Last month, I spent my Saturday afternoon sitting across from another woman, eating a bar of chocolate while telling her about my wildest sexual fantasies. We had each been given a bar — one sweet, one salty. Then we were instructed to eat it while we described our sexual fantasies — like, for instance, a threesome with two men.
I was attending "Portal of the Feminine: A Workshop Designed for Women to Expand Their Erotic Potential and Those That Want to Pleasure Them" at Hacienda Villa, a sex-positive living community in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Hosted by integrative life coach Pamela Madsen, the event was what she described to me as "a microcosm of what happens at Back to the Body," her women-only retreat series, where women of all ages pay about $5,000 for a week in exotic locations such as South Africa, Barcelona and Tuscany.
I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting myself into when I said I would attend Portal of the Feminine — the Facebook invite only said that I would be "explor[ing] the Lotus Lift Meditation to tap into Arousal Energy to fuel [my] creativity." I wasn't aware that I would be asked to explore the lotus lift meditation in a robe, with one hand on my heart and the other on my vagina, as I was asked to repeat a mantra inspired by a Deepak Chopra meditation: "Who Am I, What Do I Want, What's in My Way?"
According to Madsen, she started Back to the Body in 2012, after leaving her job at the height of her career.
"I was the founder and director of the American Fertility Association. I was highly respected," she said. "Yes, I'd met Oprah. I'd been in Newsweek. But nobody was addressing a woman and her sexuality. There was no safe place."
So Madsen founded Back to the Body as "the first [workshop] of its kind where women are able to come and receive erotic touch."
"I was looking for a way of exploring my own sexuality in a way that wasn't 'cheating on my man,'" she told me. "I wanted to understand my body. I felt that there was so much more to my own eroticism and I didn't know how to find it."
"Nobody was addressing a woman and her sexuality."
When Madsen speaks of erotic touch, she is referring to what Back to the Body calls "sexological bodywork," which can involve "breathwork, conscious movement, touch, erotic massage, pelvic release bodywork, scar tissue remediation and Orgasmic Yoga coaching," according to a sexological bodywork resource.
According to the women who have attended Madsen's retreats, sexological bodywork involved them lying naked on a table in tents set up on the retreat site, while clothed bodyworkers "worked" on them in the style of their choosing, typically using digital penetration or sex toys. There is no kissing allowed, nor oral sex. Most of the time, the massage results in orgasm.
"They [the bodyworkers] are giving to you; you are not giving to them," Bonnie Gayle, 52, the founder of the personal lubricant brand Sex Butter and a frequent Back to the Body attendee, explained. "You're fully naked and they're not. You can really choose to do anything from just laying on the table and getting a massage, [or] they will use finger penetration with gloves on, or there are sex toys that they will use if you choose to do that."
When asked if sexological bodyworkers qualified as sex workers, Madsen said this was not the case. For starters, the body workers are fully licensed, and they stay clothed throughout the process: "It's not about 'two-way touch' or lover engagement. The touch is directed at the client and is not returned to the practitioner. It's about the healing needs of the client and includes the entire body, based on the comfort level of the client."
Sexological body workers also allow women to explore fantasies and role playing. "Every time I've gone I have experienced a little bit more of everything. So last time, I experienced some more dominance and submission, along with the shibari [a form of Japanese rope bondage]," Bonnie told Mic.
After a light lunch at Back to the Body in Bushwick, Madsen discarded her robe and stood front and center of the group. I was told that I didn't have to get naked, although since the other dozen or so women in attendance were doing so, I thought I might as well join. I participated in the "Body Story," where one by one, participants were asked to disrobe in front of the group and share the story of their body, their shame and their pleasure.
Madsen went first, sharing the story of her body — and vagina — as she sat naked in front of the class. She spoke of the parts of her body she loved and which parts gave her pleasure, sadness and guilt. At one point, she spread her legs to reveal the inside of her vagina.
One by one, the women in the group shared their stories. When it was my turn, I made a joke or two about being too lazy for laser hair removal, even though I'd bought a Groupon. I was naked, but unlike Madsen I kept my insides to myself.
I feel prudish saying this, but the Body Story exercise made me feel uncomfortable and even a little bit violated. Other than a Facebook message that went out the morning of the event asking us to bring a robe, the invite hadn't said anything about getting fully naked. I didn't know my naked body was going to be on display, and I hadn't expected to be shown the inside of another woman's vagina.
Madsen said there's a reason why she didn't mention the Body Story beforehand. "I often don't even tell them that they're going to get naked and tell their body stories in front of other women, because that's terrifying!" she told Mic. Bonnie confirmed: "When you go on the retreat you have no idea what to expect. I think that it's actually a good thing, because I think if I had known some of the things, I may not have been open to going," she told Mic.
I wasn't alone in finding the Body Story difficult. Bonnie told me that telling her body's story was the most difficult part of the retreat when she first attended back in 2012. You are exposing your vagina as you're telling your story. For me, that was the most challenging thing because I was not only exposing myself physically but I was exposing some of my deepest, darkest secrets," Bonnie told Mic.
Marta, 45, agreed. "The Body Story is definitely intense. And it never really gets less intense," she said. But clearly, both of them have overcome their discomfort: Marta has been to two Back to the Body retreats, and Bonnie has already put her deposit down for her fourth.
For most of the attendees, the discomfort over being naked in front of strangers is outweighed by the benefits of Back to the Body. Many reported that sharing their inner dialogue about both their pleasure and insecurities while naked helped them with body acceptance.
"Doing the Body Story and telling the body story... helps you walk around everyday and think, 'I'm just fine the way I am, I don't care about that roll, I don't care about that wrinkle,'" Marta told Mic.
For Bonnie, who was sexually assaulted when she was 16, Back to the Body has been nothing less than transformative in terms of helping her embrace her sexuality and focus on her own pleasure. "The huge draw [of Back to the Body] was I could be completely taken care of, and not have to do anything for anybody else," she said.
"'I'm just fine the way I am, I don't care about that roll, I don't care about that wrinkle.'"
Aside from the multiple orgasms, the women I spoke with said the relationships they built with other women was their favorite takeaway from the retreat.
"I don't have a lot of female friends and this network of women, we definitely shared something special. They've seen me at my rawest, post-orgasm self," Marta told Mic.
The next Back to the Body retreat, which is sold out, is in South Africa from March 15 to March 21. It costs about $5000. "We're going to go see the lions and then we're going to go back and be lions," Madsen told Mic. "They're going to get to dance naked under the African moon while men drum for them."
While many of the women I spoke with urged me to attend a retreat myself, I was hesitant: I found the $250 suggested donation for the Portal event to be daunting, let alone the thousands of dollars for a retreat. Yet all of the women urged me to dig deep into my wallet to find a way to make it happen.
"I went into debt to do it, but it was totally worth it," Marta told Mic.
And maybe for Marta, it truly was. In the "microcosm" I had experienced though, I learned enough to understand that Back to the Body wasn't for me, and I had really wished I had a better heads-up that I was going to be expected to get naked. But if women want to spend their money on a week in Africa, lying in a tent while coming their faces off, hey — more power to them.