My friend Eva, who has accompanied me to a buffet of odd events, is giving me her feedback on the people we’ve encountered there. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ve noticed that if there’s an event with nakedness, the majority of people who turn up will be older guys.”
As a journalist writing about weird workshops and unusual classes I’ve covered cuddle parties, rope-binding, naked yoga, and tantra, to name but a few. These classes are popular with the hipsters who are colonising Hackney Wick and other areas of East London in the throes of gentrification. And with each event I cover, I become more suspicious that these “alternative” workshops are simply a way for apparently progressive men to gawp at women—lap dancing clubs for the woke.
On the surface, these workshops are all above-board. After all, what could be creepy about a fully-clothed cuddle? Don’t we all need some affection? What could be impure about practising yoga as nature intended? Surely we could all benefit from taking part in such innocuous activities? But in reality, these workshops predominantly appeal to men who attend in the hope of touching women, staring at naked women, and—best case scenario—touching naked women.
These men are often older, usually single, left-leaning middle-class guys who sometimes sport a man-bun and a big, bushy beard—lubricated with artisan beard-oil—along with loose cotton trousers. They’re the kind of guys who performatively check their privilege, and who take it upon themselves to supervise the privilege-checking of others. They think of themselves as progressive or woke—most certainly nice. But these men are not that different to the guys who go to a strip club and pay £20 for women to grind their butts in their faces. It might seem like a stretch, but having carried out an undercover investigation into the lap dancing industry, I think the biggest difference is that paying for a lap dance is a more honest transaction.
In theory, the women who attend these workshops (or wokeshops, as I now think of them) want to be there as much as the men. Everyone’s bought a ticket, so nobody’s being exploited—it’s simply a mutual exchange, right? Not so fast. The fact is, the organisers of these events have to scrabble around to procure enough female attendees to make the men feel they’re getting their money’s worth. Several organisers admitted to me that the majority of interest is from men, and more than one confessed that the men always ask how many women will be attending—and won’t book unless they’re happy with the number of women they’ll have at their fingertips. Before one workshop, a desperate organiser sent me a string of emails asking if I’d bring along a female plus-one. “Before the event, the men always ask about the ratio and if I tell them that there are more men, then they won’t come,” she explained.
A woman who started training to become a “cuddle party facilitator” told me that her course instructor acknowledged privately that the guys who come to her class are really creepy. Emma—who decided to nip her new career path in the bud—recalls: “One of my tutor’s comments horrified me. She told me that a man had asked, ‘How are we going to divide up the women?’ It’s just gross. They are very sad men.”
The organisers of the wokeshops I’ve attended have all been female, so they pimp themselves out, along with the women they’ve persuaded to attend, in order to bump up the ratio of women-to-men. The female contingent is then boosted further by the roping in of a female assistant, who is often resigned to viewing this as part of her apprenticeship, a hazing ritual that has to be endured if she’s going to enter the lucrative industry.
At the workshops I went to, the female assistant seemed to be unpaid, but given a “free” place in the wokeshop in exchange for keeping herself available to pair up with men—an intern with benefits. At one event, I asked the female assistant to pair up with me for an exercise and she awkwardly declined, mumbling something about having to wait and see who didn’t have a partner. In saying no, she ensured that we both remained available to the ticket-buying men we’d been promised to when they parted with their money.
Aside from the organisers and their assistants, there are of course women who’ve actually bought a ticket. But unlike the men who are often regulars, the women don’t necessarily go back once they’ve grasped that they’re woke-bro bait. A friend of mine told me: “I know two women who’ve been to a cuddle party and neither of them would ever go back because they both felt it was a bit gross. They’re not charity workers for needy people.”
The “exercises” vary from workshop to workshop. At a cuddle party, it might include having a hug, or a foot rub, or participating in a “puppy pile” which involves everyone lying in a heap on a mattress while wearing blindfolds. I asked one of the regulars at this event if he’d still come along if he got a girlfriend. He said: “No. Why would I?”
At the rope-binding workshop, we got into pairs to tie each other up in a variety of ways. The organiser described the practise as “geeky,” “brainy,” and “intellectual,” claiming, “There’s an element of connecting and having a conversation with another person through physical movement.” But for all the faux-intellectualising, rope-binding (aka Shibari) comes from sado-masochistic Japanese porn.
View this post on Instagram
I spoke to a 55-year-old guy taking this class who informed me he was a “Dom.” He’d come to learn how to suspend his “Sub” from the ceiling. Unfortunately, no woman was willing to pair with him. “I wanted to partner with that single woman,” he said, indicating a slim woman in her early 20s, “but she went with someone else.” Sounding quite annoyed about this, he told me he’d been forced to work with another guy. “It was a downer,” he explained. “I was bored.”
At the tantra workshop, the exercises included having our heads massaged by a mystery partner who approached us from behind; standing with our foreheads touching while breathing into each other’s faces; and sticking our thumbs into the “pressure points” in each other’s bottoms. “I’m used to more advanced classes where we don’t wear clothes—clothes just get in the way,” said one grizzled, 50-something participant. And so it emerged that this workshop was only “level one” on the sexy scale. At level two, participants take part topless or in underwear, and at level three it’s the Full Monty, where exercises include “a prostate massage, or an anal massage for women,” according to the organiser.
Speaking as someone with breasts, I can say with confidence that naked yoga is not a class designed for women. It is a class for men to pay a premium to ogle at a naked female instructor. After 90 minutes of nudity, the class climaxes in a pose called “Bird of Paradise” in which the instructor stands on one leg and holds her other leg in the air at a 180-degree angle. Eva, who came to this class with me, described the instructor as a “yoga stripper” and said: “There’s no difference between a naked yoga session and an exotic dancer spreading her legs apart—you can look but can’t touch!”
And it wasn’t just the instructor the men were looking at. According to Eva: “Some of the guys were definitely crotch-watching, and when three of them tried to talk to me afterwards, it felt like just because they’d seen me naked they thought they had an invitation to take it further.”
The instructor of the naked yoga class told me she usually has a ratio of 70:30 with men in the majority, while her clothed yoga classes tend to be 85:15 with women taking the most spaces. When I remarked on the contrast, she explained that men are “more confident and comfortable with their bodies.” But if men are into yoga, why don’t more of them do it clothed? “Ah, well, I don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe because they feel like, ‘I’m not flexible enough.’”
The organiser of the cuddle party told participants, “Arousal is okay as long as you don’t act on it,” and the naked yoga instructor assured men that if they got an erection, it wasn’t sexual, it was just the yoga. She explained: “When you do yoga you move loads of energy in your body and an erection can happen, so it’s not because you’re thinking about something sexual, it’s because of the energy in your body.”
In giving these pseudo-assurances, wokeshop organisers give men permission to become aroused and erect while touching or looking at women’s bodies. So having enabled the men to access women, the organisers then give them a green light to get horny. This seal of approval affords the men a clear conscience, allowing them to feel like nice guys while they’re perving over women half their age who’ve been manipulated into pairing up with them. And all the while they think they’re morally superior to the sort of men who “exploit” and “objectify” women by paying them to take their tops off in strip clubs.
Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist living in London. She can be found on Twitter @Samantha_J_Rea