Temple Of Love
By Mike Albo
Scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., my CBE workshop was conveniently near my apartment in Brooklyn, in a large warehouse loft decorated in a hippie-scrappy way with batik hangings, mismatched couches, and a dusty altar in the corner.
The men who came trickling in, taking off their shoes as they entered, represented a surprising array of race and size and age.
Michael mentioned the ground rules: that the room was a space of complete confidentiality, that HIV-positive and recovering addicts were welcome, that 'You can identify as gay, straight, or anything else -- we don't care.'
When I signed up for the workshop via e-mail, I was told to refrain from drinking and drugs for three days prior and from masturbation for 24 hours. The workshop's goal, as our leader told us, was not to have an orgasm or even become erect, but to raise the erotic energy and learn to move it around the body. 'But if you do have an orgasm, don't worry, don't be disappointed with yourself,' Michael said. 'Just raise your hand and we will give you tissues.' He also noted that this space was 'a no-Viagra zone.'
The morning of my CBE workshop, while we were still clothed, we were
divided into groups of four. My group had a sweet-faced young man with a shaved head, a crusty older man who reminded me of my high school physics teacher, and a corpulent man whom, out of respect for the workshop's confidentiality pledge, I will call 'Frank.' I liked him -- he was very honest and talked freely about his size, how at 43 he has led a nonsexual life, how he had come out of the closet just four years ago. His goals here were uncomplicated -- 'I just want to experience everything,' he said.
One person in each group was blindfolded and had to ask the others this oddly phrased question: 'Will you please massage me out of my clothes?' The first person naked in our group was Frank. We took off his clothes and made him feel comfortable about it by touching him.
His body was a fascinating Botero sculpture -- rolls over rolls connecting his chest to his stomach to his legs. There was a loose curtain of flesh that hung over his genitals. As my hands traced over his body I realized I hadn't ever touched someone in this way that I didn't love, care for, or desire. But Frank was enjoying it, and it felt good to make him feel good. By the end of the day I was feeling very close to him.
Soon after we had massaged off each other's clothes we were performing an intense 45-minute breathing exercise -- holding hands and moving around the room in a linked procession, looking into one another's exhilarated faces, snaking around the room in unison. The elderly, spindly British man raised his shaky little pale arms in triumph. Something loosened inside me and I felt goofily joyful -- some sense of community -- maybe a re-creation of Kramer's fantastically nostalgic version of '70s gay life.
Although no longer a Jesuit, Kramer moved to California's Bay Area in 1978 to complete his master of divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, this time focusing on erotic spirituality or, as the school understood it, 'pastoral counseling and concerns for sexual minorities.' He also applied for a state massage license and started a massage school in nearby Oakland, where he still lives. At the school and on his own, he began to incorporate tantric states of arousal -- using rhythmic breathing and sexual stimulation during meditation and massage.
By 1983 he had developed the Taoist Erotic Massage. In this technique, the masseur guides the receiver in a combination of breathing, massage, and genital stimulation. After 15 minutes or longer, the initiate performs 'the big draw' -- constricting his muscles, clenching his perineum, holding his breath, and then, after a few moments, releasing. This usually leads to an extended, ejaculation-free, full-body orgasm. 'The dynamics that make up a Taoist Erotic Massage allow the person receiving the massage to experience moments of freedom,' Kramer wrote in his 2003 doctoral dissertation. 'This freedom is the ability to choose new scripts to live by.'
Not long after Kramer developed TEM, the first newspaper article came out describing a 'gay cancer' that was spread through sexual contact. Kramer remembers reading that article while leaving a bathhouse.
Established in those heated, early days of the disease and its invasion into gay life, the workshop feels like a throwback to a time of heightened passions and a heartfelt need for comfort and community. At my class, except for the mention of Viagra, you could close your eyes and transport yourself back to the tense, furious era where sex embraced death and gay men were essentially at war. In some ways it feels like a Civil War reenactment or a timeless piece of gay performance art. 'I wrote a play, and there are some great actors who have stepped in and played that play,' Kramer says.
'The essence of Body Electric teaching is experiencing sexuality as energy. Inviting people to raise sexual energy throughout the body,' explains Don Shewey, a former Body Electric teacher who now has an 'intimacy coaching and erotic mentoring' private practice in New York. 'Men use ejaculation as a sedative. It's a great gift and tool to have another way to think of self-pleasuring and orgasm.'
In 1992, Shewey wrote an article for The Village Voice in which he explained how the CBE workshop helps to heal the 'unsatisfactory socialization' of American gay men, whose social lives had centered on bars and bathhouses. 'For nude gay men to interact in broad daylight, making eye contact and concentrating on the connection between their hearts and their genitals, is practically revolutionary,' he wrote.
Since Shewey's article, gay male life has morphed again. Gay culture in 2008 seems like the glorious days before AIDS in a fun-house mirror: the advent of HIV medication, the relaxed attitude toward safe sex, the commercialization of gay nightlife and entertainment, the digitalization of porn, and notably, the proliferation of Internet sites like Manhunt and DudesNude that allow men to hook up as frequently as they would in the '70s.