The Transformative Power of the Erotic
Felix Ruckert, the founder of Xplore, was in Denmark on a ‘Living Room Tour’ to talk about sexpositive spaces in the Spring of 2018. I was lucky enough to be there – Felix was very inspiring to listen to. I’m a psychologist with a lot of theoretical knowledge, but only little hands on experience, in sexual subcultures. At the moment I’m specializing in systemic sex therapy, and the more I work with sexology, the more I realize I would like to connect the academic world of clinical sexology with sexual subcultures. Also, in my line of work, we must be astutely aware of our own sexuality and try to understand our own values and attitudes related to sex. While that may be challenging (do we ever stop learning?), we are recommended to explore as much about ourselves as possible. Special ‘Sexual Self Acknowledgement’ courses are taught, also called ‘Sexual Attitude Reassessment’ workshops. These can help a psychotherapist become desensitized to sexual material and help the person learn about their own sexuality, which is immensely important when working with others. You need to think about your own morals and values, as well as realize and challenge your own prejudices. So when I met Felix the first time, and he asked me if I would like to join the Xplore event in Berlin and write a review from the beginners perspective, I jumped at the chance.
Research has shown that people who engage in sexual subcultures, like fx the BDSM community, are prone to be more extrovert and psychologically more well-balanced people, quite to the contrary of popular beliefs and also opposite to the old, pathologizing, view of BDSM practices from the clinical world. We also know that sexuality is more than mere intercourse, although the old sex therapy school mostly is about performance, focusing on whether or not the ‘tools’ work (i.e. erection and lubrication). Also, since the emergence of PDH-5 inhibitors like Viagra, sex therapy is still heavily influenced by a medical perspective.
However, a new perspective is slowly emerging in the field of sex therapy, that goes beyond just looking at the possibility of having intercourse. An example of this could be when psychologist and sex therapist Ulrich Clement coined the phrase ‘a mans potency starts where his erection stops’. Sex nowadays is seen as more than a drive; sex is also a resource, a playground, a place of healing, and even tranformation, especially if done under the right set of circumstances. This is not to say that sex can’t be dark, scary and agressive, nor that sex will automatically lead to healing if one has experienced trauma. But the transformative power of sex is there, and we should start talking more about it in the clinical field. When the focus is solely on performance, coitus and orgasm, we forego the chance to delve deeper into the exploration of the erotic dimension of a person, which also entails the persons sexual history, their longings, hopes and phantasies. A good place to start can be by attending the Xplore festival, because with its vast array of workshops and playspaces, the festival offers you the chance to reflect more on the uniqueness of your own sexuality.
The theme this year was ‘Shit happens’, which can lead to many different associations. For me, it meant keeping an open mind, not planning too much ahead, and knowing that if anything didn’t go according to how I’d like it, well, there was this years theme to remind me that it’s okay – shit just happens. As far as I could read on the website, sexy or comfortable clothes would be suitable, and since Berlin was sweltering hot during the summer of ’18, it wasn’t that hard to figure out what to wear – not a lot. The Xplore website also recommended to bring a towel or two, a yoga mat, some disinfectant spray and plastic gloves. Furthermore, the whole program was available to study beforehand, so I started making some plans for which workshops to visit, and which spaces to explore.
Friday morning, as I was getting ready to go, I could feel myself getting nervous, not really knowing what was going to be in store for me. But I reminded myself that surely there must be a lot of interesting people and exciting days ahead, and that the guidelines for the whole three days was safe, sane and consensual. So I really didn’t have to be anxious, nothing would happen that I wouldn’t want, or at least I could say stop at any given moment. Also, if I want to build bridges between the academic world and the sexual subcultures, I had to take a first step. The perspective of the beginners mind, I thought to myself, is a luxury, a one-time-only experience. So with that little cognitive push, I stepped out of my own comfort zone, and into the world of Xplore.
On arrival, there were a bunch of people from a BDSM group from a
town far away from Berlin, whom I got talking to, and was invited to
drink a coffee with. Having experienced the friendliness of these
strangers, I felt more courageous and went into the beautiful buildings
where this years Xplore was held. The first workshop I attended was on
consent, which was interesting and not too much out of my comfort zone .
I learned interesting things, there was a good demonstration, helpful
exercises and I was grateful for the slow start. This workshop really
couldn’t have been a better introduction to the following days. Also,
someone from the ‘Insecurity team’ introduced the concept of the team,
which made me feel more relaxed and more confident about the days ahead.
Everything seemed to be taken care of, even the possible discomfort of
inexperienced people like myself.
Since I was still too nervous to go into any of the playrooms, I decided to attend a workshop on cling film the same day.
If you have never imagined doing anything else than keeping food fresh with cling film, this workshop would blow your mind. It started with a spectacular demonstration of the teacher wrapping her assistant up, basically a mummification ritual paired with sexual play for the both of them. I was completely spellbound, the demo was beautiful and at the same time the teacher brought up details like consent, different ideas on how to please the wrapped one and/or yourself, that included a vibrator and a bit of breath play, and as an extra plus the teacher had a great sense of humor. After the demo we had an hour to play, while the teacher and her assistant were there to guide us or comment if anyone had questions.
The way Xplore is set up, is that you can really go anywhere and hang out, or do whatever you please in your own pace. There are different areas, places you can go to chill out, play, or give/receive massages, you name it. I was taking it all in, unsure where to go and what to do the next days. I thought how nice it would be to know some of the people there, or to come with a little group of friends, whom you could meet up with now and again to swap experiences or have lunch with. Being a bit uncertain, and not cool enough to just go into the playrooms to see what happens, I ended up joining more workshops.
One was about experiencing a physical disability, which I thought was an interesting idea. It ended up pushing me completely out of my comfort zone, not because of the physical disability, I liked that part a lot. What was challenging for me was finding a partner to pair up with. We had to do it in silence, only using eye contact, and I realized this was nothing for me. We had to stand in silence for 4 full minutes, which is a really long time if you’re uncomfortable. Luckily, a friendly face appeared, someone approached me slowly and calmly, and I felt relieved. Next step in the workshop was that everyone got to choose their disability, and mine was not having any arms. So my partner tied me up, and suddenly I was just a torso with legs and a head. Then we had to try and seduce our partners, and it felt quite strange to do this with someone I didn’t know at all. My partner and I were both new to Xplore and alone, so we had that in common, but that was about it. It was an all right session, but when we discussed it afterwards, she mentioned the fact that most people in the workshop seemed to be couples. Later that day I saw a few of the people again and so I asked: some were couples, some weren’t, but already knew each other. It seemed only a few of us were completely alone, which could explain the weird four minutes of trying to choose someone. Maybe it was also just me having to learn how to navigate in a sexual room full of strangers, with only little experience with this kind of environment.
The last workshop I decided on during this years Xplore was on single-tail whipping. The demo was shocking and beautiful at the same time, the master whipping his subject delicately but also violently. Some people left, other people moved closer – I guess one persons turn-off is another persons turn-on. The demo involved showing the uses of a single-tail whip, which can be silent, loud, used as a tool to embrace, or to gag, and obviously, to whip the hell out of someone. The teacher talked about the anatomy of the single-tail whip, and the dangers, as well as the pleasures this tool can provide. It was very interesting, and almost hypnotizing to watch.
At a later point during the festival, as I was gathering courage to enter the School of Love, I met the whip master and his subject, and we ended up having a very interesting conversation about whipping, but also about playing with electricity. After a few more pleasantries, they asked if I wanted to join them in the silent space for an electroplay demonstration. So I did, and it was awesome! Finally I had someone to join in the silent space, and I had a great time. Also, I’m very grateful for the time they took out of their day to show me, instruct me, and play with me. I felt empowered (pun intended).
As the end of the festival was nearing, I thought about a few new things I had learned about myself. I had discovered sides of myself that I almost certainly wouldn’t have found out about, or not this quickly, and although the festival is about lust, not therapy, the feeling sometimes came quite close. As long as you follow the guidelines of safe, sane and consensual, this is the place to drop all pretense, open your mind, and go deep.
The question who you are, and who you want to be sexually, is a question you can ask yourself again and again. At Xplore, one is invited to play, and you can try out different roles, different kinds of behaviour, without shame and without disapproval. Unless you break the consensus rule, that is. Although feeling naked and sometimes almost helpless, I still felt very safe in the environment of Xplore. No unwanted touching, a very respectful attitude towards all others, and a welcoming atmosphere, even if you are not entirely sure you want to participate on all levels, is really what struck me about this festival. The way one can also start reflecting about oneself is an enormous gift that attending Xplore brought, and that I don’t really know where else you can get – being surrounded by so many sexpositive people creates a special atmosphere. Also, throughout the three days, thoughts and memories from my own life popped up that I had forgotten about, and gave me a lot of food for thought. This may well be what psychologists like Peggy Kleinplatz and Jack Morin call the ‘transformative power of the erotic’, and since Felix Ruckert is apt at choosing very talented people to teach at Xplore, the capable hands and great knowledge one is surrounded with, means you can really let go.
Before leaving the festival, I talked to Felix Ruckert again, who told me it was a typical beginners thing, to mostly join workshops. People who’ve been to Xplore often, will almost certainly start with heading for the play rooms, spending a lot of their time there, and maybe just attend two workshops in the course of the three days. More food for thought.
I can only give the Xplore festival a very warm recommendation to anyone who is considering delving into the realm of sexology. And to Felix and the whole team behind Xplore: Dankeschön!
Karina Kehlet Lins
Clinical psychologist & sex therapist
(Berlin, Oct 2018)