Bringing desire into the light
Orgy. Hippies with whips, barefoot sadists, men being penetrated. Johanne Mygind has been to the Xplore Festival Copenhagen where distinctions are blurring and pure desire is the goal.
“It’s time to choose! Do you want to penetrate or be penetrated?”, shouted a tall, thin man with a ponytail. Energy levels were running scarily high when I arrived that evening for the Xplore Festival. I had no idea what to expect from the event subtitled a ‘Festival on the Art of Lust’ which was being held at the far end of Refshaleøen island in Copenhagen. I only knew that Xplore was started by the German choreographer Felix Ruckert in Berlin 14 years ago and that the festival has since been held all over Europe. I’d been told the presenters would be a wonderful mix of therapists, choreographers and sex workers, and that participants had been asked to bring yoga mats, towels, whips and strap-on dildos.
“Our festival is very much about giving permission. We tell participants they’re allowed to experiment, they have the right to try something new. It’s fascinating to see most of them eagerly grasping that opportunity. A thousand years’ taboos and conventions can melt away in a weekend. Another factor is that we hold our festivals during the day and in places where there is plenty of light. We don’t want to hide desire away in the dark of the night.” (Interview with Felix Ruckert, festival curator)
The festival had been going since 11 in the morning, and I’d missed workshops on the art of submission and how to mummify your lover in cling film. Now it was time for ‘Boys get fucked in the arse’ which the programme described as an exploration of the significance of penetration in the patriarchy. I imagined it would be mostly theoretical.
“All those who want to penetrate, over here!”, shouted a woman in incredibly high stiletto heels and a dark red wig. She glared at me before we went through the door together. We started by meditating in a circle, after which the room was divided into two. At one end, the men lay passive on the floor. At the other, strap-on dildos were handed out to the women and they were helped to put them on. Most of them had the same reaction as me: perplexed, confused and embarrassed by the powerful intruder we suddenly found in our crotch. When we were told to go over to the men’s group to let them admire our new cocks, it all became too much for me. I gave the dildo back to the woman in heels and scurried out the door. I could only guess what lay in store for the rest of the workshop.
“My workshop addresses one of our society’s most powerful taboos: the idea that men can be penetrated. I want to challenge the definitions of the two sexes and everything to do with them. The assumption that men are active and give penetration and women are passive and receive penetration, is so wrong. We can all assume different roles and try out different approaches and physical experiences. After my workshop, many men understand for the first time the vulnerability their lovers have felt after being penetrated. By contrast, women are amazed by their indifference after penetration and them wanting to go to sleep or else go out and penetrate somebody else.” (Interview with Nehra Stella, workshop leader)
By day Xplore seemed more like a yoga retreat than a sex fair. German health sandals, scuffed stilettos, black ankle boots and a few trainers were left at the entrance. Inside everyone was made to go barefoot. Some of the participants were artists, some were into bondage and domination, and some practised tantra and yoga. Many of them were dancers who took advantage of the breaks to whirl around the rooms shooting their legs up at unlikely angles. It was difficult to see who were friends and who were couples, and even harder to tell which gender they preferred. Most of the rooms had a view of the cranes over in Nordhavn, and the sun glistened on the water.
The next workshop was called ‘Anchor’ and the idea was to see what happens if you follow your desires and you have your partner’s support. The couples worked together in pairs. One person had to sit on the floor and clasp their hands around their partner’s body. The other had to reach out to the other ‘fish in the sea’. The atmosphere quickly became intense as the ‘anchors’ clung on to their partners as hard as they could. The participants exchanged hugs and cuddles and French kisses, and the ‘anchors’ desperately pulled at their partners. A dark-haired guy yanked his girlfriend back as she clutched another fish to her breasts.
“Now you must stop holding your partners back”, instructed the workshop leader. “Try to be an anchor who supports his partner so that she can feel safe and protected as she explores her desires.”
The fish swam out to sea again. This time the anchors looked on calmly while the fishes examined each other’s mouths, arms, lips and crotches, and eventually transformed into a heaving mass of more or less unclothed bodies.
“Monogamy is a construct that has been used to sustain production and uphold the right of property. At the same time, we know that the ideal of monogamy is seldom respected and therefore provokes incredible amounts of human drama. Jealousy is the cause of much violence and even murder. At Xplore, we encourage participants to be honest with their partners and true to themselves and their own desires. It’s not about being ‘authentic’ and finding your true self or your true love. It’s about being true to what you feel in the moment.” (Nehra Stella)
What the atmosphere at the festival most reminded me of was a school leavers’ party. The participants loved to kiss and hug each other. Some of them had bite marks on their arms or rope marks on their legs, and a blissful expression on their faces. It wasn’t as though they’d been pushing their boundaries, it was more like they had upped sticks and were now living in a completely different country.
The next workshop was about shamanic kink, which loosely translates as shamanistic sadomasochism, and this was one of the few presentations that were more theoretical than practical. Clad only in a loincloth, the presenter explained how bondage and sadomasochism had been practised in many cultures as a spiritual practice. He showed us pictures of his friend who is a Native American and has been using rituals from the Sun Dance of the Prairie Indians. There followed picture after picture of men dancing with pierced chests and jowls who actually did look like something out of an S/M party.
“In the native North American tradition, they don’t talk about sadists and masochists, but guides and travellers, because the effect of pain is to induce a state of trance”, the speaker said, and all eyes turned as he called upon his assistant in her black underwear.
He struck her on the chest and shoulders and red blotches spread across her skin.
“In Europe, we’re very happy to beat the buttocks”, he went on, “but in fact it’s up here on the chest that the heart chakra is located. That’s what we want to open up.”
Afterwards he asked us to get in a circle. We had to moan like you do when you’re in pain or having sex. People breathed deeper and deeper. It sounded like a collective orgasm or childbirth.
“Ritual ceremonies are very powerful because they let us do things we didn’t know we were capable of. When practising bondage or masochism, you’re allowed to experience feelings you wouldn’t otherwise know about. You’re allowed to endure pain, fear and submission, and then transcendence takes place. You turn pain and aggression into something pleasurable, which is far more positive than using them for war or some other act of violence.” (Felix Ruckert)
At 10 p.m. the play party finally got under way. Felix Ruckert entered in a floral granny dress and a white straw hat. Other people were dressed in leather or a silk kimono. A dark-haired woman of about 50 whipped a man in leather trousers to the beat of ambient tones from Germany, while a group of young ballet dancers danced around naked as if they were in a Matisse painting. In the lounge, a beautiful blonde nymph was hung up in red ropes. She moaned as she was slowly hoisted off the floor. In the café, six people were eating a huge chocolate cake.
I was reminded of the old Suzanne Brøgger quote “You can’t trust people who haven’t committed murder or been to an orgy”, and got a fit of the giggles. I was still laughing as I cycled home under the full moon.
Original title: ‘Lysten ud i lyset’
Author: Johanne Mygind / Translation: Kinkster in White
Published Weekendavisen, 11-18 August 2017