think that sexuality is what they want when intimacy is what they need. I believe that intimacy is big enough by itself. And, maybe, once one has learned intimacy, sexuality will follow smoothly. So, in my view, sex is one end goal of intimacy, but it’s only one of many, and it’s at the end. And what many people need is help to take the first steps in listening and feeling. Conscious kink and tantric rope bondage are excellent as foreplays, playgrounds, and rituals to practice the subject-subject relationships.