I have a long-standing client that I see regularly. He is a young, bisexual cis man with a strong, thriving amount of sexual desire and drive. He enjoys porn and seeks orgasms. He also has a condition that means he has little voluntary use of his limbs and can’t communicate verbally. However, he can use software to communicate in short phrases. He’s unable to touch his own body for pleasure, but he thinks and feels a lot.
I have learned so much from this client. Working with someone who doesn’t have traditional verbal speech was new to me, especially for delivering sex education and bodywork.
In the process of getting to know him a few years ago, the absolute priority for me was creating a foundation of consent.
Sexual Communication and Verbal Consent
Anyone who has attended consent workshops, such as Quintimacy, will know that even in the group agreement all touch is by explicit verbal consent. Also, many of the exercises and activities are based on verbal consent, for example, Question: Can I touch your thigh? Answer: Yes.
So, to start with, my client and I were basically doing an adapted version of consent exercises as you might do at a Quintimacy event.
During our sessions, I’m there to support him to receive pleasure and to provide an experience that he wants to have, and I am definitely Serving. So, asking him, “Can I do XYZ?”, is not appropriate because “Can I” indicates I am Taking for me. Instead, the question I asked from the beginning and continue to ask is, “Would you like me to do XYZ?”. He can say yes or no using head movements, but a “maybe” is more difficult and arduous for him to explain.
Building a Foundation of Consent
After a couple of sessions of practising, we established a decent foundation of basic consent communication — me with spoken words and non-verbal communication, and him with non-verbal communication, facial expressions and limited, slow communication via software. We had to input some new language for body parts and sexual acts into the software that he uses to do this.
We agreed on a signal he could use (a head movement) to tell me he wanted me to stop the touch I was doing. We practised the experience of me being very present and watching his face during any touch. This allowed me to notice if he asked for me to stop, and also to notice his response to the touch.
I found out in early sessions that activities that involve closing the eyes don’t work for him as he depends on his eyes and eye contact for communication.
My Vision for This Work
I know what my service is and what the boundaries are, and this was clear from day one in my work with this client. However, within that container, there was a whole lot of possibility for us to discover together. The process of discovering is naturally a huge aspect of the work itself.
It was important to start off slow and with plenty of check-ins initiated by me. I was aware of the extra vulnerability of ‘tolerating’ — disabled people often tolerate a lot of unwanted touch, usually because of care or medical needs.
My vision for my client was that he experienced something so very different from that, where his needs for touch and pleasure were centred and validated. So I constantly emphasised that it was for him. I enthusiastically encouraged him and celebrated if he asked me to stop or if we found something he didn’t like, just as much as when we discovered what was pleasurable for him.
Bossy Massage, Adapted
The Bossy Massage principle of ‘nothing happens unless you ask for it’ and the practice of Bossy Massage itself would have been difficult for my client. He had never received sexual touch (including self-touch) so he initially had no idea what he likes or what to ask for. Additionally, ‘asking’ is no simple feat for him as a lot of labour is required to speak via the software.
So instead, I work with “nothing happens unless I have asked you what you want and given you multiple choices and opportunities to express what you want”. I will then do the touch for a short time and I will check in with him. I will be watching the whole time and be making suggestions about changing things, pausing or doing some observation about what is happening.
During our sessions, we also have live, somatic and general sex education happening at points as well. This might involve talking about anatomy, how pleasure moves through the body, what he might be noticing and normalising the experience. Additionally, we use porn as a tool for acknowledging turn-ons/fantasies and exploring ‘porn literacy’.
Everyone Should Have a Sex Menu
We made a shared, dynamic ‘Yes, No and Maybe’ list with things we were learning about his sexuality and preferences — a sex menu. He can use this in the future to communicate to other sexuality practitioners or erotic service providers, or anyone he may negotiate an intimate encounter with.
I have offered my client access to representations of queer, disabled sex through the porn films featuring Andrew Gurza (Disability after Dark podcast). You can find the films here.
The Choosing is More Important than the Doing
Because I am a Certified Sexological Bodyworker, I work with one way touch and gloves, and the touch is solely for the benefit and education of the client.
As the professional in our relationship, I am responsible for creating the conditions for my client to not only give permission for me to do something (what a limited concept of consent!), but also to ensure that he wants and actively chooses what happens in our sessions. As Betty Martin says, “The choosing is more important than the doing”.
For many of us, getting to the point where we can actively choose and receive pleasure is challenging given what we inherit from our culture. There are additional challenges for those who are disabled. This is because we live in an ableist world that does not tend to recognise the agency or sexual needs of disabled people.
In my work with this specific client, we keep a full range of options and possibilities and an ongoing curiosity and flexibility to explore. This involves different types of touch, sensation play toys, dry hands or oil, his position, what body part gets massaged and much, much more.
Because this client cannot easily or verbally communicate what he wants or doesn’t want, and can’t guide me with his own hands, I’ve been challenged to hone my skills of observation, presence, attunement, feeling through my hands, noticing urges and the intuition of ‘something tells me to do this next’.
People sometimes ask about bodywork, touch and consent, but what about my intuition? My answer to that is we can absolutely notice what we call our instinct and intuition (that could also be an assumption, projection, or slipping into Taking).
However, before acting on it, I suggest speaking up!
“Hmm, I got a feeling when I massaged your thighs, you wanted me to go further and higher? Was I picking that up right? I wonder how it was for you?”
In my client’s case, if I ask a ‘wondering’ open question like this, I then need to rephrase it as a closed question, “Do you want me to touch further up your thighs now?” and “Do you want me to brush past your genitals on my way past?”.
I will not start doing the touch as the last word leaves my lips (something to watch out for!). I will pause and listen/watch for his reply. And then I will do the touch.
That’s not the end of the story. I’ll be watching carefully, and saying, “Is this what you had in mind?” and “does this feel good?”. I’ll also smile with him and we share in the moment of his pleasure. I’m not just there to deliver an educational or transactional touch in an ethical way, but to be present in an important, embodied moment in someone’s life (it’s a most human vocation).
I might wonder out loud, “what could make this feel even better?” and I know to ask this question judiciously because it takes a lot of labour for my client to respond. There are (more fun) shortcuts, such as spending a couple of minutes playfully experimenting with different ways of touching and getting his immediate feedback.
My Client’s NO
Because of the work we have done to develop the consent agreement between us, I’m pretty confident my client can tell me “No”. Between us, we’ve experienced his No, and he knows I can accept his No in a positive, validating way.
If I get something momentarily wrong, I completely own it (as we all should with non-intentional consent accidents).
The Outcome is Pleasure
All this practice and work has created a place with this client where we can have moments of touch and quiet, or music or sexy films playing. Enough safety and connection has been generated so that he can really be in an erotic experience and be immersed in pleasure.
What Gets in the Way?
Some people have a reaction to the Wheel of Consent and to the suggestion that we should verbally ask permission before every single touch.
People say things like this:
- I can’t ask my partner every single time I touch them
- it takes you out of the moment
- It’s awkward
- It interrupts the flow
- It isn’t spontaneous
- It takes all the fun out of sex
- If I start asking, my partner will think it’s weird
When we engage in this kind of consent practice, we’re creating a practice space that is slightly aside from our partner relationships or our usual sexual activities. This is like the classroom or even the laboratory where we can experiment as well as learn. These learnings and skills are transferable to all of our relationships, as well as dating and sex parties!
For me, when I am the ‘doer’ of the touch, it’s freeing and enjoyable to act from a place of confidence, to know that your gift is a wanted gift, nestled in a consensual agreement that we both built together. There is no mind-reading and there’s far less (although not zero) chance of consent violations and accidents.
With my client, it is me offering the questions, the consent communication and the sex education that makes our work together (and his experience of pleasure) possible.
If you are working on consent and communication in relationships, in your work, in your hook-ups, in your kink or with erotic peers, then I celebrate you!
Giving enough attention to communication and consent, and carving out a place to practice consent skills and build trust, enhances our capacity for positive intimate and erotic experiences.
It’s not always the easiest thing to do; it sometimes takes a lot of words and effort on everyone’s part. But we’re making the world a better, more ethical place, one touch at a time!
If you want to work more on your consent skills, or ask me about my work, or think I can support you or your clients, please get in touch.
*My client has kindly agreed I can share about him and our work together.