I react badly to such grandiose language. It all just means: You'll feel better. The same could be said for Tylenol. I question such an intense sales pitch. Years ago there was an advertising campaign for something I've now forgotten whose simple and direct tagline was "Try it, you'll like it," and I thought: That must be a pretty good product. So this must be a pretty bad one, if it's so consistently overstated. "There's a lot of pseudo stuff," says Mark Epstein, "people trying to create workshop-y types of things. It's a growth industry. Why is it happening in the culture right now? People need help with their sexuality. It's gone so far away from anything spiritual."
Wondering how serious, instructive, and ultimately spiritual the myriad tantra workshops and seminars around the country are, I decide to conduct my own research and head for the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania for a weekend of "love without limits." The workshop is led by a woman I'll call Dr. Madge, a psychologist and "leading-edge healer" dedicated to "reintegrating sexuality into spirituality" and "expanding the boundaries of the family." The setting was promised to be a "beautiful mountain retreat center" where we would be "working with breath, energy, conscious touch, and movement to create a glorious space of love, which invites heart opening, sensuality, and spiritual communion." I was e-mailed a list of suggested useful items, including a flashlight, drums or other musical instrument, massage oil, sensual fruit or sweets, and a flowing costume ("a beautiful scarf or two is very versatile"). Despite language that seemed intentionally nonsleazy (and the fact that anything involving sweets is okay by me), I wondered about that massage oil. But before I remitted $475, a phone call to Dr. Madge's California office assured me that the workshop was appropriate for both couples and singles.
The accommodations at the lodge, built for Christian retreats in the 1940s, could generously be called monastic—a clean towel and set of sheets waiting on each bed, with meals served cafeteria-style. The group assembled on floor cushions in front of a makeshift altar with candles and photos of an Indian yogi "no longer in the body." There were four couples, three single men and three single women—matched sets, I noticed—ranging in age from their 30s to 60s, and we began with Dr. Madge–led breathing exercises. An older woman, who had been exhaling most audibly, announced right away that she'd recently ended 15 years of celibacy and now froze when her partner, a divorced former pastor, touched her anus. Hello, Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. Another couple had just met the previous day, after a cross-country e-mail correspondence and one night spent at a Best Western: The woman declared herself to be a "pagan" practicing "polyamory," which, Dr. Madge clarified, meant "responsible nonmonogamy." A chunky 30-something guy admitted that he had trouble satisfying women; a Nordic-looking American businessman now living in Europe had recently begun a ménage à trois with his wife of 20 years and another woman—he cheerfully offered to teach us "a great three-way kiss" they had perfected. Two of the singles, a plain Jane who ran an animal hospital and a handsome man who worked in politics, seemed to be tantra junkies—frequent fliers at this kind of workshop.
Next: "The maxim about the 'wallflower at the orgy' fit me perfectly"