The phrase “sexuality professional” usually brings to mind a sex educator or a sex therapist, but little do most people know that the sex professions cover an insanely wide spectrum of experts and trained workers who are all just trying to help you reach a healthier sex life. Whether you are fully certified and teaching to students in-person about safer sex practices or spreading education online about connecting culture to sex, a sexuality profession can mean different things to different people. At the top of that list are sexological bodyworkers.
For many, there is a need for sex education that stems from a holistic approach. Some seek sex education that is not just about the physical and the mechanical, but about emotions and feelings. How do we learn to be intentional about our touch? Bodyworkers go beyond traditional sex education by incorporating touch with their clients. According to the Somatic Sex Educators Association, sexological bodyworkers are “somatic sex educators that teach through body experiences designed to nurture, deepen or awaken the sensual self.” This includes coaching that involves breath, movement, body awareness, boundary-setting, communication, and other body-based teachings about sex.
Why do bodyworkers educate in this way? The state of sex education in the United States largely lacks when it comes to giving students access to the information that they require. (Only 13 states require teaching medically accurate information, while only 25 states require sex education at all.) Bodyworkers work with adult clients to incorporate touch alongside sex education, bringing them what they need to make informed decisions about their sex lives.
Of course, this is easier said than done for bodyworkers. The general public remains largely uninformed about the work that they do, as traditional sex education frowns against touching clients in a sexual manner or having sex with them.
Caitlin Roberts is a Canadian somatic sex educator who became a bodyworker through a Sexological Bodywork certification. Some of the biggest misconceptions she’s witnessed include the idea of a two-way touch, which remains one of the biggest sources of controversy when it comes to the work that bodyworkers do. “Sexological bodywork and somatic sex education is one-way touch, the practitioner is always clothed, we use gloves for all genital and internal touch,” says Roberts. “It is applicable to everyone and all bodies. It allows bodies to feel more deeply, to rewire feelings of guilt and shame into ones of love and pleasure. It is deeply affirming and meets clients where they are at.”
Shayla D. Tumbling is a mental health therapist and a professional platonic cuddler. The biggest misunderstandings for Tumbling also center on touch and boundaries with clients, specifically the idea that cuddlers have sex with clients. “In the work I do there is no sexual contact with clients. We provide education and platonic touch services as cuddlers,” she says.
In addition to the conflation of bodyworkers with sex workers, there is a cultural stigma against the kinds of touch that we give and receive to others, inside romantic relationships and platonic ones. Some of this stems from society’s lack of understanding around sex workers—though it is important to remember that while there may be sex workers who are also bodyworkers, not all bodyworkers are sex workers.
Bodyworkers also differ from sex surrogates, who are trained practitioners that have penetrative sex and intercourse with clients to address issues of intimacy and sexuality. Though these professions can vary widely, they all converge upon the most controversial part of being a sexuality professional: touch and whether it can be used as a teaching tool.
Despite the challenges that they face, bodyworkers strive to create safe environments where their clients can feel empowered and confident. “The benefits that this work offers to clients is so powerful that I knew I had to integrate it into my work and services,” says Tumbling. “I’ve been in spaces in my life where I needed platonic touch and could feel myself craving it. My body literally need hugs and nonsexual squeezes and touches. A combination of those pieces and perfect alignment with timing led me to begin this work.”
If you are curious about becoming a bodyworker, there is advice that can help to make the transition. “My biggest piece of advice,” Roberts says, “[is to] make sure you do your own work first. Know how to ask for exactly what you want, how to create and hold firm boundaries, know your triggers and what sort of clients you may not be able to work with, feel fully engaged in your own pleasure as something to be supported, celebrated, and held to high esteem.” Tumbling also offers solid advice for aspiring bodyworkers. “Don’t begin or move in fear. You have to like people all types of people, and you have to like touching and being touched.”
Sex education in this country may vary widely, but educators are taking various routes to give clients the information that they need. Bodyworkers are an important part of that work, and like so many other sexuality professionals, help to empower all of us so we can love ourselves and others just a little better.