Chuck picked me up on the dot of 10 a.m. from a house in north-east Portland, where I had been staying with friends. What you first notice about Chuck are her long unshaven legs, huge blue eyes, easy smile and unfaltering politeness. She has an open, yet somewhat reserved air about her. She moves with confidence, as if ready for any eventuality: rain, sun, the end of the world. It was all to be taken in her stride. This was good because Chuck and I were complete strangers and were about to drive two hours to Wahkiacus (population 91), a tiny unincorporated community in Klickitat county, Washington, where Surrender, the fourth Ecosex Convergence, would be taking place.
It hadn’t been easy finding Chuck. Back home in London I had given up on getting to Surrender. Despite having my Montana driver’s licence, I still wasn’t comfortable behind a wheel. I had come up empty-handed after asking every person I knew in Montana if they or a friend would be able to ferry a fifty-two-year-old woman and all her camping gear to a sex festival. At the last minute Jason remembered someone we knew who had recently moved to Portland. She had a friend who had a friend and so on . . . which led me to twenty-seven-year- old Chuck, who had just quit her job and sold a house she had co-owned with her ex-fiancé. In her words, she was ‘out to find freedom’. So when I suggested that in return for driving me to the Ecosex Convergence, I would spend 230 dollars on a ticket for her and cover her gas and lodging, she couldn’t believe her luck.
We headed east from Portland along Highway 14 hugging the Columbia River, which cuts through high basalt cliffs strung with thin waterfalls. I was distracted from the scenery by our conversation. Chuck seemed to know a bit about ecosexuality. She was twenty-five years younger than me and identified as non-binary and there were overlaps between her social circle and that of the ecosex community in Portland. She proudly showed me how her driver’s licence now had an ‘x’ instead of an ‘m’ or ‘f ’. Chuck also mentioned that she was into the kink scene.
I aired my insecurities about ecosex – or more specifically, my reluctance to be sexually open with strangers. ‘You’ll just have to get in touch with the untouchable goddess within you,’ Chuck shot back.
A dirt road after the tiny town of Klickitat (population 362) took us up some steep, sharp switchbacks. We came to a patch of cleared, hard-packed land dotted with a few small wooden huts and some open-sided wall tents selling T-shirts and scarves printed with Indian patterns and the Sanskrit sign for ‘om’. Beyond the cleared area was a forest of Douglas fir and oak. People were hefting coolers and backpacks out of their trunks. As we rolled up to the Surrender reception booth in Chuck’s white Subaru, we were greeted by three smiling women. They told us where to park and where we could pitch our tents. I signed a bunch of paperwork giving the organizers the right to use photos of me and waiving any responsibility on their part should I get injured doing aerial silks, a form of acrobatics using long strands of fabric. A friendly middle-aged woman with close-cropped red hair asked me which ‘pathwork’ I had signed up for. My mind went blank. All I could remember was that mine had the word ‘Magick’ in it and had something to do with deities. She initiated me by sliding a bit of string around my neck from which a small shell dangled, then hugged me.
I stood slightly stunned in the drizzle. The planning that had gone into this trip had conspired to make me feel extremely tired. Crossing the ocean with my camping gear and finding someone who would agree to drive me were only two of the many logistical issues. But here I stood in a pair of jeans and a heavy fleece to ward off the cold, surrounded by people in gauzy ‘I Dream of Genie’ numbers, in bikinis, circus pants, flowing dresses, bare chests, leather straps criss-crossing torsos, hats, tattoos and tribal piercings. I was a schoolmistress among mermaids and sprites.
I first came across the term ecosexuality while reading about Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker, feminist stripper, artist, writer and activist, reputedly the only porn star with a PhD. I had seen her perform at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in the mid-1990s, when she was keen to show us all her cervix. I was struck by her vibrancy – she is a tall, curvaceous red-head who favours bright red lipstick. She came across as engaging and intelligent but, most of all, I remember that she combined intellectual ideas around women’s bodies with a playful sense of the absurd. She surfaced for me at a point when I was weighing up Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s anti-porn stance with the more sex-positive attitudes in Sallie Tisdale’s 1995 book Talk Dirty to Me. Sprinkle’s openness wasn’t something that came naturally to me, and yet I was enticed by it. I wanted to be the kind of person who could embrace it.
The ecosex festival had grown organically out of Annie Sprinkle’s mission to make sex less shameful and environmentalism more sexy. In 2004, Annie Sprinkle and her wife and collaborator, the academic, artist and activist Elizabeth Stephens, embarked on a seven-year art project they called the Love Art Lab. Each year, they would marry each other anew and every wedding was to have a different theme, location and audience. Their 2008 wedding to the Earth was perhaps when the idea of ecosexuality became enshrined in a movement with a name.
In their Ecosex Manifesto, Sprinkle and Stephens write:
We are the Ecosexuals. The Earth is our lover. We are madly, passionately, and fiercely in love . . . We treat the Earth with kindness, respect, and affection . . .We are skinny dippers, sun worshippers, and stargazers. We caress rocks, are pleasured by waterfalls, and admire the Earth’s curves often. We make love with the Earth through our senses. We celebrate our E-spots. We are very dirty.
By seeing the Earth as their lover, they differ from ecofeminists, who tend to frame the Earth as a mother figure.
There is a playful and provocative side to Sprinkle and Stephens’ manifesto, but they are serious about raising awareness of the Earth’s degradation at the hands of corporate interests. Their film Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story follows their efforts to save the Appalachian Mountains (the second most biodiverse region in the world after the Amazon) from mountain-top removal mining practices. Stephens grew up in the shadow of Gauley Mountain and has a personal connection to the place. But instead of earnest pleas for help, they reframe environmentalism in terms of love stories, tragedies and dramatic relationship upheavals and breakups. It’s as if Pedro Almodóvar had directed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Although some might see the ecosex endeavour through the lens of the 1960s counter-culture, I traced it back further to the ideas of the scientist, psychoanalyst and student of Freud, Wilhelm Reich. In the 1930s, Reich tried to marry Marxist concepts, such as the rejection of private ownership, with sexuality. He saw marriage as a form of ownership, with women as property. In his view, many of society’s ills could be alleviated if humans could free themselves from constraints around sexual desire and its fulfilment. The family and the gendered role of women were particular bugbears of his and he advocated for a more tribal approach to social units. The premise of his work is in some ways no different from the free love gospel preached in the 1960s, though for Reich sexuality was a serious tool with which to reject fascism.
Reich had narrowly escaped the Nazis during the 1930s and settled in the United States, where he came up with his Orgone Energy Accumulator (OEA), a phone-booth-sized structure lined with metal and insulated with steel wool. He was convinced that this device improved the ‘orgastic potency’ of its users by harnessing energy. By extension it also aided their general mental and physical health. The FBI, however, saw things differently and counted Reich as subversive. By the mid-twentieth century he had a cult fringe following: JD Salinger, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Sean Connery and William Burroughs all believed in the OEA. ‘Your intrepid reporter, at age 37, achieved spontaneous orgasm, no hands, in an orgone accumulator built in an orange grove in Pharr, Texas,’ Burroughs famously wrote in Oui magazine. The view that sexuality could function as a means to fight repression and social injustice was not a new one and I wondered if the Ecosex Convergence would be another iteration of this idea, played out against the backdrop of environmental collapse. Perhaps there was a sense that by casting the Earth in the role of lover, we might be encouraged to keep her alive.
Chuck parked the car and I scoured the forest for a flat piece of ground. Once I had pitched my tent, just big enough for me and my backpack, I lay down and pulled out Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America:
While we live our bodies are moving particles of the Earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the Earth.
I was astonished by the overlap between Wendell Berry, the author-farmer-environmentalist from Kentucky, and the sex-positive ecosex movement. Intersectionality was everywhere. As I read, I could hear laughter and birdsong and a woman having an orgasm in the woods nearby.
At supper that evening, I sat with Chuck and a handful of others at a wooden picnic table. Rain was falling and we sat on towels, coats, plastic bags, whatever we could find. It turned out we were all fairly new to ecosexuality. Over courgettes and asparagus cooked in tahini someone brought up the idea of consent – how could having sex with the Earth ever be consensual?
I said, ‘Well who said you had to do anything to the Earth? Maybe you could let it do things to you.’
They fell silent. One of them said, ‘You are so right!
Like being rained on.’
‘Hey, I like that,’ someone else replied.
The idea which seemed to be floating among us was that ecosexuality was a fairly open-ended pursuit. It relied on energy transfers between plants and humans as much as a physical exchange. We all agreed that being barefoot at the beach and enjoying the waves wash over your toes could be an ecosexual experience. The movement aims to raise awareness of our relationship to the Earth and to bring a sense of humour to eco-activism.
A woman passed around some Ayurvedic seeds for us to scatter over our food, to help our energy flow. The guy on my left told me he was really into sacred clowning, a form of performance art which plays with the character of the fool or trickster, whose job it is to reveal the corruption inherent in power by using humour and a sense of the absurd. Chuck got excited at this idea. It turned out they were in the same pathwork, involving some ‘jester work’. I zoned out but came back to the conversation when the guy on my left announced that the court clown could ‘like fuck with the King and Queen’. I headed to the only dry place – the inside of my tent – and made some notes until it was time to convene in the dome for our evening’s entertainment.
The dome was a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic structure about twenty-five metres in diameter – large enough for all 175 attendees to gather with space to spare. Carpets and cushions were scattered around and colourful banners hung from metal struts. Sitting in chairs across from the entrance were the two women who had made Surrender possible: Lindsay Hageman and Reverend Teri Ciacchi.
Lindsay was living at the Windward Education and Research Centre, an eco-community occupying adjacent land. You could just about see the centre from here and their goats could be heard bleating throughout the campsite. Lindsay, fresh-faced, dark-haired and I would guess somewhere in her mid-thirties, smiled readily and had an easy but focused manner. You sensed when she put her mind to things that they got done. She began by welcoming us to the land, which she said was happy to have us here. She told us a bit about the Windward Community, ‘an intentional community dedicated to loving the land and to loving each other. We embody ecosexuality every day!’ Its members were aligned in their dedication to sustainable living and an open approach to sexuality.
Teri Ciacchi is a sexologist, priestess of Aphrodite, and holistic spiritual healer in the Living Love Revolution Church. An Eco Magicks practitioner, Teri also teaches Cliteracy Salons, Clitoral Revelations and Vulvic Explorations. Teri was about my age. She was an ample woman who had difficulty walking and rode a golf cart. Tonight a leopard-skin pillbox hat (just like the Dylan song) sat atop her turquoise hair with its pink fringe.
We removed our shoes before taking our places cross-legged on the floor. Rain was pounding onto the dome and the air was moist with sweat and wet, earthy smells. Teri asked if we wanted to make a joyful noise. People whooped. As an aside she said maybe folk shouldn’t be naked for our first meeting as that would be ‘just weird’. There was laughter. Then she invited us to inhabit our bodies by doing ‘the Line, the Cross and the Circle’. We sat or stood up straight, our bodies establishing a vertical towards the sky. We were told to picture ourselves sending roots or ‘a monkey’s tail – whatever works for you’, down into the ground. That was the Line. The Cross was formed by our outstretched arms and the Circle was made by rolling our heads.
Once we were grounded, Teri went on to say that we are ‘languaging a lot about the figure 8’. At this point I lost her. I managed to write the following notes as she spoke: ‘We’re being portals,’ ‘We speak regularly with non-human living things,’ ‘the elementals’, ‘the fae’. Then she brought it all together, ‘We’ve got to be in relationship with these things. What we want isn’t more important than what they want!’
‘We need to listen to them, to do what the Earth is telling us to do,’ Lindsay added.
Teri finished off the idea: ‘And with the same rapt attention as we do with someone we want to fuck.’
A lot of discussion around consent followed. Lindsay told us to repeat after her: ‘We aim to have zero consent violations!’ We repeated it and she said, ‘That felt good!’ There were readings from the Surrender handbook by people in the audience. Once these were finished a person got up to tell us that we all needed to respect the shrines that were in the forest and in clearings on this land. ‘It’s really important that you don’t move anything on a shrine as that can be very traumatic for the person whose object it is.’ People clicked their fingers in response. Finger clicking is a signal of agreement resurrected from the days of the Beat poets by the Occupy movement, as a replacement for the more aggressive clapping of hands.
Once the housekeeping was out of the way, it was time for the ice-breakers. We were instructed to move our bodies like jellyfish: ‘A school of them! Wiggle!’ The two people leading the ice-breaker told us we were allowed to make eye contact with people around us – ‘Questioning eye contact’. Then we were to turn into lava and move like molten rock, before forming small groups of around six to eight people. One of the guys in my group looked like Larry David, with impossibly white teeth. He had approached me earlier and commented on my plimsoles. We had laughed at how cloth shoes are the worst shoes to wear in the rain – they stick to your feet and are impossible to take on or off. After our short chat about footwear, he had said, ‘Hey, we should interact sometime.’
That small exchange made clear to me that I had zero interest in ‘interacting’ with this man. I hadn’t always been like this. I was rapacious in my twenties and thirties and led by sex. Boyfriends accused me of being a nymphomaniac. I was wild and hungry for experience and had several boyfriends on the go at once. Being sexually faithful is something that only happened once I had a child in my forties. Sex for the sake of it has lost some of its appeal and I am surprised by how comfortable I am about this new phase in my life. It feels more like a gain than a loss. More like power than vulnerability.
In her 1991 book, The Change, Germaine Greer wrote about Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen), Madame de Maintenon (who secretly married Louis XIV at the age of forty-eight), and the author and art historian Anna Jameson (the subject of my failed PhD), all of whom found love later in life. ‘It is simply not true that the ageing heart forgets how to love or becomes incapable of love,’ Greer reminds us.
Indeed it seems as if, at least in the case of these women of great psychic energy, only after they had ceased to be beset by the egotisms and hostilities of sexual passion did they discover of what bottomless and tireless love their hearts were capable.
We were instructed to sit on the floor, close our eyes, and cup our hands. The moderators silently walked around the room, placing edible objects into our palms: strawberries, cress, courgette flowers, tomatoes and grapes.
‘Taste, lick, smell, use all your senses. Feed yourselves and each other!’ The dome went quiet but for some ‘Yums’ and ‘Mms’ and the licking and smacking of lips. We opened our eyes and were asked to say our names out loud. The members of our small groups whispered them back to us. Then we were to make a gesture and a sound to go with it. I rubbed my stomach and said ‘Yum’. Everyone in my group repeated this. We chanted ‘we’ and ‘me’ until the energy in the room was raised to a potent level. Someone stood up and read the Mary Oliver poem ‘The Plum Trees’, which I hung onto as a return to the world I recognized. I slipped out before the cuddle circle got going.
Lying in my sleeping bag I prayed that the tent would hold out against the lashing rain and high winds. The swaying branches above me were making me nervous. I heard Chuck walk into a tent pitched about twenty feet from mine. I had met my neighbours earlier in the day while they were setting up their camp: two men and a woman, all beautiful, tanned, confident and in their twenties. Chuck announced, ‘Tomorrow I’m doing sacred clowning!’ The strumming on a guitar stopped and a deep voice replied, ‘I love this world.’ Chuck and Deep Voice talked about heading to the smoking lounge, a large tarp stretched above some chairs and a coffee table. It was the only place where smoking was allowed. I heard their tent unzip.
Someone else in the tent started strumming Deep Voice’s guitar. There was more whispering. Then a guy practically shouted, ‘If you spray it in your butt hole, you’ll get high!’
More laughter. I finally worked out they were talking about ‘weed lube’, which another guy said was for your ‘lady bits’.
A woman asked if it worked on your ‘man bits’. ‘I don’t know,’ came the reply.
Then the woman spoke again, ‘I think my pussy always has the munchies! It’s hungry and horny!’
I turned twenty in 1985. AIDS had just hit and the free, open life I’d been inhabiting in the early eighties seemed like a dream. It became cool to be celibate. Having sex with people was conducted under the spectre of people we knew getting sick and dying. These were sometimes the same people we had gone clubbing with, taken drugs with, kissed and had sex with. We were still into pleasure-seeking, but by then it involved some degree of sadness, fear or uncertainty and lots of condoms. None of this fear was apparent to me at Surrender. What did feature was a lot of talk about consent.
‘We live in a rape culture,’ one woman had said during the meeting that evening, ‘so we need to create a consent culture.’ We were going to be having a two-hour talk about consent the following afternoon. I could not imagine what you can say about consent for two hours, but even in my short time at Surrender I had become aware that I knew nothing about love and sex in 2017. I hadn’t even heard of weed lube until now. I fell asleep that night to the sound of more rain, more laughter and multiple orgasms.
The following morning I woke to a downpour. My tent was starting to leak so I removed the dirty clothes from my backpack and lined my nylon floor with them. My mouth tasted horrible and everything smelled like mildew. I could see my breath. My will to stay was starting to crack.
Breakfast that morning was buckwheat porridge with cryogenic cherries. The woman next to me told a story about her friend who got cryogenically frozen ‘for like a second’ as a way of boosting her immune system. A few people chimed in saying they had heard it was good for you, but really expensive. The rain was falling into our buckwheat. I slipped away to brush my teeth.
It was the first day of my Eco Magicks pathwork and I was relieved to have a place to go, a place where I could sit and learn something and not feel inadequate. I’m at ease playing the good student. Those of us doing Eco Magicks were told to meet at the entrance to Lilith’s Forest, near Inanna’s shrine. Inanna is the ancient Sumerian version of Aphrodite or Venus, who represents love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility and war. Our group of about fifteen people was led by Teri, who wore a furry pillbox hat, purple leg warmers, Birkenstocks with socks, and a faux leopard-skin coat. Next to her was a pretty fifty-something witch called Melanie and a guy called Benjamin Pixie dressed in hand-tanned salmon leather, and what Teri referred to as his ‘bee skirt’, a concoction of black and yellow fabrics sewn in asymmetrical stripes. He was bearded, tattooed and pierced with tribal earrings. He had an alert animal intelligence about him.
There were brief introductions. We said our names and also the pronouns we would like people to use when addressing or referring to us. I said I was fine with ‘she’ and ‘her’. Many people preferred ‘they’. One woman said she used ‘zhe’, whose object form is ‘zhim’ and possessive form is ‘zher’. It is an archaic non-gender-specific Chinese pronoun. The ‘zh’ is pronounced like the second ‘g’ in ‘garage’.
We were given an alchemical potion called ‘Saturn’s Anchor or the Embodiment of Rooted Desire’, intended to open us up. It had a pleasant, herby taste. I think I heard Benjamin say it had been made with ground elk antlers and dinosaur bones. He spoke like a prophet, in a quick staccato. He was passionate about the Earth and the honey his bees made, the mead he brewed, the skins he tanned. His brain was a rapid-fire machine and he talked about the natural world as if reciting poetry that had been dredged up deep from a bog or the inside of a tree. He was someone with the practical skills needed to live in the wilderness. He was someone I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with.
Melanie was soft-spoken, with wispy reddish hair, pale skin and fine features. She was a High Priestess in the Sylvan Tradition of witchcraft, a branch which emerged in the 1970s in Northern California. Rather than identifying as a religion, with rules and dogma, this tradition of witchcraft sees itself as a way of life that honours nature – hence ‘sylvan’, a word relating to Silvanus, the Ancient Roman god of forests. Sylvans respect their connection to the Earth, reserving a particular reverence for forests, which are home to the ‘fey’. These unseen beings are what most of us would call fairies. They act as messengers between humans and nature. An elderly gentleman in our group put his hand up and asked about the ritual of mixing semen with blood and drinking it. Melanie told us this was used in sangromancy – which is the casting of spells involving the use of blood – but that nowadays the concoction was more likely to be yogurt and pomegranate or cranberry juice. ‘It’s safer,’ she explained.
We were asked to visualize a Sheela-na-gig, the Celtic female figure with a large, open vulva, to ‘let her come to us’. The images in my mind were pathetic: the witch from my daughter’s illustrated Hansel and Gretel followed by the animals in the Disney version of Snow White. I felt utterly deficient. Teri and Melanie discussed how important it was for us all to connect with our non-human ancestors and plants. ‘They can guide you,’ Melanie said. Teri added that our ancestors would have ‘listened to plants’, but that ‘monoculture, monotheism and monogamy’ had done its best to sever this communication.
In the dome that afternoon we gathered for the consent talk. It was 4 p.m. and people were dancing to loud, trancy house music. The rain was still falling and the air inside the dome was thick and damp. Teri was rapping into a mic: ‘It only takes one individual to start a revolution!’ from the song by the artist Deya Dova. Participants were hugging, lying on their backs with their feet flailing in the air. As the dome heated up, more people were stripping off and swirling in ecstatic, naked dancing. I sat at the edge of the dome next to a woman in a lawn chair who told me she was a Buddhist and who, like me, didn’t seem keen to get up and dance. I didn’t feel judged for not taking part – I felt ungenerous.
Lindsay and Teri were sitting where they had been last night. As we were about to begin, Lindsay announced she wanted to run naked in the rain. ‘Well, do it then!’ Teri cried. About a dozen people stood up and ran outside to feel the rain on their skin. The lectures began once everybody came back. There was talk of body sovereignty. The Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin and the writer and activist bell hooks were mentioned. There was a discussion about the colonizing of the very land we were sitting on. The presentations wouldn’t have been out of place on a liberal arts college course called ‘Gender and Ecology in Post-Colonial Times’.
We were encouraged to engage with the Earth and not to deny our part in its colonization, but to move beyond that thought by getting in touch with our own ancestors, with our own histories. Place, for obvious reasons, seemed to play a significant part in this movement. Knowing where we came from would help us feel grounded. A woman stood up to say she was raised by radical hippies and struggled ‘with the idea of going back to the land. The global population is so high, we can’t all go back to the land!’
‘Solutions have to be place-based. It isn’t “one size fits all”,’ replied Lindsay.
It was time for the consent talk. ‘We are creating a new culture here. Part of its soil is consent. We’re building it into the soil . . .’ said one of the three people leading this presentation. Subtleties were outlined in various hugging techniques. When someone asks you for a hug are you expecting the two-second ‘greeting-style hug’ or one of those long constricting ones? They illustrated this with play-acting. They talked about the feeling that comes from someone’s body when they are saying ‘yes’. I was finding it strange that we had come to a place where this all needed to be outlined. How had we moved so far from being able to understand each other?
We were reminded to continually check in with ourselves and that ‘consent for one activity is not consent for others’. The speakers warned us to be aware of ‘pop-up boundaries’, which were described as akin to ‘stepping on a rake’. The difference between ‘consent’ and ‘compliance’ was explained. We listed situations that could get in the way of consent, such as being drunk, stoned, hungry or ‘hangry’ (the anger that comes from hunger) or being in a ‘trance state’. Environmental factors, such as being in the dark, could also prevent full consent.
I could now see how this would take two hours.
If we asked someone to do something with us and they said ‘no’, we were given some appropriate responses, such as ‘Thank you for taking care of yourself,’ or ‘Thank you for being true to your authentic boundaries.’ One woman stood up and said how sick and tired she was of her kids having to ‘go kiss grandma’. Her kids didn’t want to kiss grandma and it felt like coercion. She got some knowing applause.
Then Lilith’s Forest was brought up. Lilith seemed to figure prominently among those gathered here. She has come down through myth and storytelling as a she-devil, a femme-fatale and a wild woman of the night. In Sumerian sculpture, she is portrayed as slender and large-breasted, often with the wings and feet of an owl. In medieval Jewish mythology, Lilith appears as Adam’s first wife – before Eve – but she left him in protest at her subservient role. The Hungarian anthropologist and friend of Robert Graves, Raphael Patai, explored the origins and symbolism surrounding Lilith. In a 1964 article in The Journal of American Folklore, Patai wrote that Adam and Lilith ‘could find no happiness together, not even understanding’. When Adam asked to lie with her, she replied, ‘Why should I lie beneath you . . . when I am your equal?’ When she saw he was determined to overpower her, ‘she uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air, and flew away to . . . a place of ill repute, full of lascivious demons. There, Lilith engaged in unbridled promiscuity.’ She was still attracted to Adam, however, and returned to him as a lover after he had taken Eve for a wife. The Hebrew for Lilith can be translated as ‘Night Hag’ or ‘Night Creature’. I can see how, with her enormous sexual appetite and her unwillingness to be coerced into sleeping with Adam, she fit the model of the ecosexual.
The earliest mention of Lilith is found on Sumerian clay tablets dating from around 2400 BC. Her epithet was ‘the beautiful maiden’, but according to Patai, ‘she was believed to have been a harlot and a vampire who, once she chose a lover, would never let him go, without ever giving him real satisfaction’. Scholarship varies on whether the Sumerian Lilith is related to the Jewish mythological figure. She was a fairly common character in ancient literatures but doesn’t show up in the western canon until Goethe’s Faust, when Mephistopheles encourages Faust to dance with Lilith, the dangerous ‘Pretty Witch’ who ensnares young men with her beautiful hair by winding it around their necks. Although her provenance is disputed, Lilith’s role in contemporary culture is to represent the free-spirited woman, the goddess of the night, the physical manifestation of mysterious, female sexual urges, the personification of women’s erotic power.
Lilith’s Forest consists of twenty acres of woodland set aside for consensual group sex or any kind of consensual sex play you can think of. But you must negotiate with your partners beforehand – a ‘Negotiation Station’ was set up just outside the forest for this purpose. If things escalated and you wanted to go further or try some new things, you needed to leave the forest and renegotiate before heading back inside. I had been told by a woman sitting next to me that there had been two consent violations last year. Nothing serious but enough for the organizers to make sure everyone felt safe.
The meeting came to an end after some more play-acting, exercises and questions from the audience. The rain had not stopped. I headed to my tent in my soaking wet shoes, coat and rucksack. Lying on my sleeping bag (the one thing that remained dry), I unzipped the front flap of my tent and squeezed out the dirty clothes that had been absorbing the water on my few square centimetres of floor.
The conversation around consent seemed logical and yet I felt saddened by it, as if it were missing a crucial ingredient. Consent, for me, de-eroticized desire. I thought about the thrill of sex in my twenties, of not knowing where I would wake up and with whom, of how wonderful it was to trust the person or people I was with to not go beyond what I wanted, and how sometimes I had gone beyond and was elated that I had. I can’t imagine finding sexual fulfilment by negotiating every step, every move, kiss and touch. Some of us want to lose control and inhabit the unbounded mystery of bodies at play.
When we hook up with someone, we are hooking up not just with their body, but with their morals, their sense of decency, their ability to read our body language and understand our words. And here is my problem with consent culture: sex for some people needs to be spontaneous, dark, unwholesome, and with an element of surprise for it to be arousing. This self-policing in the arena of sex felt, to me, anathema to its essence. In discussions around sex today, there is rarely a mention of pleasure or desire – these are subsumed into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, as if all the information you needed from your sexual partners could be found in a multiple-choice test. It all seemed bizarrely reductive in its efforts to be more open.
It is indeed crucial to steer clear of the non-consensual – too many women, including myself, have been violated by men. But paradoxically by placing the emphasis on consent, we are placing the responsibility onto individuals to avoid rape and abuse rather than seeing it as a societal problem of power imbalance. As I was thinking about all this, I realized I am old, romantic, and very out of step. Yet I still liked knowing that there are elements within myself and others that can surprise, enchant and disturb me. In fact, I want there to be these places inside myself.
While the rain drenched the thin nylon skin of my tent, I recalled an interview I had done in 2015 with the writer Sarah Hepola. We were talking about her book Blackout, which deals candidly with her alcoholism and its impact on her sex life and her writing. In the introduction, Hepola describes her route to becoming a feminist:
Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it. Sex was a complicated bargain to me . . . It was hide-and-seek, clash and surrender, and the pendulum could swing inside my brain all night: I will, no I won’t: I should, no I can’t . . . My consent battle was in me.
Here is the crux of the debate: our consent battles are inside us.
‘Feminism today is about identity politics and consent. We didn’t use the word consent in the 80s, and now it’s everywhere,’ she had told me during our conversation. When your consent battles are within you, how can they be legislated for?
Supper happened quickly. It was still raining and the ground under the picnic tables had become a small lagoon of mud. I was thinking of leaving the festival as the rain had penetrated all my belongings and the floor of my tent was slick with several millimetres of water. I had a word with Chuck about leaving the next morning and she looked distraught. She hadn’t had any sleep and emitted that energetic glow from having been up most of the night enjoying herself. She wanted to stay and I could not bear to drag her away.‘OK,’ I told her. ‘Let’s stay, but if the inside of my sleeping bag is wet by tomorrow morning, we’re leaving.’ She agreed. She had forgotten to put a tarp over her tent and everything she had brought with her was lying in a pool of water, but she had other things on her mind and seemed amazingly unperturbed.
That evening we were back in the dome for a performance. It was a re-enactment of the Sumerian myth of Inanna and the Huluppu tree from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written epic dating from 1300 to 1000 BCE. Discovered in 1853 in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in modern-day Iraq, the story of the young Sumerian hero-king Gilgamesh was imprinted onto twelve clay tablets in cuneiform writing and describes the king’s relationship to the wild, sexual Inanna. Gilgamesh’s refusal to be lured by Inanna plays a part in his journey from an arrogant, reckless young man to a hero-king who rules with wisdom. Excerpts from the epic were read aloud:
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Great Lady, the king will plow your vulva.
I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva.
Then plow my vulva, man of my heart!
Plow my vulva!
As I listened to the words of Inanna with her female power, fertility and unabashed sexual desire, something very strange happened. I felt a warmth between my legs. I quickly left the dome and ran to the outhouse in the pouring rain and saw that I was bleeding. Not just spotting, which was how my period had fizzled to an end last year, but gushing. All this talk of nature, sex, ancestral pathways, the goddess Inanna, consent, orgies, orgasms and weed lube had brought back my period. I headed to my tent where ‘just in case’ I had packed a few pads. My head was throbbing. I lay down feeling impressed with myself that despite my reluctant mind, my body had decided to show me that it was listening.
This is an extract from Surrender by Joanna Pocock, available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions.
All images courtesy of the author