Content note – themes of consent, uncomfortable throat sensations, mention of sexual assault.
Recently, I was having a massage with a clinical massage therapist who happens to have received training from a Rolfer – you can find a definition of this at the bottom of the page!
I was on the table with my face in the face-hole of the massage table, and he was working on my shoulders, exerting exactly the right amount of pressure into the perfect places. It felt SO good.
I was experiencing a deep, mind-altering pleasure and I noticed my body letting go of big sighs and releasing tension. My breath became deeper and more expansive. In my mind, my thoughts were celebrating ‘this is why I come here’.
We generally work in silence and I breathe into the areas he is working on.
The Unpleasant Sensation…
As he continued working, I noticed a distraction; quite an unpleasant sensation. My throat was pressing against the lower part of the face-hole, creating some pressure on my throat. I’m sure it was harmless, but it was still a little disturbing. I felt congested in my head, like perhaps my face and head were holding onto my blood. My swallowing was slightly affected. My awareness went back and forth from the delicious pressures in my upper back and shoulders to the pressure on my throat.
Then my mind went into thinking, ‘I should move’, and ‘in a minute I’ll tell him I need to shift up a bit and reposition’. A few minutes later, I had said and done nothing. I was still enjoying and benefitting from his touch on my shoulders, and I was still breathing, but some of the time I was aware of the just not quite ideal pressure on my throat.
Then there were some new thoughts, ‘I really SHOULD move myself’ — ‘Why can’t I ask him?’ — ‘Why is it so hard to ask for one small change that I need?’
I intentionally allowed a yawn and a deep breath to happen. This made the pressure on my throat slightly more intense as I sunk further into the table. I stayed there experiencing the pleasure and tension relief of his massage but still didn’t do anything. I simply considered it. Then the thought, ‘there’s probably no point now’.
At this point, my thoughts turned to the Betty Martin Wheel of Consent, the ‘Serving and Accepting’ quadrants. I am in Accepting (it is being DONE TO me, and it is FOR ME, after all, I am paying for it), but I have slipped into ‘GOING ALONG WITH’ or tolerating an aspect of it. The therapist is in Serving, but cannot read my mind and has not attended a Wheel of Consent training!
My next distracted and disembodied thought was, ‘I am going to write about this!’
Have you heard in discussions around consent, the simple idea that everyone is responsible for their own boundaries, and if something happens that they were not happy with, they should have simply spoken up? This is used in cases of sexual assault to blame the victim and deflect responsibility from the person who did the harm.
You can see from my experience on the massage table that, despite me having structurally embedded advantages (aka privilege) and tools (I’m a professional trained in the Wheel of Consent with lots of practice), I still have moments of tolerating. These moments play out in a completely clear and describable way. I can be both responsible for acting AND find it difficult.
There are so many complex social, cultural and personal reasons why we might struggle to ask for what we want and need.
Here is a quick thought storm:
- There have been negative consequences when we have asked before.
- We are socialised to ‘go along with’ what other people want.
- Beliefs that other people, especially professionals, are experts and not to be questioned.
- Fear of being seen as demanding or inconveniencing others.
- Protecting the other from shame that they got something wrong.
- The trauma response of ‘Freeze’ (or perhaps ‘Fawn’).
- Reluctance to interrupt the otherwise pleasant moment.
- Being in an altered state of some kind which is conducive to passivity, such as drunk, sleepy, tired, or very relaxed (down-regulated), or being very anxious or hypervigilant (up-regulated).
- Sensitivity to rejection or fear of being shamed for our needs.
- Lack of role models who show good self-advocacy and consent.
- Believing that we don’t deserve an optimum experience of touch and pleasure.
- Ideas about how we ‘should’ behave in the role of patient, client etc. (perhaps racialised, gendered or neurotypical expectations and more).
Can you think of others? Do you relate?
Are Spoken Words Important?
My massage therapist has amazing skills of attunement and works really intuitively with the body. However, he has absolutely no idea what my actual embodied, internal experience is. It is not in his training, or in our client-practitioner agreement, for him to be ‘checking in’ or asking me these magic questions…
“Is there anything that would make it feel even better?”
“Is there anything you would like to be different?”
In some fields and modalities (e.g Tantra and bodywork of various kinds), as well as in the realm of sex, there seems to be an idealised and romanticised idea that we can go ‘non-verbal’ and depend on intuitive skills for both a good session and true consent. Experiences like mine and a thousand other stories suggest otherwise; we need intuition AND verbal and explicit exchanges, whether it turns out graceful or awkward!
My session wasn’t a bad or harmful experience at all. In fact, it was amazing, just not the best it could be. As well as the therapeutic benefit, there was split awareness. My attention was pulled to distracting sensations, my nervous system was in tension and mild vigilance, and all that mind chatter leading ultimately to me being mentally at work on my day off! There were things that could have made it even better. There are small changes that would have allowed me to be more completely in the pleasure and the healing benefits.
To consciously reflect is so useful! Conscious awareness brought to our body’s experiences can be so informative of our own tendencies around consent, needs and boundaries. This is why we do the consent exercises at Quintimacy events, and why this work is foundational with my clients. We are creating a practice space for learning the embodied consent skills and education that our culture and childhood sex education sadly lacks.
In my sessions with clients, we spend time explicitly practicing consent in an experiential and embodied way. I need to know the client can say no. The client needs to know I can hear a no. I need to know the client can ask for what they need (an extra blanket, to get up for the toilet, a different activity), and the client needs to know I give full open-hearted permission for this, and that I will say ‘thank you for asking for what you need’.
Consent is contextual within our relationships and that demands effort, investment and attention.
So, What Can Beck Do Now?
Now that this is in my awareness, and I have processed it (thanks for witnessing my journalling!), I intend to do the following:
- Next time I lie face down on that table, I will mention that last time the way I positioned myself was pressing into my neck, voicing that I will be mindful and active about it this time.
- I will share with him that my current intention is to act on what I notice in my body, to let him know that if I fidget, it’s to take care of myself.
- If I find that I go into ‘tolerating’ next time, I might ask him to do a couple of check-ins with me in future sessions to give me permission and opportunity to move.
To some people, this may sound radical and perhaps risky. Although it shouldn’t be, it IS radical to ask for what we need and to name our honest process. This is especially true when the backdrop is a society that is so bad at consent and boundaries. Because we live in an unequal society within systems of oppression, it is not always safe for all of us to speak up. In this case, I have weighed it up and it feels safe enough.
It is also a good idea to practice speaking up in non-sexual situations too because the stakes get higher in our more intimate relationships and encounters.
I am excited to continue this work, of supporting people to connect with their own boundaries and embodied consent. I hope another year on, many more of us will be better at…
1) Noticing what we want
2) Asking for it
3) Very important – receiving it!
I hope you get what you need, but even if you don’t, I recognise your journey!
*Developed by Dr. Ida P. Rolf, Rolfing® Structural Integration is a form of bodywork that reorganises the connective tissues, called fascia, that permeate the entire body. Sharon Wheeler’s ScarWork® (that I am trained in) has its foundations in Rolfing. The quote below expresses what speaks to me about the approach.