I first encountered the Body Electric movement through its founder Joseph Kramer. At the time I was about to come out publicly as gay, and lose my career as a religious educator. I was at a turning point -“ and at a bit of a loss. I knew that I needed not simply a new career, but a whole new experience of life and energy, a new way to heal and play, a new vision of the rich layers of human living that had been denied me by my church and my culture. Experience had taught me that therapeutic talk, however helpful, would never engage my body, and most recreational sex, however plentiful, would not inspire my soul. Where to turn?

As I drove to a meeting one evening in Berkeley, California, where I was living at the time, I mused about the way forward. Nothing is drawing my heart! I said out loud as I pulled into the church parking lot. By the end of the evening, that would have changed.

Joe Kramer was the speaker that night, and the audience was mainly younger gay men who were looking for ways to integrate their sexuality and spirituality. Kramer was clear and challenging. He spoke of how, after 11 years as a Jesuit, he had gone to live in New York and spent countless hours in sex clubs, not just having sex but soaking up the atmosphere -“ vibrating the deadness out of my body. I knew what he meant. He also characterised most sex in modern societies as mutual necrophilia: dead bodies having sex with dead bodies. He explained how, over several years, he had shaped a system of bodywork that used erotic massage, breath-work and focused awareness to lead men into profound states of physical pleasure and spiritual openness. He talked about transformation, full-body orgasms, inner healing and discovering sex as non-addictive, non-shaming and non-stop. Frankly, it sounded too good to be true.

Something about Kramer, however, also sounded authentic. This man had been on a long inner journey, and he was now free enough to speak about genital massage, sex play and divine presence -“ all in the one sentence, and all interwoven in creative, if slightly shocking, ways. I wasn’t totally convinced, but I wanted to hear more.

Two weeks later, on a cool spring morning, I turned up at a plain brown door on Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue. A young, curly-headed man in track pants welcomed me with a smile: Are you ready to -˜celebrate the body erotic’?

I guess I could give it a go, I quipped, and headed up the stairs.

Inside I met Collin Brown, the man who now headed the Body Electric School that Kramer had founded. It was Brown who had invited me to come and see after several phone conversations following my meeting with Joe. I had been impressed by the frankness and clarity of both men and, despite the misgivings of some friends who thought the whole business amounted to a back-rub and a circle jerk, I had decided to invest a couple of days in the school’s introductory weekend program.

In the upstairs room there were about 20 men, and we stood around looking nervous and making small talk. I was struck by the age range of the group, from mid-20s to mid-60s, with the full spectrum of sizes and shapes. Almost without thinking, I found myself sorting out which guys I might like to massage -“ then I chuckled and checked the impulse.

We began by warming up with simple body movements, clothes on, then being led into gentle one-to-one and communal interactions. This weaving of the group energy was skilled and respectful, and gave people plenty of space to get comfortable with one another, and to face their feelings of awkwardness or uncertainty. This was just as well, since we would soon be massaging each other’s clothes off, and learning to feel at ease with our common nakedness. I remember the way the facilitators dealt with that inevitable male concern -“ at Body Electric erections are welcome but not necessary -“ and I appreciated the directness and relaxed humour.

Breathing is a core aspect of Body Electric’s work, and after being taught a simple technique that brought more oxygen and aliveness into the body, we were led into our first experience of a kind of breath orgasm, using music, the pulse of the drum, and varying patterns of breathing. The effect was extraordinary. I remember lying on the floor, breathing with the drum and the surge of music, and feeling waves of energy, grief and release sweep through me.

As one man said when we broke for a late lunch, And we’re not even half way through!

Ahead of us, over the next day and a half, lay hours of learning and sharing genital massage, of breathing that would become increasingly deep and freeing. There would be laughter and tears, of profound conversations in which men would share their euphoria, their visions, their grief and joy, their sense of opening bodily to the transcendent as never before. All this would come through simple, skilled practices of breathing, touching, and releasing in the company of supportive brothers.

I remember looking around our circle at the end of the two days -“ looking at these naked, glowing, open men -“ and feeling that human community should always be like this. Certainly I felt grateful that, at last, I had found that gay community could be like this -“ that male community could be like this -“ and I wanted to be part of it. Something was drawing my heart.

Over the next couple of years I was able to deepen my involvement with Body Electric. I found the two-day workshop was only the introduction to a whole program of workshops and retreats, and to a widening community of people who were committed to exploring the deepest capacities of erotic energy for bringing healing, freedom and spiritual awakening.

In time, I also found the Body Electric movement, like all human communities and projects, had its flaws, its gaps, its personalities and its issues. However, for me that has only served to make it all the more real. When people ask me, as they sometimes do, where they can find places to heal from deep sexual wounding, or where they can begin to integrate sexuality with spirituality in truly embodied ways, or where they can discover sex, touch and sensuality as joyous and holy, I think of Body Electric. It is not perfect -“ but it is real.

After years of gay activism in Australia, after the dry-as-dust struggle against right-wing Catholic bishops in their campaign against sexual pleasure and erotic freedom, I visited my friends at Body Electric again in June. It was like coming home. I did another introductory Celebrating the Body Erotic workshop and watched once more as nervous men relaxed, released and breathed, and their bodies began smiling again. I visited Wildwood retreat centre in the redwoods north of San Francisco, and touched, laughed and meditated with men trained by Body Electric who are on a deep spiritual journey -“ but one that does not require you to check your body, or your cock, at the door.

I also joined in a Body Electric workshop taught by Rob Anderson, a trim, sandy-headed Australian who was visiting California the same time I was. Rob is developing the work in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and, while I liked his approach, I found myself chuckling at his efforts to translate Aussie slang into Californian.

At the end of the weekend, in our final circle, Collin Brown made a point of welcoming me back, especially at this Aussie-led weekend. It feels like a little miracle that you are here this weekend, he said. I couldn’t help but agree.

Celebrating the Body Erotic workshops will be held in Sydney (Blue Mountains) from 17 to 19 October, and in Melbourne, 29-30 November. Call Rob on 0409 227 147 or visit the website: www.bodyelectricaustralia.org.

© Star Observer 2018 | For the latest in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and intersex (LGBTI) news in Australia, be sure to visit starobserver.com.au daily. You can also read our latest magazines or Join us on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.