A few months ago, my partner and I ventured to Sacramento, California, for a tantra workshop. It was terrible and awesome and challenging and beautiful all at once. I learned a lot about how to NOT run a workshop, and want to share some red flags you should watch out for when you’re headed to a Tantra event.
Daydreaming about this Tantra Workshop
I had been interested in attending this event for a long time. This workshop was taught by a renowned teacher that’s been working in this field for decades. Secondly, a teacher and podcaster that I admire had studied and worked with him for years, so I thought it would be interesting and valuable. It was also convenient: a three-day weekend workshop makes for a fun long weekend, and it’s an easy non-stop flight from Oahu. This workshop felt like an interesting and fun thing to explore with my sweetheart–it didn’t take too much time away from our worldly duties, and might help us both grow our personal and professional skills.
For lots of reasons, this workshop was really hard for us both. Having attended multiple tantra workshops over the past few years, I had some idea of what we might be getting into. But this event had so many red flags waving constantly that we left each day feeling confused, frustrated… but also excited about the few things we did learn and confused about the situation overall.
I’m not going to be specific about the exact workshop, because the reason for writing this story is not to disparage the teacher nor the team that put on the event. My reasons for writing this are more as a general cautionary experience for other students of this work.
That is, I want to set some standards for what I see as red flags or the ‘shadow side’ of Tantra workshops and classes. Writing this out is also a way for me to better understand and encapsulate how I present this work of sex, tantra, and more, because this workshop we attended was the EXACT OPPOSITE of how I organize my events. I want folks to know that there are ways to approach this work that can be focused on consent, healing, and connecting, and that’s the way I organize my events.
🚩Red Flag 1: Facilitation & Organization 🚩
One of the first red flags I saw with this event was the lack of organization: there wasn’t a clear schedule or agenda of how the days would go. Each day ran on a slightly different time schedule. I feel strongly that part of being a good facilitator is to build a firm, clear container—this is the first place of safety building with participants. But being unclear about our arrival, departure, and lunch times made me feel unbounded, confused, and distrustful.
The event coordinators required that everyone have a c0vid test prior to coming to the event, and yet when we arrived, no one bothered to check our test results. This wasn’t so much a health concern for me, but was an indication to me that organization duties were not a high priority. This was my first felt sense of distrust with the leaders.
On Day 2 my partner and I arrived a half hour late (it had been a rough night before, and we were not feeling our best). But the facilitator said no problem, they were not starting on time. So it was great that we were accidently on time, but I would have preferred a more rigid schedule adherence.
In my opinion, part of facilitation is also building a container for those in the group. My friend Terra reminds us that the container is set once everyone speaks into the circle. I love this framing as it reminds me that each person brings their own beautiful experiences, needs, and wisdom into the group, and teaching a class is as much about learning from others as it is sharing my own knowledge.
But in this workshop, we were not invited to speak into the group until the third day. And once it did, it felt SO DIFFERENT afterwards. Both my partner and I remarked at how incredible it was to see each person open up in different ways to the group, and bring their light into the circle. At that point it really felt that the good work could begin. And yet, that was our last morning! This is a big missed opportunity to gather and connect people at the onset of the event.
🚩Red Flag 2: Being of Service 🚩
It’s a blessing to be able to share this work with people, and I strive to honor those that have given over time, energy, and money to commit to this work. One of the things that bothered me most about this event was feeling unwelcome in the actual location, which was the teachers’ home.
Multiple times during the weekend the co-facilitator made sure to remind us that it’s so hard to host workshops at their house, and that she would rather be making love with her husband all weekend than hosting a workshop at the house. I don’t judge the co-facilitator for having those thoughts—it is very hard to host things at your own home, and yes, I’d often rather be making love than working, too, but to hear that as a paying student feels really disrespectful.
This also makes me feel certain that I don’t want to commit to their additional, 10-day training programs (also held in their home) where I’m clearly not welcome (but our money is).
🚩Red Flag #3: Communication & Consent 🚩
I love teaching about communication and consent to folks, and doing so often opens up a window of understanding (for self and others) that we simply do not have in our day-to-day lives. In a workshop that’s focused on touching the most intimate parts of ourselves (literally and figuratively), with the intention of really connecting with a partner (and for some, a stranger), I think it was hugely lacking to not include an introduction to consent and better (deeper) consent and communication practices.
My partner and I have robust consent practices, and even we had a hard time with some of the suggestions given for home play. Half of the attendees came to the event single, and paired up with other attendees for the Saturday and Sunday homeplay exercises. The facilitators used a strategy that allowed the single women to choose their single male partners during the second night. Not only is this model (and the workshop as a whole) totally based on cis-hetero dynamics (with little room for gender or sexual expression outside of this binary) it assumes that as long as the woman is consenting then it’s okay to move forward, without consideration of the man’s consent. This reflects a harmful, outdated expectation of male sexuality (one that assumes that men want any sex they can get, and that their choices don’t actually matter, that their consent doesn’t matter).
None of the men expressed (to me directly or in group) any frustration with this, however, there wasn’t really an opportunity for people to step outside of this program. At sex and Tantra workshops like this there is often a balancing act between pushing your edges (healthy exploration within your own self-consent) and forcing yourself to go along to get along—my partner and I talked about this a lot that weekend. Where is the edge? Where is the consent? I don’t think the facilitators did a good enough job of exploring this nuance with the attendees, to make space for healthy movement in and outside of these directions for play.
One of the other big challenges was the presentation of the materials: on Saturday we came back from break to a TV screen with a naked woman splayed out on the screen. The second day after lunch we came back to a makeshift bed in the living room with no indication of what was going to happen. The instructor and his co-facilitator stripped down to their undies and proceeded to demonstrate a ‘sex dance–’ a presentation of different positions and ways to engage with penis-in-vagina sex that was energetically and sexually explicit.
There’s nothing wrong with the video or demo itself. However, some discussion ahead of time would have been great to let people know what they were walking into after lunch. As a teacher in this space, I know this work is HARD for a lot of people to talk about, and sometimes baby steps are needed. And the teacher in me wonders: with no consent or awareness options, how many people were so turned off by this sexy show that they will never step foot into a workshop again? Did these explicit demos turn people away from this work forever? I found myself watching others in the room, trying to gauge whether this was an edge they were pushing, or a going along that’s going to keep them shut out of this work. It’s impossible to know without asking each of them, but I didn’t feel good, and I would never set my students up for a demo like that without getting very clear opt-in from each.
🚩Red Flat #4: Accuracy 🚩
I like to think my work bridges the esoteric and the scientific, and while I love all the energetic and spiritual aspects of Tantra, as a sex educator I also value medical/physiological accuracy. While some of the more esoteric Taoist and Tantra teachings don’t have corresponding (Western) medical descriptions and might not need as much updating, calling the pelvic floor muscles in vulva-based bodies the ‘love muscle’ with a diagram showing it either loose or taut across the cross-section of the body, is not only confusing and shaming, it’s medically inaccurate and unhelpful. All humans make mistakes, for sure. And yet when the teaching materials are as old as me (they were copyright 1981), and when there’s not been an attempt to update language, terminology, and actually present medically accurate diagrams, it’s hard to want to use or integrate any of the teachers’ wisdo into my professional or personal practices.
There were lots of times that the facilitator used outdated and directly harmful/disrespectful language when speaking about sex and gender (for example, when encouraging the men to use a more gentle, loose-wrist approach when touching a woman’s body, he referred to the touch as ‘San Francisco hands’) or making a joke about a fake pornography called ‘Transsexuals from Outerspace.’
What Did I Actually Learn in this Tantra Workshop?
What WAS good about this workshop? Learning from people that have been teaching a long time always has benefits, and there’s a lot of wisdom in this particular teaching pair that guided us to explore our bodies in different ways and make space for connection in different ways. There were also some beautiful group practices that highlighted the depth and beauty this work can offer people. There were tears of joy and expansive love during the first group shares. A beautiful circle of healing that allowed us to connect with each other attendee (again, divided by men-women) with breath, eye-gazing, and non-intimate touch. The sharing and the group circle were the most beautiful, connecting part of the events, and these were not initiated until day three, followed by only one other lesson and then we ended. I also got to have a beautiful experience with my partner wherein the women were given an opportunity to worship the divine masculine in the men, and he and I had our own really sweet, connecting experience of him feeling love from me in a different way.
I also learned a lot about how to NOT teach this work. In the week after this event, I totally changed my language around my upcoming events, and focused on agenda-building and being very clear about the facilitation agreements so that every attendee has an opportunity to know, exactly, what we’ll be doing and be clear about whether the upcoming events are right for them, at this time. My fear is that someone attends an event like the Sacramento event, and comes away feeling harmed, shamed, or shut down from this exposure therapy to the world of sacred sexuality. And my goal is to create events and spaces where people can learn and grow with the information I can share, and dive deeper exactly at their own pace.
I’ve chosen not to identify the teachers or location of the event because while it was a mostly unpleasant experience for my partner and I, I know that this particular teacher has legions of fans and I know I don’t speak for all of them. This is just my experience of an event, and maybe it will resonate with you, too.