Out of Our Minds & Into Our Bodies
Somatic Sex Coach & Educator JoJo DeRodrigo Helps Men & Women Heal
by Mel Baker
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
I’ve gone behind the Green Door of Terra’s Temple, a few blocks from a subway stop in Berkeley, California, seeking help to get back In touch with my sexuality. My age, weight gain, body changes from HIV meds and other issues have ended my once thriving sexual life.
JoJo DeRodrigo is just the man to help. “I call myself a somatic sex coach. I help people drop out of their head and into their body. I use a lot of different modalities to do that, whether it’s talk therapy, touch as well as exercises around consent and boundary issues with people.”
He’s developed his own methods building on his Certification as a Hypnotherapist and a Somatic Sex Educator.
A Sensual Sea Shell
In my first session in the comfortable Zen-like space of JoJo’s sitting room, we talk about the issues that have brought me there. How I’m cut-off from my body and some of the reasons. I’m ready to dive right into a long talk therapy session—I can talk about feelings and ideas for hours—but JoJo moves me out of that “headspace” fairly quickly and hands me a seashell. I’m to learn to accept pleasure. I’m to touch myself with the seashell—whatever I feel driven to do—to experience pleasure from the feel of this inanimate object. It’s a bit trippy. I play with the shell and quickly see the point of the exercise. I don’t have to please this thing, just see what it feels like to slide along the tops of my arm hair or my eyebrows. When running it along my ear I realize that sound is amazingly sensual to me, the vibration along my ears as well as the sound and rhythm. Listening to music is one of the few “pleasures” I’ve left myself, in which I know I can simply take without giving.
The little sea shell has given me a taste of what being “into my body” feels like. It’s a start.
Brain = Sex
It’s been said that our main sex organ is our brain. Our imagination, fantasies and turn-ons are a bigger part of sex than what happens to our various “parts.” While that’s certainly true, JoJo would argue that our bodies also store feelings and responses that we are seldom conscious of, affecting our experience of sexuality, impacting our relationships and self-image.
“I really believe from the bottom of my heart that our body has a lot more information than our head. Our head is a great place for what it’s worth, but sometimes it will tell us something and our bodies are telling us something completely different. Our bodies hold on to certain memories and certain experiences, bad or good it doesn’t matter. A lot of times when we go to the body and there is touch and there is witnessing—whether through verbal talk or even just intention—things come out that we’re holding back or resisting.”
It’s this dissonance between our mental, conscious world and the subconscious responses in our bodies that can leave us feeling cut off from our sexuality. JoJo says that’s especially true for people who survived the worst years of the pandemic, whether they became HIV-positive or not. “I work with a lot of men over forty and men into their eighties. It’s almost like they have a flashback in their bodies; they have that kind of fear that’s stuck in their body.”
JoJo says unconscious fear of HIV affects some of his younger clients as well. “There are a lot of men that are HIV-negative that are forty and up, even younger guys that are on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) that still have that kind of fear.”
Long-term HIV survivors can face additional challenges. “There are certain men who were on the brink of death and then got meds and become undetectable and are having sex and feeling great, everything’s fine. Then there are guys who are saying; oh, you know the meds have changed my body, I’m not feeling completely attractive. Age is changing me, so I feel kind of shutdown.”
The Power of Touch
JoJo is holding a quick workshop for my men’s support group. We’re a group of five gay and bi-sexual men over fifty who get together every other week for an informal support group to talk about issues affecting our lives. There’s no therapist or official leader. Instead we do an individual check-in with the group then discuss what has come up. No lectures—just sharing from our own experience.
This week we’ve decided to do something different by inviting JoJo to give us an introduction to his work. JoJo does workshops on consent and listening to those messages from our bodies, but for this session he’s focusing on how we accept pleasure.
“A lot of times there is the tendency for a lot a people to be in a place of I’m going to give. I’m going serve. I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to be the person who is giving and not be in a place of receiving or allowing. So in bigger groups I really love to have the attendees really advocating for themselves, for what they want and for the other person to know they have the agency to say no.” This approach is the core of his work and is inspired by his trainings with one of his teachers Betty Martin, who created the Wheel of Consent.
During our shortened group session, the theory part around issues of consent and how we engage with others goes well as does an exercise where we pair off and simply witness the other person talk about how they accept pleasure, but then it gets a little too real when we move on to a touch exercise.
We are told to ask our partner to touch us in any way we ask, for three minutes. We can refuse any request. The experience is solely for us, the other person is to remain focused on us. The idea is to learn to ask for what we need and take what we need without feeling the need in that moment to give back.
My partner asks me to massage his temples. I drop into the zone and do so, focusing on him. Then it’s my turn. I ask to have him put his hand on my shoulder, just that. I instantly start asking myself if he’s comfortable, if the position is awkward. The three minutes crawl by.
Other members of the group are thrust out of their comfort zone as well. We’ve been a talk support group and being asked to touch each other—even in simple, nonsexual ways—makes some uncomfortable, since they don’t have “romantic feelings” for the other person.
That short little exercise showed me that JoJo is onto something about the differences between talking about things and the reactions we experience when we touch another person.
JoJo knew he wanted to help other people in a therapeutic setting, so he started with a certification in hypnotherapy. “When I was training to become a hypnotherapist about sixteen years ago, I put out my shingle and noticed I was actually getting a lot of people—both male and female—that were coming to me around sexual issues. So that inspired me to do workshops around relationships using hypnosis, sex and intimacy. It started to snowball from there at men’s retreats, then I volunteered at a gay and lesbian recovery home. A big percentage of them would be living with HIV, so I started working with that community.”
I ended up taking the Sexological Body Work course that was created by Joseph Kramer with the Institute of Advanced Sexuality.”
Kramer began his work during the the AIDS pandemic in 1984 with the founding of his Body Electric School and in 1988 with his Celebrating the Body Erotic workshops. Kramer described his work this way in a Village Voice article from 1992:
“From very early in the epidemic, the major thing I saw was men terrorized,” he says. “Not just in fear, not just in depression—those were states that all kinds of human beings had. I never saw so many people in terror in all my life. Terror just shuts down everything. Psychotherapy takes a long time to deal with terror. But breath work and massage and touching and caressing is like spring thawing out the ice.”
JoJo and others have taken those ideas and expanded on them to not only heal trauma, but improve the flow of the erotic in the lives of their clients.
Touch Opening to Healing Power
JoJo explains why touch—like that in our group session—can be so effective in therapy. “I find that it’s powerful when they are actually asking for the touch. So I do specific exercises with a person verbally asking for a specific touch.”
“I love telling people I can touch any part of your body, I’m a big boy I can always say no. I won’t touch you until you give me that command. Sometimes I’ve had men just lay there saying I don’t know. I’ve had men start to tear up and that emotion isn’t coming from the head, it’s coming from the body. In that emotion we start to get some answers. Parts of our body are telling us something. We release that by being present with that part of the body and wait for the answer to come.
“It’s magical when it happens. A person will just start releasing stuff like; ‘I remember my lover who died in the eighties; he used to do the same thing.’ Maybe the emotions and the feelings of that lover are in that part of the body. It’s almost like some of us don’t go into mourning so we shove it into our body, our head takes over and says, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to process this and then heal from this.’ Even with conventional therapy you can still have it [these traumas] in your body.”
JoJo’s method was influenced by his own experience, when he discovered trauma in his own body as he was beginning his studies. “I met someone who was doing a lot in the Tantra community. It inspired me to start doing some deeper work. I was going to conventional therapy for years and was talking about [the fact that] there was something going on with my asshole: I’m having this visceral reaction; it’s like I have these spasms. I wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I’ve been penetrated without lube, you know. I was in excruciating pain. I would go to the doctor, and they would do an examination and everything was okay, but I kept having these pains. My therapist and I kept talking, [considering] that maybe I was sexually abused, but it wasn’t until I did therapy with someone I knew who does similar body work that all the emotion [around my sexual abuse] came out. Even if I didn’t remember it, my body remembered it. There’s a great book, The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van Dder Kolk, that talks about how we keep certain traumas and experiences—whether negative or positive—in certain areas in the body.”
Drinking & Drugging & Sex
Working with people in recovery and his own experiences with substance use and subsequent sobriety have given him insight into a major challenge facing some LGBT folks and people living with HIV.
“A lot of intimacy or experience around sex and sexuality gets tied up for certain men—especially in the gay community—around drugs and alcohol for getting out of their heads. It’s like, ‘I can get out of my head and fuck for hours’ or ‘I can get really smashed and not be shy and be gregarious and run around and get laid all the time.’ When people get sober there is this void that happens. For guys that have been drinking there’s a big element about going to the bars and getting really fucked up and connecting with people they don’t know. So I work with certain issues there.
“With meth (and other party drugs) it’s super tied up with sex, [so] guys come in and the whole question is, ‘Will sex ever be so heightened and powerful and amazing? How am I ever going to be the same?’ I love working with guys that are at that stage because it’s really about being present. I tell them, ‘Let’s really be in a place of looking and feeling our bodies and what they are needing at this point.’ It’s about slowing down the nervous system.”
Slowing down involves a lot of things. “I do object work, to [learn how to] take pleasure, being mindful. What sensations are present in the moment? I teach them to become completely observant and witness themselves and understand what sensations are happening and then they can make decisions. What I always like to tell men is that, yes, there is sex in recovery and you can be fully present by slowing down the system and creating some gentleness.”
A Past Story in the Body’s Map
During my second session with JoJo we review what happened at my group’s session and how it revealed to me how comfortable I am at giving, but not at receiving pleasure. It explains how I try to distract myself from my own body loathing, by trying to draw the other person’s focus away from my body to the pleasure I’m giving them. That strategy has intensified to the point that I even avoid being naked before my husband, out of fear I will disgust him as much as I disgust myself.
JoJo says true intimacy is about being seen. “People can misconstrue what intimacy is; they think it’s a romance novel or something. Intimacy can really just be about being witnessed by another human being, without any expectation of sex or that I’m going to rescue you or take care of you or any fortune cookie expectation in your mind.”
JoJo suggests that I talk about my body, while he just watches and gives his full attention to me. I can undress or not as I feel comfortable. If this had been the first session it would have been too uncomfortable to undress, but I realize that by revealing my body I will encounter the very things that have frozen my sexuality.
I take my clothes off and then describe what I feel about parts of my body. It’s awkward at first, then it becomes a catalog of my dislikes and occasional likes, then in a flash it becomes very emotional.
I flashback to a vivid memory, It’s my twenty-eighth birthday in 1990 and I’m dancing naked in my apartment to Madonna, trying to conjure some magick to imagine myself surviving HIV. With the music rising I see myself, much as I look today with a white beard and octagonal-shaped glasses behind a clear computer screen. I/he turns to me and says, “I’ve been waiting for you! You will start to get sick and then something will happen and you will live… I await you!”
The story from twenty-eight years ago is written in my journal and apparently in my very body. I clung to that vision, fighting to live. I took part in buyer’s club potions and herbs and in four HIV clinical trials. The final trial was the protease cocktail that turned us lucky few into Lazarus.
The “me” of today hasn’t had the experience of seeing my younger self. (Nor the clear computer display or cool glasses.) In the session, I start crying saying that I have to live and care for myself, so that I can send that message to my twenty-eight-year-old self.
JoJo tells me that my body—all our bodies—are the roadmap of everything that has happened to us, it is the expression of our journeys and must be listened to if we wish to fully heal.
He has reminded me that the essence of all therapy is to move ourselves out of the past and into the moment that is the endless present. Too often our pain becomes trapped in our very flesh. To heal, we must be willing to “get out of our minds and into our bodies.”
Mel Baker is a broadcast journalist and former LGBT and anti-nuclear weapons activist. He is married to artist Leslie Aguilar and lives in San Francisco, California.