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Episode 9: Communication- Mind and Body

In this conversation with Roger Kuhn we talk about communication through the lens of sex, intimacy, technology, and culture. Roger Kuhn is a somatic therapist, practicing therapy centered around the relation of the body to the mind. He also focuses greatly on culture and how it shapes, challenges, and ultimately influences our experiences, both inside and outside the bedroom. He is currently completing a PhD in Human Sexuality and runs a private practice in San Francisco, CA.

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Sasza
Okay Roger, thanks so much for being with us here today. As you were kind of just talking about, I’d love to hear about your journey to becoming the therapist you are today, how you got into psychotherapy and sort of just where your interests lie?

Roger
Yes, thank you. Well, my background prior to therapy was in corporate America and I worked for a non-profit philanthropies for quite some time and I really needed to transition out of the corporate world. And so a colleague of mine one day said I’m going to massage school, and I thought that does sound so random and lovely [Laughs] maybe I could do that. So I did I went to massage school and what I learned was when I would touch clients in certain parts of their bodies, there would be emotional releases, very unexpectedly. They would start to cry or they would wince or they would and they said: “Oh my gosh, you know something happened to me when I was a child or I experienced trauma there. I fell off a bike or what have you…” So, I was recognizing that the body held all these stories and from there, I transitioned to yoga and I became a yoga teacher and same thing would happen after class, students would come up and say: “You know, I was in pigeon pose and I had this emotional release” And they did want to talk to me about it and I thought; well like massage and yoga, now people want to tell their body stories. So, the best thing that I could do, would maybe fulfill that dream that I had and actually become a therapist. So I went and studied somatic cycles therapy, which is a form of body oriented therapy. And so now, I refer to myself as a soma cultural therapist which means that I’m interested in the body and the culture around that helps shape and then form the way we see the world. Studying cymatics, being connected the body naturally led me to inquire about sex and sexuality, from my perspective we can’t separate the two. We have to include the body when we talk about sexuality and we have to include the body when we talk about sex, because most of us use our bodies when we have sex [Laughs]. So, it made the most sense to me to be a somatic sex therapist.

Sasza
And of course as you mentioned that the body plays a big part in sex, but there’s also just so much of it that goes back to the mind. For example, I’ll never forget when I first heard that Christopher Reeves who played Superman, he despite being paralyzed from the shoulders down was still capable of achieving orgasm. One: how incredible is that? And two: it made me think how reinforcing that is for the theory, which I also greatly believe in that; How much is sex in the end, more about the mind than it is about the body? So, I wonder that while there is this label of as you mentioned sex therapy, that people are really drawn to. If oftentimes as we know their issues actually go back to psychological ones, sometimes completely unrelated to sex or even their relationship. I just kind of love to know what patterns you have seen and often do see there?

Roger
Well, we call it a psychogenic sexual issue though it’s including the mind and the body, and in my work I see mostly psychogenic cases. So, all of my clients have already not necessarily the couple’s I work with desire but for people that have ejaculatory concerns or erectile issues. Like in the case of Reeves for example, most likely had pudendal nerve damages, which innervates the erection capacity. I’m not sure if he had some type of vibratory device that helped him achieve the erections, I don’t know too much about his own case so much. But for myself, I can say that when clients come in with psychogenic issues, we have to include the totality of their experience from their mind to their body. And if applicable, their spirit whatever that means for them, whenever I see someone that is an individual for example: Someone that came in and talking about the sex life between their and their partner, I always say: “Where’s your partner? What is it about your relationship that they didn’t come with you?” If this is about the sex between the two of you, I always ask why are we not doing couples therapy. And that gives me a really interesting information about the communication between them, sometimes I’ll hear: “Well, my partner thinks it’s my issue”. I have generally found that it’s a bit cliché to say but it does take two or more [Laughs] depending on your style and in that case I want to meet the partner at least once, maybe twice to have a conversation with them to include them in the healing of the sexual vitality.

Sasza
Yeah, I love that part about kind of sharing and evolving the partner that you strive for. So then to help us learn how to recognize some of this for ourselves, I’m wondering if you could give us some examples of cases where the issues are traced back to something outside of the bedroom.

Roger
That’s where the culture piece comes in because culture as we know it is work, is religion, is family, is the community in which you live. In often times in this city San Francisco, we have very high achievers who are working in these really high companies and so the stress that they’re feeling oftentimes, the anxiety seeps into the bedroom or wherever they’re having sex, in the state of performance anxiety. So for them it’s about literally “Can you slow down?”, whatever that means for them because that could be a very triggering word for a lot of people. When you say slow down but to get them to pay attention enough, to be mindful enough, to tune into their body, through their mind, to be able to sense when they’re expanding and when they’re contracting. And it’s that state of contraction that most of us aren’t able to perform sexually. Because it’s if you think about when you squeeze your body really tight, it is a vasoconstriction of the blood and for anybody that experiences; any person with a penis that experiences any type of erectile issue, you’re not going to get the blood flow down there if you’re constantly walking around in a state of contraction. So, it’s about allowing the clients to also recognize that you might have a work or a home life factor and if it’s high anxious, you’re most likely having some micro contractions you may not even be aware of because you do it so much. So, it’s about bringing awareness to how the environment or the cultural aspect they’re participating in might be leading to that body issue.

Sasza
Right, so while you mentioned stress and you sometimes also talk about technology within the scope of sexual imagery or porn, and sometimes people find sex with their partner for example: more stressful than masturbation or using porn. So a bit off topic but just the other day somebody asked me for advice and I’d love to hear your insight on this. Basically a male friend in regards to his female partner, he found himself in the opposite situation that he had expected given stereotypes, where he was basically curious about perhaps concerned about but maybe more jealous of his partner’s porn habits. You know, he wanted to know why she was watching? Was she actually attracted to them? Or was it more just you know, a means to an end. More of that just animal instinct or reaction to stimulating content of whatever kind. So basically, I just wanted to see if you might have any insight on that topic for him.

Roger
So, I’ve always been interested in less the why are you looking at that image but what about that image that is so exciting to you? And oftentimes when we can reframe the question with couples as opposed to the WHY. The WHY is gonna put you on defense and now I have to defend this image or this video that I like, if you ask me what I like about it? I’m much more can’t, to turn to you and say: “Well…” And then explain to you what it is that I like and perhaps that might lead to a conversation of what; would that be like if you and I did that together? As opposed to feeling like; why are you doing that? You’re only ever gonna get that from the computer, you’ll never get that from me. it sends the signal then to that person that; what I desire is wrong, what I like is ugly, nasty, dirty. And therefore, the only kind of sex, the only kind of pleasure that I can have with my partner is what somewhat transactional and I will fake the connection but it’s really more transactional, because I’m not actually able to bring my fantasy in.

Sasza
Right, so not seeing them as kind of mutually exclusive opportunities or experiences, but seeing them as like kind of a window into the other.

Roger
That’s right, what I have found in just my work is that it’s usually never the sexual imagery, it’s never the device, the technology itself. It’s the lack of communication with either the partner or partners, if they’re in multiple partner relationships or open relationships and also how we’re communicating with the self. If I’m denying myself that sexual pleasure, as we chat about earlier [Laughs].

Sasza
Yeah, I just got to… I have to put in the plug like; you’re learning about yourself, how to understand yourself in order to connect more deeply with other people and it all comes back.

Roger
Yes, it does it comes back to communication. So, how do we learn to communicate sexually? Or, how do we begin to communicate around intimacy with our partner? They’re different things; sometimes they go together but right now I like to think that we’re in an intimate moment. It’s not a sexual moment, we’re talking about sex and sometimes for couples that I work with, that idea is so strange to them. That intimacy in sex coexist but they also have their own Lane, right. And so, I always want to find out each couple or each individual I work with; what is your operational definition?

Sasza
Right, absolutely.

Roger
Yeah. 

Sasza
Because otherwise from there, you don’t even know kind of you could be talking about the same thing but in reality two completely different concepts.

Roger
Exactly, that’s right. And it’s so critical in my work that I am not projecting my ideas of intimacy or even sex on to my clients. All right, what does intimacy mean? What a sex mean? And then oftentimes, I get like: “Well, sex is you know, intercourse” Is it really? Is that all it is?.

Sasza
Yeah.

Roger
And then, it gives them that opportunity to sort of take a step back and go: “Well, maybe not”.

Sasza
That will be a boring answer [Laughs].

Roger
[Laughs].

Sasza
I’d love to know what your operational definition of intimacy is.

Roger
I think it changes every day and it changes on who I’m with but the quickest sort of hit that I could get, I would say that intimacy is the moment or a moment in which I feel the totality of my humanity, is witnessed by another or myself. Sometimes my clothes are on, sometimes they’re not [Laughs] you know?

Sasza
[Laughs] yeah.

Roger
But that’s how I think I would define it.

Sasza
Love that, deep definition but I love how you included with the self because intimacy with yourself is one definitely a thing and again kind of the base to build the rest upon.

Roger
Yes, and if we tie in the technology piece now so many folk are experiencing intimacy with their devices outside of you know, using it for sexual imagery content but there’s an actual relationship, you know. I’m so interested, if you and I are gonna hook up on tinder or something, right? and all I’ve ever known of you is this relationship and now suddenly it’s our first date and I have to look at you; holy shit just that…Oh can I swear?.

Sasza
Absolutely.

Roger
Yeah, okay. Just like that moment of first looking up. Now I’m in a contracted state, so if I’m gonna go on a date with you, I’m not gonna show up and be like: “Hey, what’s up? How are you? Good to see you” I’m gonna do this. And now, I’m completely vulnerable in a way that I’ve never been vulnerable with you before. So technology sort of we miss that and we’re either going to evolve as humans to have some sort of C curve in our spine in our neck that’s even more pronounced over the years of doing this. Or, we’re gonna recognize that this actually drives us farther apart from one another than it brings us closer. But hopefully with what you’re doing, you’ll find a way to bridge that because I find that that’s what’s really missing. It’s like, it’s not again, it’s not the devices. It’s the way in which we engage with them, it’s how we communicate to each other through them or in with ourselves, how we communicate with that. But because it’s so new and so fresh, I don’t think as a species we’ve understood what that fully looks like yet? How do we fully grasp technology in a way that is useful? That promotes intimacy but also celebrates individualism and community at once.

Sasza
Yeah, I love that… goals but ironically while we’re speaking of intimacy and technology, in its own definition: intimacy as knowing someone closely, some might argue that our phone knows us more intimately than anyone else. Then as we’re now starting to see the kind of consequences of this constant connection and reliance on technology, not to mention addiction too. There’s also this thing we’re seeing this sort of regression happening with phone cleanses, retreats with Zero Technology. And I just read this article the other day that talks about the wage gap through the lens of technology, and it basically says: that it’s not what we expected it to be. So that while the upper-class used to have high tech in their schools, kids with iPads, iPhones… all of that. They’re now getting rid of it and returning to the Waldorf method, no cable at home, playing you know physical games, art connection focus things like that. Meanwhile, the article states that; in lower-class neighborhood schools they are still focusing on ramping up their technology programs with these individual devices. And so basically, it brings up the point that if you dig deep enough into all of this, it brings up the question: not if there is a technology gap as we had prior worried about between classes, but with these changes and this new trend going in opposite directions. It brings up the point whether or not this could actually lead to an intimacy gap, which could actually be much more detrimental.

Roger
If there’s a tool of division amongst us. It is probably this or you know, these devices in some way because we can look at what happened in the last election, and we can look at how like these platforms are sort of used in these ways to manipulate people’s viewpoints whether, whatever side or world you’re in, can really shift the way that people feel either connected or isolated. And essentially intimacy is about that it’s about connection and isolation; do you feel connected? Do you feel isolated? So if we’re not careful, technology is going to become that collapsed bridge of intimacy which is again why what you’re trying to accomplish is so and important because if you can find way to build that bridge, imagine where else that could be useful in so many other capacities.

Sasza
So, I know this is an impossible question which is why I’m gonna ask you but; would you say that intimate… Would you say that technology is better or worse for intimacy? Is it a good thing or is it a bad thing?

Roger
I think anything that brings us together when used in the right way is a good thing. Emphasis on use in a good way; I love the fact that I can connect with friends of mine all over the world, I love the fact that clients of mine who maybe aren’t from the Bay Area can FaceTime with their family or loved ones around the world, I love that I can order things online [Laughs].

Sasza
[Laughs].

Roger
I love that you can find me, I love that people can find I found out about my work or that I can find out about the work that you’re doing because of technology. It gives us access in a way that in some regards, it evens out the field a little bit. We don’t have full equity yet and there’s not full equality on with technology either, and so we can also if we go back to politics, we can look at this most recent cycle and think of like Alexandria Octavia Cortez and sort of look at like how that social media… The way that they were using social media revolutionized that campaign, same with Barack Obama revolutionize these campaigns. So we can say like: “Yeah, actually there are a lot of positive things that can come out of, people can learn about sexuality in different ways or for people that are non-binary gender queer folk to have community, how amazing that is”. And then for people that I work with that might have what the DSM would categorize as a kink or a fetish, there’s something like FetLife or places where they can go and feel like again an intimate connection with somebody else that might be into a particular sexual act or behavior. So, it’s all of those things and then all the other stuff that we sort of relegate to challenging behaviors.

Sasza
And kind of going back to what BBXX tries to do is use the online to like give people knowledge or share stories to enable offline intimacy, which is kind of how you mentioned; we were able to connect and now have this offline, somewhat online but offline intimate experience, intimate conversation because of that technology.

Roger
Yeah.

Sasza
What are the types of issues that you most commonly see with this intersection of intimacy and technology that maybe some of our listeners can relate to and learn from?

Roger
The thing that I hear the most is “Get off your phone” I also see issues with technology in particular around text messages and tone [Laughs], which comes up a lot.

Sasza
When there is no tone [Laughs]…

Roger
There’s no tone.

Sasza
…In the text messages, which is the whole problem.

Roger
I didn’t like your tone.

Sasza
Right, oh! There is this amazing clip of these two comedians Key & Peele, and the video is basically just about the absurdity of misreading text and tone, even though there isn’t any. And so, the video goes back and forth between them and one of them you know, asked about going to dinner or something like that, and one guy busy, whatever responds like: “Yeah, sure dude I don’t care” and on the other end, his friend then is flipping out reading it as: “Sure dude, I don’t care” Oh, you know. And it’s just perfect. I think it’s just probably exactly what you’re talking about.

Roger
That’s right. So, that is probably one of the bigger issues that then I kind of have to say to them like; now if you all want to pay me to sit there and talk about a text message go for it. But is that really what you’re here for? To talk about the tone of a text message? let’s talk about communication, let’s talk about what got you to that point where you’re thinking in your mind that your partner has a tone problem against you. That’s the issue, right? Because we could just bypass and go into tonality if you will but text messages you know, one of the things that I think about in my work is prosody, which is if you know what that is. It’s basically at the sing-songy tone of one’s voice, which we miss in a text. You don’t get the highs, the lows, the inflections; that’s the Prosada quality of one’s a communication. And so, until we figure that out or until we start sending audio recordings to our partners.

Sasza
I am trying, single-handedly trying to make audios happen in the United States and no one is on board. They’re super popular in Latin America and normal, versus people here think I’m a total weirdo. But anyways, I fell in love with them living there and also for example for work, if I need to sit down and type up an email for 20 minutes or if I can just record a three-minute audio from anywhere, on the go, explaining everything even better and with tone. Why would I not do that? It’s also way more entertaining and especially in relationships, if you don’t have time to jump on the phone an audio is a million times better, more personal, more intimate. So, I’m trying to make it happen but I will say that the iMessage user experience is terrible in comparison to WhatsApp, so it’s a struggle. But anyway, whether it be via text message, audio or in person as you mentioned, it’s all about communication and teaching your clients that importance. So, what would be some actionable advice we could give to our listeners today, in regards to that.

Roger
Yes. So, first off: operational definitions key. What do you mean by intimacy? What do you mean by sex? I’m reading a really great new book right now by Bernie Brown, I’m gonna butcher the title but it’s something about leading, and in there she asks a question where she says: “What does done look like?” And I thought: “Oh, I’m gonna start asking that to my client”. So, when it comes to intimacy you know, what is DONE look like? When you’ve had an intimate moment, how will you know? What does that look like to you? And letting them actually start to visualize these things, play that out a little bit. When there’s desire discrepancy, I like to use something called a Sex Menu that comes from the work of Ian Senza, which literally can be quite literal appetizer main course dessert, and that anything can be in that. So, you could use technology in any of those stages but say if I were… If you were my partner and my appetizers might be, you know: send me some fun text throughout the day to sort of get me in the mood and then maybe in my main course is: intercourse and maybe in my dessert is: taking a shower afterwards. And really that’s how I begin to flow fantasy and conversation around sex and sexual behavior with my partners, get them to talk about it Usually if I’m in the room and they’ve worked together for… We’ve worked together for a while, so they feel less awkward about that because if they’re not having that conversation at home, can you have it here? If you can’t have it here, that gives me tons of clinical information but if I can help them facilitate a conversation around sex and then we actually make it happen. I use something called Sensate Focus, which is a fairly well known somatic technique created by Masters and Johnson, which really gets people literally physically touching. It was originally created for heterosexual couples that weren’t having intercourse. In my work, I don’t privilege intercourse or heterosexual identity. So if I have straight couples, I always say: “You don’t have to fuck at the end of this, you might want to but you don’t have to” Or if I work with same gender couples, it’s the same thing like: “You don’t have to privilege intercourse with this, just be together, touch discover your partner”. Maybe they’ll learn something new about their body, I guarantee you will learn something about their body by this exercise. So, it’s less about… When it’s the two of them, it’s less about the technology when it’s in the bedroom unless they want to incorporate. You can use these things for so much: play music off of them, you can control lights with them, you can watch sexual imagery with them, you could record yourself if that’s part of your play. So, you can use technology in ways that again foster the intimacy as opposed to separate the intimacy event. 

Sasza
And so, how could some of these communication techniques and what people learn in here in a sexual context be applied outside of that? How can we take some of those same communication techniques and kind of globally apply them with relationship?

Roger
Yes. So, if we think about anything that’s outside of say dysfunction; a physiological dysfunction. So, if it’s a psychogenic issue or desire discrepancy issue as we’ve been chatting about, it comes back to communication. So, if you can learn how to communicate with your partner about pleasure, imagine the conversations you can have with your boss about a promotion you want or if you’re on a …, like trying to get a discount and you can effectively learn how to communicate with somebody. These tools are applicable all over the place, I just happen to focus on it through the lens of sexuality but they’re transferable skills. The same skills that I learned in grad school about how to be or how to do therapy, I’ve taken those exact same skills and just put sex phrases around them, it’s the same thing communication is essentially the same thing whether we speak a different language or we’re from a different culture. There are different ways to communicate but the message in the way that from my American perspective are my American-trained perspective a psychotherapy, I hope that my desire is that it lands the same for everyone and the way that my hope is that it lands, is in that space where we feel good.

Sasza
Yeah, and I think it’s so interesting. I read Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek, totally unrelated but he talks about getting comfortable in uncomfortable situations. So, I often tell people that learning how to communicate about sex, pleasure or about finances in a relationship is the same, is just as difficult or about like basically any uncomfortable situation, a promotion as you mentioned. So, Tim Ferriss gives the challenge to people to ask for an upgrade that you don’t deserve or have the miles to qualify for, which again is just that concept of getting comfortable outside your comfort zone, be it in your relationship, the workplace or elsewhere. So, going back and as we get ready to wrap up, I just love to know if you could tell our listeners what are some of the biggest takeaways that you’ve learned from your research?

Roger
Technology is always shifting. So, what’s current today may not be current tomorrow and technology creates a void in communication when we think it’s building a bridge. So, even though we may have sent a text message, I don’t know anybody yet who doesn’t like the personal. So if I’m sending you a text message that says: “Happy Birthday”, I imagine if I were able to see you in person and say happy birthday to you, it would land differently. And also in this way of as you shared earlier, don’t be afraid to ask for an upgrade, “Don’t be afraid to ask for an upgrade”, meaning that if you want a relationship outside of text messages or outside of Facebook or Instagram DMs, ask for it. Let your partner know that this is fun and could we have an offline conversation or with a friend, can we have an offline conversation? Or with a family member, just to connect to remember again how we got to the point where we did? We evolved as a species because of communication and we’re continuing to evolve as a species because of communication, but let’s not lose the heart-to-heart. That’s also so important and so valued in our culture.

Sasza
Yes, I love that. I’d also just love to say that as you just mentioned; technology’s constantly changing but I’d love to say that so is our intimacy throughout our life, throughout different circumstances or phases, obviously throughout different relationships. But also certainly even within the same one, but sometimes people think for example: “Oh, I don’t need to work on my relationship. it’s already great” or they look at somebody else’s and think that they have such a great and stable relationship, they must not need to work on it or they don’t need the BBXX cuz everything’s already perfect. But the irony is that they probably have that amazing stable relationship because they are constantly working on it, or I don’t want to call it work but I’ll say caring for it. And working with the changes in their lives, in their intimacy, in the relationship and while that can be so difficult to constantly kind of be addressing that evolution. The beauty of all that is how much we then get to learn and grow because of it and become stronger because of it, that is if we make the conscientious effort to work or care for it as much as we care about it.

About the Expert

Roger Kuhn

Roger Kuhn

Roger Kuhn is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. His work focuses on sexual vitality and wellness issues for individuals and varying partner configurations. His work is informed from a social and sexual justice perspective. He considers himself a soma-cultural therapist and is interested in the body and its relation to culture which helps shape, challenge, and ultimately influence our experiences. Roger is a core faculty member of the Somatic Psychology Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He has presented at the annual American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) conference and currently offers workshops and trainings in the Bay Area for clinicians around the topics of technology and intimacy, sex therapy, and multicultural issues in counseling psychology. Additionally, he is a member of AASECT, and a board member of the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Society. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Human Sexuality where his current research focuses on decolonizing sexuality, as well as the intersections of technology and intimacy. When not being a student or therapist, Roger enjoys creative outlets such as music, dance, and communing with nature.