Coming of age. This phrase has a bunch of different meanings. In books and films, coming of age stories often focus on a protagonist’s growth from youth to adulthood. In religions around the world and throughout history, coming of age often involves a ceremony that marks the entry into some kind of maturity: Baptism or confirmation in Christianity. First communion for Catholics. Some Hindu casts hold sacred thread ceremonies.
And apparently in Ancient Rome, some puberty rituals involved a boy shaving his facial hair and taking off his bulla, a gold chain that held a pouch of phallic-shaped jewelry.
In fact, pretty much all of these practices take place around adolescence. There’s a lot we could unpack there, but today we’re going to explore sex and relationship coming-of-age experiences of three adults—brought on by bold decisions, self-exploration and impactful conversations.
Cyndi Darnell, a sex and relationship therapist and host of the The Erotic Philosopher podcast told me she learned the value of embodiment as a sexual practice some 25 years ago. It started back in the 90s with a workshop she attended about having more embodied orgasms. At that time, she really wasn’t expecting it to change her whole life.
All I wanted to do was learn how to have sex that was good. My bar was pretty low. I was like, I just want sex to not be bad. And you know, when I think about it, in retrospect, I don’t know that I was having bad sex, necessarily. I think I just didn’t know what I was doing actually, is probably what was happening. Because you don’t know what you don’t know, and you have nothing else to compare it to. So if all you’ve ever done is what you’ve ever done, and you don’t know if it’s good or bad, you just don’t know.
And I think you know, maybe one or two years before that I had had my first orgasms by myself, I’d never definitely never had orgasms with a partner at that stage. So I wasn’t interested in how to have sex with another person necessarily. These workshops were solo. It was about how to do yourself. But we practiced on other people. And at that time, we were divided into genders. We only had two genders back in the 90s: men and women. So I was in the women’s program and we would practice on other women.
And it was just remarkable. Because it was not about performance. It was not about pleasing anybody. It was not about putting on a show. It was about learning how to feel every single glide of a finger, every single moment of breath, every single moment of arousal being in your body, and not feeling like you had to rush, not feeling like you had to be quiet, not feeling like you had to, you know, hold in a fart or something if you needed to fart and just let it out. That was welcome.
If at the point of arousal, not orgasm, because it’s a slightly different thing, but if you wanted to cry, that was welcome. And so learning how to be in that highly charged state—like when we charge your phone, and you’re looking at it and watching the dial going up and up—it’s this practice of being able to do that for ourselves. And feel within yourself when your battery’s getting full. And then you can pull back a little bit or keep going and go higher and higher and higher. And the beauty of it is that you can be in that state for hours, if you want to. And now we know that this work has expanded and it applies to all genders. It’s no longer just men and women. It’s everybody. But the principle is the same. So anybody who has a body can can learn erotic embodiment.
That’s beautiful… I’m imagining you in that class, and thinking of you before that, when you were like, I just want to have good sex, whatever that is, like I’m not really sure—where so many of us start out right, even now, I think. Did you yourself experience those fears and barriers you mentioned where it’s a little scary, because it’s something so new and maybe foreign? I’m sure there are other barriers, too.
Yeah. It was scary for me, because firstly, I didn’t know what I was getting into, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just knew there would be other women there. I didn’t know that we would have to get nude, but we did. I didn’t know that we would have to touch ourselves and each other, but we did. And I mean, it was consensual, obviously. But still, that’s really confronting being nude in a room full of strangers touching each other and being turned on. You know, that very rarely happens these days, especially in a context where the goal is not to perform is not to show off. It’s just to be with yourself with whatever comes. And even though there’s no pressure, that in itself is scary, because you don’t know what you’re gonna discover when you open that jar.
What I discovered, and I think what most people discover when they start embarking on this, is that there are a lot of feelings. And those feelings are connected to things that we long for, things that we hope for things, that we want, and also things that we regret, things that we couldn’t get, that we couldn’t access.
Learning how to be embodied is a great tool period. Learning how to be erotically embodied, meaning you can give yourself fully to your experience, you know, August, it requires trusting yourself. And that’s a skill to be learned. That comes with practice. It comes with repetition. And so in terms of scary, that’s scary, too, especially if you’ve never had to really be there for yourself in that way before. But it’s not a bad thing. Being scared isn’t bad. Being scared is how we learn our boundaries. Being scared is how we learn our limits. Being scared is how we learn where we end and our partners begin. So I’m all for being scared. I think being scared is good. Perhaps a better word is risk. Learning how to take erotic risks, I think, has been my number one tool in my toolbox.
Wow. And then, if that is one of the first times that someone truly starts learning to trust themself, the ripple effect in their life must be profound.
For me it’s been incredible. When you can trust yourself, when you know that you’ve got yourself, you almost become invincible at that point, because it’s almost like you can become bulletproof. Nothing can hurt you, because, you know the worst case scenario and you think, well, I can handle that. So I’m all right. And that’s really exciting.
What would you recommend to someone who wants to begin working on their own erotic embodiment? What’s a good first step?
A good first step is get used to feeling yourself. Some embodiment people encourage mirror work, looking at yourself in the mirror. Sometimes that’s too confronting, as a place to start, especially looking at yourself nude. If you’ve never ever done it before, it can be a bit jarring and a bit confronting. So a really great thing to do is when you’re taking a shower or taking a bath, to just touch yourself and really allow yourself to feel that and allow your hands to linger on your genitals and around your butt and really focusing on what we would traditionally call the erotic areas, even though, of course, necks and feet and things are erotic for people. People tend to not be freaked out by touching their own neck, but they can get a little bit frozen when genitals are involved. So that’s the area that I really encourage people to practice allowing yourself to really feel it.
And that can take time, especially if you have a bit of numbness in that area. A lot of people do. And that’s across genders. It used to be just something that women experience. Now we know there are a lot of people with penises who struggle in that area. They struggle to get erections or they feel uncomfortable about the size of their penis and that sort of stuff. And so that can create this sense of disconnection, which can lead to numbness or very little sensation or too much sensation, and then they feel they have no control of that part of their body. So it’s these sort of extremes of the same problem.
So erotic embodiment is about taking control of those sensations, rather than having those sensations control you. And it’s very powerful and that’s where the trust element comes into play.
Andrew Gurza is an award winning Disability Awareness Consultant and Accessibility Awareness Specialist, international speaker and host of the podcast Disability After Dark. A coming of age relationship story he found especially powerful happened when he took action on a desire he had had for some time: to start working with sex workers.
Do you remember the first time the idea came to you to consider working with sex workers?
Yeah, I do. I was sitting at home, much like right now. It had been like 10 months of me not able to access sex in almost a year and I was really depressed. And I had kept hearing about sex workers and I kept seeing things on my social media feed of people who were sex workers. But I always had this thought in my mind, and it’s really a sexist thought, that sex work was bad, dirty and inappropriate, and a really dangerous thing. All of these ideas that we’re so used to hearing about sex work.
But I was like, look. I’m really horny, I want to have sex. I’m not getting it the conventional way. I tried Grindr. I tried all the other ways to meet somebody. And because of ableism, it just wasn’t happening. And I remember I went on this site for weeks. I looked around at the people that I wanted to hire, and I kept going back to it, and I kept like, going and almost clicking and saying, “oh, no, I can’t, I can’t,” and then one day, I was like, just do it. It’s a little bit more expensive than what you were expecting, but you’ll feel better. Just try.
So I did. And that first experience, the first worker that I ever worked with, ended up not working out so great. It wasn’t a fantastic experience for me the first time, but as I kept doing it and realizing that this is an avenue for me as a disabled person to access sex, I really opened up to the idea.
But I remember still holding a lot of shame, even after we did it. I was like, okay, I got to have sex with one of the hottest dudes ever. It was really hot, but I’m ashamed. We don’t see each other anymore, but I would book repeated sessions with this guy. And I would lie to my friends and family about what I was doing. I’d say, “I’m going on a date. I have a date with somebody.” They’d be like, “Ooh, who?” And I would be like, “Oh, just a friend.” I wouldn’t be upfront.
My mom and I are very close and one day we were on the phone and we’re talking and I said, “Mom, I have to tell you something.” She goes, “Okay, what?” And I said, “Well, I gotta tell you that I hire sex workers.” And I remember, she paused… I was terrified, because I thought she was gonna disown me. I thought she was gonna say that it was horrible. I thought she was gonna have all this fear.
And she paused and went, “Oh! Good for you. If I were in your situation, I would do the same thing.” And I went, oh… And it just made me feel so safe and so comforted in what I was doing… And I’d worked with somebody for about a year before I said anything. So I didn’t say stuff for a long time.
Because of my disability and all the things that I need, we’re very close. So when I finally told her, I got this rush of like, oh, now that she thinks it’s okay, I can tell everybody. And then we ended up going on a Canadian podcast and on the BBC talking about how I told her so it’s been one of those experiences that I am so proud that I did it, because it brought my family and I closer, but also with my current worker that I work with. His name’s John. Hi, John! He’s such a sweetheart and such a kind man, outside of just being a worker. We have really, truly built a relationship together. And yes, it’s a working relationship. And yes, I pay him and yes, there’s all those things. But he understands the importance of us working together. Learning that you don’t have to have a romantic relationship with somebody or these big pronouncements of care to care about somebody.
And in working with John, we’ve been seeing each other for almost three years at the end of this month, that’s a long commitment to be with somebody. And before Corona, we were together once every two weeks. We saw each other a lot. And so to have that bond with somebody, it made me really shift how I thought about sex and how I felt about relationships. And I really get excited when I spend money on myself like that, when I put down the hourly rate to spend time with him. It’s like, I’m doing this for me.
Through the pandemic, Andrew and John have stayed connected in other ways. He told me that even checking in with each other by text has helped, although the touch starvation so many people are experiencing lately has hit him especially hard, as a disabled person.
If you’ve toyed with the idea of hiring a sex worker—maybe you’re in a similar place to where he was earlier on, feeling nervous or unsure—Andrew had this advice:
I would say first of all that working with a sex worker is a privilege. I’m very lucky to have the finances that I do. And I understand that a lot of disabled people in my position have to make the decision do I eat this week or do I hire a sex worker? I was in that position, so I fully understand if it’s not something that’s available to you. Which is why I think governments should be funding this. I think sex work should be funded and a part of government relief programs, because it isn’t this dirty back alley thing we envision it to be. It’s a really important, vital part of our sexuality. And when I started working with workers, it allowed me to open up and be really slutty and be really vulnerable and be all these things that I’ve kept inside. I also didn’t have to put all this weight of a relationship on somebody. I could say, “I want to do this really dirty, sexy thing with you. How do you feel about that?” They’d say, “cool,” we’d do it and then they leave. No pressure to turn it into this romantic thing.
And so I would say to anybody considering it, look at your finances, see if it’s available to you, see if it’s something you have access to. I’m gonna speak directly to the disabled community listening. If you’re scared of somebody being ableist, lay out what your needs are. Explain to them what you’re afraid of, and let them explain to you as a sex worker what their concerns are, what their needs are. Really have that conversation.
John and I first started talking on the app that we met on, but when we finally sat down with each other—I’ve had him on podcasts and we chatted—I said to him, “Were you afraid of me the first couple times we hooked up?” And he was like, “Oh, yeah. I was terrified of not meeting your expectations and hurting you and all these things.” When we finally talked about that, it allowed for us to both take a breath. And so I really would say, if you’re financially able to hire a sex worker, do it. It’s not as scary as people might make it get out to be. You may find that you and the worker don’t click and then you can hire someone else. Or you click great and you have a long, lasting relationship.
Ti Chang is an award-winning industrial designer and cofounder of Crave, a company that designs elegant pleasure products for women—included my beloved vibrator necklace. Her story actually inspired me to create this episode. While we were discussing her sexual empowerment journey and all-things-vibrators for a recent episode, we ended up segueing into embracing aging, and a conversation with her dad that helped clarify her relationship path.
I mean, it’s like, either you accept or you don’t. And I think it’s silly to not accept it, I feel so much better about getting older. I love being in my late 30s. And now, you know, entering my 40s, I would never, ever want to relive my 20s. Again, that was just a hideous time for me. Like, we were all sorts of confused and lost and emotions and hormones that like, I don’t care for that again. I mean, sure, I’d love to have, you know, the tits I had and the body that I had back then. But you know what? Nah, I’m quite okay.
And I think embracing aging is not just the physical aspect of it, but also the emotional aspect of it. And especially as you get older as a woman, there’s such a social pressure to fit in to what the cultural mold is. At least for my parents, when you’re in your 30s that’s the time to get married… That was their expiry date for them, for some reason. They thought if you don’t get married by the time you’re 36, you’re just going to go bad and like expire on the shelf and nobody’s going to want you. You’re going to be an old spinster. So that was sort of the context. And I was just exiting a long term relationship at that point in time, and I’d thought we were heading the right direction. But luckily, it didn’t, for so many reasons.
When I was 36, and after all that had happened and I was single again, I had this really profound conversation with my dad. In a way, as a daughter, I felt like I had kind of let him down, because they had such high hopes that I’d be married… I’m the oldest and then my younger brother and sisters are all married, except for the youngest one, because she’s only 20-something. But I had a conversation with him and he helped me to let go of that cultural expectation. My dad, he’s in his 70s and he said to me, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have gotten married. You know, I’ve always thought you were an idiot when you were a child, but now I realize you might be onto something.”
My dad has such a sense of humor, but he just means that if he could do it all over it, he wouldn’t have gotten married, which presented to me another valid option to live. And from that point on, I think I started to let go of this concept that I have to be married or I have to be in a relationship or have children and things like that in order to live a very fulfilled life. That was probably one of the most profound conversations I’ve had with my dad. We don’t have a lot of conversations and that was one that helped release a lot of anxiety and set me up on a different path that is more for myself and not for what the society expects of me.
Learn more about Cyndi Darnell at cyndidarnell.com, Andrew Gurza at andrewgurza.com, and Ti Chang, at lovecrave.com. Order The Handi Book of Love, Lust and Disability, a book Andrew and his colleagues put together that weaves together powerful stories, poetry and artwork from 50 contributors from the disabled community, here.
This week’s listener question came in anonymously through a dating survey I sent out a couple of months ago:
I’m in a wheelchair and I feel like guys online only want to hook up with me. How do I meet someone who will see me as a person?
It breaks my heart that you’re going through this, friend. And I’m just so frustrated with our culture for not cheating a place where you can feel fully embraced and respected. I do believe you can meet someone incredible who’s worthy of you. First, I brought your question to Andrew Gurza:
That’s a really good question. You know what, I would confront those guys who only want to hook up with you and just very politely say, “Okay, why are you interested?” Get them to confront their on ableism, because maybe they’re curious about sex and disability, and that’s okay. But they’re probably coming at you in a way that is really inappropriate, a way that’s super ableist, a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. And I think the only way you can combat that is to say, “Thank you so much for your interest. Can you elaborate more as to why?”
Get them to tell you why. And if they can’t, you just move on. And I think getting someone to see you as a person, that’s hard, regardless of whether you’re disabled or not like that. I don’t think that’s a disability thing. And I think a lot of us with disabilities have internalized ableism telling us we’re not valuable, telling us we don’t have worth, telling us we’re not sexy enough. So I would also suggest that you consider confronting that voice in your head. What does that voice say to you that makes you think you’re not a person? Because you are.
Thank you, Andrew. He’s always so wise and encouraging. And here is what Dr. Megan Fleming had to say:
This is a great question. And honestly, it’s one of the most common questions I hear from people with or without disabilities—because the reality is, we don’t have chemistry or connection with everyone. Disabilities certainly bring their own challenges, as far as when and how to disclose. Some are comfortable putting it out there, front and center. Others choose to wait for when it feels like the right time. There is no gold standard.
No one is defined by their disability. And yet, we can see how closed-minded even well-meaning individuals can be. When and if you come across somebody who is close-minded about your being in a wheelchair, for whatever the reasons might be, as the saying goes, it’s their loss, not yours.
I have some clients who, and this is a personal choice, choose to date other people with disabilities—whether it’s the same or a different disability. There are even dating sites that cater to specific disabilities, including the Wheelchair Dating Club and Wheelchair Dating.
All I can say is, keep active with your friends, letting them know you’re available and interested and keep trying different dating apps… Keep clear on your intentions, have a clear vision, know what you want to say yes and no to, and as always, I’d love to hear how it goes.
Thank you, Dr. Megan. I love what she said about knowing your intentions and letting folks in your circles know that you’re open to romantic fun. If you’re interested in a spicy way to manifest your desires, or just get more clarity on what you want, check out my recent chat with Kristen Sollée to learn about orgasm magic.
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