Monday, 20 November 2017
This year, a worrying increase in numbers of young women, as young as 16, reported to go through vaginal plastic surgery to make their vaginas look ‘better’. It seems that many young women think their vagina doesn’t look right.
Surgeons performing such interventions say that it is helping these young women have better ‘self-esteem’, which I think is incorrect.
Surgery only promotes the ‘perfect-looking vagina’ epidemic that seems to be spreading. As a psychosexual psychotherapist, I know that if we don't address the underlying issues that bring the distress around the look of vaginas, the surgery won't make that person have a better self-esteem.
The vagina is a complex structure with many important tissues. It can be traumatic to have unnecessary surgery in that area: it can in fact contribute to psychosexual problems. Having an operation before the age of 18 is not recommended because the body hasn't completely developed by then.
But, most of all, why go through that pain? Vaginal operations are only recommended if there is a genetic anomaly that makes sex very painful. If it is just cosmetic, it is not recommended.
If you have distressing thoughts about your vagina, here are some tips:
1- Look at other vaginas in the right places: not erotic images nor pornography. Look at anatomically, everyday, real pictures: you will see that all vaginas look very different and they are all normal and beautiful in their own way. There isn’t the ‘right’ amount of hair, or just the ‘right’ colour. Vaginas come in all sizes, shapes, hair and colours, etc.
2- Get to know your vagina: with a small mirror, look at your vagina: touch it gently, looking with curiosity. After looking at other pictures, you will see that yours is just as normal and beautiful as others.
3- Protect your vagina: if a boyfriend tells you that your vagina isn't hairless enough, or pretty enough, it is the equivalent of bullying: protect it and defend it. It may be that your boyfriend needs to educate himself about what vaginas actually look like.
4- Give a voice to your vagina: it may sound strange but it is a powerful exercise. If your vagina could speak, what would it say? As mentioned above, your vagina is a complex structure: it has much to say, and it might have a lot to say to respond to you not liking the look of it.
I see many women in my consulting room who have no relationship or a hate-relationship with their vaginas. This simple process of getting to know it, spending time with it, meeting it, protecting it, giving it a voice is a meaningful way to learn to love your vagina. In my experience it is the easiest, less invasive, less painful way to address permanently the issues of self-esteem, and feeling better about yourself.
There isn't just one way that your vagina ‘should’ look like. It is an important, tender, beautiful part of you, so, please, love your vagina.
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
I sit opposite a female client in my consulting room. I hear her say: ‘All men are evil. What hope do women have? How about our daughters?’. I challenge my client with the obvious: ‘I’m a man’. To my surprise, her facial expression was one of shock. It was difficult for her to reconcile her notion of ‘all men are evil’ and knowing me, a man who had been holding her emotional space and helped her heal over the last six months. Thoughts like ‘all men are evil’ is what we, psychotherapists, call ‘global thinking’.
I can’t blame her. Global thinking is prevalent in today’s society, especially through social media, as is ‘black and white thinking’: some things are good, some things are bad. There is no room for grey areas. Yet, my clinical experience, and life, has taught me that reality is hardly black or white, and is mainly composed of various shades of grey. During my career as a psychosexual and relationship therapist, I have noticed that global thinking and black and white thinking encourage the movement of shaming male sexuality and, at the same time, promoting the fear of male sexuality: ‘men who watch porn are bad’. ‘men are cheaters’. ‘men sexually offend’.
Douglas Murray calls this movement a ‘sexual counter-revolution’ in his article in The Spectator published on the 4th November 2017. In his opinion, the new ‘feminism’ is ‘producing manifestos for torturing men’ to the extent that ‘no sex at all’ will become the new appropriate behaviour. I fear that Murray is right, given what I hear in my consulting room, more and more, and especially since the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent #MeToo movement.
I am not denying the struggles of women in a patriarchal world: women have to endure men putting them down and sexually objectifying them, every day. It is not ok for women to live like this. The #MeToo movement has created empowerment for some women to speak out, which is positive. But it is equally important to remember that not all men are sexual offenders or predators. Most men are loving, caring and kind. Perhaps some are awkward and ignorant and say the wrong things at the wrong time: it is clumsy, but it is not a criminal offence.
Soon after #MeToo, another movement took off: #ImperfectMen, to encourage men to say that they are imperfect. What good would it do to anybody? With #ImperfectMen, it is a way to silence men again, and to put them all in the box of ‘Not Good Enough’. I prefer #WhatIHaveLearnt. This seems more appropriate to me because it can create a discussion without shame. Sadly, that one didn’t take off.
And, by the way, nobody is perfect.
What appeared on social media besides #MeToo and #ImperfectMen is multiple articles and blogs with headlines like: ‘The 5 top things to never say to a woman’. ‘The 10 things you must do to be a better man’. ‘The 5 signs to find out if your boyfriend is a cheater’, etc. Rather than ordering men to act exactly in this way or that way so that they can be a ‘good man’ or a ‘better man’, why not have an ongoing conversation between a man and a woman: because women, too, are not all the same.
Some women enjoy being told that they’re beautiful. Some others don’t. Some women enjoy the attention from strangers. Some women don’t. Some women have sexual fantasies of being dominant, others have sexual fantasies of being submissive. Some women enjoy a man taking control, some don’t. Some women welcome a flirty touch on the shoulder or the knee, some don’t. Some women enjoy watching porn, some don’t. Some women, too, exploit men’s vulnerability to coerce them into sexual behaviours, most don’t.
If there is no ongoing conversation between men and women, on an individual basis, then how can we understand what is right for one person and what is not for another?
The conversation is simple if we stop thinking in black and white terms, or in global thinking.
‘For me, this is ok to do this, and it is not ok when you do that’. This is boundary setting from one individual to another.
If someone unknowingly crosses a boundary and they are told so, this person must not minimise, argue or dismiss the assertion of boundaries, but simply listen to the boundaries, apologise and make sure they don’t cross the line again with this particular person. Then, they can ask for clarification: ‘what is acceptable for you?’: this is the basis of consent.
If this dialogue happens in this way, then you have two people who are honest and assertive and they can respect each other.
Of course, there are gross misconduct and criminal behaviours that we all agree should never happen, like any non-consensual activities and other illegal sexual behaviours. And we all have social norms to respect: not intimidate or ridicule another person. I think this is pretty easy to know what is right and what is wrong if you have been socialised by reasonable parents. Most men know about non-consensual sexual behaviours and what is illegal. And most men know about social norms, and they don’t breach them. This notion that male sexuality is dangerous and that it can get out of control quickly is pure fiction and fear mongering.
Of course male sex offenders exist, they are a tiny percentage of the population. These people should have the appropriate criminal sentence. And There are also female sex offenders who also should have the appropriate criminal sentence.
At the same time that we demonise men, we also order them to open up: ‘men must talk more because their mental health is poor’. Suicide statistics are worryingly high amongst young men. But how can we give a chance to men to open up if we’re going to shut them down as soon as they make a genuine mistake, or be clumsy or not knowing the right word to say at the right time?
Masculinity is beautiful. Male sexuality is as vibrant and loving as female sexuality. Let’s embrace all of it.
Rather than demonising men, I think it is best to meet each other with open arms, have honest ongoing conversations without making judgements and assumptions of what we are, what we think and what we are likely to do based on our gender.
My point in writing this blog is to offer a bit of balance in a discource that is often too black and white. We seem to live in a world that is polarised. But the fact is that we are men, we are women. We all do good things and bad things. We can unknowingly offend somebody by being insensitive and clumsy. Let us keep the judgement in the court room for the true sex offenders. And for the rest of us, let’s allow mistakes to happen, it is how we can learn from each other.
Friday, 30 June 2017
I see many clients who talk about their relationships. They tell me that they are unhappy, they feel bad about themselves and their relationship. Couples can feel stuck and conflicted because they know the relationship isn't working and at the same time they love their partner.
Sometimes, the unhappiness in the relationship is down to some resentment that has built up and poor communication. For these issues, couples therapy is the best way to resolve problems.
But sometimes, a relationship is unhappy because there is abuse.
Abuse is one of those words that is loaded and heavy. Many people do not want to face that their relationship might be abusive. Often people think that an abuse relationship is one with physical violence. They think that as long as their partner doesn't hit them then the relationship is not abusive.
It is not so. The reality is that abuse is much more subtle than a partner being physically violent. In fact, there are seven types of abuse and they are all equally damaging.
Here are the seven types of abuse:
1- Physical abuse. This is the abuse that is most easily recognised. If you partner slaps you, punches you, pushes you, kicks you, clips your ear, pulls your hair, or causes physical pain, it is physical abuse. Some people experiencing physical abuse feel ashamed to admit it or to admit to themselves that they are in a domestic violent relationship. For men, it is particularly difficult to admit to it. I hear my male clients saying: 'she punched me but I'm bigger than her, so it's not abuse'. However, it is, because physical abuse, whether you are a man or a woman makes you feel powerless in that moment, and leaves long lasting emotional scars. It is also not uncommon for physical abuse to escalate to serious violence causing permanent physical damage and even death. The statistics on domestic abuse is worrying: it affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men. It leads to two women being murdered each week and thirty men per year. This year, domestic violence reporting has hit an all-time high.
2- Verbal abuse. It comes in two forms: volume (shouting) and vocabulary (abusive language). If your partner frequently raises their voice or shouts at you, it is verbal abuse. If your partner uses a language that makes you feel bad, it is also verbal abuse. Such words can be subtle calling a woman 'girl' for the sole purpose of diminishing their existence. Or it could be words like 'dumb'. And of course, there are more obvious abusive language like calling your partner derogatory names.
3- Emotional abuse. This type of abuse is often unrecognised, and yet it is a common one. Emotional abuse is when your partner says some things with the intention to make you feel bad about yourself. It may be comments like: 'don't you want to have a nose job?' Or 'you're not good in bed' or 'you look ridiculous in this suit' or 'everybody at the party thoughts you were stupid' or 'I don't love you anymore', 'why do you have friends?', 'nobody can love you', etc. Emotional can have a long lasting damaging effect on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It makes people feel isolated. Over time, people report that they lost themselves and they became unaware of what is good about them.
4- Psychological abuse. This is another form of abuse that is often unrecognised and yet common. This is when a partner intentionally is trying to make their spouse feel like they are going crazy. The popular term for this is gaslighting. This is when your partner says things like: 'you're paranoid', 'it's all in your head', 'you should go to a shrink and sort yourself out', 'you're hysterical', etc. Often these are response to enquiries from their spouse around doubts of infidelity. But it can also be enquiries of financial abuse, emotional abuse or even physical abuse. For example, you may make the following statement:
'It was not ok for you to tell my friend I was too fat to wear this dress.' (Statement about emotional abuse).
'What are you talking about? You're so paranoid! I never talked to your friend about that. You're not the centre of the universe, you know, we do talk about other things than you.' - This is psychological abuse because you might then doubt yourself and question if you did hear the emotional abuse comment or if it was in your head.
Another example: enquiry of loyalty:
'I've seen those receipts for an expensive restaurant when you told me you worked late that night. Can you explain?'
'Stop being so crazy! It's all in your head! I told you I had a network meeting with my boss that day. You never listen to me and you make up crazy ideas in your head'
Even if deep down you know that he said he was working late in the office that day, you can doubt yourself and start to believe you're going crazy.
5- Sexual abuse. This type of abuse is well recognised when the perpetrator is a stranger. If you are the victim of unwanted sexual contact by a stranger or a colleague or your boss or a friend, it is easy to recognise it as sexual abuse and there are a legal system in place to report those assaults. It is a traumatic experience which often leaves a physical and emotional scar for a long time.
What is less recognised is that sexual abuse can also happen in a marriage. If you say 'no' to your spouse, it means 'no' and if your spouse forces you to have sex when you say 'no', it is sexual abuse and it is damaging physically and emotionally.
Sexual abuse can also be the opposite: constantly withholding sex when your partner asks for the sole purpose of controlling the partner. When sex is constantly withheld, it makes people feel unwanted, undesired and damages their self-esteem.
6- Financial abuse. This abuse often applies with vulnerable people, for example an elderly person or someone with impaired thinking. Financial abuse is when you take money from that person without their consent. It could be stealing or over-charging for a service that you know they won't know the difference. Or it could be more subtle such as keeping the change if you're doing shopping for somebody else.
In a relationship when there is no vulnerable people, financial abuse happens when one partner earns significantly more than the other. The main earner may restrict access to money for the other one for the sole purpose of disempowering and controlling that person.
7- Threat and intimidation. This type of abuse can be through actions like the display of aggression on an object: punching a wall, smashing a plate. This is intimidating because it is a demonstration of violence that could then be transferred onto a person. If you see your partner punching a wall when they are angry with you, it is easy to feel intimidated because you can imagine what that fist would do if it was directed on your face. Threat and intimidation can be through words like: 'I'm going to kill you', 'I'm going to tell your boss you're a drunk', 'I'm going to kill myself if you don't stay home with me'.
It is possible to be in a relationship where there are more than one type of abuse. It is not uncommon for partners to be emotionally and psychologically abusive with intimidation and threat.
Also, it is important to understand that when emotions are high, your partner may resort to one of those behaviours as a one-off. If it is an isolated incident, your relationship isn't classified as abusive. A relationship is abusive if one or more of the above behaviours are repeated, frequent or consistent.
If you think you are in an abusive relationship, don't suffer in silence. There is professional help available. However, it is very important to understand that your partner's abusive behaviour can increase and become more dangerous if they know that you are seeking help or you are trying to leave them. Don't tell your abusive partner you are thinking of living to protect yourself. Firstly, identify a safe place to escape to: an organisation providing a safe house, or a friend, or a family member. Then, with the help of a professional, you can prepare a safe exit strategy.
In a crisis you can call the Police, of course, but be mindful that they only respond seriously to physical abuse or sexual abuse. People don't tend to be prosecuted for emotional abuse, verbal abuse or psychological abuse.
Everybody deserves to be in a warm, loving and safe relationship that enhances who we are, rather than make us feel bad about ourselves. People who have successfully and safely left an abusive relationship, after a period of healing, report that they regained a sense of self-worth, and reached happiness again.
A new life is waiting for you.