1. Sex workshop does not equal sex.
Let's start with this most basic fact, since it's the first question I was asked by anyone who got wind of my plans. My experience of "The Art of Great Sex" includes no sex — not simulated among its attendees, and not demonstrated by its educators. It is a decidedly hands-off venture, salacious but still somehow formal. The whole affair is academic, even. After checking in at the door, we are directed toward four rows of folding chairs, each set with a pen and some literature (Babeland's official Sex Bill of Rights with commandments like "Own your own orgasm," a supplementary "Yes/No/Maybe" worksheet for at-home exploring with your partner, and an entry form for a massage candle giveaway), and the people who fill those seats will take studious notes as the evening progresses, occasionally raising a hand to ask a question. It's like sex ed, redux.
2. Women (and specifically small groups of women) are in good company.
Of the 25 attendees, only four are men. Of the women, only two are there alone. I am one of them, and both of us take seats at the edge of separate aisles, making a point to seem especially engrossed in the reading material. The majority of the women have arrived in little groups, and I am immediately envious. It's already clear that I've overestimated my level of comfort, and I'm yearning for a familiar face to ease the tension. I text my boyfriend: "On second thought, maybe you should have come?"
3. Sex educators are impossibly cool.
But then our leaders arrive, and I can tell we're in good hands. The class is led by two young women. One dressed in a light black dress with lace accents and thigh-high nylons, and sporting impeccably winged eye liner; the other wears a more conservative pink sweater and jeans. They are both warm, welcoming, and fluent in the language of sex positivity, rattling off the plan for our two-hour evening with ease: We'll talk about communication, toys, oral techniques, role-playing, anal sex, group sex, rough sex, and miscellaneous kinks, with a 15-minute intermission somewhere in the middle. There is no such thing as perfect sex, we're told, but by the end of this, great sex will be in our reach. I'm enchanted by the confidence and candidness of these women. They are, in a way, everything I want to be. How does one become an adult sex educator? I wonder. What's the money like in that?
4. Privacy is respected.
Photos are (understandably) not allowed during the workshop, or, incidentally, in the store during business hours. The employees understand this desire for discretion; though questions are encouraged — one man in his early forties knows his girlfriend likes to use lube during oral, but is it safe to ingest? — we are told that there will be time after the presentation to ask questions one on one.
5. One vibrator is probably not enough.
The future is now, and it is filled with remote-controlled, dual-motor, multi-pronged, silicone vibrators. There could be an entire workshop on the many varied sex toys at our disposal, and our educators are kind enough to pass some of their favorites around the class. There are vibrators that resemble adorable little rabbits. There are U-shaped vibrators to wear while actually having penetrative sex. Have you ever thought about popping in a small vibrator before a date, handing the remote control to your date over dinner, and telling them to have at it? I hadn't either! But it sounds like a very fun date! Here's what's less fun: figuring out what to do with your face while you hold the vibrator whose pace and intensity the stranger sitting next to you is controlling.
6. When it comes to oral sex, practice is key.
The section on oral sex is a highlight, and not just because of the illuminating tips (though they are plenty). The best part is the interactive, educational tool given to us. I'm talking specifically about the little lollipops that teach us how to use our tongues.
We are immediately excited when one of the employees enters from stage right with the bag of candy. We are told to take one and pass it down, but quickly there is a clamor for different flavors, followed by an irrational panic that somehow there won't be enough to go around. The same employee steps in to mediate ("We're going to speed up the process here — you've got grape, cherry, orange, and blueberry so figure it out ahead of time") but I still choke and grab a blue wrapper when what I wanted was the obviously superior grape. No matter. The educators have already begun, and soon we are tepidly diving in, each of us eyeing the others to see just how committed we will allow ourselves to be. Somewhat awkwardly, we try to master the soft-flat tongue, the hard-sharp tongue, the melodious "pop" technique. About a minute passes before we've all given up and bitten down on our candy.
"This is why we don't hand these out at the beginning of class," the instructor says.
7. Lube is your best friend.
If there's one thing I take away from the entire evening, it is this: the wetter the better. Lubrication makes or breaks sex, and it can be surprisingly complicated. Is it for your toys or for your body? Water- or silicone-based? Did you know it can double as massage oil? It even comes in flavors! Delicious.
8. Floggers are different from paddles, which are different from riding crops, which are different from whips.
Literary-based judgments aside, the fervor behind Fifty Shades of Grey is real. It is so real, in fact, that it's sparked a brand-new wave of S&M enthusiasts, eager to bring a little bit of pain into the bedroom.
"It's sexy because it's still taboo," the instructor tells us, voice lowered. "But people come in asking for a whip, when what they really want is a flogger."
As it turns out, these accessories are as plentiful and varied as the vibrators, and it's important that beginners don't accidentally pick up advanced-level disciplinary tools. The instructors highlight a few of their favorites — the Lollipop (I'm beginning to sense a pattern) is aesthetically pleasing with its soft pink circle, and it delivers a satisfying "thwack" sound — but these, to my relief, don't get passed around.
9. I am not quite as liberated as I like to think I am.
To put it bluntly, I am uncomfortable. I am not so uncomfortable as to regret attending, and not so uncomfortable that I would caution a friend from going. But yes, I am a bit scandalized to hear anal sex myths debunked in public. And I guess this is kind of the point: to see where my more prudish tendencies lie and to challenge them. I can talk as loudly and as frequently as I'd like about the importance of sex positivity when I'm out in the real world, but I can't pretend I'm not just a little bit embarrassed to see which section of this sex store my fellow attendees gravitate toward, and vice versa. But I'm here, and so are these other people, and we're just a bunch of human beings who realize that sex is pretty great, so I suck it up. The entire store is 10% off for the night, and those vibrators aren't cheap.