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Vajazzled vulvas, and group masturbation: my week at a sexual awakening retreat

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

It is December in Marrakesh, and I am sitting in a circle with 30 naked women, staring down the barrel of a heavily vajazzled vulva. The vulva belongs to a woman in the centre of the circle, who is lying on her back and slowly touching herself. A few sobs erupt from other corners of the room. One of the women is holding her unoccupied hand, another gently strokes her hair.

“Everyone, watch how Elena’s* p***y physically responds to my words,” Mama Gena commands the group. She crouches down, face inches away from the vajazzles. “Your p***y is divine, it is inspiring, it is a work of art, you are living in your turn on,” she whispers, with a distinctive New York twang.

Mama Gena describes herself as an “icon, teacher, author, mother and founder and CEO of the School of Womanly Arts” (Harvest Series)
Mama Gena describes herself as an “icon, teacher, author, mother and founder and CEO of the School of Womanly Arts” (Harvest Series)

I am suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to pee. There is, unfortunately, no subtle way to slip out of a situation like this. I too, am completely naked, and the toilets are on the other side of the hotel complex, a good few minutes walk away. I decide to hold it – there’s only half an hour before lunch. One of the women gives me a knowing nod and takes my hand, and I realise she must have mistaken “need to pee” grimace for a sudden swell of emotion. I smile and nod in return, and we turn back to face the vulva.

It was, I thought beforehand, a slight embellishment to call my upcoming trip a “sex retreat”. Feminine Power and Sensuality with Mama Gena was vague enough to be dressed up a bit for dramatic effect when I inevitably told everyone I knew during any lull in conversation. “But no,” would come my follow-up, “I don’t think it’s actually a sex retreat. I assume it’ll be a bit of journaling and meditation, that sort of thing.”

Emma at the Jnane Tamsna hotel in Marrakesh where the retreat took place (Emma Loffhagen)
Emma at the Jnane Tamsna hotel in Marrakesh where the retreat took place (Emma Loffhagen)

In fact, when trying to explain to my friends (and my understandably curious boyfriend) exactly why I was going to Morocco with a bunch of strangers, I realised there was surprisingly little tangible information to be found about what the retreat actually entailed. What few details were available online were so Gwyneth Paltrow-esque as to make them slightly unintelligible. “Join renowned teacher Mama Gena for an experience unlike any other,” read the retreat’s homepage on the Harvest Series website. “In this women’s only retreat, reconnect with every facet of your sacred feminine through embodied tools and practices. Unleash your deepest desires with guided exercise that will expand you sensually, explore your shadow side and befriend your inner darkness.” Four days, three nights – and a yoni-clenching €4520 (£3886).

While I am sometimes guilty of being a bit of a woo-woo sceptic (I once got kicked out of a breathwork class after laughing when someone farted), what I am is genuinely fascinated by sex. As a 24-year-old woman, I am of a generation who have been encouraged to deconstruct our desire, to interrogate monogamy, to go to sex parties, and explore our sexuality, which I have dived head first into.

Mama Gena with a vulva cushion during one of the workshops (Harvest Series)
Mama Gena with a vulva cushion during one of the workshops (Harvest Series)

But sex was beginning to feel like something I had already “completed”. I had ticked all the boxes of sex positivity – an easy thing to if you’re in a loving and satisfying relationship. I wanted (pardon the pun) to go deeper, and was interested to see if there was anything more that Mama Gena could help me unlock, to discover any boundaries I was subconsciously harbouring.

So I vowed to go into the experience with a completely open mind – any vagina candle preconceptions I might have had were left firmly on the runway at Gatwick.

Even before coming face to face with Elena’s vulva, it becomes abundantly clear that journaling and meditation was an wild underestimation. While I hadn’t heard of Mama Gena – who describes herself as an “icon, teacher, author, mother and founder and CEO of the School of Womanly Arts” – until a week before arriving, it is quickly apparent that here, I am in the minority.

Emma Loffhagen (Emma Loffhagen)
Emma Loffhagen (Emma Loffhagen)

As we mingle over drinks on the first evening, many of the women gush at how excited they are to see Mama Gena again, or to be able to come face to face with their hero for the first time. Here, she is a celebrity. I look around and note that I am by some margin the youngest in the group, and I struggle to hear another British accent. Everyone is very earnest but incredibly warm (we’re all supposed to call each other Sister Goddess, which I keep forgetting to do).

Then, as if on cue, a voice booms apparently from the heavens. “Have no fear,” it rattles, “Mama Gena is here!” A woman in her mid-to-late sixties decked out in a full leopard print suit rounds the corner, riding an actual camel. “Thank you, everyone, for saying yes to your p***y and the Great P***y in the Sky and joining us here,” Mama Gena addresses the group. After going round in a circle and asking us all “why our p***ies brought us here”, we are introduced to Stephen*, a man in his mid-sixties in a fedora standing next to Mama Gena, and the only vulva-less member of the group.

“This is my partner, Stephen,” she explains. “He’s here at your disposal – you can make appointments with him all weekend.” Just as I’m wondering what that could possibly mean, she clarifies: “He’s an expert in teaching women how to make themselves come.” The group breaks out into whoops and squeals. (I am reliably informed throughout the weekend that numerous women follow her advice).

It is halfway through the first of the daily six-hour workshops, after a brief introduction and a dance session involving a giant vulva cushion, that the first clothes come off. Mama Gena is wrapping up a somewhat incongruous ten-minute slideshow about child marriage and human trafficking, when her lace-clad assistants materialise with a tray of jewels and temporary tattoos.

“It’s time to adorn our p***ies,” Mama Gena declares at once. “Dress them up, show them off to the group. A woman who owns her p***y owns her life”. I look around the room in shock. Was everyone else expecting this? I’m suddenly hyper-aware of the faded M&S briefs I hurriedly put on this morning. Some of the more experienced Mama Gena followers already have their pants around their ankles, stark naked and happily sticking on the coloured gems as though this were a perfectly normal Thursday morning activity. Others are a little more hesitant – I lock eyes with a woman attempting to vajazzle with her underwear still on and start to do the same. We are allies now, I decide. “No, no,” Mama Gena swoops over, pointing at us. “Everything off!”

At this point, I enter what can only be described as a dissociative state, as I peel off my underwear and gingerly fold it on top of the rest of my clothes. It’s not that I feel particularly uncomfortable naked in front of other women. In fact, there is something unexpectedly moving about all of us stood there, bodies of all different shapes and sizes, giggling and clapping for one another as we catwalk one by one across the room. I’m also fully aware that the retreat’s raison d’etre is to push our boundaries, to release our inhibitions – and I certainly feel less guarded and shy as the day goes on (even though it is odd making small talk at lunch with someone when you’ve just helped stick jewels on their pubic hair).

We are instructed to take all our clothes off within an hour of the first of Mama Gena's workshops (Harvest Series)
We are instructed to take all our clothes off within an hour of the first of Mama Gena's workshops (Harvest Series)

But I still can’t shake the feeling that there is something slightly uncomfortable about it all.

It’s at dinner the following evening that I put my finger on it. “Come in your most empowering courtesan outfit to express your authentic self”, the Whatsapp group chat message from the organisers reads. Sat at a candlelit table in our underwear (some women are already fully naked – and crying), after an imposed five minutes of silence, we are instructed by Mama Gena to first to “feed the Sister Goddess opposite you” (I realise now why all the food is phallic-shaped), to give our neighbour a lap dance, and, as the final flourish, to lick chocolate mousse off each others bodies. At what point had I consented to being touched by the other women?

For the first time, I genuinely consider trying to leave. But I’m flanked on either side by five or so women, all of us tightly tucked into the wall. Perhaps a mad dash under the table? It doesn’t seem like a very dignified option. And besides, I don’t want to offend my designated Sister Goddess, who is waiting expectantly. There is nothing else for it.

Emma Loffhagen (Emma Loffhagen)
Emma Loffhagen (Emma Loffhagen)

Shouldn’t we have signed something agreeing to this beforehand, I begin to wonder, lying in bed that night. Or had an explicit opportunity to opt in or out? Many of the attendees are recently divorced, but some are definitely in relationships – how would their partners feel if they knew what was going on? More pertinently, if any reluctance to participate is viewed as a symptom of repression, where does consent fit in? Does it become part of the cage which Mama Gena is trying to break open?

It’s not all nipple licking and group masturbation, though, and day two brings some respite from the enforced intimacy. We are introduced to “swamping”, a (fully-clothed) exercise in “deliberately choosing to feel every drop of emotion” rather than bottling it up. “Think about your deepest grief”, Mama Gena commands us. A particularly poignant memory of my grandparents pops into my head, and for a minute or two I forget where I am, enjoying the space to reminisce. “Now, add some desire”, Mama Gena says abruptly, disrupting the reverie. People begin to writhe on the floor around me. Her voice crescendos. “Imagine you’re f***ing the grief!”. I feel as though I’ve definitely picked the wrong memory.

Mama Gena's book, which all the attendees are given in a goodie bag (Emma Loffhagen)
Mama Gena's book, which all the attendees are given in a goodie bag (Emma Loffhagen)

The workshop I unexpectedly find the most difficult centres on the art of bragging. In pairs, we take it in turns to compliment one another, and the only permissible response is “thank you, I know.” It is an almost physical battle with myself to repel the urge to dismiss the compliment, (being British is definitely a disadvantage here), as well to reject the compulsion to compare myself to the other women in the room. We are then handed feathers, and Mama Gena instructs us to gently stroke one another while lying face to face (naked, obviously) and not breaking eye contact, which may sound like a slight non-sequitur but feels, in a strange way, apt.

A month on from the trip, my feelings about it are still somewhat conflicted. The question that Mama Gena was posing – “how can we embrace and celebrate female sexuality?” – is definitely worth exploring. Perhaps, then, my discomfort hints at a divide in how that question should be answered.

Attendees at the Mama Gena sex retreat (Harvest Series)
Attendees at the Mama Gena sex retreat (Harvest Series)

Where I and my generation are interested in interrogating the rigid boundaries of sexuality and gender – and reinforcing the importance of consent – Mama Gena’s approach feels like the opposite. Rather than critical engagement with why women have been alienated from pleasure, it prioritises vague exercises focused on “feeling your aliveness” and “living your desires”, while also indulging in very fixed ideas of the “divine feminine”, straight from the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus playbook.

But maybe theory is not always what we need. Is there not, after all, something innately radical in the act of gathering 30 women to Morocco for four days for the sole purpose of talking about their p***ies. Perhaps, behind the chocolate mousse and the vajazzles, a shred of something beautiful?

*Some names have been changed for anonymity