I attended my first-ever orgy the other night. Well, sort of. The Night of the Senses, incorporating the Erotic Awards, is a long-running institution founded by pioneering activist Dr Tuppy Owens (she was the first, though not the last, pornographer-academic and now leads the Sexual Freedom Coalition, among other things). It pitches itself both at "seasoned sexual adventurers" and at those at an earlier stage in their sensual journey, serves as a showcase for erotic performers, raises money and, via the Awards, recognises artists, campaigners and sex-workers alike. It sounded quite fun. And knowing (at least virtually) some of the nominees I stunned myself by purchasing a last minute ticket. Friday evening found me at a club near London Bridge, heart in mouth, ready for whatever might be about to happen.
The dress-code was flexible but seemingly unforgiving: anyone in civilian wear - or anything "plain, humdrum or unsexy" - would be invited to visit the "dressing up shoppe" or else leave, I read. Dressing up, said the programme, allows you to "float around in a haze instead of feeling invisible". Nudity was an option, though not for me. Cue frantic search through the wardrobe. I considered black tie - but would that be "different" enough to avoid a humiliating arrest by the style police? In the end I went with subfusc, enlivened by a slightly garish silk waistcoat I once wore at a student ball. The academic gown with its schoolroom connotations was at least mildly kinky.
I needn't have worried. There were plenty of people less exotically dressed than I was, though there was no shortage of stereotypically kinky outfits and goth wear. One man came dressed as the Pope, which in present circumstances was perhaps the most outrageous costume of all. There were a few extravagant historical or fantasy creations. On the other hand, those partygoers who used the same outfitters as Hans Christian Andersen's emperor were in for a chilly night: the programme warned people against wearing too much, yet many of those I spoke to complained about the cold. My gown, meanwhile, garnered several compliments, including from a similarly clad gentleman who was running a spanking booth.
The evening kicked off a little before nine with the famous Erotic Awards. The trophies - impressively large (at least I thought so) winged golden penises - were distributed to a selection of performers and activists in a ceremony that was at times fairly shambolic. Dr Petra Boynton, winner of the blog prize, was unable to be present - much to my disappointment - but Anna Arrowsmith (aka Anna Span) famously representing the Lib Dems in Gravesham, did step forward to accept her trophy as politician of the year. Her moment of glory came only after an embarrassing kefuffle when the compere forgot to announce the category and declared the end of the awards.
Of course Arrowsmith is a hero to the sex industry, both as a pornographer and now as a public face, but I did wonder if she was strictly eligible, given that she is only potentially a politician. Perhaps she won it for agreeing to turn up. Another Liberal Democrat, Chris Huhne, had been suggested for the honour but (mindful, perhaps, of the shape of the trophy) had declined to be nominated. Even so, with the party's MEP Chris Davies the only other nominee it was clear where the organisers' political sympathies lay. That's not so surprising. Conservatives tend to veer inconsistently between libertarianism and moral puritanism - remember "back to basics"? - while pro-gay rights and feminist Labour has introduced a plethora of authoritarian laws against prosititution and extreme porn. As Ewan Morrison puts it in an article for Erotic Review - handed out free to departing guests - "no matter how much it tries to disguise the fact with its talk of liberties, the Left is about normalising standards for all and enforcing them."
Other winners included two longstanding internet buddies of the Heresiarch's, the writer Jane Fae (formerly John Ozimek, and still looking more like a John than a Jane, alas) and the campaigner Clair Lewis. It was nice finally to meet them, if only briefly in Clair's case: her evening ended on a sour note when the organisers neglected to offer her a wheelchair-accessible platform from which to say a few words about the work of her pressure group CAAN. She left soon afterwards, and has since declared the whole ceremony to be a sham and the compere "very rude". Given that Night of the Senses prides itself on its acccessibility to disabled people, and raises money for a charity that aims to improve the personal and sexual opportunities available to the disabled, Clair's experience is at least somewhat embarrassing. She now dismisses Tuppy Owens' charity as "an archaic organisation which is too busy patronising disabled people to let us join in on an equal basis."
After that unpromising start to the evening the cabaret began, a pleasingly varied succession of burlesque acts. There was blind woman talking while draped in a red sheet, a munchkin who polished a blow-up doll before taking her clothes off (hilarious but also a little bit scary), a Spanish poet who recited a rubbishy poem while removing his clothes and a much better one stark naked, a woman wearing a kimono and rope bondage who almost started a fire while attempting to light a paper lantern - and my personal favourite, a cross-dressing male stripper styled Major Suttle-Teese, part top-hatted toff, part vamp.
Then it was party time.
It wasn't quite the full-blown orgy I had been nervously anticipating. Indeed, I spent much of the time managing to avoid thinking about, talking about, and certainly having, sex. Perhaps that says more about me, but others I spoke to also complained that there was too much conversation and not enough action. The venue was plastered with notices demanding guests behave with appropriate respect and threatening transgressors with summary expulsion - not an unreasonable sentiment, of course, but the assumption that it needed to be said at all lent the party an unfortunate whiff of the nanny state. Equally counter-intuitive was the woman offering "non-sexual hugs". Non-sexual hugs have their place, of course - many, perhaps most, of the finest hugs have no sexual component - but as a Ukrainian-American artist I got chatting to pointed out, that place is surely not at an anything-goes sex party. There was a dungeon, but when I put my head round the door it was populated by people sitting around drinking while the implements of torture stayed forlornly underused.
Needless to say, there was sex to be had, some of it presumably in the Room of Riotous Pleasures ("specially designed for women to live out their fantasies of enjoying anonymous sex with a succession of men"). I couldn't find it. I did notice the "frantically busy" Dark Room, which was reputed to contain people randomly having sex in the dark (though I didn't go in to find out). But nanny had insinuated herself even there. "Be respectful to others," cautioned a programme note, "No pushing or shoving, ask before joining in, ask before putting fingers anywhere." There was also a Grope Box, apparently a Night of the Senses institution, which you went in to be groped by unseeing arms. Whenever I walked past it seemed to be occupied by a woman, the groping hands almost entirely male. Maybe this is significant, maybe not.
The only actual sex I witnessed all evening was in a tastefully decorated boudoir dubbed the "Sensuality Chamber". Participants were accompanied by musicians, while peep holes provided glimpses of the goings-on. I spotted one voyeur masturbating enthusiastically at the sight, but he was an exception.
Much more to my taste was the Salon of the Five Senses, in which I was blindfolded, tickled, massaged, fed strawberries, enticed by all the perfumes of Arabia and lulled by gentle bells. Blissful. Given that sight was excluded, Salon of the Four Senses might have been more appropriate - unless, of course, an extra "sexual sense" had been identifed. I had kept my trousers on (I know, I know) so was not in the best position to find out. Waiting for my turn in a long but comfortable queue I found myself sitting next to a man sporting what turned out to be a Ukrainian floral headdress. (It belonged to his female companion, the American-born artist mentioned above. She was quite interesting. One of her projects, I learned, explored the practicalities of snogging in zero-gravity conditions. I subsequently discovered that she was staying at a charming boutique hotel near Paddington.) The woman on my left commented that he looked "baroque". "Like something out of Caravaggio", I suggested, thinking of the celebrated portrait of Bacchus. It turned out that she was an art historian.
That sort of thing happened to me a lot. Later I found myself talking to Dr Antony Lempert, founder of the Secular Medical Forum and Golden Penis laureate in the academic category. We discussed the Pope, the insidious spread of faith schools, the brilliance of Lord Justice Laws' recent judgement in the McFarlane case, the religious strangehold on hospital counselling services (in the guise of denominational chaplaincies) and his own idée fixe, the iniquity of male circumcision, which appears to him to contravene the Offences Against the Person Act. Fascinating, but in the circumstances more than a bit surreal.
Though perhaps not quite so surreal as what I saw next, back in the cabaret lounge, where renowned artiste Mouse was putting on a jaw-dropping show loosely based on the story of Goldilocks. Mouse used considerable dramatic licence. There there was only one bear, for example, and I don't remember the part of the nursery tale where the heroine inserts fireworks into every available bodily orifice, or lights a birthday cake using a candle held with impressive firmness in her vagina. And then sits on it. Nor was I psychologically prepared for the woman in the blonde wig's demonstration of her ability to absorb and then spew out copious amounts of liquid. I was thankful to be standing at the back.
It was the most extreme thing I have ever seen or am ever likely to see. After that, anything could only be an anticlimax (even the climaxes being offered to patrons of the Climax Clinic). In any case, I was wilting. It was an all-nighter, and I hadn't had much sleep the night before - the anticipation, you see. Plus a tummy ache. I crashed out in the cabaret room, almost oblivious to the hardcore porn being projected onto the big screen or the gyrations of an amateur pole-dancer who had come to the party with a much older man. Four O'clock found me sitting at a table with Jane Fae and my new artist friend, discussing the minutiae of East European geography, Jane's problems with nPower and the balance of subject matter at Heresy Corner. And that, I thought, was that.
I was wrong, but that's a whole different story.