“Yes,” I say, surprisingly firmly, to the man I have never met before, whose name I do not even know, who is massaging my back and shoulders. “Yes. Yes, please.”
I am lying on a mat on the floor of a conference room in a London hotel and around me three people – complete strangers – are rubbing my back. “Zero,” I say suddenly, which is the code word for stop. It’s not because I want the massage to end – in truth, it feels rather soothing – but because we have been encouraged to try saying “no” as well as “yes”. That, after all, is the point of the exercise. According to the leader of this workshop, intimacy and relationships expert Jan Day, we find “no” extremely difficult to say, and our lives would be better if we could bring ourselves to say it more readily. Instantly, the people surrounding me draw back, and I revel in the afterglow of both having articulated the difficult message I wanted to convey, and having it acted upon.
Around 40 of us have signed up to Day’s workshop, more or less equal numbers of men and women, spanning a wide age range from 20-something to 50-something. The topics under discussion are boundaries and consent, issues, Day tells us, that cause a huge amount of confusion and unhappiness in many people’s lives. While the #MeToo movement has focused attention on these in a societal setting, she believes we are as all-at-sea as ever over how to convey our deepest desires, likes and dislikes, to our most intimate partner.
Day’s own life story, with two unhappy marriages behind her, and the therapeutic practice she did to overcome the fallout, led her to this work. A qualified coach who has been a relationships specialist for 20 years, she says the crux of the matter is that most of us are either unable or unwilling, or both, to say “no”, even when “no” is what we mean.
There are several reasons for this, the first being empathy. “You don’t want to feel the feelings your ‘no’ will provoke in the other person,” she explains. “And then at other times, you’re simply embarrassed. Or another reason is that, as a child, you learned to associate the word ‘no’, uttered by the adults around you, with ‘bad’. And what your subconscious tells you is that if you’re responsible for something ‘bad’ in your partner’s life, you’ll no longer be loved.”
All of this is entirely logical. But failing to say what we mean, particularly in our sex life, has repercussions. “If we can’t say what we want to say, we learn instead to numb our feelings, to zone out, both physically and emotionally.” Some people – and this describes as many men as women – simply shut themselves down sexually. “They blank it out, say they’re not interested any longer, feign headaches, push it away completely. Or they go with whatever is suggested, but they zone themselves out from it – go through the motions, but fail to connect it properly with who they are inside.”
The fallout is more than just the obvious, says Day. Of course on the one hand it means a failure to live out a fulfilling sex life, but just as damaging is the effect on an individual’s power to enjoy and shape the wider world. “Our sexual energy isn’t only about sex,” she says. “In fact it’s not even mostly about sex. Your sexual energy is your life energy: it’s the centre from which your interest in life, your joie de vivre, arises. It’s the kernel of your aliveness.” It can also, she acknowledges, be very scary to give yourself intimately to someone you love. Sharing your deepest self with the person you spend most time with leaves you vulnerable in all sorts of ways. No wonder, says Day, that there are people who feel more comfortable with the idea of keeping sex and love, carnal pleasure and heart, entirely separate. “You’d be surprised by how many people are with a partner they very much love, but don’t have sex with, while their sex life is part of an affair.” It’s a way of keeping things “safer”. But they miss out on all the ways a 360-degree relationship can enhance a life.
A starting-point in Day’s workshop is the idea that we need to be grounded in our sexuality, knowing what we like and don’t like, and being able to do what we need to do to achieve it. And that means, in the first instance, being properly connected not with another person, but with ourselves. As with the business of being able to say no, this goes back to our earliest learned behaviour – because the vast majority of us were taught as children to denigrate our sexual urges as shameful, or dirty, or disgusting. What her day-long workshop does is give participants the chance to begin to rethink how they incorporate their sexuality into themselves. “Usually sexuality is denied or played down in our lives, and so we don’t get a chance to work out how it influences us holistically, and how to work it alongside the other parts of our being,” says Day. Throughout the event, she stresses that no-one is at any point required to do anything they don’t want to do. Indeed, speaking up about what you don’t want is, if anything, more important than saying what you do, for reasons already described.
The exercises – one involves holding a partner’s hand and, with their permission, massaging it gently – are simple and straightforward, but some of the 40 or so faces around me are tear-stained when we sit back in a circle to listen to more input from Day. In tracing our fingers across another person’s hand, in caring about whether it feels good to them or not – and then vice versa, with our own hand being massaged – we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable; and for some, that brings sensations of pain. One woman is sobbing after being touched. She says she hasn’t had a relationship for many years, hasn’t felt another person’s loving touch for so long. For Day, what we’re experiencing is about allowing feelings to arise and not being afraid of them. This isn’t about hiding pain but feeling it and working through it as the key to the better self awareness she hopes we will gain from the workshop.
The point to which Day keeps returning is the need to work out what we want ourselves – and then to learn to convey it to another person. Too much of what happens in intimate relationships, she believes, is guesswork. We haven’t worked out what we want, we’re too worried or embarrassed about conveying it clearly, so all we can do is attempt to mind-read our partner’s deepest desires. “And the trouble with that,” she says, “is that you can’t mind-read on all this stuff, so you make assumptions that are wrong.”
Day’s assistant at the workshop is her husband, Frieder. They have put all her wisdom into play in their own relationship, she tells me. “He really likes it that I say no as well as yes. The thing is that if you know someone is able to say no, you can completely trust them when they say yes. And that means your partner can in turn enjoy himself or herself more, and can be more playful during sex, because they’re not taking responsibility for how you’re feeling, now they know you’re going to be clear about it.”
Day’s workshops are held at a variety of venues, with some a day long, others across a weekend or even a week. Participants come alone or with a partner – on my course, there were three couples. Either way is fine, says Day. Where people attend solo and have a partner, she hopes the energy and ideas of the workshop can help recalibrate a couple’s sex life. Certainly the exercises aren’t remotely complicated.
The one we keep repeating throughout the day is about signalling when we don’t like something and when we do, and knowing the other person won’t be offended by our “no” or “zero”.
“It’s incredibly simple,” says Day. “Anyone can do it, in the privacy of their own space. You just need to talk about it beforehand and agree on what you’re going to signal and how you’ll do it. And it really can revolutionise not only your sex life, but your wider life as well.”
For more information, go to janday.com