Why a potentially illegal form of sex therapy has so many defenders
Ava MacLean knows you might think the work she does for a living is weird. When she describes her work as a somatic sex educator to people who have never heard of the field, she’s never sure exactly what to say, she told Healthing over Zoom from her home at a meditation center in Bull River, B.C.
Somatic sex education (SSE) is a kind of sex therapy that people undergo by themselves or with a partner. I t always starts with talking over a problem, but it differs from traditional sex therapy in that it focuses on the client processing how they feel in their body. In some cases, it might involve the client removing clothing in an attempt to feel more comfortable. And sometimes — but not always — the practitioner will ask the client if they want sexological bodywork, where they may teach something that involves touching the client’s genitals. It might be an attempt to show a client new or more comfortable ways to receive sexual pleasure, or to help with pain, or to teach them how to feel more present during sex. Rather than describing something like that, in the way a doctor or a traditional sex therapist might, the client will literally feel their way through.
“What I love about somatic sex education is that it’s so built into the body,” MacLean says. “I can tell you how to parallel park a car, or I can actually show you.”
It isn’t about gratification — some practitioners say they make it exceedingly clear to potential clients that people seeking sex workers should go elsewhere. (There are sex workers who might integrate aspects of somatic sex education into what they do, but SSE on its own is an entirely different practice.) It’s meant to educate, and often to heal. People might turn to SSE for a variety of reasons: sometimes it’s someone who wants to start enjoying sex again after experiencing trauma, like a difficult labor and childbirth or a sexual assault. Some people visit a practitioner after getting gender-affirming surgery. It can also be helpful alongside more traditional medical interventions for people with pelvic floor disorders. But for many people, it’s just about wanting to enjoy sex more — learning how to experience pleasure without getting in your head or worrying about how your body looks.
The law, though, sees it a little differently — any exchange of money for sexual touch is illegal in Canada. SSE is “fraught with legal issues,” says Jillian Williamson, a criminal defense lawyer in Calgary, adding that somatic sex education “is still physical touch for a sexual purpose.” “A person is paying this sex educator or sex therapist, so there is clearly an exchange with consideration,” she says. “It will likely be inferred as ‘sexual services.’” Again, MacLean knows how this might all sound to someone who’s never considered it. “It’s a relatively new field,” she says. “It can look a little taboo, or out there.”
Sexological bodywork — the part of somatic sex education that can involve genital touch or penetration — has been getting a lot of more attention recently. In October, the practice was featured on “Sex, Love & Goop,” the Netflix show about relationships that’s the most recent iteration of Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand. Goop, to put it mildly, isn’t known for its practicality, or its reliable dissemination of health advice: it sells “ psychic vampire repellant ” and $1,700 wine decanters , and advocates for vaginal insertion of a jade egg to correct hormonal imbalances — a false claim that cost the company USD $145,000 in lawsuits. So the brand’s embrace of a controversial sex therapy seemed like another frivolous attempt at provocation — until you watch the show.
In episodes three and four of “Sex, Love & Goop,” one of the featured couples visited erotic wellness coach Darshana Avila in San Francisco. Camilla and Shandra are in love, they explain, but sometimes still struggle with sex: Shandra, who had residual shame about being a lesbian raised in a conservative household, experienced pain during penetration. Camille wasn’t fully enjoying herself during sex, because she worried about how her body looked. In separate sessions, they each lay down alone under a sheet while the other watched. Avila, wearing gloves, touched the women with her hand — regularly checking in to make sure they were okay with her touch — trying different positions and varying amounts of pressure until the women recognized what they liked. With Camille, Avila used a vibrator; with Shandra she just used her fingers. Both women described feeling comfort and ease, and understanding more about pleasure after the session, both their own and their partner’s. The scene is surprisingly moving.
“I felt great,” Shandra said on the show, describing the experience. “It’s hard to explain. I was just focusing on myself and enjoying where I was in that moment. It’s amazing.”
Critics were pleasantly surprised, too. “With ‘Sex, Love & Goop’ — her new Netflix reality show — [Paltrow] may finally have found a career pivot worth getting behind,” TV critic Inkoo Kang wrote in the Washington Post . And this in The Atlantic from culture writer Sophie Gilbert: “I started watching ‘Sex, Love & Goop’ limbered up for new feats of eye-rolling. But somewhere amid a discussion of the ‘erotic blueprints’ that define how individual people relate to sex, I realized I was riveted.”
Sexological bodywork began in Oakland, California in the 1980s. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, and Dr. Joseph Kramer developed the practice as a way for HIV-positive men to “ experience safe touch and healing .” The practice took off in holistic communities across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, and was adopted by by sexologist and feminist sex educator Annie Sprinkle, among others.
Corinne Diachuk, who worked as somatic sex educator for just under a decade and is now a board member of the Institute for the Study of Somatic Sex Education in Victoria, B.C., was drawn to the practice because it was a service she was looking for herself.
“I was in a shitty relationship, and I knew that things weren’t right,” she says. But she wasn’t sure where to turn to get more insight about her sex life. “I couldn’t have this conversation with my doctor. I’m sure I’ve traumatized my massage therapist trying to talk about it. My therapist wasn’t trained in work around sexuality. So I was really striking out with regards to professional support around my sexuality.”
In a fit of desperation, she Googled “tantra,” and came across the work of since-retired somatic sex educator Caffyn Jesse. It was everything she was looking for: a way to understand and connect the way she felt about herself and the world with the way she approached sex. Jesse put her in touch with Liam Snowdon, co-founder of the Institute for the Study of Somatic Sex Education, who everyone calls “Captain.” (It started as a “Star Trek” reference and stuck because Snowdon, who uses they/them pronouns, appreciated having a gender-neutral nickname.) That’s how Diachuk found out about the professional training. She started taking classes, became a teaching assistant two years later, and was invited to become a partner in the institute two years after that. “I arrived to this work through a desire for my own healing,” she says.
The institute, based in Victoria, is the only somatic sex education school in Canada. There are more American students than Canadian, Diachuk says, although people sign up from all over the world: South America, Europe, the Caribbean, South Africa. Training involves taking five courses — some online, some in person — and after each one, a student and their mentor have a conversation about whether they should continue. Professional training doesn’t start until the third course — the first two are just about learning for yourself — and in the later years, students pick a specialization. That could involve working with a specific demographic, like people who have survived sexual assault or people who need specific pelvic care after birthing children, or integrating SSE into another practice like yoga or myofascial massage . The entire five-course training takes two or three years. The first course costs about $780 (the amount is approximate, because fees are calculated in USD) and the prices go up as students move through the curriculum, with the final course at about $2,100.
There are a few hundred somatic sex educators in Canada, Diachuk says. The vast majority are based in B.C., but she’s seen a groundswell of interest in Toronto and Montreal now too. The B.C.-centrism could be a result of the school’s location, or it could be that there’s more demand on the hippie-friendly west coast. “It’s a relatively new discipline, and sometimes people from B.C. tend to be early adopters,” MacLean says.
Not a substitute for medical care
Somatic sex education isn’t meant to replace more traditional medical interventions, Diachuk says. She doesn’t see the two fields in opposition; she thinks they can work in tandem.
“There are practices that we can offer that would work with a medical doctor or a therapist, especially teaching around having a voice, knowing how to ask for what you want,” she says. “Those are skills that you can bring with you into a doctor’s office, or into a relationship.”
One of her former clients had vaginismus, a condition where vaginal muscles contract involuntarily during penetration, which can make sex very painful . The woman’s doctor was treating her with vaginal dilators to expand her muscles.
“There was no conversation about pleasure,” says Diachuk. “It was just going in and physically trying to force open her vagina.” She suggested the woman use dilators with lube, in a comfortable place, and with her partner, who was specifically advised on what he could do to make the whole thing feel better for her. The result was a less clinical, more pleasurable, and altogether much more effective treatment, for a sex-related problem. Soon, her client was able to enjoy sex a lot more.
Any new field that isn’t government-regulated is going to be questioned about its legitimacy — even one that isn’t about sex. But because somatic sex education involves someone paying for a service that may include genital touch, there are a whole other set of concerns. Diachuk and MacLean both talked about their work existing in a “grey area” of the law. Calgary-based lawyer Jillian Williamson says that may be true — but somatic sex educators, their clients, and anyone who helps facilitate their work (like an administrative assistant) are likely breaking the law.
The sale of “sexual services” is a crime, but that term is a nebulous one. “If a [sexological bodywork] therapy worker was in court, I could see that person saying ‘I’m not providing a sexual service, I’m not… what used to be called a ‘prostitute,’” Williamson says. “I appreciate that they may have that point of view, but I don’t think a judge is necessarily going to agree, because they’re clearly providing a service and it involves sexual touch.”
There are also potential repercussions for their clients, she says. The law is less grey and more black and white when it comes to buying sex than providing it: anyone convicted of purchasing sexual services could face up to five years in jail.
Building a website to advertise SSE services, or sharing an office, also come with risks, according to sections 286.1-5 of the Criminal Code . It’s illegal to advertise sexual services, for one thing. It’s also illegal to receive material benefit from sexual services, so an administrative assistant or anyone else working for a practitioner is also committing a crime, even if they don’t perform the services themselves. Also against the law is hiring someone to perform the services — which could be a problem for a small business trying to recruit therapists, Williamson explains. And while immunity is sometimes granted for some of these offences if someone is advertising or selling their own services, if anyone shares an office or advertises services provided by another practitioner, that’s also a crime.
The trickiest part of all of this is that these laws are still untested in most of the country. In Ontario, for instance, the laws that ban sex workers from advertising, working together or communicating with clients were declared unconstitutional earlier this year. But that’s specific to one province — and even in Ontario, both paying for sex and communication for the purpose of paying for sex are still illegal. It’s conceivable that the government could crack down on this work, with severe consequences for practitioners and their clients; it’s also possible that a legal challenge could lead to more permissive sex work laws.
Diachuk, hearing her profession picked apart by these laws, seemed relatively unfazed. “We have been aware of these concerns and for many reasons think the laws should change, not our profession,” she says.
And then there’s consent
Consent is also a major concern, ethically and legally. It’s reasonable to wonder if therapy that can involve penetration is just too much, or if it can be exploitative.
Practitioners say consent is the cornerstone of what they do. Genital touching or contact is only ever one-way — the practitioner, wearing gloves, sometimes touches the client, and never the other way around. Not all sessions include touching, but in the ones that do, it’s negotiated in detail. And getting a client’s consent means more than just hearing the word “yes”: there are physical signs they look for, and long conversations about what’s okay and what’s not.
“Some people I work with have a pattern of saying yes in regards to sex, and going along with what the other person wants,” MacLean says. “So I need to be sure that’s not what they’re doing.”
Somatic sex education is based on the “ wheel of consent ,” a concept developed by sexological bodyworker Betty Martin. It details the different ways in which consent should be communicated, how there are different ways to give and receive sexual acts. MacLean gives the example of someone offering you a foot massage: it could be an act of service for you — or, if they have a foot fetish, it could be for their benefit more than yours. Diachuk says part of the work of a somatic sex educator is to keep track of their own desires, conscious and unconscious, to ensure their personal proclivities remain separate from their work.
Despite that, from a legal perspective, “consent issues here are just rampant,” Williamson says. The ongoing consent conversations that Diachuk and MacLean say are a part of every session are “a great practice” and “should be applauded,” she says, but she doesn’t think they’ll hold up in court. And “advanced consent” — the idea that a sexual act can’t be assault if it was agreed to beforehand — doesn’t exist in the eyes of the law.
“The Supreme Court has been very, very clear, in very recent cases, that there is no such thing as advanced consent,” Williamson says. “And there is no such thing as implied consent either. So this is not workable.”
When Healthing shared this statement with Liam “Captain” Snowdon, co-founder and senior faculty at the Institute for the Study of Somatic Sex Education, they wrote in an email (with input from Caffyn Jesse): “We have had many legal opinions over the years of our work. We remain committed to teaching trauma-informed, client-directed touch with deep understanding of The Wheel of Consent and voice and choice empowerment, supporting folks of all genders to get the sex and pleasure education we all deserve.”
The statement went on to include the advice give teachers give students.
“We advise our students in this way: ‘Although no person who has gone through our training has ever faced criminal prosecution for offering erotic touch in a somatic sex education practice, we cannot guarantee that you will not be prosecuted. Anti-prostitution laws make us vulnerable. Hence, some somatic sex educators decide not to include any offering of erotic touch in their practice. Although our training includes an erotic touch component because of the importance and efficacy of the work, each practitioner must assume the risks and responsibilities of the particular offering they decide to make in the legal jurisdiction in which they operate.’”
MacLean was somewhat surprised by the severity of the law, but said she had nothing to add beyond what Snowdon’s statement said. Like them, and Diachuk and Jesse, she believes deeply in the power of the work she does — both in terms of how it helped her, and how it can help her clients.
For MacLean, delving into her own issues around sex helped her understand much more about herself. She specialized on learning how to “soften” and accept her desire, which she said helped her come to terms with some of her own issues around gender roles and internalized misogyny.
Now she works primarily with women seeking that same kind of clarity. Not all, but most of the clients who seek out MacLean’s services are in a similar demographic: women in their 30s and 40s who are realizing they don’t actually know what kind of sex they like. They often grew up without receiving a lot of education about sex and — in many cases — spent more energy on pleasing male partners than on their own preferences.
“Maybe they were able to ignore that in their 20s,” MacLean says. “They don’t want to ignore it anymore.”
Unlike traditional therapy, which is often ongoing, people generally seek out SSE for a specific problem. MacLean says clients will undergo a single session, she says; others with more complex needs come back for months. But generally speaking, there is an end date.
She says other people with different specific needs — non-binary people, or disabled people, or people of color — seek out practitioners who they can identify with and who can suit their needs. (The founders of sexological bodywork, and many of the current practitioners, are white, but the institute is trying to change that, in part by offering a mentorship program for racialized students.) Because the community is tight-knit and relatively small, it’s usually easy to find another practitioner to suggest to a client with a specific need, she says.
MacLean is glad she happened to stumble on somatic sex education. She says she was surprised how many parts of her life outside of sex were positively affected by the realizations she made when she started undergoing sexological bodywork — among other things, her realizations around gender helped improve her relationship with her mother, she says. It made her realize how much of her life she could understand when she understood her body.
“Things that manifest in sex, manifest in every part of your life.”
By Maija Kappler originally posted at Healthing