“We are in a pretty dramatic shift around sex and relationships,” Celeste Hirschman told the group of nearly 50 people gathered two weeks ago at a spiritual center in Berkeley, California. “It’s time,” she said. “It’s messy. It’s complex.”
In matching black tops and jet-black hair, as if twin good witches of the West, Hirschman and her Somatica Institute co-founder, Danielle Harel, addressed a mixed crowd of therapists and couples’ counselors, people who want to become sex educators or sex coaches, and those who just want help working through their blocks to intimacy. “These are challenging moments,” Hirschman said, referring to the increasing relevance of her work in recent months as the as the dominant cultural discussion around sex, intimacy, and boundaries has revved up. “If we know about ourselves we can teach our partners how to love us.”
The gathering was a four-hour informational preview of the unusual offerings of their business, the Somatica Institute, a sex-coach training program.
Sex gurus are a dime a dozen in the Bay Area. You can pay $250 for all kinds of services, naked, clothed, or in-between. There are “G-spot trauma healers” and “yoni massagers,” and every kind of spiritual sexual healer you can (and can’t) imagine. Credentials are unreliable, and you have to be careful about whom you trust. But Somatica Institute, which the two Jewish professionals founded in 2010, offers formal certification and fills a niche. It bridges a gap between the purely verbal offerings of traditional talk therapy and the very intimate—often nude—hands-on techniques of sexological bodywork (essentially, sexual massage) and sex surrogacy, a therapist-supervised hands-on practice that can include actual intercourse with the surrogate. Somatica’s method is more than verbal coaching, but it’s strictly clothes-on, no kissing, no genital touch, always working within these boundaries.
After posing questions like “What turns us on?” and “How do we establish consent?” Harel and Hirschman invited the crowd to rise and form a large circle with a second concentric inner circle, lining everyone up facing a partner. À la speed dating, the crowd was told to practice some of Somatica’s signature coaching methods in five-minute increments with about a dozen different partners.
Practices included asking for and receiving consent, rubbing backs and arms, embracing, learning boundaries, touching faces and declaring things like, “You are precious,” or “This is what I desire.” At one point, Harel suggested something Somatica calls “touching for my own pleasure,” which means giving touch to another that viscerally feels good to offer. It became a full hour of a sort of kosher play time, with a professional, to learn about boundaries and shame—“layers and layers of shame,” Harel called it, offering tools to navigate our current sexual culture.
“Women are socialized to be nice,” Harel said: to endure, to ignore their own needs, their own pleasure, their own desires for their partners’ desires. “There is a fundamental lack in our society of female erotic empowerment—knowing what they want,” Harel said. At the same time, she added, there is a lack of male emotional empowerment.
Somatica practitioners work with clients to recognize their sexual wants, their desires, their needs, and their boundaries—from finding the emotional strength to vulnerably say “no” to learning to stay connected to self and partner, reading verbal and nonverbal cues of consent and dissent as they arise. “This is not black and white,” Hirschman went on. “It’s not good and evil, victim and perpetrator. We are in a healing moment. Joy and pleasure can’t get lost in the balance.”
There clearly is a demand for their services. Harel and Hirschman outlined their teachings in a 2015 book, Making Love Real: The Intelligent Couple’s Guide to Lasting Intimacy and Connection. For about $250 an hour, they offer one-on-one coaching sessions with individuals and couples. On February 28, near San Francisco, they will again offer their free four-hour preview session, as a window into their $7,200 training program that equips people to be sex coaches and/or to better understand their own sexuality.
“We created Somatica,” their mission statement reads, “because so many people are in pain, shame, and disconnection around sex and their emotions, and we really wanted to help people have a space to feel empowered, enlivened, and connected emotionally and sexually.”
Hirschman, born in San Francisco in 1972 and raised in Sonoma County, grew up “culturally and socially Jewish.” Her father’s parents taught her about Judaism, observing holidays but not keeping kosher. Although Jewish, her parents met in a San Francisco-based Hindu community centered around an Indian guru, and she was raised on Hindu chants and books on Vishnu and Rama more than on Torah.
Hirschman believes that one reason her parents “felt so comfortable around sexuality” was because they were Jewish. “I would say there is something very Jewish about the way that we teach about relationships,” she said. “I saw my grandmother and her friends being pretty honest and vulnerable with each other about their marriages and the challenges that they had with other members of their families as well, including their siblings and their adult children. It felt like it wasn’t a space where everyone had to pretend everything was okay, so that people were actually able to talk about and deal with what is.”
For Israeli-born and -raised Harel, “religion was constantly in the background, dictating for me how to live my life,” she said. “A lot of what I do is helping people realize that they have a choice to live their lives the way they want to.” As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, “one of my responses was to live fully, laugh hard and loud, breath fully, experience emotions, and connect with people deeply and emotionally. I choose life.”
Harel and Hirschman met in San Francisco at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a school of human sexology where Harel, then a clinical social worker, was writing a doctoral dissertation on women’s experiences of orgasm during childbirth. “I got inspired to empower women around sex,” she recalled.
“I got my hands on a video of an experiential workshop,” Harel said, “a circle of women learning to have orgasms for the first time, masturbating together, taught by Betty Dodson”—a pioneer of the pro-sex feminist movement—“and told myself, ‘I want to do that, I want to support women in finding their voice and inner power and wisdom.’”
Hirschman’s and Harel’s credentials elevate them above the often fraudulent and freaky landscape of self-proclaimed Californian sexual healers. Together they hold a solid collection of vital trainings across the board—from the sexological to the academic, the therapeutic to the erotic—that lend authority to their offerings.
Having already earned a master’s degree in human sexuality, Hirschman was taking classes at the Body Electric School, a sexuality institute known as a leader in erotic education, when she “stumbled upon a pamphlet about the certification in sexological bodywork” at the Institute, she said. “I enrolled immediately, and that is where I met Danielle.” They soon became a team, and their first project, in 2004, was their men’s “Become an Extraordinary Lover Workshop”—“a hands-on, experiential workshop for men about how to be great lovers to women,” Hirschman explained.
“In our first meeting with a client, we take time to find out what their goals are and what they don’t know about sex and relationships that is holding them back,” Hirschman said. “Once we have a good idea what it is, whether they have attachment wounds, shame, lack of embodiment”—an inability to tune in to their own physical sensations—“negative or incorrect information about sex, etc., then we take them through step-by-step experiences and learning processes to help them experience healing and skill building in these areas.”
These exercises, many showcased at the four-hour training, involved voicing uncomfortable feelings, desires, boundaries, and fears in a safe setting. This included touching clothed bodies erotically or sensually and exploring the emotions and arousal that arises in the process.
Pam and Paul Costa, a married couple from San Francisco, began to work with Harel 20 years into their relationship. Much of their work centered around reevaluating what they had been taught at home or culturally about sex.
“Prior to Somatica, I don’t think I really understood how the culture I grew up in had stunted my ability to connect to the sexual parts of myself,” Pam said. “We struggled with what I considered to be ‘low’ libido. It created a scenario where my husband would ask for sex and I’d either say ‘yes’ primarily because I thought I was supposed to or wanted him to be happy, or ‘no’ because I didn’t want to, which would make him feel rejected and undesired.”
“Danielle was able to show me the gap between how much sexual energy I thought I was bringing to a sexual situation,” Paul said, “versus how much was being perceived by the other person, showing me that I needed to bring more energy to have it perceived the way I was envisioning.”
“I usually come into a session feeling frustrated or shameful,” Pam said, “and leave feeling optimistic and more free to be me. We both now get more pleasure from sex.”
Dimitry Yakoushkin has been Somatica’s main male practitioner since the beginning. “I think a lot of straight-identified women are not taught to choose or given permission to choose pleasure,” Yakoushkin said. He works primarily with women who have been raped or experienced other trauma, helping them find ways to safely explore sexual intimacy again. “They make decisions in their relationship lives on other things than their own pleasure, and feel desire is dirty or wrong or sinful in some way.”
Hirschman said the Jewish tenet of tikkun olam, repair of the world, could take the form of equalizing the sexual playing field. “I feel that there is a part of Jewish culture, at least in the U.S., that is about being dedicated to making the world a better place, especially in terms of human rights, fairness, and equality,” she said. “At face value, Somatica may not seem like it is about human rights. However, there are ways that our sexuality has been used to disempower women, people of color, and LGBT people.”
“Somatica depathologizes sexual desire,” Yakoushkin said. “All desire is beautiful.” His biggest hands-on teaching tool: consent. “We teach how to ask for it,” he said, “how to feel into it. We teach men how to learn non-verbal as well as verbal cues, so you don’t have to ask every 15 seconds if this is OK. … We literally teach in a physical setting and in a physical way how to get and to listen for consent.”
Harel closed the training preview with two extremely intimate live hands-on coaching sessions, one with a man, one with a woman, illustrating her method. Mostly she just touched their arms and legs and moaned a lot. It wasn’t easy to watch but it was clear in the shift in the subject’s demeanor that something profound and positive took place.
“It is important to know we have impact on other people and we are not perfect,” Harel told the crowd.
“In Somatica, we really want to meet people where they are,” Hirschman echoed, “and help them to feel fully empowered to define and go after what they want for themselves.”
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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.