It’s a dinner party. We’re outside in the garden smoking cigarettes and, naturally, because there’s nothing more interesting to talk about in the whole world, we alight upon the topic of sex. One of the women is a lawyer, late thirties, lovely clothes, erudite and cultivated, single. She’s been dating a guy and they broke up. She hasn’t been laid in a year. “One-night stands make me feel sad,” she says. “I have my job and my friends and my nice apartment, but for the rest, I just feel numb.” The other has been married to the father of her one-year-old for five years. “It’s once a month,” she says, looking fondly at her loved one boozing inside. “But after so long, it seems stupid to rock the boat.”
Girls! Did we miss something, or is there more out there? In these digitally hooked-up Tinder days, are we really feeling good and alive as sexual beings, or are many of us falling short? We’re not talking about the shags, but the big stuff, the connecting stuff, the free expression, the “I see you, I understand you”, pure pleasure stuff. Do we feel as primally sexy and as lushly free as we could? And if not, why not?
“Are you going to give yourself permission to own your body, or does your sexuality have to be rescued by someone else?” the psychosexual therapist Carolyn Cowan asks me when I call her to discuss this matter. It’s a good question. Luckily, I have received word of a parallel universe where all of this is much, much more possible. A universe for women — people! — to be as sexy as they want to be, in the way they want, without even needing a boyfriend or a girlfriend. It sounds like an ideal place for experimentation.
This other reality is as far from kinky housewives and sandwiches curling on sideboards as it is possible to get. Calling itself the conscious-sexuality movement, it is made up of switched-on twentysomethings and all the professionals you know — your lawyer, your son’s teacher, your GP (they just aren’t posting the pictures on Facebook). The parties to be at are Kinky Salon and After Pandora — self-policed, but governed by a strict etiquette, they are the most female-friendly places you could wish for, where everyone understands that “Yes” means “Yes” and “No” means “No”. And you don’t have to worry about it. Meanwhile, at Burning Nest in Wales — the UK chapter of Burning Man — an adult playroom full of what appear to be the most glorious, colourful creatures I have ever seen was attached to the dancefloor. And then there is this week’s Summer House weekend, a four-day “country retreat exploring intimacy and connection” — what the tabloids would call a sex festival — and the opposite of a one-night-stand because you don’t run away afterwards. It feels a bit like the 1960s again, but better because this time the grown-ups are in charge. I am recently single, and it’s going to be a delicious summer.
We all worry about our performance when we should be thinking about our pleasure
The first stop on my tour is a woman I feel instinctively knows what she’s talking about. Sue Newsome is the redoubtable co-founder of a school of tantra called Shakti Tantra. “The difference between an OK sex life and a fantastic sex life is when we know our sexual self and we have the confidence to be who we are,” she says. Yes! I think, that’s it.
How much do we all spend worrying about our performance when we should be thinking about our pleasure. But the question is: how on earth not to worry? I take the train to the first weekend of the Shakti Tantra women’s programme. I am very nervous. Sex is scary. Sex is personal.
Will the other women be leaping hausfraus in tie-dyed skirts? And what will they ask me to do? In fact, they are the same as you and me. Outwardly quite OK, they suspect there is a difference between who the world sees and who they really are.
The course is called “Invitation”, but should be called an “Invitation to shine, but first be really embarrassed”. Taking off my clothes in front of other women and telling them what I’m ashamed of and what I’m happy with is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also the most liberating. The climax of the weekend is a dance in front of everybody. It starts with everyone dressed up gorgeously. I think I’m going to collapse in terror until it’s my turn and I do my dance, take off my dress and my underwear so I’m naked and all these people can see everything. It’s a strange feeling, at once powerful and a relief. One by one everyone does it, and the atmosphere in the room is only tender. “It’s not about performing, it’s about dancing your naked truth,” says Newsome. “It’s to show that you can dance for yourself and still be appreciated.”
Well, I do, and it carries over into my life. The following week, I notice a profound change, one I would have collapsed in gratitude for when I was 18. It feels as if I’ve breached an invisible wall between me and the rest of the world. I don’t care any more about what anyone thinks of my body or whether I have a sexy walk. Now, it’s more about how sexy I feel. “When you get dressed, say, don’t think about what other people want you to wear. Ask yourself, how does my body want to be clothed?” says Newsome.
Lucy, one of my new friends from Shakti Tantra, introduces me to Sh!, the “female-focused” sex shop in Shoreditch where they’ll give you a nice cup of tea and not mind if you only touch the odd-looking toys. And I get a sex therapist. “A lot of people have therapists, but normal therapists don’t deal with sex. It’s the maddest thing,” Cowan says.
“Sex is the core thread of our existence,” says Ruby May, a sex educator and bodyworker who also runs an experimental “play” weekend called Elsewhere. “It takes courage to shine a light on it, but you’ve just got to cross that line.” Elsewhere turns out not to be an orgy. It’s like a party, but with extra joy, where pleasure is a constant but subjective thing, populated by a cast of characters being exactly who they want to be. I wake up that morning feeling like I’ve fallen in love. It turns out to be the best day, not because of notches on a bedpost (I don’t — well, not all the way), but because I spent it in an erotic bubble with 20 smart, kind and sober humans where they’re safe to be themselves and I get to be myself.
In the words of the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, I’ve started to master the art of following my bliss. Because it isn’t even about sex in the end, it’s about feeling like it’s OK to be me. “You know how when you start dating someone, you’ve got that glow?” says Lucy. “Well, you can tap into that in yourself, too. Nothing has changed in your external world, but you have this inner beacon.” You don’t need anyone else for that. It’s about being truly alive. That’s exactly the sexy we were talking about.