They told me that to make her fall in love, I had to make her laugh. But every time she laughs, I’m the one who falls in love.
~ Tommaso Ferraris
Kelly Rees has been studying tantra for over two decades, twelve years in the particular form she uses now in her work as an intimacy and sexuality coach.
When I spoke with her over the phone, I asked Rees if much has changed in the way men and women intimately connect.
On Making Intimate Connections Across Cyberspace: What are the Rules for Virtual Romance?
“With [internet] chat, people are being more sexually fulfilled,” Rees told me. “They are able to line up their wants and needs. You’re capable of finding people who have similar desires. But with anonymity, there also comes a lot of goofy stuff. So there are also people who are feeling disappointed.”
When people are not being authentic in their connections, in how they represent themselves, says Rees, there isn’t much room for flexibility and maturing. Eventually, the other party realizes that this “superficial connection is just not that interesting anymore.”
Rees herself administrates a private, by-invitation-only Facebook chat “Salon” group that discusses topics of interest around sexuality. Every five weeks, a “core group” gets together in person and meets in her living room to explore selected topics further. Their next meeting is actually this evening. And the topic on the docket for discussion? “Sexual Fantasies.”
Kelly Rees: “Hopefully what I’m facilitating with the chat board is helping people make those deeper connections. I curate in terms of sharing items to read that are provocative and don’t follow the standard, ‘This-is-what-normal-looks-like formula,’ but instead ask, ‘How do we feel about this?'”
Rees tells me, “Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asking seed questions such as, ‘Are you the main character of your sexual fantasies or are you even in your fantasies? Do you prefer to stay on the sidelines?'”
While the self-described Portland “Pleasurologist” accepts that many people in her group will just be interested in sharing and hearing the details of one another’s sexual reveals, Rees says that she herself is much more interested in exploring the “deeper roots” of those fantasies.
“I find that most people haven’t examined their fantasies, so I’ve asked everyone who’s coming [tonight] to write them down first. After sharing, we’ll explore questions like, ‘Where do they come from?’ And, “What does having these fantasies do for us?'”
Pretty scary stuff, I say.
Kelly Rees agrees. “But I hope I’ve built up enough trust in this group and created a safe enough atmosphere that we’ve made it possible for some very deep sharing. We get really real and tell each other things we’ve never been able to share with anyone else about ourselves.”
But aren’t these the kinds of things that one confides in a lover? In one’s partner?
That’s not always the case, says Rees. Often the partner is the last person you tell. And there are a couple reasons for that. “When I started the conversation about fantasy, there are people for whom fantasy is a to-do list. And then there are also people for whom there’s absolutely no way they’re going to share. Because to do so would risk the disgust of their partner. And also to lose the juice of that fantasy.”
There’s this “Secret self,” says Rees, the me that only ‘I’ know. “It’s larger than life and yet fits inside of you and you can be in charge of every aspect of it.”
Whereas, the intimacy coach points out, as soon as you try to act upon a fantasy, the reality often doesn’t live up to what was imagined. Rees relates the story of a client who couldn’t stop fantasizing about sleeping with a particular man, only to report that when she did, he was actually much more, well, real than she’d imagined. Sweatier. “And you know, his feet smelled.”
So back to the place where we began this conversation: With couples who meet and connect virtually, sometimes in different states, even in completely separate countries. Are there ever cases, I wondered, where both parties knowingly allow each other to weave false stories and identities? That this make-believe becomes part of the fantasy?
“I think you can look at that question in the same way as you look at the place of fantasy,” says Rees. “If people don’t live close by, how real do they want to be? What are they doing this for?”
For a long time we lost the concept of pen-pals, Rees points out, “so is that kind of what we’re talking about here?”
“Is this play-acting healthy? I think it’s just different,” says Rees. “The whole concept of the relationship has changed. These are all new areas that couples now need to negotiate.”
Rees cautions that it would be too easy to say across the board whether one means of fantasy or another is more or less rich. “Is it better or worse? It’s just different. Just another part of how we’re now spinning the story in our heads. It’s just what we are dealing with now.”
“Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.”
~ Anaïs Nin – The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934
Teaching Our Children About Sex
Despite all of the technological changes that are affecting intimate relationships, not much has changed in the way we teach our adolescents about sex, says Rees, who herself is the mother of three young adults.
Although sex is now being discussed much more frankly in schools, the intimacy coach feels that we’re still approaching these discussions in a way that may be doing more harm to our children than good. By emphasizing the dangers of sex and focusing only on the basic mechanics of how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, Rees says we’re missing out on an opportunity for meaningful discussion about building healthy and fulfilling intimacy ~ a discussion that could make a great difference in how our young people develop their first intimate relationships.
“What we need to be talking about is the nature of desire. Because after all, isn’t that why we engage in sex in the first place?” says Rees. “But no one wants to talk about that with their children.”
“So we’re setting up a situation where kids are still lying to their parents about their sexual activity, just as young people have done for centuries.” Instead of creating opportunities for discussion and giving kids room to safely explore their unique sexuality, Rees says we set our youth up to stumble around cluelessly in the dark.”
She compares this with how families in Scandinavian countries prepare their young people for passage into healthy sexuality, where parents “frankly discuss issues of importance. They sit their children down and say, ‘Ok, this is what you’re going to need to know, and you’re going to need time and space for exploration, so we’ll give you that, but please come and let us know if you need anything.’ And they extend curfews to allow their children to spend more exploratory time with their friends. Because it’s assumed that kids are going to start experimenting with each other, and so families and the culture provide for this.”
So what about children who insist they have no need for such discussions? Any advice for their parents?
But what if the parents themselves are struggling with issues around their own intimate relationships?
“There you go. You hit the nail right on the head,” says Rees. “Many people spend their entire life trying to subvert their own desire and make sure they don’t do anything bad or wrong and get in trouble for it. Some of us are taught that repressing our desires is a very noble thing to do.”
Is this because we feel we have so many other more pressing responsibilities that take precedence over our own pleasure?
“Distancing yourself from your desire is partially about having self-control. Disaster and chaos ensue, the world will end, if you lose a grip on yourself. And it’s not that I feel that having a grip on yourself is wrong but that what we want to develop is the skill to be able to choose when to do it and how.”
The Practice of Tantric Living
Greater self-control. Isn’t that where tantric practice enters in?
“Yes, exactly,” says Kelly Rees, “Tantra teaches us that everything’s a part of you. There’s no part of you that you need to wall off or shut off or pretend doesn’t exist or deny.
“I think part of the reason that it’s so difficult for parents to wrap their minds around allowing kids to have their own sexual desires is the thinking that, ‘I can’t do that for myself. How am I supposed to let you do that?’
“The whole concept of trying to control and being out of control ~ whether it’s women’s sexuality in the Muslim world or men’s sexuality in the western world. Muslim men require women to cover their hair. And to hear a woman’s voice, well, a man could actually go crazy if he hears a woman’s voice…”
I ask Rees if there’s a way she might be able to sum up the practice of tantra in common layman’s terms.
“I’m always afraid of questions like that.” says Rees, “There’s a couple of things: The conversation about tantra is so loaded for me. You know, I say that I’ve studied tantra for over two decades now, and I don’t even know how to describe that to you. It encompasses so much of my inner life and in fact all of my life experiences. Everything is included. There’s nothing outside of that. But when most people in the West hear the word, ‘tantra,’ they’re actually thinking of the new tantra. People ask me if there is a text about tantra, but the truth is that tantra is so fragmented. The roots are so esoteric. So for me, tantra is more about my inner experience of the world, what I’m allowing into my experience of the world.
“When I organize an event, I’m going for creating an integrated experience. I’m looking to expand people’s awareness and their physical relationship with themselves and maybe also with each other. Tantric living is about including more of everything than before. Tantra is this vast ocean, where you have more of your body engaged in what you’re doing. You’re sending your breath and awareness into every cell of your body.”
So how does Rees teach it to her clients?
“I lead experiential workshops. I talk a little bit, I find that the best way to create deep understanding is by providing kinesthetic and emotional experiences. Through the body and though the heart. And your mind gets to comment on it and be amused by it and, if it wants, to also at times object to it. But it’s not about what you think about it.”
When Couples Experience Disconnect
I ask Rees about what happens when couples experience severe trauma in their relationship ~ anything from the serious illness of one of the partners, to the death of a child. Had she seen instances where couples had experienced their relationship weakened, by either inside or outside forces, but then the partners had been able to work beyond this, to bounce back stronger than ever?
“Sometimes a crisis is something as commonplace and universal as menopause. And intimacy comes to a grinding screeching halt. And sometimes this can be a good thing for the relationship as it brings everything out, especially if they are ready to look at things and move the issue along. At other times, though, one or both of the partners is not yet ready to do the work that is required. It does take a lot of work, but it is possible for partners to turn towards each other in a time of crisis.”
What techniques does Rees employ to help couples navigate their way through these difficult spots?
“That’s when you both find ways to support yourselves,” says Rees, “so that you don’t look to each other and say, ‘Well, you weren’t there for me.’
“I don’t think that there’s anything that is not surmountable. I don’t think that any human experience is too much to recover from. Yet sometimes the specifics are more than you can or want to bear. What I’m saying is that it is possible to maintain intimacy or regain intimacy ~ but that you might not choose to.”
Infidelity: A Deal-Breaker?
Kelly Rees: “Traditionally, our standard around infidelity is that it is the deal-breaker. You don’t have to have any other reason to break up a marriage. If someone has been unfaithful, that’s like a free pass. But when you really start to investigate, you realize that there are a lot of different levels and ways to be unfaithful or faithful, and, looking at this further, you may uncover different dynamics in your relationship you’ve never looked at before or discussed. But I’ve been reading a lot of books from relationship experts like Esther Perel and Dr. Tammy Nelson, and both of these therapists say infidelity is not the end; you can move past it and make your partnership stronger.
“If I’m working with a couple, first off I will observe how they are with each other, their body language. Who initiates proximity? Who wants to be here and who doesn’t, and what do we have to work with to start off? There isn’t any specific checklist of things to do as each couple has their own landscape. So with some people, I move them into physical contact with each other right off the bat; and with other people that is absolutely not the right thing you want to do.”
And are there specific ways Rees can recommend for a couple to keep their relationship protected? Rees says, “I think there’s a couple of components to that, and the first one is keeping your relationship central. Do I want to use the word, ‘sanctity’? I do. I want to say it is important to protect the sanctity of the relationship, to keep that at the forefront. To say that this is important, this is what we are working towards, this is something that’s alive and it’s a work-in-progress. Which means that you are going to get it wrong sometimes, and you’re going to hurt each other. And the other thing is that partners can be independent of each other and that this is a healthy thing, that it is the opposite of co-dependency.”
How can partners walk that line between giving one another enough freedom to grow and flourish as separate people and yet still keep their relationship sacred? How do we keep ourselves or our partners from wandering away completely?
“When you’re responsible for your own self and happiness and your own feelings rather than making your partner responsible, it shows up in the way you take ownership for our own opinions: ‘Oh, it makes me so happy to hear you say that,” or, ‘When you do that, I get jealous and feel hurt.’ Whereas when you don’t take ownership of your feelings, there’s an implication that your partner should change action to facilitate your happiness.
“When you’re first getting together, you want to make them happy, you want to please them. But as the relationship moves further along, it’s a very tricky thing to maintain this focus on pleasing them while at the same time also nurturing your own differentiality: ‘Yes, this is what you want, but this is how I feel, and this is what I want. And even though these are not the same goals we can still be together.’
“Healthy distance can be lived as having your own activities that don’t include your partner, observing your own spiritual practice regardless of what your partner does, keeping your own circle of friends. We tend to merge and that leads to suffocation. Most people have to specifically try not to merge in order to keep their individuality. We want to belong. We want to identify.
“I think there is no definitive answer to the question of how to ensure healthy distance. We humans are such wiggly, weaselly creatures! What may begin as allowing freedom can quickly either be taken advantage of, or interpreted as indifference. Or boundaries blur and it goes too far. But what is too far? There isn’t much to keep us on the same page since we all have such differing landscapes internally.
“I know a number of men who declare that there is no such thing as a platonic relationship with a woman. From the woman’s side that sounds silly, and to a number of men, it also sounds silly, and still…I think of it as a dance. A very alive thing that is constantly changing and needs constant regard. It points to how one defines one’s relationships. These things need to be discussed: What’s ok? What is out-of-bounds and why? It’s a big conversation.”
Are Relationship Needs Different Between Men and Women?
Has Rees noticed significant differences in working with men and women?
“Actually less than you’d think. A lot of our issues are human issues and each of us falls somewhere on the masculine-feminine spectrum. My husband says that men are not as empathetic, but I personally know a handful of men who are deeply loving and caring. Both men and women want to be met where they are, they want to find someone who gets them. And who allows them to express different parts of themselves at different times.”
“We say that women don’t want sex and that’s just not true. We say that men’s sexuality is simple and women’s are complicated. That is ridiculous. Talk to any man who has erectile dysfunction, and he’ll tell you. Even when a man truly has an organic issue, his thoughts and his feelings about it complicate it greatly. The organ is actually a very small fraction of the whole picture. How we think about sex, our attitudes towards sex are constantly changing, both as individuals and as a society.”
The Importance of Touch
So how necessary is touch for achieving intimacy?
Kelly Rees: “Very. There are still people who don’t get touched enough. All over the planet. We all know about the studies of the infants in the orphanages who suffered emotional damage from lack of touch, but it affects adults as well. People do all kinds of goofy things in order to be touched. I know people who actually go to the dentist simply to be touched. It’s such a loaded thing these days. Physical contact. It’s become stigmatized. You can go in for a massage if it’s therapeutic, but you cannot just ask a professional to hug you or hold you.”
“Fortunately, here in Portland, Oregon, we’ve actually created a lot of different ways for people to get together for the expressed purpose or secondary purpose of getting hugged or cuddled. There are dance tribes. And a friend of mine started this organization called ‘Cuddle Party.’ He organized these events where people show up in their jammies. There are specific rules. You can have shared touch, you can even make out with each other for a specific time, and then everybody goes on their different ways. It’s very fulfilling.”
“I think it is possible to have deep intimacy without physical proximity but most of us have a physical longing to be with one another, to touch one another. It’s a basic human need, but it doesn’t show up in every relationship. I know couples who have a deeply intimate relationship, they are very supportive with each other, but sex is no longer a part of it. And I say if it’s ok for them, it’s certainly fine with me.”
And finally, that one experience we all share: Death
How does the intimacy coach in her practice facilitate a healthy relationship with death?
Kelly Rees: “The three big mysteries of life are birth, sex, and death. They’re so potent because we can’t know them fully; birth is still a miracle, sex is, well, sex, and death is beyond our knowing. We can only observe death. To participate in it is to be on the other side of it. Death makes such a profound impact on us on so many levels. Societally, we fear it and avoid it at all costs. We hide those dying from the living. To understand this, you only need to hang out where people are dying for a bit and you’ll see. We’ll do anything to avoid dying, as though death was the worst thing that could happen. It’s the fear of loss or letting go. And yet, we all get to experience it eventually. My teacher, Alan Lowen, offers a weekend workshop called, ‘The Universal Experience,’ in which you have an encounter with your own death. It’s quite profound. By going through it, you see how you have hung on to all sorts of things in your daily life that needed to go. You get a little taste of letting go.
“In my own work, I encounter people who have a hard time letting go. Either they have lost a loved one and never grieved, or they fear loss so intensely that they are paralyzed, experiencing either physical or emotional numbness. Sometimes I facilitate true, deep, delayed grieving. Sometimes I work to regain feeling by helping them to activate their contracted muscles and then learning to relax them. The biggest muscle that freezes is the heart.
“Sometimes shame is layered onto the grief — the shame of feeling sad, feeling responsible for what happened ~ especially if the loss was in childhood; kids take on responsibility for much more than adults. It creates another layer or several layers to be moved through on the way to release.
“All this can really create a barrier to intimacy. By kindly investigating the barrier, it is allowed to dissolve. The loss experienced is now the loss of separation. The result is now wholeness, more closeness. Love.”
For more information about Dr. Kelly Rees and her workshops, visit her website at: DrKellyRees.com