In the Erotic Author Spotlight this week is not one, but two fantastic authors who brought us Partners in Passion which has recently been reviewed here at CaraSutra. Mark A Michaels and Patricia Johnson have written this book, published by the wonderful Cleis Press, explaining how to retain those close bonds of intimacy through the lifetime of a relationship as well as delivering great tips for a fantastic sex life.
Let’s take a closer look at these two authors – welcome Mark and Patricia!
– Cara Sutra
A graduate of NYU and Yale, Mark A Michaels writes for scholarly and legal publications and his plays have been produced off-Broadway. He took his first Tantra class in 1997 and gave his first lecture on the subject two years later.
Patricia Johnson spent many years as a professional operatic soprano. In 1999, a longstanding interest in Tantra inspired her to attend a lecture by Mark Michaels, now her husband and collaborator. Since then, she and Michaels have taught and lectured throughout the world. They live in New York City.
“Know Yourself Sexually” from Partners in Passion
by Mark A. Michaels & Patricia Johnson
Since time immemorial, in cultures around the world, self-knowledge has been seen as a very important, if not the paramount, value in human life. This was true even in cultures that differed immensely from our own and in which individualism, as we know it, would have been a thoroughly alien concept. In the Taoist tradition, for example, it is said, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” A similar belief was inscribed on the Oracle at Delphi and expressed by many Greek philosophers, and variants on the saying “Unless you know yourself, you cannot know God” have been current in various branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for many centuries. Our training in traditional Tantra included a very strong emphasis on cultivating the ability to observe ourselves and examine not only our mental processes but also our bodies and how we experience them.
Given this history and the transcultural recognition that self-knowledge is central to living a meaningful life, it is somewhat ironic that contemporary Western culture, for all its emphasis on individualism and personal fulfillment, often treats self-knowledge and meaningful self-exploration as mere self-indulgence.
Of course, in all likelihood, most of the ancient sages (except perhaps the Tantric and Taoist sages) were not thinking about sex when they emphasized self-knowledge. In the Western world, the value of sexual self-knowledge seems to have gone mostly unrecognized until the modern era and specifically the age of psychoanalysis. Freud and Wilhelm Reich, whatever their personal and theoretical flaws, deserve great credit for recognizing that sexual self-knowledge is central to living life fully and that the process of getting to know yourself sexually is a crucial step toward liberating yourself.
Freud and Reich’s psychoanalytic approaches have fallen out of favor today, and their ideas about sexuality—especially Reich’s—were never fully embraced by mainstream American society, notwithstanding their influence in some circles. If self-knowledge is no longer seen as an admirable goal, sexual self-knowledge remains even more deeply buried, except within the growing community of sex-positive people. Many of us still carry a legacy of sex-negativity that is deeply embedded in American society.
In a lecture on her book Satisfaction: Women, Sex, and the Quest for Intimacy, psychiatry professor Anita Clayton described her clinical experience treating preorgasmic women and revealed that many of her patients, when asked if they ever masturbated, said no, sometimes replying, “Of course not. I’m married.” This is but one example of how sexual self-knowledge remains a taboo.
Knowing yourself sexually is really a process. This is true not only because we change and grow, and what is intensely pleasurable and exciting at twenty may not have the same appeal at forty, but also because even the most self-aware person can never attain complete self-knowledge. While you may know that something specific turns you on and may be able to articulate some of the reasons for that response, there will always be a certain element of mystery in the realm of sexuality. Thus, this search for sexual self-knowledge may seem quixotic, and perhaps it is, but the quest is what matters most.
In the context of a long-term partnership, the same principles apply. If you can’t ever know yourself fully, knowing another is even more elusive. Being a couple entails bringing together two individual sexualities and thereby creating a third, shared sexuality, a realm in which you both overlap but are not fully congruent. Anyone who pays attention can discover certain things that are sure to please a partner. Nevertheless, there will be aspects of your beloved that are beyond reach and that will remain forever mysterious. Even within the areas where you overlap, there’s still the potential to be surprised.
We have already intimated that knowing yourself sexually begins with self-pleasuring. This is not an idea that Freud (who considered masturbation to be immature and a poor substitute for partnered sex) or Reich (who had only a somewhat more tolerant perspective) would have embraced. There has been considerable progress since the early to mid-twentieth century. This is due in large part to Betty Dodson and others of her generation who taught women to become familiar with their genitalia and use vibrators as a tool for becoming orgasmic. Despite the progress that has been made since the 1960s and ’70s, there is still a long way to go. Our society has yet to produce a male answer to Betty Dodson, perhaps because the underlying assumption is that men know instinctively how to pleasure themselves. While this may be true on the crudest level, to date there has been little recognition that many men would benefit from exploring self-pleasuring in a more conscious way. Joseph Kramer’s work is an important exception, but unfortunately, his influence on the heterosexual male community has been limited, whereas
Dodson has been able to reach women of all orientations and has almost singlehandedly inspired a revolution in thinking about female sexuality.
Thus, masturbating, while paying close attention to what kinds of stimulation and what parts of the body give you the most pleasure, is the first step in developing sexual self-knowledge. But it is only the first step. As an aside, masturbation can also be very useful for becoming more flexible sexually. In this context, you can explore different positions, different kinds of stimulation, and different fantasies, without having to worry about performance or your partner’s reaction. While we always encourage couples to cultivate an open, exploratory attitude toward their sexual lives together, treating some of your self-pleasuring sessions as solo laboratory experiments can be a great way to discover new things about yourself. You can then share these discoveries with your partner if you choose.
– Mark A Michaels and Patricia Johnson