Reflections on a festival called sex camp

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My first impression of sex camp was about the camp itself. It reminded me of camps from my childhood. I also had holidays in this area and the landscape and smells took me back to my childhood. It is damp, earthy, with eucalyptus and pine scents coming through. The building where my bunk is smells like dust and boarding houses from the 1960s. Except it is 2012, and places still smell like that! The bunks were build for children and seem 60 years old. The chest of drawers and cupboards are the same vintage.

My sleeping companions in this seven-bed room are a mix, three women in their thirties, my friend and I, and two men. The energy is really positive and friendly. People are considerate, and respectful of space. It is the same across the whole camp.

The initial feeling of being 11 years old again dissipated as I explored the camp and the spaces that have been established for the workshops and events of the weekend. The main space is a marquee made of an orange tarp, suspended on poles, with plastic flooring and rugs and cushions on the floor. It has a PA system and fairy lights as well as other lights. A women’s Tee Pee has been set up, with pink bunting, flags around an improvised gate, and a welcoming, women only space inside with cushions and a central fire. The men’s Tee Pee is beyond the women’s and much more plain.

People could only come to the camp if they are here on the Friday night and participate in the opening ceremony. There are no exceptions to this rule. Personal safety and understanding of the philosophical ethos are central to the psychological safety of the running of this event.

All 180 participants gathered in the main space and sat on the floor. People ate their meals, talked, made new friends and settled before the camp manager gave us the rules about no amplified sound after 11, respecting the neighbours (who would call the police if they hear amplified sound after 11) and looking after the property. I sat next to a couple of people who I would connect with again over the weekend, and one, another sex researcher from interstate, who I hope to link with academically.

The purpose for sex camp was for ‘exploring and celebrating the spectrum of sexuality from the sacred to the profane’. Several rules/agreements were read out and we all had to raise our hand and say yes to indicate agreement. The only time someone disagreed was in relation to punctuality, as while he would try to be on time he might be delayed by the needs of another human, or an animal. The discussion and respectful negotiation around this, including some humour, was an indication of the tone of the event. No drugs of any sort, including alcohol, are permitted (medication excepted). It seems that people are respecting this. Other rules included no photos, maintaining confidentiality, respecting other’s space, no identifying other participants outside the camp.

Tea light candles were handed out. The principal organiser of the camp lit the first one and imbued it with the energy of the good will and spirit of the occasion. This symbolism worked on many levels; having the idea for the camp; lighting of sexual fire; sharing the light and energy; and all being together to illuminate the space. With this candle she lit another and within a few minutes every candle was alight. We held them and were asked to think about why we were there and what we wanted to get out of the weekend.

Why was I there? My reasons were a mixture of the professional and personal. The sex positive movement (is it a movement-maybe) is an exciting thing to come out of sexual health education, sexual health promotion, and alternative living communities, and this camp/festival was an opportunity to learn new things, see an alternative approach to increasing understanding about sexuality and personal growth, as well as grow myself. As one presenter said, ‘we teach what we most need to learn’. I was there to address some of my personal issues with sexuality, see some things in action that I had only heard about, explore, maybe address some psychological blocks, and overall, be open to learning and be open to what was out there. Professionally it was an example of health promotion in action that I wanted to observe and be a part of.

We all held the candles in our hands, thought about our positive intentions for the camp, then raised the candles to in front of our mouths, and on the count of three, blew them out, so the collective smoke would combine and send out good will to the ether. Apparently from the front this looked absolutely wonderful. There was a ‘no photo’ rule at the camp so it was not recorded.

My first cuddle party was a fantastic intro into the concept. It was made very clear that it was not a sexual event. People could choose to watch from the sidelines or join in. The preparation for the event took longer than the actual cuddling part, and that was what I found most impressive. We agreed again to the principles of respecting others’ boundaries and space. We paired up randomly with those standing near to practice asking permission; ‘May I kiss you?’ making requests, ‘Will you kiss me?’ and saying ‘no’ to both of these. That way everyone had had the experience of asking for what they wanted, which in itself is an important skill and not easy for people, and being refused, and realising it was all still ok. ‘No is a complete sentence’ was one of the lessons from this. There is no need for ‘no, but’, or ‘no, because’. ‘No’ is sufficient. We’d all been rejected twice before we started and it was OK! We were told to say no at least twice during the party but I didn’t and wasn’t aware of others doing so either, but that didn’t matter. Feeling empowered to say no if you wanted to was what was important.

The principle of establishing a safe space was a critical one for the camp, and I saw it everywhere. Even just establishing a space, making it personal, was evident everywhere, from how the communal workshop spaces were set up, to how individual presenters claimed ownership of the space for themselves and what they wanted to do. It was not about branding, in the way a business makes a space theirs from a marketing perspective, but about claiming space and making that space safe and comfortable for yourself.

I started out at the tamer, better lit end of the room at the cuddle party, because I was somewhat anxious and unsure. I spoke to a woman sitting next to me, and she offered me a hand massage. Someone else asked if I’d like a shoulder massage and I was very happy. Then I returned the hand massage, and worried if it was fair to be enjoying the shoulder one simultaneously, and if I should be focusing on giving a good hand massage. That is a sign of a personal issue I became aware of during sex camp, that I live so much in my head, and there are times I should let go and focus on sensation and being in the moment, rather than analysing the situation and being vigilant about my behaviour and how I’m being perceived.

It didn’t take long for me to move to the other end of the room, where what the presenter described as a ‘cuddle puddle’ was happening. I asked permission to join someone and before long was being embraced, and then someone asked to join me, so I was embracing another, all in a line/stack of seated people. It wasn’t exactly physically comfortable, with various bits being squashed and going numb, but emotionally and energetically it was lovely and affirming. Starting the weekend like this was great, and set the tone for the rest. People would speak to someone they didn’t know, and exchange very positive verbal comments, which might lead to one asking the other for a hug, as a sign of appreciation and positive acknowledgement.

I’m interested in the diversity of relationship types, so Swinging 101 was the obvious choice. The presenter told her own story of the journey to engaging in swinging with her husband, and affirmed what I had read. Communication is essential, and being prepared to own your own insecurities and needs, and willing to state and stand up for them. There are no absolutes, and what works or is needed today isn’t what might be the case next week. Look after yourself, and your primary relationship, and be listen to each other. Playing safe is also an important consideration.

I’m respecting the sex camp confidentiality rule, and not naming people, but I want to sing to the world how much I loved the next presenter, and honour her by naming her as a way of supporting her work. (It was Cyndi Darnell and I have her permission to say who she is, thanks, Cyndi!) The Introduction to Anal workshop was beautifully done; clear, non emotive but sensitively humorous information for people who had no previous knowledge about, and maybe a few taboos to address, re anal play. Gloves, everybody! Have short fingernails, patience, permission, and keep clean (unless you are into poo, which would be a different workshop entirely). Don’t believe what you see on porn videos about how anal is depicted, that’s Anal 301 and much more advanced, and what the films don’t show is the hours of preparation the performers have done before the filming. (I nearly said, before the shoot, but changed it to be less euphemistic – Freudian elements abound.)

By this stage my brain was buzzing so I didn’t attend the next session, but tried to think and write the start of this account. Later I was sad I’d missed sensation play, as I went in at the end to farewell my friend, and the dominatrix leading the session greeted me by declaring all the rules did not apply in her workshop, tweaked a nipple, pulled my hair and bit my neck, all in a very friendly fashion, of course. Grrrowl!

I had thought Speaking Sex would be about communication, but clearly hadn’t read the information well enough as it was about writing erotic fiction. In one group activity we had to pull words out of a paper bag and mine included ‘vouyerism’ which led me to reflect on the way I observe the world, how online social networks allow for this. I have been criticised for noticing what people post online, which confuses me, as I firmly believe you shouldn’t post stuff unless you are prepared for anybody to read it. I’m learning from that to read but not comment, which sees dishonest…there goes the in-the-head thing again.

What I got most from Speaking Sex was an exercise in which we were asked to visualise our ideal lover, and an interaction with that person. I don’t have an ideal lover, or a massive attraction to a celebrity that I could use for this, so took the opportunity to reflect on what was important to me in a lover. What emerged was the importance of the look on the person’s face, of warmth, acceptance and regard as the basis of any interaction. There was some fantasy stuff with bare skin and oil, too, that was quite lovely.

One of my great frustrations in life is only being able to be in one place at a time, and there were several workshops I’d have liked to attend but couldn’t. I missed all the Tantra ones, and will make a point of seeking a Tantra workshop one day.

The Female Ejaculation session was very well attended, about 50/50 men and women, which reflected the balance of festival attendees too. There were two spaces set up in the room; a formal presentation area at the front, complete with data projector and power point presentation, and a massage table as a bed in the middle of the room. The presenters were Cyndi Darnell, who was taking the more academic perspective, and G who was speaking about personal experience and doing a demonstration.

The Cyndi got her ‘sex nerd’ on, and showed diagrams of the anatomy and outlined what we know about the female anatomy, as well as lamenting (being cross about) the fact that some medical text books STILL omit the clitoris from anatomical diagrams, on the basis that it is not essential for reproduction therefore not important. We discussed some of the aspects of learning to identify anatomy, and how the g-spot might not be as easy to identify as an eyeball, for example, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant. Not all women enjoy having it stimulated, so individual variation is as valid here as everywhere else.

The time came for the demonstration. The establishment of the space as sacred and safe was a vital part of the process. G had requested to be surrounded by friends she trusted, and that the stimulation be done by Cyndi and C. Both the women who touched G wore gloves (which were snapped on with some ceremony, in one case) and safety was emphasised again. The importance of permission and respect was emphasised, with a request for a slower stroking speed being responded to with ‘thank you’, and this being explained as a lesson in the importance of valuing that someone has given you the consideration of letting you know how you can help them. Likewise, a request to insert a finger, and the second one, was made, an answer waited for, then after ‘thank you’, the demonstration continued. Cyndi was outstanding in her capacity to be sensuous and affectionate towards G as she masturbated her to orgasm, and also professional and informative as she related to the attendant crowd, explaining what she was doing and why. G was also brilliant, generous with her intimate demonstration, clear about what her safety needs were, and skilled at demonstrating how impressive a female ejaculation can be. FYI, ejaculation and orgasm are not necessarily simultaneous, nor does one require the other. This was a fabulous example of how sexuality education can be intensely personal and intimate, while being professional and safe, physically and emotionally for presenters and attendees.

The parallel ‘fun with cock’ workshop (BYO phallic vegetable or equivalent) had much more audience participation, I gather. Later I walked past a pile of zucchinis and wondered if they were dinner or workshop leftovers; objects take on a different dimension at this sort of event.

Sex, Power and the Shadow was transformative, and I could see many people responding in powerful ways. The space and awareness of ourselves and each other was established, which included individuals stepping forward stating what they brought to the workshop: ‘my sexuality’; ‘my warrior’; ‘my shame’; ‘my self-loathing’, and the whole group shouting Be Here Now! after each one. Then we were asked to respond with movement, or dance, to the archetypes of Witch, Bitch, Dyke and Whore, with music in the background. My interpretations are not necessarily the same as the presenter’s, but I’ll describe what I took away from the session. Witch related to the healer, mystic with power to change; bitch was the person who took control and said no, was defiant and empowered; dyke was self love as well as love of another of the same sex; and whore played with and explored sensuality and sexuality, not always within limits. The transformation for me in this was about the bitch archetype, and an increased sense of being able to take control and stand up to something I disagree with, take the risk of rejection and dislike and not let that inhibit me.

The personal development aspect for me of sex camp was related to body acceptance, a letting down of some guards – although my carapace is still firmly fixed in place – and that increased sense of being able to say what I want to without worrying about retribution. The slow dissolving of my carapace is one of the things I was seeking.

Professionally what I learnt was about exploring ways to approach sexual health promotion that address the aspects that are really important – the self acceptance and self valuing, the importance of communication and negotiation skills, boundary affirmation and being able to make this clear and be respected in doing so – the psychosocial dimension of sexuality that is neglected so often, and even seen as dippy or uncool in some places. Sexual health policy for adults does not address it, but school education is starting to work on these elements, although primary schools seem to do it better than secondary for a number of reasons. It takes a certain amount of courage to go to an event called sex camp, or attend a cuddle party. I’m left wondering how those important elements of our sexuality and personal growth needs, especially for baby boomers, could be addressed in a mainstream context that was acceptable and accessible. I don’t think Bendigo is ready for a version of Pleasure Salon yet, but then I wonder why not? There has to be an idea or approach that will work for sex-positive fun and learning, promoting happiness in relationships and open, honest communication, that will work in this community. Maybe a cuddle party is the way to go? Hmmm, time to get the PhD first, change the world later.

I’m really pleased I went to sex camp. I feel cool for having done so, too, in the same way I feel cool for having attended the first Sunbury pop festival in 1972. Both significant events, reflecting a changing cultural landscape. I’m so please I live where and when I do, life is so exciting!
This picture (probably) isn’t me, but the hair and long skirt fit my image from the time.

PS My children will be relieved to hear that I did not actually have sex at sex camp. They know I think about it all the time already, so my attending the event will not come as a surprise to them.
PPS If people are keen to read about the presenters they can check out the event website.

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5 responses »

  1. What a wonderful summary of something that many people may find troublesome, as I believe you alluded to in various places. Your discussion of body acceptance, living in your head, and how all this personally and professionally resonates — all done from a somewhat research-based manner — is a stroke of brilliance, and I am so glad you shared this with the world. In many ways I wonder how the experience of attending this has left you in a state that you decided to share it; what have you learned in the process that will then help you move forward in some way?

    So nicely stated; thank you!

    Jeffrey

    • Thanks, Jeffrey, for your thoughtful reply, and lovely comments. You are correct in supposing that the experience of being there freed me to be more open about my own issues, and more confident to express them. That in itself is an indication that the issues are diminishing. I approach the world with my study, or work in health promotion always in ten forefront, and look for things that will be useful to contribute to my knowledge or practice. Sex camp was a great way to engage in learning of all kinds! I had such a good time, and it was a great opportunity to learn personally and professionally.

  2. Linda, I love your description of your experiences at Sex Camp. We didn’t get a chance to say ‘farewell’, but I do hope we get a chance to say ‘hello’ again. E

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