Dyspareunia. Vulvovaginitis. Pubococcygeus. Sacrotuberous. Each of them a Scrabble knock out in its own right.
My full time job is handing out lube in Ottawa’s bathhouses, but in my off hours I teach women and men how to give blowjobs at Venus Envy, an education-focussed sex store in downtown Ottawa. I started doing it last year when Shelley, the owner, moved to Halifax for a year with her partner Steve, who’d been giving the workshop up to that point. They didn’t interview me for the job and, as far as I know, they didn’t talk to any of my former lovers. It’s one of the only places that’ll hire you as long as you truly suck.
About a month back, I got invited to a free workshop for Venus Envy staff. The email was pretty brief — it just said we’d learn about the pelvic floor. Somehow, in my head, I interpreted that to mean they’d teach us how to squeeze our bums in special ways to make our prostates go bonkers. In retrospect, that was a really dumb assumption given that I’m the only guy on staff and chicks don’t have prostates.
Did you know that 17 percent of all women have chronic vaginal pain that can make it hard to use a tampon or have sex? Well the vaginal physiotherapist who came to tell us about it did. I felt the chakra-shattering prostate orgasm of my fantasies escaping me once again and settled in to learn about pre- and post-menopausal vaginal challenges that can make sex a painful experience, getting in the way of developing confident sexual self-esteem and also preventing you from wearing your pants as tight as you’d like.
In past columns, I’ve admitted my ignorance about petrochemical engineering and I can now add vaginal physio to the list of occupations that are way off my radar. The instructor, who had been practicing physiotherapy for 25 years, re-trained mid-career to help ladies with incontinence issues. She said she enjoyed that but eventually it, too, got to be the same old, same old. So she retrained to be a vaginal physiotherapist. She told us that in vaginal physio training courses, students learn hands-on by practicing on each other.
A woman burdened with dyspareunia or vulvovaginitis can meet with a physiotherapist to reduce pain, increase functional ability and reclaim the life of great sex and hosiery she’s entitled to. Over six months to a year, in weekly or bi-weekly sessions, the therapist will guide the patient through a series of exercises, which the patient also practices at home. For the first couple weeks, the therapist may penetrate the patient anally in order to mobilize her coccyx bone, to which many of the pelvic floor muscles attach. Once mobilized, the following sessions will involve incremental vaginal penetration: first one finger, then two, slowly working out the pelvic pain. The therapist will model diaphragmatic breathing for relaxation. She might use vaginal dilators — hard plastic dildos, basically — to progressively stretch the patient’s vaginal walls with comfort.
During the workshop, it struck me: here is a lady who deeply understands wellness as the intersection of the many dimensions of self. Aside from the toll it takes on her body, living with chronic physical pain can thwart a woman’s capacity for intimacy, confidence, sexual satisfaction and the freedom to define how she will engage with the world around her.
The physiotherapist uses her own hands and body as curative tools, sometimes inserting them inside the client, in order to heal, soothe and increase the capacity for pleasure. It is a physical intervention to facilitate sexual, social, emotional and perhaps even spiritual wellness. A truly holistic remedy. And a testament to the integral role of physical and sexual needs if a life is to be healthy and balanced.
I hear people trash talk hookers all the time. When the veneer on a friend’s front tooth came off, exposing a haggard, filed down spike in her smile, she lamented how much it would cost to replace it and joked that she’d need to stand on a corner in Hintonburg to earn enough money to go see her dentist — “After all, with one tooth missing, I’ve already got the right look.”
Last year a local gay guy approached me and asked if I was involved in planning the Ottawa actions for Dec 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Yeah I am, I told him, think you’ll come check it out? I dunno, he said. I mean, I’m definitely against violence in all its forms, but sex work?
This was one week after jurors found Robert Pickton guilty of brutally murdering six sex workers on his pig farm in British Columbia.
When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, the mother of a particularly devout family at the local Full Gospel Tabernacle Church used to talk about “ladies of the night” as if they were stiletto-wearing phantoms that wafted out of sewer drains. Once, she even took us to see them in a twisted kind of horror spectator sport. Guys from the high school used to drive by and throw pennies.
Have sex workers become extraterrestrial beings in our mind’s eye? How do we come to construct them as so utterly inhuman and unlike us normal folk that at a panel discussion on prostitution earlier this year, Jeff Leiper, President of the Hintonburg Community Association, inexplicably argued that Hintonburg hookers aren’t part of his community — they just happen to live and work in the very same neighbourhood.
Some people think all sex workers must be victims — because who, given real options, would choose to do that kind of work? They argue that we are too poor, young, dominated or addicted to know what we are doing. And so they must help us by speaking for us and acting on our behalf. They discount sex worker voices that say it is not the sex that is killing them and it’s surely not the money — it’s the police violence, the constant incarceration and their neighbours’ vigilantism to deny them their Charter rights and dismantle due process before the law.
On a good day, in the right headspace, when both the client and I manage to temporarily suspend our egos, sex work can be an act identical in intent and execution as that of the vaginal physiotherapist. It isn’t always that. And it doesn’t always have to be. It can be purely erotic, purely a laugh, purely kinky experimentation or purely labour. But it can also be the provision of pleasure as an antidote to the cumulative pain amassed by any human who dares to survive and thrive in a world that constantly seeks to obstruct self-determination, be it individual or collective.
For an hour, sometimes two, I use my own hands and body as curative tools, sometimes inserting them inside the client, in order to heal, soothe and increase the capacity for pleasure. It is a physical intervention to facilitate sexual, social, emotional and perhaps even spiritual wellness. A truly holistic remedy. And a testament to the integral role of physical and sexual needs if a life is to be healthy and balanced.