On Intimacy and Agreements: Creating and Honoring your Word ft. Mistress Verity

The first time Verity and I met was in November of last year, on a double date at a Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg that I have since forgotten the name of. The outing, unfortunately, did not go well; I am no longer dating the man that I arrived with, and I don’t believe she is either. But I still consider that night a success.

Mistress Verity is an NYC-based intimacy artist, writer, performer, and creator of Liminal Bodywork. For more information, you can learn more about Mistress Verity through her website.

Empress Wu:

I think agreements are something that you and I both hold in high regard. When you hear the word agreements what does that mean to you?

Verity Lightman:

When I hear the word “agreement,” it’s really a question of values. A value is what you hold in high regard. With an agreement, there can be some play; you can decide those values in that time and that space, and then interact according to those values. Essentially, What are you in the space to do at that time, with another human, with other humans?

What I found over and over again is that people were coming into different spaces, spaces where sexual energy was being exchanged, and not having those same values, and that’s where a lot of the disruption and the chaos and dissonance and conversations around consent were coming up. It’s not that we both have problematic sets of values, it’s that maybe those values don’t work in the same space at the same time. So that’s where I was really thinking a lot about intersection of agreements and sexual energy.

EW: Definitely. And expectations, I feel, is a huge factor that comes into that

VL: Absolutely. And we’ve all grown up with a certain understanding of sexuality and the agreements that we make, first and foremost with ourselves, and then how that extends to another human being, but a lot of the time we’re not really talking about it. Sexual energy oftentimes is tacit, assumed and nonverbal. So much of sexual exchange is non verbal communication, which is great to be able to communicate in that way. So then that’s why I started thinking a lot about my experience in sex work and sexual healing has to do with a lot of nonverbal communication: picking up cues, and “oh okay this is what’s happening,” but the precedent for that was a LOT of verbal communication

EW: A lot of language

VL: And shared language. And so in the sex industry we have terms like “safeword” and “edge” and “boundary” and “parameter” and these are words that we use in order to negotiate our scenes. And then I noticed that in hookup culture, and in everyday sexual dynamics outside of the sex industry those words didn’t really exist, with a few exceptions in certain communities. And so I noticed a huge difference in terms of how people behaved.

EW: How do you feel about changing agreements? Do you have protocol when agreements change?

Mistress Verity. Photo by Alicia Wetherhill

Mistress Verity. Photo by Alicia Wetherhill

VL:  I think we’re changing agreements all the time, right? Relationships are not static; relationships are dynamic. The idea is that in order to build intimacy, however that is defined, those agreements have to change, otherwise you’re in stasis, which is another form of agreement! The agreement of being in stasis where there is a really specific protocol and you don’t go beyond that protocol, and you make an agreement that that’s where you’re staying.

EW: Right, that we’re not going to extend beyond those boundaries or step outside of that paradigm.

VL: And what does that mean? And then the agreement is that when that is no longer working, that both people are able to acknowledge that.

I was drawn to sex work because of the explicit agreements that I found to be there. So right off the bat, in the dungeon, there were protocols that I didn’t find to be in the outside world about what a client could or couldn’t do. I didn’t have the ability to negotiate that in my interpersonal relationships. I didn’t know that was possible for many, many years It just felt like they didn’t apply? I just had this really strong cognitive dissonance where I thought “client world/personal life”

EW: Talking about common language, you didn’t think that it translated

VL: No, I didn’t think it translated, and I didn’t know how to make it translate. I think part of that has to do with the specificity of language within subculture and BDSM. If you don’t know those terms, they are hard to use, and I always resisted the role of educator

I became increasingly more interested in agreements and the way that it affects sexuality after going to this Quodoushka training, which was a 3 day long workshop and training that was all set up in a ritualistic style and context, meaning that when you come in on Thursday morning, you step into ritual. There’s an opening ceremony, and then the whole weekend continues that ritual space. So everything you’re doing is in that container, and then we close at the end. So it was very, very intentional; each part was part of the ritual. And I think that made for the work to be really profound, because it was all in that space

And we just did a ton of work about agreements. Before any kind of sexual contact took place, even nonphysical sexual contact. Even before energetic sexual contact took place, there were explicit verbal agreements, where each person would say, “This is how I would like for you to touch me,” or “This is how I would like to be touched,” And then the other person would say, “What I hear you saying is you would like to be touched in ‘such and such’ way.” And that was really radical

EW: That’s amazing--like having someone recreate who you are for them. And who they are for you

VL: So each person would be responsible for articulated exactly what they wanted--in that moment, because there would be a qualifier that would say “and I can change my mind once the activity begins”. And then the other person had to really acknowledge that they heard what that person said. And that was really transformative.

EW: As we’re talking about it out loud, it’s like “oh yea. Everybody should be doing this.”

VL: It’s so obvious! I mean, again, any kind of teaching/training/learning modality, that’s pretty normal. If I was teaching you to bake bread, I’d say, “I want you to add the yeast in this way.” And you’d say, “Oh so I add the yeast in this way?” Like that’s very normal, right? Like that’s very normal in terms of learning style, but for sexuality, again because we’re reliant so much on this tacit understanding and assumption, we don’t do that. And I think there’s also a myth--and I was #1 proponent of this myth--that having those agreements, those explicit verbal agreements is dry and unsexy. It’s like the idea of pulling the condom out. “That’s not sexy.” No, actually, it’s very sexy.

EW: It’s super hot

VL: It’s really hot when we talk about what it is we want, so we know we’re on the same page. So a lot of that work was about debunking the myth of the sexiness of agreements. And it’s very awkward, I have to say. Because it’s not a muscle that I’ve practiced

EW: It’s uncomfortable

VL: What happens is that there is the potential of having a disagreement in that space, right? And so in sex, when each person has a desire and they want something (and potentially they’re projecting their desire), having that agreement is a speed bump that maybe prevents that thing from happening.

EW: Creating and opening that conversation for an agreement is also the possibility for hearing a no.

VL: So that’s really major. And that can be really scary.

EW: So much of that has to do with our ego. And so much of it has to do with our identity.

VL: Oh completely. “What if someone says no to me?”

EW: “What does that mean about me?”

How do you think that your work in the Quodoushka has affected your practice since then?

VL: It’s made me think about the agreements I make with my clients, that have existed and how we continue to make them. And it’s made me a lot more explicit, in terms of outlining, “This is what we’re doing. This is what I would like.” And then really giving them the space to reflect that back to me, to ensure that we’re on the same page. And it’s made me slow down a lot, and think about, “what is it that we’re doing here?” And I think that especially because the work with my clients is long-term and evolving

“Something’s here. Is this still working for you? Is this still working for me?” And that’s not something I felt I could really do, in early days. At least how I was trained, it was like, “Never admit a mistake, the Mistress is always right.”

EW: “Always have to throw your dick around”

VL: “Maintain your authority at any given moment.” And that’s not the kind of relationship I’m interested in, nor am I interested in attracting that, and I’m certainly not interested in retaining that. What’s really important to me for my clients is that they’re doing their own work.

EW: What agreements do you have with yourself? What rituals have you created with yourself in order to have those agreements?

VL: That’s my favorite question. Right. Because the agreements that we have with ourselves is number 1.

My Agreement with myself has been to really listen to my body. To listen to my body as a source of wisdom and communication of symptom, pleasure, danger. That’s number 1: what’s happening in my body, to keep that communication open.

And then, another agreement is to really have some verbal articulation about the nature of sexuality before stepping into the physical space of sexuality. So whether that’s sitting with Client and talking about our scene, or, in my interpersonal relationship. It doesn’t have to be as formal as what I described in the Quodoushka, but saying, “I don’t want to have sex if you’re not going to call me the next day. I don’t want to have sex that means that there’s no communication afterwards.” And that’s my job to say that, before the sex takes place. That’s the agreement I’m making with myself. So to have some dialogue about my values

EW: There is an acknowledgement of responsibility when we create agreements. And I think that there’s something that is so incredibly powerful about harnessing that responsibility, and claiming the greatness of those responsibilities, and the weight of those responsibilities. Something that you and I have talked about before is the power of your word.

VL: It’s huge! The word is like an object, when it comes out of your mouth and is in the air, inclusive of when you say something and realize, “oh my god, I don’t actually believe that.” And then to say, “that’s actually not true.” But without its manifestation into the audible, you don’t know that. That’s why I try really hard to practice those articulations, aloud, in the space with another human being.

Another thing that I’ve found to be interesting and powerful as a tool from the training is an “energetic tying off.” Before I go into any kind of scene, maybe even a conversation, like the conversation this morning--anytime there is energy exchanged, I’m going to tie off and put on my seatbelt and say, “Mine is mine and yours is yours.” it makes me think, “I’m going to be safe, I’m going to go on this ride, and I’m going to ensure that I’m not being irresponsible by trying to get in where I’m not supposed to get in energetically, and at the same time not leaving any spaces open.” So that’s been a tool that, as a meditation, walking myself through that has been extremely helpful.

I think every person working in sexual energy should have those kinds of tools, personally, and practice those kinds of tools, as a mode of self-care, and as a mode of self-responsibility.  But I think there’s lots of ways to do that. Because it is about intention and it is about going into space with a different mindset.

Photo by  Louis Seigal

Photo by Louis Seigal

EW: I do these intention calls every other day with two other people; one of them is my wife, and one of them is a mutual friend. And we’ve all undergone various levels of the same training program. We’ve been doing these since September. It’s been an absolutely insane practice.

What it used to be was we would say 3 things we were doing that day, and then setting our intention. And that worked for about 4 months, and then in the New Year we started getting really creative with it. What it’s starting to look like now is, instead of setting intentions, we’re asking questions, or we’re getting curious about specific things, or we’ll use the call to figure out somewhere in our lives where we need to restore integrity.

VL: There’s a definition of integrity that comes from shipbuilding. When the integrity of the ship has been lost, there’s a leakage somewhere in the ship that’s not allowing it to sail and move through the ocean well and functionally. I love this idea that, if I am not in integrity with myself, I have an energetic leakage somewhere. And I need to go in and do some psychic surgery and that’s why these practices are so great, because you’re asking, “Where is that leakage in myself?”

EW:  I love the dichotomy between that metaphor of the energy leak when it comes to being out of integrity, and it being seen as a block, because it’s a place in your life where you’re preventing yourself from being totally expressed and authentic. Which aligns completely with what you’re saying about clients, especially if clients have another relationship that they’re not open about, or if they’re not open to their partner about certain things.

I have a method of restoring integrity that I really love, which is:

  1. You acknowledge the broken agreement

  2. You talk about the impact of that broken agreement without any kind of story, with no ego involved in it at all

And that’s, “I did not show up on time, and because I did not show up on time, now our session is cut short.” That’s it. There’s none of “you hate me now.” There’s no “I’m a bad person.” There’s no “I didn’t show up on time because of traffic.”

     3. The structure you’re putting in place so that doesn’t happen again.

I believe that something that a lot of people like to ignore is that who you are in one area of your life is who you are everywhere. It’s the exact thing we’re talking about with integrity; if I’m out of integrity somewhere in my life, then I’m hiding something. And I don’t want to confront that thing. And it doesn’t matter if I have integrity in other areas of my life, because there’s a leak somewhere.

It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you don’t have integrity. It just means you’re not living your life to the fullest potential.

VL: I like to think of it as an imbalance. In our system of levers and pulleys that is the body and is our overall life, we’re always in the process of adjusting things to come into balance. AND we never stay in balance, because balance is not a static state. So it’s not, “Ta-da! I’ve arrived.”

EW: Stop glorifying arrival. The act of arrival is fucking amazing, but staying there is boring.

VL: It’s boring, and I think the thing that happens in a lot of long-term relationships with clients is we realize that we’re just doing this thing over and over again. And I’ve learned, in my practice, to not stay attached to any one relationship, to any one person, to any one dynamic. I feel most complete in my work when I graduate somebody, and they’re out the door. Even though some of them I’ve been seeing for a really long time, I ultimately feel the best in my soul when someone says, “I’ve learned. This has been good for me. I’m off to do other things.” And I don’t do the thing where I need to retain someone’s patronage, just because it either makes me feel good or pays the bills. That’s just not part of my modus operandi, because I feel like that’s very dysfunctional and not in service to what the person needs.

EW: Definitely. That’s so funny. A client recently asked me, “What is it that you want from me? What do you see long term from me?”

And I said, “Brother, I just want you to be completely self-expressed. Because you being able to be self-expressed means that you show up better for me, you show up better for the people in your life.”

VL: Absolutely. So that took a long time, to come into the agreement with myself about why I’m doing what I’m doing, which is not to build a following of devotees, or people that can’t live without me. That does not feel good.

EW: Co-dependency does not feel good.

VL: It doesn’t feel good or interesting at all, as much as I love adoration or respect and all those things. But not at the expense of someone’s own life path. And that can be sad. And that’s ok

EW: and we allow space for things to be sad sometimes. That’s a big thing: allowing space for us to be sad. Talking about how at the beginning it felt so important to wave your dick around. But let’s be honest: I fucking love crying (laughs)

I’m really grateful that you created the space for us to have this conversation. It really means a lot to me.

VL: I’m really glad that you’re here. I love this building of energy.

The last thing I’ll say about this energetic exchange is that EVERYTHING is sexual energetic exchange. Us sitting in this room together, work, family, friendship. So if we can come to a place where we can acknowledge that, and make room for that, it’d be like swimming in the ocean with clear and open waters. That’s my jam