By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Does sex have a universal language? Does it everywhere embody the same strange combination of sacredness and shame as it does in America? Does it wield the same power throughout the world? Does the way it's taught and learned transcend nationality, culture, and place?
I pondered these questions as I traveled to Berlin to teach at an event called Xplore 04 (xplore04.de). One of the things that immediately intrigued me about the three-day conference was the producers' plan to offer classes on BDSM, sex, ritual, and spirituality. Very few events in the U.S. dare combine sex and spirit. Fewer invite folks from different sexual communities to come together. So this cross-pollination of people and ideas piqued my interest right away. This will be my second year co-producing an event with a similar mission called Dark Odyssey (darkodyssey.com). I find it incredibly challenging to get leatherpeople, transfolk, swingers, pagans, and tantra lovers not only to come to the same event, but to step out of their comfort zones, learn from one another, and play together. I was curious to see how they did it across the pond.
Although I had a busy teaching schedule, I was eager to attend classes as well. After perusing a few of the topics ("Tickling and Bastinade," "S/M + Zen: Pain") and presenters' bios (the editor of the German s/m mag Schlagzeilen, instructors from the Diamond Lotus Institut), I got a sense of the offerings, but still had no idea what to expect. Though most classes were taught in German, there were enough English speakers at the conference for me to get a translation every now and then. Plus, since many of the presentations were participatory, I hoped that if I could see it and do it, I'd be able to understand it.
I've attended lectures and demonstrations on foot fetishes and foot worship, but I've never experienced anything like "fussfolter" (which translates to "foot torture"). Presenter Delta RA'i had students pair off and lie down facing one another; then he instructed us to each grab the foot of our partner. Everyone got right down to it; no one turned their nose up at the idea that they'd be experimenting with foot torture from both the giving and receiving ends. (In American leather culture, people are so invested in being tops or bottoms that they're often unable to check their egos at the door to have an experience like this one.) We went through a series of sensations, from stroking and scratching to tickling and spanking. He showed us secret spots on the toes and feet that are extremely sensitive to pressure or pinching, and of course explained where it's safe to hit the feet and where it's not. I'm already a pedi-fetishist who loves having my feet played with, but this definitely took one of my kinks to the next level; I only wish I could have attended Delta's foot-washing ritual (feetwash.de)!
In a class called "Urban Ritual," participants were encouraged to surrender to an entirely new, and fairly intimate, experience. Set up like a kind of musical chairs in which no one is eliminated, we exchanged partners every few minutes according to the music. We didn't choose the people with whom we interacted; the layout of the seating chose for us. One person was active, the other remained passive, and we switched roles throughout. We touched and kissed complete strangers, and got touched and kissed by them, without negotiation or safe words. Our choice came in how we touched and how we kissedwhether it was friendly, distant, comforting, or seductive. At once terrifying and titillating, it was an exercise in conscious touch and connection. Once I let my guard down, I had an awesome time.
Guards were definitely down and clothes shed in the final class of the day, called "Orgasmatron." Zurich-based white-haired sex priestess Maggie Tapert (maggietapert.com)who reminded me of a Euro version of Betty Dodsonhanded out blindfolds to the 60 participants. We covered our eyes and waited. Then she led us through a group masturbation ritual in which everybody jerked off simultaneously, the sounds of people's pleasure and orgasms filling the room.
At both the classes I taught and those I attended, I was struck by how open, present, and engaged the audience was. People were there to learn, try new things, and push their personal boundaries, and their investment in their own identities (whether based on gender, sexual orientation, or BDSM roles) did not prevent them from experimenting or connecting with others. This contrasts with my recent experiences at conferences where people seemed more interested in asserting their superiority over others, flaunting the power they wield within the community, and quite frankly, showing off. I know that may sound harsh. To be fair, I'm coming off a year of presenting at events that have not been ideal, a difficult period that has at times been overwhelming and has left me drained. At Xplore 04, I felt appreciated, and at the same time I was in awe of the amount of energy the conference-goers and presenters gave one another. The people there fueled and inspired me. The entire experience was truly transformative: It helped me look at teaching in a new light and re-evaluate what it means to truly participate in something, whether a hands-on sex class or a political movement. It allowed me to glimpse the infinite possibilities of sex-positive events like this one.
After I fisted a fabulous French girl in my advanced anal class, a man approached me and uttered a four-word phrase I hear on a regular basis: "I'm not gay, but . . . " I thought for sure I knew what was coming next. In America, the confession would continue like this: "I really do like to get fucked in the ass, even with a strap-on. But it has to be by a woman, definitely a woman." I hear it so often and respond with validation in order to counter the stereotype that haunts so many hetero dudes; yes, straight men can love getting ass-fucked and it doesn't mean they're gay. Instead, this guy announced, "But when it comes to being anally fisted, I just prefer it with another guy. The energy is so different, I just like it better." It was both obvious (it made perfect sense to me) and shocking, since I'd never heard anyone say anything like it. It was indicative of my journey to an event remarkably similar to ones I go to all the time, and still radically different.
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