A Workshop for Shame and Sexual Energy

Literature


“Erotic Bodywork” by Mark Bessen

Standing in line at the H-E-B checkout, I’m mindlessly deleting emails when a photo of a naked, pornographically hot beefcake stretched out on a massage table illuminates my screen. I recoil and quickly pull the front of my jacket around the phone, worried I’ll scandalize a wayward shopper, or worse, traumatize some passing youth. I tap the bookmark button, then quickly swipe to another screen and wait for my turn to clumsily scan my groceries.

Once I’m settled in my car among frozen pizzas, off-season blueberries, and kitty litter, I reopen the email to check the sender, worried some porn site has laid hands on my address. I’m relieved to discover it’s a promotion for an erotic massage workshop, distributed to a mailing list for Austin Naked Yoga. I’d signed up a year ago when I overheard a couple of Daddies talking about the group while I was sunbathing nude in the gay section of Hippie Hollow, Austin’s nudist “beach” (really a limestone cliff on Lake Travis). Now, safely in the cocoon of my Corolla, I grin as I read the copy below the beefcake photo:

Join Bo, experienced leader and gifted giver of bodywork, as you give and receive touch, experience relaxation, eroticism, sensuality, brotherhood, and a very intense release.

Oh, I think. Well then.

I read on.

Every participant will receive massage for one hour and give massage for one hour. Bo will empower attendees by reviewing full body, Swedish, and deep tissue massage techniques, glute and outer anal massage techniques, and genital massage techniques. Erections will occur and are most welcome. Participants may choose to release their erotic energy during the session or take it with them.

My oh my. My cheeks feel warm and I know I’m blushing. Coincidentally, after almost a year of delay, I had attended my first gay naked yoga class about three weeks before. I’d been keen to participate after hearing about it that day at Hippie Hollow, but I’d been too nervous to go alone and only mustered the gumption when a friend asked me to accompany him. Safety in numbers.

But naked yoga is one thing, an erotic massage workshop is something else entirely. Still, I’m curious, and when I get home I decide to ask my boyfriend, Brandon, if he has any interest in going as my massage partner. I’m anticipating a “no,” but I’m not sure where it’ll fall between “abso-fucking-lutely not” and “maybe at some point in the abstract future.”

I get a firm “No, thank you.”

“Fair enough,” I say, a little bummed and a little relieved. We’ve been in an open relationship for a couple years, so I could still go on my own, but his “no” makes it easy not to venture outside my comfort zone. The class, I think, might have been too big for my (absent) breeches.

The next week I go to yoga class again with my friend Evan. It’s my second or third class, and it’s as liberating and exciting as I’d imagined, a yogi exhibitionist fantasia. I still feel shy during the initial strip-down, still find myself giggling during Happy Baby and smiling as I push up my glasses (the only thing I’m wearing) during Downward Dog. After class, I’m standing around chit-chatting and flirting, still naked, when a skinny older guy I’d noticed eyeing me during class comes up to me.

“I’m Bo,” says the man standing stark before me. “I’m doing this massage workshop on Saturday.”

I mutter an introduction, looking over at Evan, struggling to maintain eye contact with Bo. For a moment I think he’s going to ask me to be his partner, and I start rehearsing excuses in my head, simultaneously feeling guilty that an excuse is my knee-jerk response. But then it clicks, and I realize I’m talking to the “gifted giver” himself.

“How open minded are you?” Bo asks.

The question feels like a challenge and an affront. I’m here, aren’t I? I want to say. I’m fun!

But Bo’s question is delivered with a softness and compassion that lower my defenses.

“I’d say moderately,” I answer. “But it depends on what you’re getting at.”

He smiles. “My model for the Erotic Massage Workshop just canceled. So, I need a substitute.” He’s speaking pragmatically, simply, hurriedly. “Would you have any interest in filling in? I’ll just massage you for both sessions, demonstrate the techniques on you, and the rest of the time just give you a massage.” He pauses briefly. “And I’ll pay you a hundred dollars.”

I notice he’s speaking in the future tense, rather than future subjunctive, as though I’ve already agreed, as though this is a foregone conclusion. I feel myself blush and demurely wrap one foot around my calf. Our nudity makes the conversation feel rawer, the nerves of my skin exposed to the warm musky air of the yoga studio. Evan, who’s been standing nearby and has clearly overheard the solicitation, walks away, smirking, to check out some other booties.

“Oh,” I say to Bo. “Interesting.” I pause. “I need to think about it. Can I get back to you?”

Bo and I exchange numbers. I tell him I’ll let him know one way or another the next day. I need to ask my boyfriend about the prospect, sleep on it, jerk off on it.

When I get home, I tell Brandon about the proposition and ask for his opinion. I suppose I’m partially asking if he’s okay with me getting felt up by a massage instructor, but since that’s clearly within the bounds of our open relationship agreement, I’m more interested in his reaction to the element of financial exchange. To me stripping down for money.

“Go for it,” he says, chuckling. “You’re having a whole hippie-dippie nudist woo-woo moment. It seems like you’d have fun.”

“For the record,” I say, “I don’t think it’s a moment. I am a hippie-dippie nudist. A free spirit. A liberated queen!” I toss my imaginary locks.

“Sure,” he says.

Brandon doesn’t say it, but I know he’s thinking about a story I’d shared with him before. A story about another massage, when I was seventeen, at a chain called Massage Envy.


Back then, no one would have described me as a hippie-dippie nudist. I was not a free spirit, did not possess even a scant trace of whimsy. I was a type-A, overworked, under-slept, five-AP-class-taking little shit. All I thought about was college applications, which extracurriculars would help craft the most compelling narrative for my future success, and competitive gymnastics.

I was tragically repressed. No one at my high school was out, and I had only recently begun to even allow myself to consider that I was gay, to allow myself to explore those feelings, in my mind and on the internet. I’d probably known somewhere deep down for years, but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I dared voice my personal “persuasion”—a rhetorical dodge because even uttering the word “sexuality” made me uncomfortable.

After a physical therapist recommended a massage for my gymnastics-injured spine, I called the local chain in town, Massage Envy. I was already suspicious of the place, especially the questionably sensual name, which evoked both sin and the puritanical value system in which sin exists. The local paper for our geriatric beachside town had recently run a series about another massage business, Crystal Spa, which had been shut down on multiple charges of prostitution.

On the phone, after I spent too long justifying why I was getting a massage, the receptionist replied: “Wonderful. Now let’s get you scheduled with one of our licensed clinical massage therapists. Would you prefer a male or female therapist?”

My stomach seized up. “What?” I whispered.

She repeated the question.

I looked around to make sure my bedroom door was closed and listened for my father in the hallway. We had been on precarious terms since I’d come out to him a few months earlier, and, after a few outbursts, had settled into a hostile silence. I imagined how my father would feel about the idea of a man kneading his son’s warm nude body. (It wasn’t hard to imagine, because some not-so-small part of me still disapproved, too.) But with a barely healed lumbar injury, my back was killing me. I needed someone strong to knead my knotted muscles. Plus, I was curious.

I imagined how my father would feel about the idea of a man kneading his son’s warm nude body.

“Male, please,” I said softly.

On the day of my appointment, I pulled into a parking space at the opposite end of the shopping center from Massage Envy’s gaudy purple sign. Inside, a marble reception desk shimmered with a golden sheen that matched the receptionist’s spray tan. She checked me in and swiped my debit card, “just for incidentals.” I wondered if incidentals were what had gotten Crystal Spa in trouble. Then I heard footsteps, which materialized into a tall, dark-haired man with a thick mustache and thicker Slavic accent. He extended a hand.

“Hello, I’m Alex,” he said gruffly, giving my hand a firm shake. My dad had made me watch the Terminator movies at least five times each, and I imagined Alex as Arnold’s replacement in the next installment. “Please follow me.”

Alex led me to Room 6 and ushered me inside. It was dimly lit, which I knew was supposed to be relaxing, but instead made me worry about the possible hygiene concerns brighter light might reveal. Alex pulled out a clipboard from under his muscular arm and began asking for my medical history: what brought me in, where it hurt. The procedure of it comforted me. Despite the flouncy decor, the appointment had at least the façade of a medical encounter.

When I told him I had a gymnastics injury, his eyes lit up. “Romania has some of the best gymnasts in the world,” he said, beaming with national pride.

I smiled in agreement, relieved to find common ground. Then Alex pressed the center button on a silver iPod mini and the room filled with the sound of rain and a sitar. He pulled back the purple sheet on the massage table.

“Undress,” he said, directing me to leave my clothes and belongings in the chair and get face down under the sheet.

“Undress, as in . . . ?” I asked, eyes averted.

“Completely,” he answered; he’d clearly made the clarification many times before.

As the door clicked closed behind him, my heart fluttered like it was supposed to on the first date I’d never had. Uneasy, I stripped out of my tee and below-the-knee Volcom shorts (I was still performing straightness), then whisked off my plaid boxers and shimmied under the sheets.

I shifted uncomfortably until I heard a knock on the door, followed by Alex’s voice. I lifted my head to grunt an affirmation, then settled into the lavender-scented face hole. I could feel myself trembling and tried to force my body still. Alex folded back the sheet, exposing my back down to my last vertebra.

I heard the spatter of massage oil. I heard him rub his hands together vigorously. As soon as he made contact, I felt my body jerk away.

“Just try to relax,” Alex soothed.

I was fully shaking now, teeth chattering. It took me a few long minutes of Alex’s tentative, preliminary pats on my back before I settled down. I breathed through my panic like I’d practiced in therapy.

I’d never felt a man’s hands against my skin like this. The warmth and pressure as he glided his hands from my neck down to my lumbar spine. Coaches had prodded at me to correct my form, laid on top of me to press me deeper into the splits. Physical therapists had probed my nerves and joints. But this was new. With each measured stroke of Alex’s hands, I felt a muscle relax, an insecurity fade away. I was a touch-starved teen, and this was delicious.

“How’s the pressure?” Alex asked, interrupting my bliss, now ten or so minutes into the massage.

“Good, good,” I muttered, but the disruption allowed an outside reality to creep in. The sound of his voice was quickly succeeded by thoughts of my father. I imagined that he would writhe in disgust if any man tried to lather oil on his back. I felt a stab of shame, a flash of anger, then a momentary pity.

I directed my thoughts back to my body on the massage table, my face smushed into the head cradle. Alex had just ventured a bit south of the sheet. No complaints, it felt lovely, just a little surprise. Glutes are muscles, too, I told myself. Still, the butt-touching made me feel like I was doing something bad, and it pulled me out of the experience of the warm sheets, the warm hands. No, this wasn’t anything bad, I corrected myself. There was nothing even sexual about this—this was a massage to relieve back pain. A medical procedure.

Okay, I asked myself, then why do you have a raging boner?

I felt myself swell under my abdomen, a throb with my heartbeat. Briefly, I panicked that Alex might be about to finish with my back and ask me to flip over, revealing a teepee erect on the table. But fortunately, he moved from my glutes up to my shoulders, where the nerves were less touchy, and then walked to the other end of the table.

He began to massage my calves. Then, gradually, the circular motions inched up my leg, past my knee, and into the uncharted territory of my inner thigh. I felt a little chill as Alex pushed the sheet to one side, and tucked it under my leg so that it covered any embargoed goods. Oh, no. I shimmied to adjust myself, to brace against these new sensations. I felt myself pressing into the massage table to the motion of the massage. No, no. I urged the carnal forces to retreat as he continued to massage my hamstrings. I tried to think about SAT questions, and college applications, and the tumbling pass I was training on floor. Anything else. No, not now. And then Alex’s hand lingered on my inner thigh a femtosecond too long, and I stifled a moan. I felt the gooey warmth beneath me, gluing the sheets to my abdomen.

The wave of shame crashed over me immediately. I felt my skin go hot and knew I must be bright red.

I briefly considered telling Alex I needed to end the massage now, but I clung to the hope that he hadn’t noticed. I wasn’t sure if he’d realized what had happened. But he must have smelled the teen angst, right? He must have felt my body shudder and contract? I hoped not. I didn’t know. I’ll never know.

I wanted to fuse with the table, to become inanimate. When Alex instructed me to slide down and turn while he tented the sheet over me, I rotated onto my back, feeling the wet stick of cum beneath me, the physical manifestation of my shame.

For the rest of our time, I laid there, hardly able to notice the massage. I hated myself. Hated my body for betraying me. Hated how I hadn’t been able to will my body to stop, how I’d lost control.

I felt, too, like something had been taken from me. I’d never even kissed a boy. And now a man had made me cum. That was supposed to be something special. That was supposed to mean something.

After the massage, Alex stepped out and I pulled my clothes on quickly. I was confused. I’d never felt anything so incredible, and never so powerfully hated myself, within the same hour. I wanted to disappear.


Thirteen years and hundreds of hours of therapy later, as I’m considering whether to model for the Erotic Massage Workshop, I’m thinking about Massage Envy. I’m thinking of bildungsromans and rites of passage and even something like kismet.

When I tell Brandon I think I’m going to do it, place myself in a vulnerable position in front of eager eyes, he replies, “You’re not just doing it for the money, right?”

“No, no,” I assure him.

“Or the story?”

“Definitely not just that,” I say. “It sounds fun!” What a liberating and absurd experience! I pause, then ask, worriedly, “But does taking the money mean I’m, like, legally, a sex worker?”

As soon as the words come out, I feel ashamed. Intellectually, I believe sex work is real work, and that the puritanical legal framework in America is unjust and stupid. Yet here I am, concerned that I’m about to cross a legal line I don’t think should exist in the first place. Worrying it’s unseemly for me to dabble in sex work when I have the privilege of not needing the money. Wondering if this even “counts.”

I shake the thoughts from my head, and text Bo to tell him I’m game.


On the day of the workshop, at the designated time, I check into the fitness studio, the same place where naked yoga is held. Bo is at the front.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

“Pretty nervous,” I say. “Excited, but nervous.”

He leads me over to the table, muttering comforting things I struggle to pay attention to. Most of the men are already there, standing naked around their massage tables. Then Bo leaves the room to continue checking guys in, and I’m left standing beside a massage table at the center of a semicircle of massage tables, dozens of eyes furtively glancing my way. I’m not sure whether I should undress now or right before the workshop begins, so I split the difference, wait a few minutes, and then undress. While I strip out of my clothes, I avoid direct eye contact with anyone, looking around but not looking anywhere, never letting my gaze linger too long. I take a seat on the table, grateful that the wall of the studio is mirrored, so I can peruse the scene without needing to engage real eyes.

In my peripheral vision, I register that an emaciated old man, butt naked, is walking toward me. Before I can react, he puts one hand on my thigh and reaches out to shake my hand with the other. I mutter some dismissive pleasantries and remove his hand, shifting away from him. He walks away, then right back, this time grabbing my inner thigh and rubbing his semi-erect dick on my leg. I push him away and wave him off. “That’s enough of that, thank you,” I say, sliding off the table I’m sitting on, making it a barrier between us. I immediately beat myself up for my too-polite tone. Still, as he walks away for the second time, his deflated ass makes me sad, and I worry I’ve hurt his feelings, done something wrong.

It feels like a comeuppance for my prior thoughts about doing this as a fun new adventure, about flirting with sex work.

The start of this workshop does not bode well for the remaining two hours. It feels like a comeuppance for my prior thoughts about doing this as a fun new adventure, about flirting with sex work. I want to bail, but I don’t want to ruin things for Bo. I walk to the front corner of the studio where I’ve left my things and futz with my phone, take a few breaths, then excuse myself to splash water on my face in the bathroom. I tell myself I’ve gotten this far, I have to finish.

When the class is set to begin, Bo directs everyone to their tables, and then pulls me aside. “Minor problem,” he says, and my stomach clenches. “We’ve had a no-show, and an odd number doesn’t really work for a massage clinic.” After a moment of looking around and presumably thinking up a plan, Bo guides me over to a sexy-cute bear cub with dark hair bleached on the ends, the right amount of fur, and a big bubble butt. Bo tells me to choose between two options: Either he can massage me for an hour while Hot Cub serves as a “floater” massaging other workshop attendees, and then massage Hot Cub for an hour while I serve as the floater, or both he and Hot Cub can massage me for an hour, and then Hot Cub and I can switch. The “four hands” option.

I almost take the opportunity to dip out completely. The no-show gives me an out, and a big part of me wants to take it—Hot Cub is game to participate as the model, so I wouldn’t be ruining the class.

But I want to see this through. I let Bo choose. We go with the four-hands option.

“Welcome to the Erotic Massage Workshop,” Bo says, then launches into his spiel about how we’re going to learn five techniques for outer anal massage and nineteen for penile stimulation. Bo introduces me and Hot Cub to the class. I wave awkwardly.

I’m the model for the first hour, so I climb onto the table as Bo says that we’ll be starting face down. I’m nervous, but the nerves are keeping me soft, which is probably good for now, while we’re learning the outer anal massage techniques. I’ll need to save up for demo-ing the dick massage later. Hot Cub is absentmindedly massaging my legs, my back, my ass while Bo demonstrates the techniques for the class.

As I settle face down, I’m feeling really good. I love massage, love the feel of the oil. After that time with Alex, massage became an important part of my wellness regimen, after a few years’ delay. This is gonna be good, I think, starting to enjoy myself. I think about how beautifully poetic, how full circle this is, a symbolic bookend to the shame I felt with Alex. A redemption. A reclaiming.

Then Bo’s voice snaps me out of my reverie.

“One way to get access to the area is to pull a knee up like this,” he says, moving my leg into a frog position, his forearm caressing my crack and hole. “Or, if it’s more comfortable, hands and knees. Mark, can you . . . ?” he asks.

“Yep!” I say, too chipper, as I climb into tabletop position. I squeeze my eyes shut and focus on my breathing. This is moving really fast. Now I’m worried I’m supposed to be hard, but I’m not yet, because I’m worried I’m supposed to be. We’ve quickly sailed past my comfort zone. We’re in the zone of what I wish I was comfortable with. What I’m intellectually comfortable with, but still feel myself having a visceral, clenching reaction against. I push through. What is there to be ashamed of, even? I ask myself. But shame refuses to oblige logic.

“You okay?” Bo whispers to me.

“Yep,” I say again.

“You’ll also notice this position gives you full access to the penis,” Bo tells the class. The medical term feels out of place, but I don’t have time to dwell on it. He grabs my dick. “We’ll cover those techniques in more detail when we flip over.”

After reviewing the outer anal massage techniques again, Bo sets the class to practice. This first half hour will be face-down, the second face-up, on our backs, and then we’ll switch giver-receiver positions and repeat. The instructor and Hot Cub set to work on me.

I’m more relaxed now, without all eyes on me. I settle back face down, which is more comfortable, and feel one of them spread my legs to the edges of the table for better access.

Ten minutes go by, and it feels great.

And then it feels . . . too great.

I’m worried I’m getting too close. Four-handed massage, it turns out, is a game-changer. We’re only fifteen or twenty minutes in, and I have to model for the dick techniques after this. I prop myself up on my elbow and lean over my shoulder. “Hold off,” I say, “too much, slow down.”

They do for a few minutes, but after a brief reprieve they’re back, one working on my ass, the other on my dick, which is tucked down in the gap between my legs where it’s getting too much attention.

No, no, I think. Not again.

I call over my shoulder again to slow down.

But they don’t hear me, or don’t want to stop.

I do my best to will myself calm, to diffuse the sexual energy into the rest of my body, and for a few seconds, it’s working. And then it isn’t. The cosmic balance is too perfect. I start to prop myself up again and say, “Hold on, hold on. I’m gonna . . . ” and then I finish into someone’s hand. As I come, someone, I’m not sure who, continues to pump me. I shove my face into the pillow in front of me.

“Oh,” Bo says.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Oops. I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” he says. “That’s fine. Just a little change of plan.”

Hot Cub leans down and whispers, damp breath in my ear, “That was hot. Really fucking hot.”

I chuckle, and I appreciate him, but I’m still spiraling. Mostly, I’m worried about the logistics. In about ten minutes I’m supposed to flip over, but I don’t think I’ll be able recharge in time. A darker thought creeps in, too: Was it bad they’d made me come, despite my protest? Despite the fact that it felt great, that I was riding a flood of endorphins? Should I have had a safe word? They didn’t hear me, I tell myself, I wasn’t clear. And regardless, I’d known what I was getting into.

I feel a carryover of the Massage Envy shame. Some censorious moralism that I haven’t successfully battered out of myself. I’d just been jerked off by two pairs of capable hands, and still I wasn’t able to remain present. Much of the time, face down, I’d just been comparing the experience to Massage Envy. Why was I stuck spending time in retrospection when, of all times, I should have been most in the moment?

As I towel off, I worry that others in the class noticed. Meanwhile, Bo has worked out the logistics and swoops in to save me. He proposes that Hot Cub demo the next portion, face up, and then I’ll do the face-up session during the second half. Thank god.

For the next hour, I learn nineteen massage techniques and apply them to Hot Cub. As I glide my oiled hands over his body, the coarse hair of his legs, I look around the room, this sanctuary of touch. Sweaty bodies, focused on one another, some contorted in ecstasy, some blissfully still. This workshop is a marvel. Helping men become more comfortable in their bodies, teaching us, repressed and liberated alike, to find pleasure for pleasure’s sake, something so beyond my worldview at seventeen.

In the past thirteen years, I realize I’ve come really fucking far. I’m still fighting a lot of the shame I was fighting at seventeen, but I don’t feel the same self-loathing I did back then. Not once during this workshop had my father’s judgment interrupted my thoughts—and there was only a transient visit from the ghost of shame past. I could see now that much of the hatred I had felt radiating from my father was really my own insecurity, reflecting back at me. Sure, I was still probably a little too sensitive (both physically and emotionally) to serve as an effective model for this type of thing on the regular. But I’d been brave. I’d gotten through this new, nerve-racking experience, and I felt better for it. More open.

“It looks like you’re enjoying yourself,” Bo says as I reach for the massage oil.

And I am. Throughout the rest of Hot Cub’s massage, I smile the whole time (and only tremble slightly).

When the workshop ends, relaxed and invigorated, slicked in sweat, I’ll put my clothes on. Bo will slip me a Benjamin folded into a tiny square, a funny detail I’ll ascribe to either discretion or a lack of pocket space. I’ll head out to my car, still smiling—flushed, alive—and I’ll text Brandon a picture of me holding my hundred-dollar bill.

But for right now, I’m recharged, and it’s my turn for the face-up portion of the demonstration. Maybe I’ll even let myself enjoy it.

Read the original article here

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