Who knew sexological bodywork could be about so much more than sex?
When I was traveling several years ago, I met a sexological bodyworker — a hands-on sex coach who uses physical touch, breath, movement techniques, and verbal guidance to help people get into their bodies and work through any problems they’re having in the bedroom. I was going through a period of sexual exploration at the time and the concept sounded intriguing, so when I got home I made an appointment with a bodyworker near me. I didn’t know that I was beginning a journey that would open me up more than just sexually.
Sexological bodywork is a fairly new field, founded in 2003 by sex scholar and filmmaker Joseph Kramer. People working in this profession report to the Association of Certified Sexological Bodyworkers (ACSB), which upholds standards around consent and professionalism. (For example, not allowing bodyworkers to engage in sexual relationships with their clients.)
Here’s how it generally works: Before a session, the bodyworker has a discussion with the client that includes what they’re looking to work on, any history of trauma, and where the client is and isn’t comfortable being touched. Any touching is also discussed in the moment so the client is in control of the session.
Touch, in this context, is unidirectional, meaning that while a bodyworker may touch a client with their gloved hands, the client does not touch the practitioner. Certified practitioners affiliated with ACSB have undergone training through affiliated organizations such as the Institute of Somatic Sexology and the Somatic Sex Educators Association.
Jennifer Berman, a urologist and co-host of CBS’s The Doctors, considers sexological bodywork to be within the realm of alternative treatments but doesn’t discount the experience of those who find it useful. “It’s not scientifically evidence-based,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean people don’t benefit from alternative therapies.” However, Berman recommends that anyone experiencing sexual problems see a doctor first to rule out medical causes.
During my session, the bodyworker had me lie down on a massage table, started with a full-body massage, then performed “genital mapping,” where he touched different parts of my genitals in different ways with gloved hands and had me rate the sensations from -2 to 2. (I felt a little nervous about the whole situation, but let’s just say I was able to let loose once I began saying “two.”)
He also showed me where various parts of my anatomy are believed to be, like my G-spot and A-spot (the anterior fornix, all the way up by the cervix). By the end of the session, I had practiced how to unapologetically give instructions in bed and gained confidence in my ability to receive pleasure from a partner.
I practiced how to unapologetically give instructions in bed and gained confidence in my ability to receive pleasure from a partner.
While sexological bodywork might sound woo-woo, perceptions of it are quite positive among sexuality professionals. “I think that sexological bodywork as a practice can be very beneficial for couples and individuals serious about improving their sex lives, preventing premature ejaculation, overcoming sexual trauma, and more,” says Atlanta-based therapist and sex educator Meka Nicole.
Sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon agrees. “Imagine you have a sore muscle — someone could give you instructions to massage or stretch it on your own, but oftentimes, it’s more effective to allow someone else to help us,” she explains. “Given [sexological bodyworkers’] experience, working directly with your sexual response may give them greater insight on what is happening inside of you, which may more directly address the problem.”
I went back to that bodyworker several more times and had sessions with a few others, who helped me identify where my boundaries were and guided me toward feeling more confident about my body. I had breakthroughs and cried in these sessions as I realized there was nothing wrong with me sexually and that I didn’t need a reason to say “no” to any sexual encounter.
About a year into these explorations, I heard about a sexological bodyworker training near me offered by the Institute of Somatic Sexology. Since I’d gained so much from participating in these sessions, I imagined how much I could gain from understanding the practice and the underlying principles.
After filling out an application and being interviewed by one of the program’s teachers, I was accepted. The program, which cost around $6000, was made up of three parts: Module 1 involved reading and video-watching, weekly group calls, partnered assignments, and online forum discussions, module 2 consisted of a 12-day in-person training intensive in LA, and for module 3, we had to practice sexological bodywork for 25 hours and discuss our sessions with a coach.
During the two months of module 1, I met up regularly with another student to practice everything from anal massages to “witnessing,” where we masturbated in front of each other. I was paired with another woman who was also new to this field, so we helped each other through any emotional discomfort that came up. As part of another assignment, I cultivated a daily “orgasmic yoga” practice, which meant masturbating with specific breathing, movement, and touch techniques.
It was during module 2 that things got intense. Even though I had already practiced some of the sexological bodywork techniques with another student, there was something about the group setting that made everything more intimidating. We had to give full bodywork sessions, which meant I had to not only touch people’s genitals but also attend to their feelings in the process. Of course, I was not forced to complete any of the exercises done in class — and was discouraged from doing anything that made me uncomfortable— but I was there to stretch my comfort zone.
This led to an unsettling realization — I didn’t know how to really put my attention on another person. When I was performing bodywork, I found myself zoning out. I just couldn’t seem to focus. What I was experiencing felt to me like boredom, but some of the program’s leaders suggested there was something deeper behind it. Sexologist Sarah Melancon says that a “shut-down” response like this can be a reaction to trauma among other things, even if there’s no acute trauma like sexual abuse.
This explanation resonated with me. I’ve always taken a while to form close relationships with others, especially ones that involve giving to them — almost as if I’m afraid that if I give too much, I’ll lose something. These fears also manifested outside of bodywork sessions, like during breaks when I’d gravitate toward spending time alone. Group situations had always felt threatening to me; blame my teen years, but I felt like an outsider. I was beginning to see how I naturally assumed the role of the outsider in groups so that nobody else had the chance to cast me in that role.
The people skills I thought I was devoid of, I’d had all along.
After the first week, I had a long discussion with a coach in the program about my struggles. “I think that turning inward is just a habit for you,” he said. “I can tell you have a big heart. But turning outward toward other people is just a muscle you haven’t really exercised. You can grow it, though. And there’s a way to give that actually fuels your energy rather than drains you.”
His comments felt so wrong and so right at the same time. I had never thought of myself as somebody with a “big heart.” Yet deep down, I knew I was. It was as if that part of me was dying for an opportunity to come out. That was the real reason I had signed up for that course.
For the remainder of the intensive, I resolved that I wouldn’t shy away from other people when I was practicing bodywork. Instead, I would lean in as much as possible. Once I made that decision, I was surprised by how naturally the practice came to me. All I had to do was focus on someone’s body, and I began getting intuitive about how to touch them and what to say to them.
During one session, my partner wanted to gain confidence in expressing sexual attraction. He ended up staying clothed the whole time as I talked this issue through with him, gently touching his arms and head, and guiding him through breathing exercises. He told me he experienced a shift when he explained how he felt around attractive women and I asked him, “What would you like instead?” He ended the session by repeating over and over, “My desire is a gift.” Afterward, he told me, “You can do sexological bodywork if you want to. You’d be good at it.”
Hearing this was revelatory. The people skills I thought I was devoid of, I’d had all along. I was not the self-centered loner I’d always secretly feared I was destined to be.
I took my new attitude into social interactions with the other students as well. I walked up to groups of people and sat with them, pushing past that awkward feeling of being an intruder. I started conversations despite the voice in my head telling me, “They probably don’t like you.” I told myself over and over that I was just as much a part of the family as everyone else. That I was part of the family of humanity — and that didn’t have to mean they were taking anything from me.
Ultimately, the facilitators determined that despite the effort I’d put in toward the end, I was still not yet ready to be certified. But what I got out of the training was more than professional. I gained the ability to be the "people person" I never thought I was, to fully feel and express compassion for others. And I'll take that with me in every endeavor I pursue for the rest of my life.