Somatic Sex Education - An Interview with Caffyn Jesse
In May 2023, I sat down with Caffyn Jesse (they/she) in their home on unceded traditional territories of the Hul’qumi’num and SENĆOŦEN speaking peoples (Salt Spring Island, BC). There are a few terms in this article that may be new to you, if you'd like to know more, please follow the hyperlinks throughout the article to primary sources! :)
KA: I'd love if we could start with talking a little bit about you. Where you from, what brought you into the somatic sex education world?
CJ: I did lots of different things before I got involved in this work, and they've all enriched my work in the world - from house cleaning to being a curriculum developer for universities. I also come from a background of sexual trauma. During a stressful time in my life, I started having regular bodywork, and I had something happen that was completely unexpected. I felt a sudden, unexpected connection with my own erotic energy. At the same time, I connected with a host of embodied trauma memories.
I didn't know there was such a thing as somatic sex education. I mean, there wasn't really. But the world of sacred intimacy and sexological bodywork did exist. If it hadn't, I would have had to invent it! I found it by looking for what could work for me. I thought, “There must be some way … to not have to shut down this wonderful erotic energy that I'm feeling access to.” But at the same time, it was forcing me into confrontation with the old embodied trauma.
I found a path. I tried out different people, and I finally found connection with a wonderful resonant human called Elfi Shaw, and also Kai Bouris. These are people who really knew how to do this work. I found the work of Joseph Kramer. And I found so much healing and well-being. I found I could address the sexual trauma, and reorient to pleasure, through erotic bodywork.
I felt a huge sense of vocation - I wanted to get involved in the field. I did some studies, and started offering my own version of erotic ritual and sacred intimacy. Later on, I got invited to teach Sexological Bodywork.
KA: When did you establish the Institute for the Study of Somatic Sex Education?
CJ: In 2017 we started this school that's based in Victoria and teaches students from around the world. I was a founder of the Institute, together with Corrine Diachuk and Dr. Captain Snowden. We developed a curriculum for it, and also integrated the sexological bodywork curriculum that had been developed by Dr. Joseph Kramer.
KA: I've noticed that the content is so unique - and different from other sex education programs out there. Can you share a little bit about how you decided to develop the curriculum for the Institute?
CJ: Well, we were all working in the field. We asked, “What do we wish we knew, when we started, to be better practitioners?” I had to make so many mistakes when I was starting out in this work. The whole science of trauma-awareness was just coming into being. And as people offering erotic massage and sexual healing work we were in a kind of nether-world where people weren’t necessarily connected with the emerging neuroscience about trauma! It took a few people, including me, who were passionately interested in the intersections of trauma healing and erotic bodywork, who were willing to study and research and write about the science, so we could begin to have trauma-aware practices. Erotic touch together with empowered choice and voice is a powerful way to address sexual trauma, but with that, there's a lot of danger. You can go too fast. You can do harm with the best of intentions. In founding the Institute, we really wanted to teach what it takes, to have a trauma-aware practice.
We also wanted to land some of the social justice aspects of sex education, with understanding of how social privilege and precarity factor into how we endure unwanted touch, violence or neglect. All the oppressions and privileges in the dominant culture have a profound impact on our access to sexual wellness. So at the Institute, we really wanted to create a counternormative culture where there is awareness of social justice issues, and a clear commitment to social justice.
For me, the key to how somatic sex education works is that we love people. We cherish them. We offer embodied experiences of being celebrated for being just exactly who they are. That, to me, is the absolute core of it. This feeling of being supported to be the one you are. We ask people, “What do you want? What do you choose? What is your choice at this moment, and how is that ever-changing?”
In creating the curriculum for the Institute, we built on wonderful resources from the people who courageously invented this field. And we were able to add in lots of pieces that none of us had, when we were starting.
KA: I'm really processing what you said there. It's a shift in worldview that is necessary - or at least, part and parcel of it - this radical acceptance of where people are at, which is so uncommon when folks are treating trauma. I come from a background in working in a different manner of folks with trauma. Very often the work starts with what's not okay. “What don't you like about your life?” And I'm hearing you suggest a different focus on - “How can we amplify the good and notice it? What's right with you?”
CJ: Yes, right. Exactly.
KA: Can you tell me a little bit about this type of bodywork and neuroplasticity?
CJ: Neuroplasticity is a great entry-point - because we're wired to tend to danger, and focus on what's wrong with us. Our brains get very busy, managing danger, and that's wonderful. That’s what lets us survive all kinds of dangers. But if that's all we do; then we don't heal from trauma. We just become so focused on what's wrong, and what's dangerous, that we actually become more endangered and more dangerous. That’s the feedback loop in the neurobiology of danger. Fear activates a certain neurochemistry - cortisol and adrenaline - that gives us a lot of strength and empowerment to manage immediate danger. But if we get over-concentrated in responding to danger, we have an agitated hypervigilance. We see danger where there is no danger. We also get dissociated, and so we're not identifying actual dangers, where they exist. This sets up this neurobiological feedback loop, where a dangerous world becomes ever more dangerous.
But then there's a way to interrupt that, which is to feel the neurochemistry of respect, self respect, kindness, connection and care, safe and wanted touch, exciting and welcome touch. A whole new neurochemistry can start happening, and that creates its own feedback loop. The more respect you feel, the more self-respect you feel. The more kindness you experience, the more you can pass on kindness. The more erotic excitement you can actually feel safe enough to fully enjoy, the more you can pass that on. And so a different neurochemical feedback loop can get established, where it's creating an ever more wonderful world.
So yes, we need our biophysical response to danger, and we need to land in that other feedback loop, where we can heal from danger and grow our capacities. Otherwise, we become the very danger that we're trying to protect ourselves from. So that's the neurochemistry of why this modality works.
KA: Oh, man. Just sitting with that "or you become the danger."
CJ: We become the danger to each other, right? But there's a way to become the joy and the safety, and the safe-enough and the brave-enough people, to one another. We actually have that medicine in our hands. It doesn't cost any money. It just takes a few basic principles. We need to slow down to the pace of trust. We need to really welcome the uniqueness of each person, and offer safe and wanted touch, and get brave enough to invite neurological change. It requires courage, but courage can emerge in a community of courageous company. And that's what we see, in the somatic sex education community. Oh, my God. These incredible, courageous beings. I'm just gobsmacked, looking at the wonderful creations and the teachings and the great people who are attracted to this work. And what they're bringing to the world! It just thrills me.
KA: We just talked about how you came to this dealing with some trauma of your own, and through your own discovery and reading, started developing this through connection and community. And now you're seeing these people in the world showing the spreading of goodness that you're talking about. It's self evident. It's amazing.
CJ: Yeah. It's just wow. And from my perspective, gaining more and more notoriety in the best way possible. It really is a world-changer in my mind, you know? So simple, in a way. Well, it is and it isn't….
KA: When you speak about it in such eloquent terms, I think, wow, of course, you know, and then I'm out in the world and it doesn't feel so "Of course."
CJ: No. Each of us, in our own sphere of influence, we can do some simple things that just bring joy and interrupt the feedback loop of an ever more dangerous world. We can just start creating an ever more wonderful world, in all the ways we can. Different toolkits work for different people. For some it’s community connection. For others, its masturbation. We can just begin wherever we are, and use the tools that are right for us, to create an evermore wonderful world.
KA: Yeah. Finding the people who can welcome the all of us. Finding the practices that can welcome the all of us.
CJ: Finding that orientation to pleasure. We retreat from danger. Most of us know how to do that. We get away from what's dangerous, but there's also that opening and reaching for pleasure. How do we learn to follow that inner compass? And that is going to be different for each person, right? For many of us - maybe most of us - it's going to include the erotic. For some people, the erotic isn’t part of their pleasure map. Not yet, or maybe never. That's not their pleasure. So it's about acknowledging what's true to you. Is it a sunset? Is it an ice cream? Is it lentil soup? Or is it a new vibrator? Is it all the wonderful toys and tools on your website, that can bring more pleasure? Let's explore making space in our lives, on our priority list - to try a new vibrator, or sign up for a workshop on erotic massage, or find another way to give pleasure our attention and investment. Mmmmmm. That's part of it. And, you know, learning to trust that pleasure orientation, and how we can find that in intimacy, too. How can we meet as the unique beings we are, and form friendships that nurture and delight in the truth of us - and let that truth change, and grow? I've written all these books. I’ve shared more than anyone can find time to read, about all the little bitty details of these ways of being, along with exercises. But, yeah, I'd say that those are some of the basics, in terms of sex as a pathway to pleasure, and somatic sex work as a pathway to pleasure.
KA: Can you talk at all about the type of client work that, from what I'm hearing, helps introduce the pleasure cycle as opposed to staying in the fear cycle?
CJ: That would be part of the orientation, with a client, from the beginning. We all get so much experience enduring unwanted touch. So we slow things down, and get curious about what do I want, what am I interested in in terms of touch? We create a big vocabulary of touch, where a person can really start to request and explore different kinds of touch, and experience changing their mind. I thought I wanted that, but I don't. We make space to really notice what feels good and start being guided by that inner compass of pleasure. Instead of learning scripts for doing X, Y and Z in order to have the XYZ orgasm….
I mean, I'm all interested in all the different erogenous zones, and different kinds of orgasms. I try it all on. Why not? But everyone's going to be different. I mean, genitals are as different as faces. And just getting to the genitals is not right for some people. I've worked with people for years, before we ever get to any genital touch. Maybe we never will. It’s a question of what is right for each particular person. What is that pace of trust - for you? And just honoring that, and just having many experiences of having that honored. But also - not having an orientation to safety alone. Overfocus on safety can take us away from courageous exploration. And the more we retreat from courageous exploration, the more our nervous systems atrophy. So it's not all about staying safe. It's about - how can we be safe enough to be brave? How can we keep exploring and learning - but then have these moments of safety, where we are savouring, and integrating. That’s how learning can happen.
KA: Can you walk us through the client work as an Intimacy Educator?
CJ: I have an online course called Intimacy Educator and it takes you through the sequences. It’s always starting with a one-on-one meeting, and an honoring of the uniqueness of each person. Then there's exploration of how - instead of enduring unwanted touch, according to a menu that comes from outside, how can this person get inside themselves, and explore asking for touch they want. Once we practice that, we can ask - do we want to explore genitals and integrate genital touch? And then, there is a domain of knowledge specific to our modality. We know a whole lot about genital anatomy, for example. And how to offer different kinds of genital touch.
KA: Tell me more!
CJ: We can explore genital mapping, finding our own names for our genitals, exploring different ways to have genitals, including non biological genitals. What are the genitals you can buy, or imagine yourself into having?
Whether it's psychotherapy or massage therapy, there's all these healing modalities that supposedly treat the whole person - except for the six square inches at the center - which is kind of the core of our selves, and our most profound experiences. What is the harm done by that? Somatic sex education - or intimacy education, as I like to call it - is for the whole person, including their genitals. Including their erotic response. The whole person, without omitting such a key part of the human experience. Sex is the animal experience. It's the experience of the earth, the eros of the whole biosphere.
KA: I completely agree. Something I always say when I'm talking to people is we spend so much time teaching little kids how to drink from a cup, but nobody tells us how to touch ourselves. And of course, many of us figure it out. And a lot of us don't. And what I do know about humans is we do better when we're drawing on information other humans have figured out.
CJ: Right? We're not going to get to the same point if we're each secretly trying. If we're told to shroud sex in secrecy, and not have access to the toys and tools, knowledge, language and shared experiences that make it joyful. And then people invest so much cultural meaning in sex, and value in it so much. Add in power dynamics. Gender dynamics. Oh, my God. No. Could it be any worse? It's a total cluster fuck. It really is. And then we each have to figure out our own relationships with our genitals, and we all figure out how powerful it is, and then become scared and hide it even more.
That social control starts so young. And trauma is ubiquitous. And violence. And the violence of neglect. Neglect does just as much harm as actual violence, neurologically speaking. It has profound effects. And so many of us are experiencing deep neglect, around our erotic well being.
KA: Neglect. I appreciate using that word because I often think of it as being omitted from what we're doing. But it's being neglected that part of ourselves, literally and physically or figuratively. Which does actual neurobiological harm. That's very interesting. Just processing that a little bit.
CJ: And with what we're talking about, the powerful changes in all of this that I would love to see, I will dream of seeing more of society's energy allocated to sex. Learning about ourselves. Right now, even this grudging sex education that we are given is all about how to avoid STIs and avoid pregnancy. Yes, all that is probably a good idea, but really, how much of sex is about that? So very little. I do want more teaching on how to have joyful sex with STIs. There's so much we need to know.
KA: And part of what I'm hearing and what you're talking about is, like, a very passionate lack of stigma.
CJ: Right? Yeah.
KA: Can you talk a little bit about that - about stigma and its impacts?
CJ: Well, I consider it ludicrous, how normative culture stigmatizes every bloody thing. Who is attractive enough, good enough, having the right type of action, or lubrication. Are you having a squirting orgasm or not? So really, everybody is stigmatized and shamed, and sex is drenched with so much ickiness. How do we put up with this, when sex is potentially so freaking joyful? It's just so bad. Even the way a lot of people do sex education adds more layers of shame. Here's the perfect recipe for having a squirting orgasm. Here's the way that you can get it up and get it on for hours. I mean - really? It's very popular in my world, to find teaching that tells you - if you just do this, you'll achieve a new level of something or other.
I could say I welcome all the dysfunctions, because they bring people into our studios. The DSM is so freaking thick, and full of all the things that you can do wrong, from premature ejaculation, being hypersexual, hyposexual. There's even a non-normative paraphilic disorder - meaning you like something outside the box! There's a disorder for everything. So anyway, thank God for all the disorders because they bring people to us. People come saying, “How can I fix myself? How can I get fixed?” And then they get to learn, Oh, maybe I don't need fixing. Maybe it's just fine to be who I am and to enjoy sex in the way I do. And we can build on that.
Once you land in that self-acceptance, and orientation to pleasure, then it's like there's no end to it, right? I've been in this field for decades now, and I'm still learning. I’m still finding new juiciness, and new body experiences, and better orgasms, and different ones, and new joyful ways of exploring intimacies. I mean, there's no end to learning. It's so great. Once you get there - and the disorder is what gets us there… For myself, it was trying to heal sexual trauma. I have had vulvodynia, which I call my holy pain, since I was 27. An act of sexual violence left me with this very contracted pelvis, and genital pain that was crippling at times. So I came looking for answers, asking “How can I fix this?” And instead, I found this modality. I found out that, oh, I could actually accept this. I could follow my own body, and be in the curiosity of discovering non-normative ways of engaging erotically. And I am still exploring, decades later. I just this month had a totally new experience, where my pelvis opened and welcomed someone in - a large amount of someone!
CJ: I wasn't trying to get there, because I've had so much fun along the way. In so many other ways. But my body is still opening, learning, finding new pleasures. I'm 66. I’ve had vulvodynia for almost 40 years. Wow.
KA: I just want to take a second and say how wonderful it is getting to hear about your pleasures. I love it. It makes me so happy. And in general I want to focus not only on pleasure, but honoring that, and just getting to sit and say, wow, that's so great. It makes me really happy to hear.
CJ: Very lucky. Yeah.
KA: So where do you see the somatic sex education field going from here?
CJ: I wouldn't know. I'm just sitting in the backseat, and other people are driving now, in wonderful new ways. If you tune into the amazing people in the field, you’ll find so many wonderful new teachings, and new directions people are going. So I don't know! I know what's interesting to me, and I know that every time I tune into what's going on in the field, I'm thrilled and surprised. There is such a variety of people who are bringing their own medicine bags and areas of expertise into the field. And that's how we designed the curriculum - to be able to really honour and integrate the uniqueness each person brings. When you get into this field, you get to bring everything you are, all your life experience and learning. I've had several students in their 70s, starting new in the field, having never done this before. But then they find that their whole life experience, and all the wisdom and learning they bring actually fits. That is what makes each of us the unique practitioners that we are. Just as we do with a client - honouring the uniqueness of each person, and really guiding and supporting them, to feel that and follow that - we do that with students, in the curriculum design. Yes, it's about developing a certain number of competencies that everyone in the field must have. And in between and supporting that is all that only you can be - each person uniquely. I am really excited thinking about all the unique practitioners getting out there in the world as somatic sex educators. And I’m so happy that I get to be a part of it, as I grow old, and keep following my particular passions and pleasures.
KA: Thank you for sitting down with me today, I am just so inspired and can't wait to share it with everyone.