Birds do it. Bees do it. Only humans take
workshops about it. 

"Want to see a perfect male body?" Stan Dale asks the sixty-odd participants in his "Sex, Love, and Intimacy" workshop. Sixty heads scan the room. An equal number of men and women -- most of them naked or nearly so -- sit, lie, or sprawl on the carpeted floor of a cozy wood-paneled resort lodge in northern California, wondering which specimen of virile pulchritude the teacher will anoint. Could he be thinking of the curly-haired surfer from Santa Cruz? The long-haired, multiply-tattooed, blissed-out hippie child?

"Here it is!" Dale struggles out of his seat and stands in front of the
room with his arms outstretched. He does a slow spin so everyone can take a good look at his pale, round, 63-year-old body. His beard is gray, and so is what's left of his hair. He has watery blue eyes behind thick bifocals. His teeny weenie practically disappears underneath the flabby belly that hangs down from his hips.  

Anne Watts, Dale's co-teacher for the weekend workshop, beams up at him
from the next chair. Big bright eyes, big smile, big gleaming teeth -- she reminds me of some Disney cartoon animal, maybe a goldfish. She's got little hands and little feet, and in height she's tiny, not more than 5-foot-3. But her breasts are huge, her thighs are immense, her buttocks positively elephantine. 

Okay, I'll admit it. At the beginning of the workshop, I take one look
at these two, and here's what goes on in my mind: "Colonel Sanders and Miss Piggy are going to teach me about sex, love, and intimacy? I don't think so." Yet at the end of the weekend, I walk away convinced that she's The Goddess and he is Love Personified.  

Of course, by then I've had a few adventures of my own. I've inspected
four different vaginas. I've definitively established where the clitoris is located -- for a 38-year-old homo, better late than never. I've spent the night with a married couple. And I've made friends with a 350-pound woman in a wheelchair. 

Not bad for a weekend's work, n'est-ce pas?

Birds do it. Bees do it. Only humans take workshops to find out if they're
doing it right. That's at least partly why 30,000 people have taken some version of Stan Dale's "Sex, Love, and Intimacy" workshop since he first started doing it in 1968. Back then, Dale was a Chicago DJ ("Stan the All Night Record Man") and talk-radio personality dabbling in transactional analysis. Chalk talks in hotel conference rooms led to weekends in private homes where the clothes could come off. But the workshop really took root when Dale moved to California, Land of the Hot Tub, with his wife Helen and their four sons in 1974. For the last 14 years, Dale's Human Awareness Institute has presented its workshops at Harbin Hot Springs, a 1100-acre clothing-optional sanctuary two and a half hours north of San Francisco. This year the staff of HAI -- pronounced "Hai," like the Japanese word for yes and the Hebrew word for life -- will put on 27 workshops at Harbin and another 20 or so in Los Angeles, Michigan, New England, Australia, and Japan. 

The workshop draws an audience almost entirely through word-of- mouth,
which is how I learned about it. Over a long catching-up-on- our-lives dinner in San Francisco, I regaled my hard-boiled writer friend Sandra with tales of hanging out with Robert Bly and the Radical Faeries, my yoga meditation retreats and my all-male trainings in tantric sex. She surprised me by confessing her own "shvindoo" escapades, including this nude workshop for men and women exploring the overlap between sex and spirituality. My friend Chuck, a flight attendant and former Mormon missionary, confirmed the spiritual bent of the Stan Dale workshop and recommended it highly, though being a diehard cocksucker like myself, he added, "After about six hours, I wanted the women to put their clothes back on." 

Trekking through men's gatherings and communing with seekers for the
last few years, I've noticed the same questions popping up again and again: what does it mean to be a man? how do I find purpose in my life? how can I make peace with my spiritual yearnings if organized religion makes me want to hurl? I've also noticed that sooner or later all these roads lead to sex. Sex as a source of power, of pleasure, of divine mystery. Yet in the Wonderful World of Workshops -- that all-purpose paradise for baby boomers who have considered suicide when cable TV was not enough -- sex is still the last taboo. 

Actual hands-on sex, that is. Of course, you can talk about
relationships 'til you're blue in the balls. You can giggle at Dr. Ruth. You can get into massage and all kinds of bodywork -- O Feldenkrais, yes! Qi Gong, right this way. That stuff is as acceptable and ubiquitous as healing the inner child and swimming with dolphins. All major credit cards accepted. But sex work is off the map, just past where it says "Here be dragons." Why? You can talk circuitously about centuries of Judeo-Christian puritanism and capitalist society's need to control citizens through sex-negative conditioning, or you can cut to the chase: AIDS. 

A few brave pioneers have refused to accept AIDS and erotophobia as
insurmountable obstacles and hung out shingles as sex educators. Betty Dodson has been teaching women the fine art of pleasuring themselves for a couple of decades now. Former pornstar Annie Sprinkle has recently joined the field with her "Sluts and Goddesses Workshop." Ex-Jesuit Joseph Kramer founded the Body Electric School in Oakland, which offers classes to men in erotic massage and sexual healing techniques. But those classes are all segregated by sex. What intrigued me most about this Stan Dale person was that, outside of the radical leathersex community, his were the first ongoing sex workshops I'd come across that were coed. 

When I spoke to Dale on the phone, he was quick to reassure me that the
workshop was "not an orgy." First disappointment. Slap horns on me and call me satyr, but as a veteran of the New York gay safe-sex underground and partner in a 14-year non-monogamous relationship, I'm always down for getting naked and sweaty in groups. Willing to expand my skills, too. Something Sandra told me suggested this workshop might be an ideal opportunity for a game fag to acquire some expertise in eating pussy. Second disappointment. "No tongues, no lube, no penetration" would be one of the weekend's unspoken mantras. Since I'd never read anything about Dale or the Human Awareness Institute, it didn't surprise me to find him hungry for publicity. After extracting a promise not to reveal names of participants or specific exercises, he said, "I trust that you'll write favorably about the workshop."  

"Actually," I said, "my interest is in writing honestly about it."

"If you write honestly about it, I'm sure you'll write favorably," he
This man is dangerously naive, I thought.

"SEXS OK" reads the license plate of the white Subaru that pulls up to the
conference center in front of me on Friday afternoon. Two smiling roly-poly people get out. They remind me of my Midwestern aunts and uncles. I correctly intuit that this must be Dale and his wife Helen.  

"Are you a hugger?" are his first words to me. Like I'm going to say no,
right? He gets a perfunctory I'm-friendly-but-I-don't-know-you squeeze from me. Helen takes my money and assigns me a numbered plastic coffee mug for the weekend. I have a couple of hours to kill, so I tour Harbin Hot Springs, soaking up the last few rays before the sun disappears over the hill and thinking very spiritual thoughts about the callipygian gentlemen climbing in and out of the hot tubs. I pass the spa's general store, where a couple of young Deadheads listen to reggae tapes while selling snacks and New Age books; on the bulletin board are posted Polaroids of new residents with names like Cat, Barnacle, and Dugbunny. 

When I get back to the workshop site, the first order of business is
dinner, which is like a college mixer. What's your name where ya from howdja hear about the workshop. It's an attractive group, regular folks in their thirties, a few men in their 50s or 60s, one woman with salt-and-pepper hair and the kind face of an ex-nun. One mainland Chinese, one Native American, no Negroes. The $300 fee (for two days and two nights) undoubtedly plays some part in explaining who's here. Every second person seems to be named Susan or Michael. 

I chat with shy Jenny, whom I assume to be a dyke only because she looks
like an even prettier k.d. lang, and a vivacious, super-Californian couple, kinky-haired blond Miranda and swarthy Sam, who teach workshops on racism to kids in the East Bay. Tatiana, a tall, tan woman with feathers braided into her hair, turns out to have taken all six levels of the "Sex, Love, and Intimacy" workshop and keeps coming back for more. Only two other queers I can spot, white-haired Jay and his baby-faced Israeli lover Rennie. An engaging young woman named Joanne who can rival Al Gore for smart talk about sustainable communities turns out to be an elected official in a chic north-coast town who, for political reasons, has to keep quiet about going to pagan ceremonies and nude workshops. 

After dinner the two facilitators introduce themselves. Stan gives a
precis of his radio career and the history of the workshop. Anne started out as a participant in the workshop nine years ago. But in addition to teacher training, she has a prestigious background of her own; her grandmother was the first American woman to be ordained a Zen priest, and her father was the philosopher Alan Watts, whose writings brought Zen Buddhism to a wide American audience. That must be why she waves her little hands and says "Yay!" a lot. Together, Stan and Anne lay out the ground rules for the weekend. Trust. Risk. Keep your sense of humor. Be present. Include yourself; don't isolate. Park your "comfort zone" at the door. Use the workshop as a lab to try on new behavior. Ask for 100% of what you want 100% of the time; be willing to hear no; negotiate for a win-win solution. Most of all, Anne emphasizes, "This workshop is about choice." Don't do anything you don't want to do.  

"You're here," Stan advises, "to be revered."

Without further ado, we form a big circle and plunge into the first
exercise of the workshop, making maximum use of our primary sex organs.  

I'm talking, of course, about our eyes.
Once we're standing so we can see everybody else in the room, the selection process inevitably kicks in: who is The One for me? And all the judgments begin. Ugh, he/she's way too fat. Bag that face. She/he's never going to look at me, so don't even bother looking that direction. Some enchanted evening.... 

We form two circles facing each other. We put one hand over our hearts,
then open it to our partner palm up. Clasp hands, and kiss the other person's hand, making eye contact -- then step to the left and begin again with a new partner. So simple. So courtly. So corny. The most rigid rule-followers stand at attention, hand over heart, like they're about to say the pledge of allegiance. 

And yet -- diving into this sea of eyes is like slipping into another
dimension. Something ancient in there reflects something ancient in you. You get a glimpse of stuff that doesn't necessarily show on the outside. Animal grace. Mountain wildness. Sheer terror. Mischievousness. Each pair a little different. "The eyes are the landing strip of the heart," Stan coaches. I keep thinking of that dreamy Laurie Anderson song where she keeps repeating, "Your eyes...it's a day's work just looking into them." Is this sex? It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that this exercise is the cornerstone of the workshop. Direct eye contact, especially with strangers, is always loaded. You look, they look, you both look away quickly. Even when there's mutual attraction, it's sometimes hard to tell lust from hostility. Permission to look in someone else's eyes, what the Sufis call "the glance of love," is definitely the beginning if not of sex then certainly of intimacy, which Stan Dale translates as "Into-me-you-see." All weekend long we do exercises in groups of two, three, four, and six with different levels of closeness and touching, but all of them start out from and return to the eyes, 'til you think you're going to get dizzy and fall down. 

Stan tells a story about a truckdriver who delivers a huge block of
marble to a sculptor. A week later he returns to find a magnificent stone angel in its place. "How did you do that?" asks the truckdriver. "Easy," says the sculptor. "All I had to do was brush away the bits and pieces that weren't the angel." 

As we move around the circle, Stan urges, "Look for the angel behind
these eyes." He defines angel as "a messenger of love" or "a servant of God." A little trendy, this angel talk, but it doesn't bother me too much. I'm not that cynical or I wouldn't be here, would I? But when he strays farther into New Age bibble-babble and starts talking about "the Star Child" in each of us, even my gag reflex kicks in. 

If the first night's eye-gazing gives us a sneak preview of the angels
in our midst, the next day when we get naked the room really fills up with spirits -- angels and demons both. At the first invitation to strip down, everybody does except for one woman who bursts into tears and won't drop a stitch. Cool, babe. There's plenty of card-carrying nudists and exhibitionists to make up for the modest. I don't mind baring my hairy butt. I notice, though, that by the end of the workshop more and more people have retrieved some shred of cover-up, most but not all of them women.  

The atmosphere is innocent and fun. Still, judgments run riot. Only this
time the critical eye looks inward. If someone's looks makes it hard for you to relate to them, chances are you've got issues about your own body. At this workshop all the standard forms of self-loathing rear their ugly heads. Danny, a handsome, bearded folksinger who everyone can see has already fallen madly in love with a quiet waif named Kwan-Chi, stands up and confesses that he's always felt like his dick was too small. Karen, the quintessential fat-girl-with-a- nice-face, weeps at her inability to look at herself in the mirror below the neck. Before you can say "Get over it, girlfriend!" the facilitators thrust upon her a hand mirror and have her practice saying "I love my belly! I love my thighs!" in front of the whole room. 

Body hatred -- it's the pink elephant in the corner that you're not
supposed to notice. As if that very metaphor has occurred to him, Stan Dale suddenly gets up and walks to the back of the room where Sue-Ellen sits. This enormous woman with long brown hair, blue eyes, and a sweet smile has been parked in her wheelchair, wearing a loose blue dress, all day long without saying boo. 

"Look at this woman," he says to the assembly. "This person is in this
body for a reason. She may not know that reason. You may not either. But I want you to come close. Look at her. Touch her." The room moves in waves to surround Sue-Ellen, sitting or kneeling at her feet, standing behind her, standing in front. There's an awkward sense of circus sideshow here -- here we are, staring at the freak. This is not exactly who you expect to meet at a "Sex, Love, and Intimacy" workshop. If you're shopping for a mate or a model of successful sexuality, this is probably the funhouse mirror opposite of what you think you're looking for. At the same time, this feels like a scene out of some cartoon fable where all the members of the animal kingdom -- squirrels, rabbits, foxes, deer, owls -- come out of the woods to gather in worship around The Mother of Us All. Sue-Ellen starts bawling. Her sobs grow raw and rattle the room. Then they subside. "I've never felt more loved in my life," she says. "And I've never felt more wounded."  

"How can we give you what you want?" Stan asks.

"This is it for now," she says. She composes herself and says, "I've had
a lot of near-death experiences, and I know that the only thing that matters is what's inside, under the surface. And I have a lot of rage at the media for not even suggesting that you look below the surface." 

"I'd like to do something," Stan says, "that I do with all my teachers."

He gets down on his hands and knees and kisses her feet.
That's when I realize that only a teacher who looks like Stan Dale could perform this kind of healing. 

Stan Dale was born in the Bronx and grew up fat and friendless on 23rd Street
in Manhattan. At 16 he played Louis Braille in a radio drama and got hooked. By the time he was 21, he had regular gigs as announcer for some of the top-rated series on the air: The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the course of his 19-year career as a disk jockey in Chicago, by his account he launched the phenomenon of talk radio when, in 1968, he started putting callers on the air during his midnight-to-5 shift. Along the way he earned degrees in psychology and sociology from Roosevelt University. But none of his book-learning or professional back-chat contributed nearly as much to his training as a sexologist as his apprenticeship in a geisha house. 

As a 27-year-old PFC stationed in Japan during the Korean War, Dale
spent his free time exploring the local sex scene like any red-blooded American male away from home. "There were places in Tokyo that were called Sex Drugstores. They were the sexologists of their time, generally older men and some women," he recalls one afternoon after the workshop when I visit him at home in suburban San Carlos. "I thought I knew everything about sex. I just went in out of curiosity. You go in and sit down, they give you a cup of tea and talk to you. If you have any problems, you talk about them, and they have these wonderful erotic toys to play with it -- dildos and vibrators and potions and aphrodisiacs. I'd never heard of these things. So I learned a lot. That's where I learned more than I dreamed I could know about female reproduction, male reproduction, and pleasure. I didn't know about clitorises. This was the '50s, after all."  

Meanwhile, he and his Army buddies patronized an establishment called
Miyoshi's, "a beautiful geisha house, not for real geishas but prostitutes, who by the way had the right to say yes or no. When I went there with my major, he wanted this woman to give head. And she screamed and hollered. He forced her: 'Suck my cock, you bitch!' Well, she virtually bit it off. She threw him out of that place and caused a furor. I'm in the next room, and he says, 'Dale, let's get the fuck out of here.' I was with this wonderful woman who was gentle and kind, so I said, 'Sorry, sir, I'll see you tomorrow.'" Dale's speaking voice has that ingratiating radio-announcer's resonance, and his personality oozes the milk of human kindness, so it does my heart good to hear him talk dirty once in a while. He's not a vulgar man in the slightest, but I wouldn't mistake him for a wimp, either. He drops enough hints from his background ("teenage street gang...Mafia connections...trained sharpshooter") to make it clear that he plays sweetness-and-light by choice. Because his Army job entailed news reporting for the Armed Forces Radio network, Dale got invited to the wrap party for an American film called Joe Butterfly shot on location in a first-class geisha house called Hakunkaku. He spent three hours in intense conversation with an old Japanese man who turned out to be the proprietor and who invited the young G.I. to come live in the house. He stayed seven months and left a changed man. 

"It was a marvelous turnaround from what I was learning at the Sex
Drugstore and my experience as a 27-year-old American male, knowing it all, fucking like everybody else fucks," Dale says. "A true geisha has no sex. You'd have an audience with them. They were like queens, and you were there to be treated like kings, to be revered. They did it with the realm of the senses. The smells. The colors. The geisha would perform, would sing, would pour tea for you, a tea ceremony that would last maybe 45 minutes. She would listen to your conversation. Might not understand your language but was trained from the age of 5 to understand the intonations. 

"The geishas would say, 'Look. Look. What do you see?' They'd make me do
this for what seemed like hours. Suddenly I'd see something, and she'd say, 'What do you see?' I guess my eyes were darting all over the place because I'm an American and we're always in a hurry. This was about slowing down. They gave me this stone just to be with for hours, to get its pure essence. At first I thought it was crazy. But as you sit there and meditate with the stone, something magical happens. Everything comes alive because you're focusing. You're blocking out everything else. I learned to have a thousand times more fun and more body orgasms in the realm of the senses." He returned to Chicago burning to open a geisha house but "there wasn't anything to make it from." It took him ten years to build enough momentum to do his first sex workshop. Even that was a two-day conference on transactional analysis held in a hotel function room, with a mini-lecture on mechanics. "People would laugh. I'd pull out the blackboard and draw stick figures: 'Penis A goes into Vagina B. This is where the clitoris is.'" For a while, the Stan Dale Sex Workshop was a spinoff of the Sex Drugstore in Tokyo: Get to Know Your Sex Toys. "The next step was showing movies from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality. People would talk about their sex lives, and we'd answer questions. The next one after that was in a private house, where I had the balls to say, 'It would be best if we could do this in the nude.'" At the time Dale was a long-haired hippie. He'd covered the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and lost his radio job for describing it as "a police riot." He knew firsthand how fiercely the battle lines were drawn between the mainstream and the counterculture, so naturally he had heebie- jeebies about the legal ramifications of a butt-naked sex workshop. But he was lucky. The closest he got to trouble was lecturing to 250 Parents Without Partners. "I said to them, 'If you're hung up on the word fuck, chances are it's fucking up your fucking.' It was supposed to get a laugh. This woman bolts out of her chair and says, 'If there was a man in the audience, he'd punch you in the mouth and throw you out for using language like that in front of us ladies.' And six or seven other women stood up to say, 'Yeah, I didn't come here to hear that kind of filth.' From the back of the room, this guy shouts, 'Shut up, ya bitch. Let him talk.' Pretty soon they're shoving chairs out of the way, and they're ready to come to blows. I go, 'Whoa! What have I created?'" 

Ultimately, what Dale created was his own version of sex education for
adults. Vibrators 101. Intro to the Kama Sutra. Advanced Sensuality. Rub the aureole of the breast. Can you say "fellatio"? When Dale moved to California and started teaching in resort centers where people could stay overnight, the workshop moved away from the stiff, clinical, oh-so-adult tone and took on more playful elements of summer camp, albeit with explicit lessons in anatomy and safe sex. Over the years it has continue to evolve -- or rather, de- evolve. By now it's practically a sex kindergarten. 

It's partly the morning warmups ("Do the hokey-pokey!"), partly the
gung-ho attitude of the interns (they walk around during breaks tinkling bells and saying "Five minutes to workshop!"), and partly the saccharine-tinged language of the teachers that makes us all feel a little bit like five-year- olds. When the room gets chatty during an exercise, Stan or Anne will say, "Pass the shush, please," which signals everyone to go "Sssshhh" until silence returns. In other words, "Pass the shush" is a kinder, gentler New Age way of saying "Shut the fuck up." 

All this kid stuff gets a little icky for my taste. What hath John
Bradshaw wrought? I guess that's my Punishing Parent talking, though. My Wise Child speaks up and says, "Can you give me a tiny little break here? Do you have to be so serious all the time? Don't you ever get tired of being so sophisticated, so knowing and ironic? I don't even know what those words mean and they bore me to tears. Can't we just play?" Maybe he's right. Maybe I'm being a jaded New Yorker, overly accustomed to the Robin Byrd show and watching aspiring Jeff Strykers get their buttholes shaved on cable TV. Maybe I'm just anxious because I don't know the same nursery rhymes as everybody else. Okay, little guy, this one's for you: "Do your boobs hang low, do they wobble to and fro?/Can you tie 'em in a knot, can you tie 'em in a bow?/Can you throw 'em over your shoulder like a continental soldier?/Do your boobs hang low?" 

The workshop has evolved in other ways, too. "What we did was always
reverential," Dale explains. "But early on it was more sexually oriented, more tinged with instructing people on what could pleasure them. As I became more aware, I learned that sex has very little to do with genitals. It became more and more sensual. I think what became apparent to me is that true sex is some sort of vehicle to the spirit. There was a spiritual evolution happening alongside the sexual revolution. People were looking for something more.  

"I was so opposed to the concept of God," he admits, probably thinking
of his first wife, a born-again Christian fanatic. "Even saying the word God, I choked. So the concept of anything spiritual eluded me. Then I kept watching people in the workshop, looking in each other's eyes and stroking the face, and tears would come. What was that? The more I observed, the more it became apparent that we human beings are more than our bodies. We are energy. We are angels, messengers of love. How do we know? The clinical mind looking for spirit can't find it under a microscope. It's like the three blind men at the hind end of an elephant trying to figure it out. But you can find it in feeling. That's why I thank the heavens for the geishas. I was locked up like a typical 27-year-old soldier, and they opened up my feelings for me."  

Halfway through the workshop, and I am in pain. I came here as a journalist,
to watch and take notes. I came here as a sex expert, a sacred slut, an erotic know-it-all to see how the other half lives. Now all these feelings are coming up, and I don't want to deal with them. 

I like to think of myself as sexually free, frisky, affectionate. But
outside of a gay social context, I'm surprised at how locked up I feel. One of the most impressive teachings Dale's workshop offers has to do with getting over homophobia. You do all these touchy-feely exercises with the other gender and then you do them with the same gender. The facilitators make it very clear, "We're not here to change anybody's orientation." What they're after is increased awareness; for men to understand women's experience, for instance, they should know what it feels like to touch whiskers and muscles. Dale himself advocates abolishing "gay" and "straight" in favor of "naturosexual," or naturally sexual. "I'm your actual naturosexual," he confides to me during our interview. "I love sucking cock as well as I love sucking pussy. To me they're both just delicious." 

In my head, I'm going, "This'll be great for those straight guys to get
over their hang-ups." But here I am sitting face-to-face with this sweet, mustachioed Southerner named Jess, and I can't believe how uptight I am about touching him. I feel like the whole time he's sending out signals: Don't touch my cock don't touch my cock don't touch my cock. Everybody here knows I'm queer, and that just raises the stakes. A gay man touching a straight man lives with this fear: "He's not going to like this, and he'll punch me out." A straight man touching a gay man lives with this fear: "I'm going to like this, and then I'll be a fag and have to leave with rings through my nipples." I realize that I've built picket fences marked "Don't Touch" around all the men in the room -- partly because I'm a horny bastard, I do want to dive onto their dicks, and I'm ashamed of my capacity for compulsiveness. I also notice that I've drawn similar "Hands Off" signs around the women. I'm totally aware that women are physically invaded by guys all the time, and I don't want to add one iota to that legacy. So here I sit all by myself, pretending to be carefree, while inside I'm screaming for contact. Why does this feel so familiar? Some family drama is replaying itself. When did my parents ever touch my face with affection? When did I touch theirs? When I review the history of touch in our household, 99% of it is punishment. No wonder I'm so love-starved and locked-up at the same time. 

I guess my angel consults with the other angels in the room, because at
bedtime Miranda and Sam invite me to share their sleeping bag. We snuggle all night, my face buried in her golden curls, his hairy hand on my hip. In the morning we fool around. His fist surrounds my hard cock while she holds his throbbing rod. Three tongues meet. The teachers have recommended that we abstain from sex during the workshop. We get a secret thrill at breaking the rules. Is this sex? For me it's a sweet fantasy of cuddling with sexy daddy and undemanding mommy. It's very healing. 

It's a function of how psychologically safe the workshop is that all
these deep-rooted feelings float to the surface. I'm hardly the only one it happens to. Clearly, many women have some history of abuse and come to the workshop hoping to work through their mistrust of men. One woman exorcises a startling amount of animal rage at the doctors who performed a succession of unnecessarily invasive surgical tests, telling her all the while, "This won't hurt." A very young, tall and thin redhead named Sylvia tells about her father raping her when she was 4. Just the memory makes her tremble and weep. Stan Dale gets out of his chair and stands in front of her. "As a father," he says, "I'd like to apologize for what your father did to you." 

This statement sends powerful shock waves through the room. Apparently
it's extremely healing for women to hear a man say such a thing. Almost unbelievable. When does it ever happen? 

Anne engages Sylvia in a therapeutic dialogue and encourages her to
speak to Stan as if he were her father. This unleashes a torrent of emotions. "I hate you!" she screams. "You've ruined me forever! I hope you rot in hell! I hated you for going off on your pot trips and not paying attention to me!" I'm moved by this tableau and impressed at Stan's ability to absorb Sylvia's wrath. It takes a very clear channel to let that poison go through you without stinging. But then he's been doing this for many years and has been the target for his share of personal abuse, as I learn over lunch the next day with him and his wife Janet. 

Not his wife Helen. His wife Janet. Did I mention he has two wives? This
guy is a real character. Are you keeping track? Lone Ranger, star DJ, talk- show pioneer, American male geisha, sexologist, man-with-two-wives -- Oprah Winfrey, where are you? 

Actually, it's a sweet story. Yes, Helen has been his wife, his partner,
the mother of his children for 35 years. Then 17 years ago he met Janet at another workshop. Stan and Janet fell in love. Stan didn't stop loving Helen. Helen loved Janet, too. So rather than play out the familiar scene of man-dumps-wife-for-younger-woman, they all lived together. Then ten years ago, as a gift of love, Helen surrendered her marriage license; a legal divorce made it possible for Janet to have an official status other than Stan's mistress. But spiritually they consider it a three-way marriage. 

For a year or so they did go on all the talk shows, proud of their
unconventional love. But the hosts asked sleazy questions and the audiences called them sinners. Worst of all, workshop enrollment took a dive. People got the idea that "Sex, Love, and Intimacy" was a front for "swingers," proselytizing for open marriage and free love. So they bowed out of the freak-show circuit. But Dale still introduces his two wives at every workshop, as living proof in favor of asking for 100% of what you want 100% of the time.  

Nibbling bowtie pasta and salad nicoise at a swanky hotel on Twin
Dolphin Drive, Stan and Janet agree that their workshop would be more financially successful without the nudity. And while at the beginning people were titillated by a workshop with "sex" in the title, now more people are likely to be turned off. Times are more prudish. AIDS is a big factor, and so is the hyper-awareness about incest and abuse. It's easy to blame the sex- negativity and body-hatred of fundamentalist Christians. The media is also a handy scapegoat for overwhelming us with soft-core porn to sell us products while making us feel like shit unless we look like Cindy Crawford or Marky Mark. Much harder, more uncomfortable to talk about is the abuse, self-destruction, and self-violation that occurred over the last generation in the name of sexual freedom. 

"At the beginning, the workshop attracted hippies, people willing to
push the limits," Dale says. "People in their 20s and 30s are much more damaged now by the fallout from the sexual revolution. In the '60s and '70s they talked a big game, but there was no sexual freedom. People were getting pregnant, getting diseases, breaking up marriages. All the horror stories. The mattresses on the floor, women lying there and letting every guy just come and fuck 'em in the name of free sex. The heroin addiction -- 'Come on baby, shoot up. Have some coke.' At almost every workshop we get people who've been hurt by the 'debauchery' they went through in the name of being liberated. They don't have permission to talk about it except in a protected environment."  

The workshop ends the same way it began -- a double circle, connecting hands,
hearts, and eyes with a kiss. Into-me-you-see. Then there's dinner. It's way after dark. Most people have a long drive back to the city. Still, the networking goes on. This is community building in the '90s. 

I can't resist taking one last soak in the hot tub. We don't have these
on the Upper West Side. Poolside is deserted except for a wheelchair. I join Sue-Ellen in the almost-scalding water. 

I feel awkward at first, avoiding the question "How'd you get so fat?" I
figure the answer is some out-of-control eating problem or glandular disorder best left to the imagination. Fat people know what you're thinking, though. Sue-Ellen doesn't hesitate to blurt out her story. Yes, she was always a big girl, but then there was the car accident, the year in the hospital, the kidney failure, the misprescribed drugs -- a medical nightmare that made her balloon to 450 pounds. At 350 now, she's practically svelte. She has a boyfriend who likes her the way she is. She lives in the country with her cat. Solitude has made her level-headed. 

Rather than being pathetically grateful for the attention she got this
weekend, she has her own critique of the workshop. The teachers' armchair psychology betrays the weak side of Stan's background as smooth-talking radio-shrink. Their eagerness for instant transformations, she points out, reduces the process of healing to a hand mirror and an affirmation. But she got what she came for, a step out of isolation toward human contact. 

A silhouette on the patio joins us in the pool. It's my Southern partner
Jess. For him the workshop's been a roller-coaster. He's pooped but pensive. He brings up the awkwardness of our touching. It wasn't homophobia, he explains. (Not just homophobia, I think.) His mother once said something that made him feel his cock was dirty, so for someone to touch it brought up buried shame he's ready now to discard. His confession surprises me, clears up a piece of the puzzle, and knocks down some of that straight-guy/queer-guy barrier. 

The three of us compare notes about the weekend. After a while we fall
silent. Sharing the pool is enough. The night seems bright. We look up. It's a full moon. Our eyes meet it. Is this sex? 

First published in Steam Magazine, 1994

For more information on the Human Awareness Institute and its workshop, see here.

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