Erotic Massage Rituals

We met by the ocean in a warm, softly lit room scented with incense and filled with lulling music. We murmured blessings and invoked the divine. The atmosphere was similar to that of any house of worship. But the 20 women who gathered this spring at a Provincetown inn were enacting an erotic ritual that focuses on sexual energy as a form of spiritual devotion. The Post Modern Taoist Erotic Yoni Massage Ritual, as its creators call it, is not a new idea. The veneration of the female body as a symbol of renewal and transformation stretches back 30,000 years, to the earliest Paleolithic fertility goddesses. In Minoan Crete and ancient Sumer, the womb was celebrated in ecstatic rituals meant to spur the regeneration of the earth and the rebirth of the dead. In the Indian tantric tradition, sexual rites are intended to awaken the kundalini, or divine energy, which is associated with Shakti, the creative power of the Goddess. Across many cultures, our ancestors understood that sexuality was a conduit to knowledge and a link to the cosmos. An increasing number of intrepid women around the country use erotic massage to reclaim these traditions. Annie Sprinkle, the sexual pioneer and performance artist who led the Provincetown event, has been conducting these rituals around the country for several years. She and a small group of instructors are initiating women in a process of intimate touch and conscious breathing that follows the Chinese concept of sex as energy -- ching chi , the life force that opens the door to a higher level of consciousness. Yoni is the Sanskrit word for vulva, and a term favored by many feminist "pleasure activists." But yoni massage is not a free-for-all orgy or a female version of the circle jerk. ItÕs a guided ritual with its own structure and rules of decorum. Women collectively summon their female mojo as a tool for personal transformation and spiritual awakening. Once theyÕve gathered this force, participants say, they can dedicate it to their work, their art, whatever part of their lives they choose. One woman in the Provincetown group announced that she will use her erotic energy to overcome her fear of driving. Others said they will use the massage ritual to call up their creative muse or tend to the wounds in their flesh and spirit caused by sexual abuse. "It helps people move emotions and feelings that are blocked in their bodies," explains Collin Brown, director of the California-based Body Electric School, which promotes and organizes erotic-massage classes. (see sidebar, "Body Work: The Final Frontier?") "To have this energetic release opens people up to things they havenÕt been able to resolve in their lives." Sprinkle believes that the ritual inspires participants. "A focused and sexually awakened group of women is a divine and extremely powerful force," says this evangelist of erotica, who maintains that raising sexual energy contributes to the well-being of all life on earth. ItÕs also a heck of a way to spend the weekend.Massage oil and thou Deciding to attend an event that involves nudity and intimate touch is not easy. In a culture in which womenÕs sexuality is associated with sin, shame, guilt, bad jokes, and marketing strategies, even raising the topic in conversation can be tricky. When I first arrived, I wasnÕt exactly sure what I was getting into. I was just curious to see Annie Sprinkle push the envelope of erotic expression. Though the event took place in Provincetown, Mass., it wasnÕt just for lesbians. In fact, many of the women who attended the workshop were straight or bisexual. There were grandmothers, lesbian couples in their 30s, and straight women in their 20s. There was a nurse, an engineer, a computer programmer, an office manager, and an archaeologist. Most of the women had learned of the event through the catalogue of the Sirens Workshop Center -- and almost all of them were strangers to one another. The workshop was held at GabrielÕs bed-and-breakfast and cost $175 (not including room fees). Participants had been given some basic information about the ritual, and we were advised to bring sheets, towels, massage oils, a musical instrument, comfortable robes or sarongs -- and to get a short manicure. But the most demanding prerequisite was an open mind. Pursuing a ritual form of erotic spirituality independent of male partners is a social transgression. Women who revel in their sensuality, or even talk frankly about sex, still risk being viewed as immoral or perverted or promiscuous. Christians, as you may recall, blame Eve for the universal corruption of human beings. In the current sex-phobic political climate, sex education and erotic arts are under attack. Joycelyn Elders was fired after she made the sensible suggestion that teaching masturbation in schools might discourage young people from taking sexual partners too early. And Republican presidential candidates compete with one another to call for an end to abortion rights (witness the disintegration of Henry FosterÕs nomination) and deny women the opportunity to control their own bodies. Some people -- even some women -- may interpret the yoni-massage ritual as pornographic. Though itÕs true that men are often threatened by female erotic autonomy, the crusade against sexual expression is not just a gender war. Some feminists, angered by exploitative pornography, have entered into an alliance with right-wing supporters of censorship. Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and her collaborator, Andrea Dworkin, believe that battling porn is the central issue of feminism. But dismantling First Amendment rights is not in the interests of womenÕs erotica, which remains a prime target for censorship. Despite the prevailing anti-sexual climate, pleasure activists continue to agitate. According to Sprinkle, the key to a successful erotic ritual is to encourage collective trust and reassure participants that they will not be coerced. "The most important thing of all is to create an atmosphere where people feel safe and comfortable," she says. "Women need to have total control over whatÕs going to happen to them." From the moment we arrived in Provincetown, Sprinkle and her assistant, Shelly Mars, began to coax us out of our hesitancy. We set up an altar with ritual objects, including feathers and crystals, and started a series of stretches, meditations, and breathing exercises. Intoxicated with oxygen, we loosened up, embraced, and learned one anotherÕs names. The breathing alone brought a flood of emotion, and much time was spent telling stories about the joys and terrors of our sex lives. When Sprinkle asked how many of us had been sexually abused, about three-quarters of the group raised our hands. Fortunately, about the same percentage also knew where our G-spots were. I knew right then that we were going to have some serious fun.Sacred sisters The ritual took place in a large, carpeted dance space with plush amenities. During our first evening, we shed our inhibitions in the sauna, the steam room, and the hot tub. We were an abundant female landscape of the lush, the angular, the pierced, and the tattooed. Appreciating our own flesh as a source of pleasure and power is one of the lessons of the ritual. On the second day, Sprinkle inserted a speculum and invited us to look at her cervix, a compelling moment that was once a feature of her performance art. Our erotic cruise director, she was stunningly nonchalant, wore imaginative lingerie, and possessed a ribald sense of humor. One woman followed up by showing us her vulva, admitting that it was one of the scariest things she had ever done; we gathered around to admire what Sprinkle referred to as her "royal pinkness." Throughout the hugging and touching and looking and joking around, we kept asking, "Is this okay? Do you feel comfortable with this?" It was our courtship, and we treated one another with extreme gentleness. During the breaks, we sent out for pizza and roamed Provincetown together. We were becoming what Sprinkle calls "sacred sisters." By the third day, removing our clothes seemed natural. In preparation for the actual massage, Sprinkle led a discussion on practical issues of hygiene, safe sex, and body etiquette. Then she gave us a raucous new vocabulary to describe exactly how we wanted our yonis to be touched. Phrases like "The Doorbell," "The Crescent Moon," and "The Triple-Digit Pussy Pet" provoked fits of laughter. After a demonstration, we set up the massage tables. The women who led the blessing for the ritual borrowed from Native American and European Wiccan tradition, which celebrate female deities as symbols of regeneration. They invoked not God but the Goddess -- a symbol of earth-centered spirituality and the power of the feminine. Before beginning the massage, each of us took a moment to decide where we would dedicate the energy of the ritual. We then split into groups of three. Those designated as the first masseurs began by massaging the recipientÕs naked body with warm oil. With my first partner, I sensed an initial hesitation. "Does this feel good?" I asked her. "Do you feel comfortable? Safe? Respected?" She assured me that she was relaxed, and, as we were instructed, she requested specific types of touch. Her legs and shoulders needed firm massage; her arms, light strokes. I set to work, admiring the muscles, the softness, the textures and shapes of her body. I brushed her skin with my fingertips, circled her nipples, massaged her scalp, rocked her. Her face was blissful, which reassured me that I was on the right track. I didnÕt want to date her or meet her parents, I was simply there to attend to her. During the ritual, I took a moment to look up and watch straight women who were touching other women intimately for the first time. Their hesitation had given way to concentration and delight. What they were doing transcended any labels of sexual orientation: it was intuitive and simple and honest.Reclaiming the power After 20 minutes of full-body massage, we began what Sprinkle calls "waking up the neighborhood." This involved smooth movements over the abdomen, such as "Over Eggs Easy," where we rubbed our palms together to generate heat and then laid our hands over the ovary areas. Then we put on our sexy latex gloves and paid attention to the yoni. Moves included "The Heart/Pussy Palm Rest," where one hand rests over the heart and the other over the vulva; "Pussy Petting," where the vulva is petted with long, slow strokes; and "The Tour de France," where the forefinger is orbited between the inner and outer labia. Attention then shifted to the clitoris, where one of the most popular techniques (judging from the volume level in the room) is "Rock Around the Clit Clock." This involves making tiny circles around the clitoris with the forefinger stopping at each of the 12 "hours." Two p.m., my partner told me in no uncertain terms, is an excellent time of day. Sprinkle then announced that this was a good moment to ask your sacred sister if sheÕd like you to enter her "temple gates." My sacred sister, who had been making increasingly loud, ecstatic moaning sounds, indicated that this was a fine idea. I took a deep breath and went to work. Attending to my partnerÕs inner sanctum began with "The Temple Gate Tease," and then progressed to gentle interior exploration, with one hand remaining on her heart. I tried out techniques like "The Four Directions" and "Massaging the Goddess Spot." Use your imagination. Throughout the ritual, the second masseuse attended to other areas of the womanÕs body, moving the energy from her yoni, spreading it down her thighs and legs, up her body, and out the top of her head. "A lot of times when people are being sexual, all their sexual energy stays in the pussy," said Sprinkle, who flitted around the room admonishing us to "breathe, breathe, breathe, pussy to the heart, breathe, breathe, breathe." We found ourselves moving in time with the music, which included chanting, percussion, and ethereal vocal selections on tape. Sprinkle, Mars, and other attendants wandered over to play hand cymbals, anoint my sacred sister with water, and waft incense. Toward the end of the yoni-massage portion of ritual, we all seemed to enter into an altered state of consciousness. Women in the room were moaning, laughing, sighing, sobbing, and shrieking with pleasure. My partner began emitting long keening sounds that built in volume and pitch. Moving our sacred sisters to rapture felt like a great common effort, a divine act that we undertook with a sense of responsibility. After 40 minutes of continuous yoni massage, we prepared for "The Big Draw." We stepped away from the massage table and invited our sacred sister to take 10 deep breaths. She held the last breath, tensed her entire body, tightened her fists, flexed her feet, squinched up her face, and lifted her head, legs, and shoulders. Then she let go. The first time we did this, I fully expected that the collective release of energy would create a massive offshore tidal force. Perhaps it did. As my partner released her personal tsunami wave, we did not speak or touch. I gently folded the edges of a sheet over her body. Then the second masseuse and I stood next to her, sending out blessings to initiates. I looked around the by-now darkened room and saw women standing protectively over their partners, guarding their journeys. After a half hour of a silent vigil, we slowly opened our partnerÕs cocoon, toweled off the oil, helped her sit up, and offered her chocolate. Our sacred sisters were transformed. They looked damp and ecstatic, like newborns. Some women chose to speak. "So this is what the ancient priestesses did in their temples," said one. We laughed and led our charges gently to the shower. When my turn arrived, I surrendered my self-consciousness and drifted off on waves of sensation. Linear time collapsed when I concentrated on the rise and fall of my breath. After my masseurs wrapped the sheet around me, I sensed that my soul was carried away to some primal state of grace. I felt the cool finality of death and -- when the cocoon was opened -- the sweetness of physical resurrection. Other women who attended the ritual spoke of the process as a journey into the underworld, from which they emerged renewed. In many faiths, worshippers look to male prophets, priests, or a male savior for transcendence. But erotic ritual gives women the power of personal transformation and comfort in the spiritual realm. We were converts.More spiritual than sexual Most women said they were awed that a group of strangers could elicit so much profound feeling in three days. Others found the intensity of the experience overwhelming. One of the women who attended the ritual did not want her genitals touched; she felt she hadnÕt been adequately informed about the intimacy of the event. Her request was respected. Sprinkle acknowledges that the ritual is not for everyone; she says itÕs only for certain people at certain stages in their sexual evolution. For those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of attending a ritual, she suggests purchasing her video called Fire in the Valley, due out this winter. In our closing conversations, many women who participated recalled the tenderness with which they had been touched. Several said they expected to climax quickly, given the sensuous nature of the massage, but discovered that the experience was more spiritual than sexual. Others spoke of renewed energy and clarity. "It was empowering and transformational," said one participant. "It made me realize there is so much more to my sexuality than just plain fucking." The feminist social theorist Susie Bright refers to the flowering of womenÕs sexual expression as an "erotic democracy" that promotes images of autonomous female pleasure. She observes that women are hungry for sexual knowledge -- whether or not itÕs connected to the traditions of love, marriage, and commitment. "Fifty years ago we would all be arrested," says Sprinkle. "Now the freedom is here." SIDEBAR 1: The co-ed optionSome erotic visionaries are creating rituals that give men and women an opportunity to exchange erotic energy. Liza Gabriel, who has worked with Annie Sprinkle and other members of the Body Electric School, led a retreat this spring in Western Massachusetts to create an erotic tribal community. Somehow the thought of attending such an event didnÕt seem so outrageous to me after participating in the yoni massage. The weekend-long ritual -- which cultivated forms of sensual expression that donÕt focus on intercourse and orgasm -- focused on raising sexual energy within a group and exploring the idea of polyamory, i.e., having erotic experiences with more than one partner. Participants agreed to a specific set of principles. We pledged to listen without judgment, speak honestly, and take full responsibility for the impact of our words and actions. As with the yoni-massage ritual, we took time to get to know all members of the group, embracing them, looking into their eyes, and touching where it was appropriate. We removed one anotherÕs clothing, and Gabriel led us in ecstatic dancing and breathing exercises. Later, we lounged around on pillows and exchanged new interpretations of tribe, family, and community. (I was skeptical. But since that weekend, IÕve watched as participants actually formed such groups.) Gabriel believes that erotic ritual is an expression of religious freedom. But she acknowledges that it is often difficult for women to imagine that they are going to be naked with men and not be preyed upon. Men, too, are uncomfortable with the thought of removing their clothes in a group setting. Gabriel, who describes herself as a fierce protector of sacred space, says she screens workshop participants over the phone and has turned down people whom she felt had the wrong motivations. Though the tribal ritual is supposed to make an erotic experience "safe," sexuality, in its own right, is not safe. According to Gabriel, if you embrace the idea that sexuality is power, you must be prepared to experience its darker side. "I donÕt want anyone thinking thereÕs no real danger in power, because there is no real power without danger," says Gabriel, who helps participants develop a common language to deal with fear and jealousy. The climax of the weekend (pun intended) was a self-pleasuring ritual in which members of the group staked out their own space in a large room and collectively masturbated. Collin Brown, director of the Body Electric School, says overcoming the taboo of masturbation is important because the foundation for strong erotic identity comes from accepting oneÕs own body, not relying on the approval of a partner. Despite the prevailing notion that exploring sexuality leads immediately to promiscuity, the ritual simply allows for an exchange of erotic energy outside the standard duet of romance, foreplay, and genital sex. In truth, Gabriel says, becoming more attuned to your own sexual energy may mean you direct it in other ways -- and may even mean you have less sex. "When you take the mantle of your own sexual power seriously," says Gabriel, "you use it more wisely."-- AHSIDEBAR 2: Bodywork--The last frontier?The yoni-massage ritual draws upon ancient practices from a variety of cultures. But the new interpretation of erotic massage is the brainchild of Joseph Kramer, a professional masseur and founder of the Body Electric School, in Oakland, California. The school has been leading erotic-massage rituals for men since 1988. It now offers erotic massage for women and couples through its Celebrating the Body Erotic workshop series. Though yoni massage is often experienced as a spiritual ritual, the erotic-massage workshops at the Body Electric School are more secular. Kramer created the massage technique largely as a way to help gay men rediscover the joy of sex and intimacy in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Graduates of the Body Electric School work with men threatened by or diagnosed with HIV who need touch to ease the terror of the epidemic. Some of the schoolÕs therapists, known as "sacred intimates," provide massage and bodywork for terminally ill people right up to the moment of death. Two years ago, Kramer teamed up with Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker and porn star who has become AmericaÕs renaissance woman of erotica. Sprinkle gained national fame for her theater performances, which included an ecstasy ritual called "Temple of the Sacred Prostitute." ("Sacred prostitute" is a 19th-century term for the hierodule, the priestess in ancient religions who conducted ritual sexual acts to ensure the continuation of the life force.) In her ecstasy ritual, Sprinkle recounted the history of sacred sexuality while she pleasured herself onstage with a vibrator and undulating before a bowl of fire. Her performance videos are shown in New YorkÕs Whitney Museum, and she recently photographed 54 women pleasure activists for a deck of playing cards. Kramer and Sprinkle combined their experience in the erotic arts to create the yoni-massage ritual for women. They based their work on the premise that the body and the breath provide a direct link to our deepest energy, emotions, and spiritual being. But some changes were made. In the menÕs erotic-massage ritual, masseurs switch partners seven times, spending 10 minutes with each man. According to Kramer and Sprinkle, women are less comfortable making these rapid transitions, and have a strong desire to stay connected to one person. Sprinkle predicts that the ritual will eventually move into the mainstream. "My hope is that [erotic massage] will replace Christianity," says Sprinkle. "All those churches would make beautiful places to do this work. They have such great real estate." Sprinkle conducts only a handful of yoni-massage events each year. The bulk of the work is being carried forward by other members of the Body Electric School. Massage therapists Isa Magdalena and her partner, P.K. Kozel, led a yoni-massage ritual at Touchstone Farm, in Easthampton, this spring. Magdalena, who has worked with Kramer, Sprinkle, and sex pioneer Willem de Ridder, directs groups through XOX, a bodywork business she runs with Kozel. "The body never lies," says Magdalena, who believes that emotions and memories can be accessed through touch. "You can talk about a feeling forever, but the only way to get in touch with it is to feel. Words are not touch, touch is not words." Collin Brown, director of the Body Electric School, agrees. He says that traditional psychotherapy is failing because it does not acknowledge the physical plane. "I feel on some level, bodywork is the last frontier," says Brown, who maintains that two hours of intensive massage is more effective than six months of therapy. He says this is particularly true of people recovering from sexual abuse or depression. Unlike medications like Prozac, which numb the pain, says Brown, massage allows you to live in your feelings and move through them physically. According to Magdalena, many women cry at the rituals when they discover they no longer have to hold themselves back. She says, "Our social system is based on obedience, and keeping womenÕs sexuality and emotions in check is part of that."-- AH

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