On a recent Saturday around 11 a.m., I found myself naked with 30 other men, blindfolded, lying on a towel and pleasuring myself with a spurt of coconut oil. I was at Celebrating the Body Erotic -- a course offered by the Body Electric School that is designed to teach men to awaken the erotic energy that lies within all of us. The group had spent the morning getting to know each other through various exercises, and two hours in we were sans clothes and fondling ourselves.
Our leader was Michael -- a spry, gray-haired man with a quick gay wit. The purpose of the blindfold, he said, was to help us get out of our heads and turn our minds inward. If you needed more coconut oil, you could raise one hand while cupping the other one at your hip, and a naked assistant would come by and squirt more into it. Along with his four or five assistants, Michael, also naked, urged us to try different areas with the oil: between the thighs, the scrotum, the stomach -- pretty much everywhere but the penis. In fact, throughout the day, as we danced, breathed, hugged, and caressed each other, we were encouraged to refrain from ejaculation.
Michael suggested we arch our backs. I thrust my pelvis into the air and tried to enjoy myself, but I felt like an amateur porn actress trying to be sexy. I couldnt shake the thought that the Body Electric team was watching -- even if it was without judgment. I felt a little dumb and inhibited -- which was surprising since, as a 38-year-old single gay New Yorker, I have been in more compromising positions.
After massaging ourselves blindfolded, we stood in a circle touching our erections. We were told to turn to the person next to us and talk about how we like to get off. Under normal circumstances this might be awkward, but having spent the morning having heartfelt one-on-one encounters, massaging one anothers shoulders and staring into each others eyes, we were all very comfortable with each other.
Two months after my workshop I visited Joseph Kramer, the man who founded the Body Electric School in 1984. He greeted me in his Oakland, Calif., office -- a carpeted space on the top floor of a two-story brick-red house. Kramer has grayish hair, twinkling blue eyes, a solid body, and large hands. In a Harry Potter film, he would be an avuncular but mischievous teacher at Hogwarts.
Kramer has been called a sexual revolutionary for his work rescuing gay male sexuality and, in a larger sense, sexual culture from the fear and panic that proliferated in the late 80s and early 90s. Take one look at the nerve-racking government safe sex brochures from that era and its easy to recall how frightened people, especially gay men, were of their own bodies back then.
In the beginning Kramer was a pious, celibate teen. In 1965, at 17, he left home and entered a Jesuit seminary, but in 1975, after 10 years of abstinence, he realized he didnt possess what the Catholic Church calls the gift of celibacy. He came out of the closet, moved to the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, and had as much sex as possible. Within a few months Kramer had a live-in lover, a circle of close friends he had sex with, and a fleet of men walking through the streets and on the piers available for countless random encounters.
Like many men who have lived to tell, Kramer describes the 1970s as if it were a sexual heaven on earth, a Gay Golden Age -- as if back then there werent any jealous boyfriends, competitive jerks, fuck-buddy pseudo-relationships, flirtatious guys with boyfriends, or smug playaz. I dont remember at all this pair-bonding, Kramer explains. Recalling the numerous sexual encounters he had in New York, he says, I understood sex as a communal experience. I didnt feel it was personal. During this time, Kramer devoted himself to studying the body, training in acupuncture, Chinese pressure points, and bodywork techniques.
In 1992 he sold the Body Electric School to Collin Brown, a participant in the workshops, who then sold it last year to another devotee of the school, Bob Findle. Kramer had gone on to earn a Ph.D. in human sexuality at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Steeped in sexology, he applies an intoxicating range of words drawn from science and smut to discuss sex (oral sex can heighten neural firing; he jokingly referred to himself and his ex-boyfriend as sensate pigs).
He often defines states of sexual excitement as scripts. This ascribes to a theory developed by psychology professor Donald Mosher, who proposed that during sex a person engages in one or more of three distinct sexual scripts. Roughly defined, these are partner engagement (connection, eye contact, relationship affirmation), sexual roleenactment (top/bottom, master/slave, husband/wife), and sexual trance scripts.
When describing his own sexual behavior, Kramer often cites entrancement as his primary goal. Trance allows me to connect, Kramer says. The skin goes away, and its a connection. He has four or five intimates, including two women (one of whom is sexologist and performance artist Annie Sprinkle, a fellow teacher at the New School of Erotic Touch). Once or twice a year he also participates in a Native Americanstyle hook-pull ritual, where he and others are attached to a pole by hooks pierced through their chests, with their flesh pulled inches from their bodies. People drum and hook up to each other as well. Kramer, who often wears a veil during this ritual, says he falls into a trance state.
The class you took, the Body Electric class, is based on this, Kramer tells me. Not only sex, but embodiment, how we are in our bodies, is a communally shared thing.
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 dont 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 workshops 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, dont worry, dont 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 workshops 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 hadnt ever touched someone in this way that I didnt 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 others clothes we were performing an intense 45-minute breathing exercise -- holding hands and moving around the room in a linked procession, looking into one anothers 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 Kramers fantastically nostalgic version of 70s gay life.
Although no longer a Jesuit, Kramer moved to Californias 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. Its 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 Sheweys 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.
The leaders of the Body Electric still see its relevance in this age. Dont fix something thats not broken, says the current owner, Bob Findle. In the 80s it was AIDS and fear of AIDS that was keeping men apart...now its the Internet. The whole Internet thing has robbed so many men of intimacy. They come to our workshops because they are dying to have that connection and that kind of intimacy.
For all our erotic possibilities and various pleasure centers, we are, as Collin Brown puts it, a very shut-down, puritanical culture. Porn gives us an outlet. We are so excited to have just a 10% little jolt of the erotic, we let go of the 90%. Porns great gift is that it takes us out of ourselves. Its like an electronic version of a pill.
A fellow participant in my workshop, Chris, had attended the workshop once before and explained that it had given him a strong sense of belonging he rarely experiences with men. If there is any sense of family I have had in the gay community, it is in these workshops. Like-minded, risk-taking gay men, protecting each other instead of ripping each other to shreds, instead of being cunty.
It was time to learn how to pleasure each others penises. We all got on the floor with a partner. We applied all the techniques we had learned earlier that day on ourselves. They all had fun, sassy names. The juicer, where you hold the penis and with the other hand lightly run your fingers over the head as if it were an orange half. The hairy palm, in which you gently palm your partners penis head. For around the clock you caress the penis in different directions along the body, and for build a fire you gently roll it between your hands as if it were a twig and the crotch were underbrush. This one was my favorite.
Behind me, the handsome guy with glasses was paired up with the big muscular black man. Of course, I thought, by some gay Darwinian principle, the two hottest guys ended up together. Even in this nurturing, nonjudgmental space, gays will be gays. Steeped in my expectations and my partner engagement script, even here, I still felt gay cuntiness, at least within myself.
Keep your attention on your partner, Michael said to the group. I turned back around and fondled the hard penis of a friendly-faced man.
This was the end of the first day. I didnt return. I couldnt take another day of nonjudgmental touch. I knew I was missing out on the close-knit comradeship and also the big climactic full-body orgasm of the second days workshop, but I was flooded with my love particularities. I also needed a drink. I wanted to go out or online or both and find one person and make out with him in a private, enclosed room. As much as I adore the idea of a vibrating naked community, I still was looking to satisfy the partner engagement script, which was frustrated both here and in my constantly humming, erratically erotic real life in New York City. I felt like a bit of a Body Electric failure.
As perfect and unattainably utopian as the idea of a shame-free, sexually informed, fluidly scripted world sounds, the leaders and founders of Body Electric are committed to its realization. Kramer is now focusing his energies on creating an erotic yoga school that mixes his vast experience in erotic massage with the discipline of a yoga practice. Collin Brown is starting a private practice; the school offers a large menu of classes and has also purchased land in the Russian River area of Northern California and opened the Wildwood retreat center.
If nothing else, in its 25 years of existence the Body Electric has provided a place where the wisdom of older gay men is listened to, developed, and respected. Its a symposium, in a near-classical sense -- something that is hard to find.
On Kramers recommendation, I made an appointment with Mike Kurokawa, a bodyworker living in the Castro who, like Don Shewey, has developed a private practice through his experience at the Body Electric. He is a sprightly, handsome, ageless man with calming, clerical energy. We talked for a long time before he had me undress.
I told him about my experiences with the CBE workshop. I admitted that although I was inspired by the feeling of community at the workshop, I didnt return for the second day. It felt snotty to say it, but I told him I felt inhibited. As much as I loved giving other guys pleasure, I really would rather have experienced it privately with someone who I thought was really hot.
Thats your script, he said. He went on to refer to Moshers three sexual script states. The most healthy kind of sex is one in which all three are at play on a heightened level.
On the table, naked, I first lay on my stomach, and he massaged me lightly, and then asked me to turn over. He led me through a simple, in-and-out breathing exercise and asked if he could touch my genitals. I said yes, and he began stroking me lightly while I maintained the breathing. Then, after about 15 minutes of this, he told me to perform the big draw and release.
I expanded into myself, felt like laughing and crying at the same time, and completely lost track of time. Apparently I was shuddering and entranced for 10 minutes, but it felt like only three. I do remember thinking how nice this would be to experience with another person whom I cared for, pair-bonding in a private room. My relationship engagement script was playing on repeat, but many other scripts were happening too -- the I am afraid of commitment script, the I have lived in New York for way too long script, the when will I focus on something lasting? script.
When I walked out of there I was smiling widely and enjoyed the bright, floral, beautiful streets of San Francisco. If I had met the right guy that day I would have married him forever. I did not find this mythical person or even just have sex with him. But now I do know, from listening to my gay elders, that sex is not just an orgasm -- its a deeper, longer excursion that you have your whole life to explore.