I have a friend in San Francisco who has been dubbed, by many grateful men, the Avatar of Ass. These days his hair may have greyed and his belly relaxed, but his passion for the anus is undiminished.

Chester Mainard first honed his skills teaching the art and science of male pelvic exams to medical students at the University of Wisconsin for some 14 years. He combined this work with private practice in massage and psychotherapy. In the mid-80s he moved to California and began to teach at the Body Electric School of Massage, merging his expertise with Joseph Kramer’s Taoist Erotic Massage -“ which focuses on breath, genital massage and full-body orgasm. Mainard’s anal work soon became a crucial part of the Body Electric movement’s more advanced courses.

I remember the first time I heard Chester speak. It was a balmy night in the mountainous area north of San Francisco, and about 40 gay men were listening with rapt attention as he gave the talk that all of us had needed for years, but that none of us had ever heard. Chester’s presentation was frank, witty, respectful and so transparently honest that any awkwardness we felt was gently dissipated, leaving us free to really listen and learn.

As gay men, most of us discover that our anus can be a locus of pleasure, but that discovery is often accompanied by shame, tension, pain, and a kind of secret, smutty guilt. No wonder, when we live in a culture that coined the term the abominable crime of buggery to describe one of the most intimate, intense pleasures men can experience.

The anus has as many nerve endings as the tip of the tongue, the eye, or the glans of the penis, and so it is an area of exquisite sensitivity and responsiveness. For the same reason, this place of pleasure can also be a place of pain, a place where our bodies and psyches quickly shut down if physical or emotional abuse is experienced or sensed.

From an early age all of us are taught to react to our anus as being dirty, smelly and disgusting -“ the one part of our bodies that is truly untouchable. Not surprisingly, much of the unacknowledged, shame-filled, rejected parts of our emotional selves are pushed down towards and psychologically held in this anal area. The good news is that release, healing and ecstatic pleasure are possible -“ but only through dealing honestly and creatively with our assholes.

Over the next couple of days at that first retreat with Chester he led us all into an extraordinary exploration of anal pleasure. The preparation was gentle, thorough and sensitive on both physical and emotional levels. Clear and careful protocols were established so that, with hygiene responsibly taken care of, we could relax into the process and open ourselves -“ both figuratively and literally -“ at new depths.

What became clear was that for many men the whole anal area carries a sense of deep vulnerability. It is that part of our body-selves that we cannot see, and that we rarely allow others to see. We have learned to regard it with disdain, to keep it private and to hide it from polite company. Paradoxically, the kind of lusty anal play that many gay men enjoy can be a way of bypassing the more revealing, vulnerable kind of seeing and touching that truly conscious anal work demands. For some men it is easier to be fucked than to be truly seen, easier to be rimmed than to be tenderly exposed and opened, easier to be roughly fingered than to surrender to intimate, delicate pleasure in this most vulnerable part of themselves.

Over those few days on that mountaintop, many of us discovered that when we allowed ourselves to fully receive this kind of conscious anal touch, all kinds of emotions, memories and yearnings rose into awareness. Along with new levels of profound pleasure, new levels of self-knowledge and healing became possible. All this was done with a lightness of touch, a gentle sense of humour and a respect for the plain, earthy realities of being human.

For myself, the whole experience was deeply affirming and healing, especially given my religious background, where incarnation is spoken of in reverent tones that only hide unacknowledged fear of the body and sanctify rejection of the messiness of ordinary humanity.

If the glory of God is the human person fully alive -“ as the churches love to say -“ then that human person has an arsehole, and until this plain reality is integrated with reverence and delight, the glory of God cannot be manifested and I cannot be the person God intended me to be. The path to emotional, psychological and spiritual healing and wholeness lies in and through our arseholes -“ with all the blessing, anguish, joy and learning they hold for us.

For all that, one of my favourite memories of this journey into anal pleasure, led by the Avatar of Ass, came towards the end of the retreat. Chester was making the point that we could no longer refer to difficult people as assholes, since we now knew our assholes were sacred places of delight. What to do?

After various suggestions, we hit upon haemorrhoids as the appropriate word -“ painful and pointless irritations that get in the way of anal pleasure.

The best way to deal with haemorrhoids -“ real and metaphoric -“ is through a relaxed sensuous approach to life and that comes, at least in part, from having a healthy, holy, happy anus.

Body Electric Australia will be holding a four-day intensive retreat at Karuna in the Blue Mountains from Saturday 28 February to Tuesday 2 March. It will include both a two-day introductory workshop and a two-day intensive in anal work. For details, see www.bodyelectric.org

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