The maxim about the "wallflower at the orgy" fit me perfectly. I reached for the keys to my rented car several times—this level of intimate talk among strangers wasn't what I'd anticipated, but it was, after all, just talk, so I carried on with journalistic detachment. And as we formed two circles, men and women facing each other, the exercises were innocuous. Everyone was asked to share a story about some wounding life experience—for instance, being taught as a child that sex was dirty. We were instructed to inhale one-third of a breath and then try to lay an egg, feeling the force of pelvic pressure. We were asked to stick our tongue between our teeth and try to complain (all attempts devolved into laughter). We were told to look at the other person without seeing the physical body. And we kept rotating the circles, changing partners, so that even the couples that had arrived paired up were now interacting with strangers. I can't say that I learned anything—because there was no relationship with these others, no basis of information on which to layer more classified disclosures, and I was too self-conscious to have any epiphanies myself—but it was all moderately interesting.
The next day, we moved beyond interesting. Tantra, Dr. Madge explained, means a willingness to embrace whatever shows up, and she announced that we would be breaking down our "genital armory," worshipping each other as gods and goddesses through massage, so everyone should think about partnering up. I in turn announced that they'd have to buy me dinner and a movie first. I wasn't taught that sex is dirty, but I did learn that it's private, and I had no intention of participating in a gropefest on an ancient Sears, Roebuck carpet with a dozen strangers. "Just do the energy work, the breathing," Dr. Madge urged. "You'll get tremendous benefit. The three best tantric partners are fear, chaos, and confusion, because it's only in a state of 'I don't know' that you can learn. You can decide on your own zone of comfort, and if you don't want to see what's going on, keep your eyes closed." She then removed her only article of clothing, a pareu, exposing pendulous breasts and blondish pubic hair, and everyone in the room followed except me and the ménage fellow, who apparently took pity on me and rather sweetly offered to be my (fully clothed) partner. Dr. Madge picked up a microphone and directed the group through seven levels of breathing and rubbing, while signaling time to move on by ringing chimes. I stopped my partner just north of the heart chakra and kept my back to the room. Okay, I peeked. All around us, naked couples were grunting through various kinds of foreplay (the singles with someone they'd just met) while Dr. Madge led them, as if calling a square dance, occasionally inquiring in her electronically amplified voice, "Does anyone need lube?"
After this session, everyone went into dinner: tuna casserole and butterscotch pudding with (I'm not making this up) Reddi-wip.
Now truly ready to bolt, I was persuaded to stay for the evening's festivities, which sounded like a return to civility: the women dancing for the men, the men dancing for the women, with canned music since nobody had brought drums. But I knew my limitations when everyone started getting creative with those sensual fruits, artfully arranging grapes and cherries on the eyelids and in the belly buttons of prone partners before moving on to other places. With a reputation now bordering on Amish, I surprised no one when I beat a path out of Dodge, taking an extremely long shower at the earliest possible opportunity.
I'm rarely shockable, and I'm willing to concede that some of the exercises might be fun to implement in private with a beloved significant other, but the idea of being assigned to select a stranger with whom to be erotic grosses me out. The experience impresses me as the ignominy of a singles bar taken to its penultimate creepiness. At the very least, it seems anachronistic, like something out of the sixties, when sexually bored suburbanites threw their car keys into a bowl at the beginning of a party and went home with whoever belonged to the keys they retrieved. And co-opted tantra does seem of a piece with the current zeitgeist, along with cable porn and 14-year-olds "hooking up" in the Clintonian belief that oral sex is not sex. My reading of the group I encountered is that the couples were basically exhibitionists getting off on public displays of mutual masturbation, and the singles were looking for some noncommittal sexual contact in the guise of enlightenment.
Next: So where can you find the real thing?
We Hear You!