The sound of a shaman’s drum, coupled with trance-inducing singing and the guests start to slowly dance, touching themselves. As time passes, they slowly touch each other - carefully at first, getting acquainted with each other, before transitioning to slightly more passionate caresses.
Some time passes. A young man lays on the floor. There is a girl on top. Next to them is another couple. I don’t want to study their faces and bodies too closely, or to know their gender, orientation, or even worse - focus on what they might have in their medical histories. I don’t feel like gazing and trying to make out whose hand is resting on whose body, who’s naked and who isn’t - that would be too boring. I sit in a chair and watch this mass of bodies: they are already moving as one, almost like an artwork. Perhaps, this is what people in love look like, not caring if anybody is watching. Maybe that’s how I would have looked, had I had someone to hold in that instant.
SenCin (SensualCinema) is essentially an erotic gathering, combined with movie screenings and intended for an inclusive community. It is already in its third year in St. Petersburg (and its first in Moscow). You can’t really call it a “sex” party, as direct sexual contact is forbidden; while, according to Gala, the event’s creator, it is intended as a “gathering of energy and an opening up to sensuality” for anyone who does not fit in with the main crowd for whatever reason.
Before any of that, you have to be invited. Between a trampoline center and a storage hub, there is a door with shuttered drapes. It’s unlikely that any passerby would be curious enough to venture in. Beyond the door is a small loft with brick walls. There, Gala is busy placing candles, drinks and plastic flowers. Gala has cropped hair. She’s wearing a low cut T-shirt with bright yellow cycling pants and straps. A young man in a black suit and straps is assisting her. A man around 50 walks around the loft with a Hakassian shaman’s tambourine.
Gala held the first event in 2019. Four years ago, she began studying her own sexuality and began visiting sex parties and lectures. That’s when she got the idea to set up her own erotic theater. Since she lacked the money for the project, she instead opened the first Russian movie club with erotic screenings, mulled wine, herbal tea, snacks, as well as a “live table” - a person that has food placed on their body for others to interact with and eat off of.
Gala remembers her first event: “There was a topless girl playing a violin. Couples were kissing. Some were wrapped in blankets, watching the movie together. I, myself, gave a lecture on the movie ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ and remember freaking out. We discussed it after the showing. We already had seasoned lecturers visiting our subsequent events. The reviews were very positive, which inspired me to continue.”
With every screening, the organizer would also set up new performances and activities, leading to people with disabilities quickly finding out about the events through social media. Meanwhile, Gala explains that the word “inclusive” here signifies all people, regardless of their health condition, gender, looks and sexual orientation. SenCin is for everyone.
“I began to think about what I could do for the parties to become more inclusive and embrace any person willing to give us a shot. We filmed a short movie with a bunch of different people - both outside and inside,” Gala says. “I was inspired by the concept of entirely different people meeting and uniting in a singular touch.”
In order to be invited to SenCin, one must record a video or voice messages, attach a personal photo and answer questions about what sexuality means to the guest, how they interact with their own sexualiy and what they found exciting about the party’s format. The entrance fee is 3,000 rubles (approx. $41). I paid mine: “Money is kind of short,” I was told. The events don’t really bring in all that much - everything is eaten up by the expensive rent, props and other expenses. Gala says that the last party brought in a profit of only about $69 when all was said and done.
After payment comes through, the organizer sends an address and, if needed, can assist the guest in selecting an appropriate wardrobe. It usually includes accessories to be worn over the naked body, with some light eroticism in the form of lingerie, silk robes, see-through dresses and plenty of other items. There is no gender separation: everyone can dress as their preferred identity.
Numerous pillows, couches and chairs are positioned around the 100-square-meter space. On the floor is a rug and a projector displays an abstract video showing intertwined bodies. On one of the tables is a number of Venetian carnival masks, almost as if they were left there by characters from the movie ‘Wild Orchid’ (1989). In the neighboring room, you’ll find a tea zone consisting of a couple of couches, a table and everything you need to perform a tea ceremony.
The warm, dimmed lighting and the exoticism of the various details elicit a feeling of being at an exclusive venue with an Oriental theme. I give myself a nervous lookover. I’m wearing high-cut trousers, a satin top and worry that I’m underdressed for the occasion.
Several minutes later, I approach a musician who’s talking to today’s lecturer - a charming blonde. Almost immediately, having asked permission, she grabs one of my breasts and joyfully begins to inspect if it’s real or not. Judging by our conversation, she herself is a little timid and appears to be trying to find a way to bond with strangers.
“Nah, it’s fine, I’ll have no trouble blending in,” I hear the voice in my head.
Continuing on with the evening, 20 people lounging on couches and pillows are passing around a plastic rose, taking turns talking about their perception of sexuality.
For many, it’s about knowing oneself, attaining power and freedom of expression. For others - something more serious. One of the girls confesses to having never climaxed with a man and appears to almost breathe a sigh of relief. She knows that this is a safe space to talk openly about her issue and no one would judge her for it.
Some are willing to name their names and discuss what they do, others prefer to stay anonymous. During a short introduction, I find out that there are dentists, engineers, musicians, programmers and a couple of gynecologists here, as well, who’ve just arrived after performing surgery.
At this point, one of the participants, Akio - a black trans man - is tying up a girl, while conversing with me about sexuality. He says he’s terribly excited to be here and also really nervous about showing his body, which is yet to complete its physical transformation. Ako believes that not everyone at the event is versed in the issue of gender. That being said, he’s still more comfortable here than around everyday people in his life.
“Sometimes, it seems as though not mentioning it is just safer - even though it sucks so bad psychologically… It’s useless trying to explain this to some people. And sometimes - yes, it’s still useless to explain, but you end up having to put up resistance and defend your boundaries. This evening, meanwhile, is more about tactile contact, which transcends the fact of being uninformed - here, I meet people through touch - not words,” Akio explains.
Two girls drinking champagne at the bar share their impressions. “Usually, it’s nice to at least talk a little. I have no idea how they manage to touch each other so freely!” one of them exclaims, before taking a sip. Akio appears and asks to caress my hands. I consent, closing my eyes and imagining that it’s my boyfriend, who’s waiting for me in Moscow. I think about how, earlier, before the relationship got serious, I also felt at ease touching other people, while it seems so surprising and off-limits now (well, unless for a story). The shamanic music stops and one of the guests grabs a guitar, beginning to play something that sounds like Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons and Chris Rea, if I’m not mistaken. I find this relaxing and agree to a Shibari session - meaning, I’m about to get tied up and suspended.
My partner and I barely share a word - he’s focused entirely on tying the knots around my shoulders and collarbone. According to him, that’s the part that is the most pleasurable. I gaze around. The guitar has once again been replaced by shamanic music, but with the musician now using a girl’s naked body to play his tambourine. It’s visible even from a distance how she’s syncing up with the beat, disconnecting from the outside world and finding relaxation.
There’s now another knot. I feel constricted and I’m not getting the sensation of eroticism that a guy next to me - whose hands are being tied by a girl - appears to be feeling; or the couple, caressing each other on the couch nearby; or another guy, watching the whole show in the nude. It’s as though each of these people has only just been allowed to discuss sex and get to the bottom of their preferences, to get a rare moment of freedom from established cultural boundaries.
Nevertheless, time flies, as it turns out - it’s been several hours since the start. I fail to notice that I’m all tied up now and starting to feel a sense of ease - in part due to the slightly relaxed knots on my body, but also the internal ones I appeared to have in my mind.
Meanwhile, a smiling girl enters the loft in a wheelchair, together with a friend. Having just been freed from my bondages, I approach immediately, offering to help with her things, but she politely declines. I immediately feel completely silly, remembering how, almost a year ago, having received a leg injury, I had to slowly move about a mall in a splint, with some passersby mumbling: “What is she even doing being a nuisance here? It’s best that she stayed home.” At that moment, I, too, wanted to find myself in a place where no one paid any attention to my appearance or asked me questions with pity in their voice, accepting me as a regular human being.
At first glance, Maria (who requested that her name be changed) seems modest and slightly timid, as her wine is brought and some people approach to take pictures with her. It turns out, it’s her first time at a party like this.
“I liked it more than I expected,” she tells me after the evening is over. “I didn’t want to come at first, I wasn’t curious, but saw the ad and thought - why not experience something new. I only tried the tea ceremony, when you drink blindfolded and talk about the associations you’re experiencing. Meanwhile, the tea master makes a drawing on your body, based on your words. I liked the feel of the brush. It’s interesting when nothing distracts you from the taste or the smell. But it’s also new, as I’m not used to not being able to see.”
Maria also says that she wasn’t ready to interact with strangers, but, overall, approves the concept inherent to such parties. All events in Russia must become inclusive and adapted to people with any disabilities or irregularities about them, Maria says.
Nevertheless, people with disabilities are still not a common sight at SenCin, firstly because of the boundaries set by society, Gala believes.
“A regular person finds it difficult to visit an erotic party, while for someone with a disaiblity, that feeling is doubled. And it’s really brave to be able to let go of cultural conditioning and make the choice to come,” she adds.
Gala dreams of a day when more people with disabilities would give her parties a chance and she’s planning to employ the help of specialists in integration, who’d be able to help the newbies acclimatize to their surroundings.
During the movie screening, closer to 2 AM, a large portion of the guests suddenly start to gather their things: it’s exactly 12 minutes before St. Petersburg’s bridges are raised. Everyone is in a real hurry, putting their coats on, looking for bags and tying scarves. They’re slowly leaving the world of erotic costumes, practices and sensuality and re-entering daily routine. St. Petersburg’s islands are separated from each other by drawbridges and if you don’t make it across before the raising, you risk an arduous, long journey along the city’s outer bypass (or staying in the wrong part of town until morning).
I sink into thought in the cab on my way back to my hotel. Unlike regular sex parties, SenCin doesn’t revolve around the need to meet someone new and have sex. It’s a meeting where one can freely talk about their sexual issues and even discuss problems at work. You can show yourself, but also, maybe, fall in love with yourself. Especially if, before, you were insecure about your looks or thought you weren’t good enough for anyone. This is a place for figuring out your feelings towards yourself - and others. Finally, it’s an opportunity to forget about the worries that constantly follow you around outside of the confines of the loft and simply relax at a party intended for everyone, while avoiding awkward questions and scornful glances.
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