Stella Anna Sonnenbaum: Society Is Shifting Away from Heteronormativity

By William J. Furney

The past year has been tumultuous in every aspect of our lives — including between the sheets. Faced with long and dreary lockdown hours together when otherwise couples would usually only see each other a few hours every day, some people bickered and split up while others got on even better and managed to rev-up their sex lives. Still more ordered sex toys from online shops and delighted in self-pleasure to ease away all-encompassing pandemic fears and get some relief. 

That’s according to London-based sex coach Stella Anna Sonnenbaum, who runs counselling practice Stella with Love, helping people to connect better in their sex lives, boost satisfaction and overcome a myriad of issues that are holding them back from fully enjoying their bodies. I asked German-born Stella this week about sex in a time of pandemic and wider issues on ever-evolving sexuality and our attitudes about it. 

Stella Anna Sonnenbaum.

Is the world unnecessarily obsessed with sex, in part driven by advertising that suggests we should all be having it, all the time, when the reality is that that many people rarely have sex, even in marriage? Should we all just calm down?

It’s true that people can feel that they are the only ones who do not have sex, or great orgasms, when social and other media focus on it so much. These days, there is a pressure on teenagers to be sexual before they are ready, or they might regard their virginity as a flaw, and feel pushed to lose it as soon as possible. I think the solution is great sex education, including practical workshops about boundaries, embodiment and taking the inner voice into account. We need to empower teenagers to say no, and feel good about it.

Do you think some people are more sexual than others? You’ve spoken about being in a sexless relationship, for example, and how difficult it was for you. Was your partner just not as sexual as you?

I think libido can vary considerably between people, which may cause problems in relationships where there is a great discrepancy between the partners’ wish for frequency and/or nature of sex. We need to consider different turn-ons too, and sexuality may aim at playfulness and role-play, for some, possibly including power play and kink, partner interaction in others, or at trance states. Additionally, we need to consider partners who truly do not like partner sex, for various reasons, and may prefer solo sex. 

Kinsey and other studies show that sexuality exists on a scale and is complex — some people are heterosexual, others gay and still others asexual and not interested. Is there too much emphasis on the heterosexual part, even though it may be the majority, and that therefore leads to discrimination? 

Taking different sexual orientations, including asexuality, into account is very important, and I think awareness in society is shifting towards inclusion, and away from hetero-normativity. 

Do you think people are now taking control over their sexuality, in ways they’ve never done before?

It’s a biological need of human nature to want to fit in, and a number of clients ask me if their desires or sexual activities are “normal”. I usually ask them to define what normal means for them. The words “control” and “sexuality” don’t actually go well together. Sexuality is about attraction, playfulness, creativity and arousal. It doesn’t take well to control; it tends to lose interest. 

The profession I’m in is very young, only founded in 2004 by Joseph Kramer, and luckily, me and my colleagues are available for a modality that’s never been offered before, coaching people in sessions where we can allow for arousal and one-way intimate touch, for pleasure education. 

I’m so happy that even people from sex-restrictive cultural backgrounds are coming to see me, and it shows there is a real demand for this modality. If sexuality doesn’t go well, people suffer. It’s often the make-or-break factor of happiness in lives or relationships. People are yearning for being seen and heard for all that they are. It’s not uncommon for them to tell me stories they have never told anyone before in their lives — and, yes, that includes their psychotherapists and counsellors. 

It breaks my heart when people consult their GPs for a sexual issue, and get laughed at, or not taken seriously. I really hope these are exceptions, and not the rule, but I heard it several times.

I suggest engaging with a variety of erotic material and mediums, including porn.

Stella Anna Sonnenbaum

For those who are asexual, is it possible it’s because of a trauma or abuse they’ve suffered, and therefore they no longer want to be sexual

While asexuality seems to be on the rise — my impression — I think we need to distinguish between a disinterest in sexual matters from teenage years and one that has been brought about by trauma. Where there is trauma, I would generally encourage people to work on it. There is always hope. Don’t let anybody take that away from you. There may be a fuller life out there … to embark on, which includes sexuality, and sexual fulfilment.

What’s your view of gay conversion therapy? The UK government has said it’s planning to soon ban the controversial practice. 

Gosh, is this still legal in the UK? That’s an outrage. People need support to fully accept themselves as they are. Being gay is not a a choice people make — they may simply find that they are, and there is nothing that can be done about it. 

Do you think the various religions have a right to say what people should and should not do in terms of sex and also their sexuality?

As much as possible, I try to honour people’s beliefs and their spiritual and religious backgrounds, as well as their cultural heritage. It’s not up to me to judge what’s right or wrong. I have had clients who suffered a lot because their sexual orientation is sinful according to the religion they have been brought up in, and this is very painful, and may involve temporary splitting up from their nearest and dearest, when they find their identity, and stand by it.

I also have clients whose cultural background would discourage seeking help for sexual issues, or even talking about it with a stranger. Coaching is often homework-based, so issues arise when there are cultural, moral or religious biases towards self-pleasuring. This can have negative consequences for married partners too. That said, you could probably get me going with what happened to unmarried mothers and their babies in Ireland, and so many other barbaric atrocities, in the name of religion.

I use an exercise called bossy massage, to help people overcome their shame surrounding sex.

Stella Anna Sonnenbaum

People from religious backgrounds often feel a sense of shame regarding sex, and one of your clients has spoken about feelings of “guilt and shame” about masturbation and sex, although it’s not known, to me, if they are religious or have that background. Have you found, in your practice, that people who are non-religious have a simliar feeling towards sex?

Yes. Shame after self-pleasuring can brought about [and] triggered by negative messages about self-pleasuring or sex, from early childhood or society as a whole. There’s still a stigma about self-pleasuring. Sometimes masturbation can feel just boring and same-y, and the guilt may be about being in a rut of repeating something that clearly is not satisfying. For others, there’s a strong sense of shame or disgust after ejaculation during sex with their partners, and we would explore the roots of that. 

How do you teach or coach people to free themselves of their sex shame?

A great antidote to shame is speaking out about it, as shame thrives on secrecy and silence. I use an exercise called bossy massage — where the receiver is the “boss” and talks about what kind of touch they want to receive, and then get it, to overcome feelings of guilt. 

We sometimes revisit times in childhood where the child’s sexuality was denied or shamed by caregivers. We also create positive scenarios of sexual fulfilment as mental images, with a somatic component — how do their bodies feel when conjuring up these positive images? We can then use the image and body memory as soon as shame sets in. It’s about coaching people to realise that they have a choice, whether they want to engage with the shame or call up positive thoughts and feelings. When that’s the case, it’s usually a breakthrough.

Do you think the easy availability of porn online is causing problems for young men, and possibly young women too? And, if so, what can be done about it? 

I would suggest engaging with a variety of erotic material and mediums, such as erotic photography, erotic art, erotic literature and different kinds of porn. 

Especially for men, who are generally more visual than women, porn takes away from sensations in the body, and I usually recommend an intermittent approach, so switching it off, and then concentrating on the physical sensations. Changing positions and breathing techniques can help too. 

And we need to reform sex education in school. I think Holland and Scandinavian countries have better models, to empower young people to make better choices.

People need support to see and value themselves for who they are, even if they’re different from most others.

Stella Anna Sonnenbaum

You’re also a tantric coach. Is this a way of both developing people’s sex lives and spiruality, and what happens in your coaching?

Even though I studied tantra, I would not call myself a tantric coach. Tantra informs my practice. It was important for my own development, and spiritual journey. In my somatic coaching practice, it’s vital for people to see the bigger picture of themselves and their lives, in this moment. 

Rather than thinking that there’s something wrong with them, I encourage people to see their issue as a stepping stone into discovery and learning about themselves. People need support to see and value themselves for who they are, even if they’re different from most others. Our passions and desires lead the way to our purpose in life. People can feel I accept them for who they are. 

What, for you, constitues great, mind-blowing sex?

I would say an element of magic needs to be present, as well as involving all the senses. And it will probably last longer than three minutes! The best sex is transcendental in my opinion, getting into an altered state of timelessness, but I guess it depends who you ask. And being in love makes for great sex!

Has sex changed in a time of pandemic, and if so, how?

That’s a question which is both sad and fascinating. I hear that some broke the lockdown rules, to date and have sex with new partners, and maybe the forbidden element was an extra turn-on — I don’t know. 

There was a time here in the UK during lockdown when you weren’t allowed to see your partner if you didn’t live together. This, of course, also depended on where your partner lives, which is discrimination, in my opinion. Some couples moved in with each other, even after they had split up. 

There was also some nonsense advice for students about how to have safe sex during a pandemic, which involved no kissing and choosing sexual positions which don’t involve facing each other. I really hope people didn’t get into trouble for using their common sense here. 

Couples report that they either got closer together, and re-kindled intimacy, and that they became a bit like siblings, because of the lack of going out, seeing friends and date nights, which were a great source for fun and eroticism, pre-pandemic. Others have split up and divorced. Some reported lack of privacy for self-pleasuring, but sales of sex toys were up too, so I guess it depends on the individual circumstances.

  • Title image by Dainis Graveris.

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