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After Generations of Repression, Spain’s Sexual Renaissance Flourishes—Despite Coronavirus

Following dictatorship and oppression, Barcelona has spearheaded the sexual awakening of Spanish society. Coronavirus has made urban Tantra workshops and swinger clubs give way to workshops on farms in the middle of the countryside where harmony with nature reigns supreme.

A large industrial building taking up almost an entire block in the Poblenou, once a suburb and now an upcoming neighborhood of Barcelona, sees five strangers enter an elevator that emits the sounds of time passed and perhaps one or two maintenances missed as it makes its way to the top floors. Squeaky doors open to a neon-lit hallway of greasy, dark yellow walls beyond which a large, bare-walled white room awaits. In the midst of that impersonal ambiance, Astiko, a woman in her 50s with curly blonde hair, airs sublime warmth through her radiant smile as she teaches Tantra to a group of 50 men and women.

Just in the Poblenou alone, there are several schools of Tantra. Barcelona is not just sexy, but also sexually aware. This momentum is in stark contrast with Spain’s dark past of sexual oppression.

The Dark Times

Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish writer of global fame, was shot in 1936 not merely for supporting the losing, republican side in the Civil War, but also because he was a homosexual. With conservatives winning the war, Spain became a sort of a marriage between near-fanatical religion and the belief that family is the only way of social interaction. Individualism, free-thinking, and any expression of liberal spirit existed only as ideals.

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This life lasted between 1936 and 1975 and marked generations. Even today, flirting on the street is considered inappropriate and the seduction game looks clumsy when an outsider observes it taking place between two locals.

Aware of the size of the problem, Spain, on paper, made a conscious effort to overcome these issues, becoming the third country in the world to allow same-sex marriage, making it clear that it is on the way of severing the ties with its oppressive past.

Being a part of the Western-democratic world, Spain today is without a doubt a place of freedom, yet in terms of one’s perception of sexuality, practically all doors lead to taboos.

Being a part of the Western-democratic world, Spain today is without a doubt a place of freedom, yet in terms of one’s perception of sexuality, practically all doors lead to taboos.

“This is completely logical,” says Laila Pilgren, director of Sex Academy Barcelona, founded in 2012. “It is not that the generation of the now-parents to teenagers did not want the information on sexuality, they simply did not have [a place] to get it from or did not know what questions to ask even if the information was available. This makes it hard, if not impossible, for them to answer questions about sexuality [that] their teenage children are asking them.”

I’ve witnessed this myself. I was recently present at a dinner party in Madrid where the hostess spoke of how her parents got married, bought an apartment together, and only then made a doctor’s appointment to ask how to have sexual intercourse. This took place in the 1970s.

The Awakening

Pilgren says that institutions like the Sex Academy are a sort of a bridge between the shame of a bygone era and the access to quality information that is now abundant. “You have millions of people in Spain who want to have sex, but they don’t know how,” Pilgren emphasizes.

“Sometimes our clients, the majority of them men and women between 30 and 50, ask us, after going to one of our workshops, to recommend a sexual therapist for individual sessions. They see just how much ground they have to cover to have a healthy relationship with their sexuality.”

Back in Poblenou, the Tantra crowd is meditating with Astiko. She, in a sweet, but focused and well-grounded voice gives instructions on how to communicate with a person from the mind, from the heart, and from the center of the body where the sexual organs are.

From seated meditation, the participants get up and start moving around the room in search of a partner for the exercise. Once paired, you first look at the other person for a few minutes and then make them feel your breathing and the voice being born of it, with their belly.

Tantra with Astiko is of a more meditative kind, but Barcelona offers spicier variations as well.

I found one of them at an afterparty of the Erostreet Festival, which I attended a couple of years ago.

The Barcelona Sexual Renaissance

The Erostreet Festival was set up by the Sex Academy in 2014 in an 18th-century palace in El Born, now home to the European Museum of Modern Art, a few streets away from the Gothic district and Barcelona’s imposing cathedral.

“I felt that the Spanish society was going through some kind of a sexual awakening after opening the Academy, but I also saw that people were shy to sign up for the courses. So, we decided to democratize, so to say, the process by taking erotica to the street and have it visible to all. There is no need to sign up for anything, just come in and take a peek.”

The lobby of the Gomis palace adorned by a massive white stone staircase sees ropes hanging from a ceiling and a crowd of about 50, looking with great curiosity. An operatic soprano is a subject of the Japanese rope bondage technique shibari. She is being tied in a variety of ways by a bearded man whose facial expression is as calm as it is intense. The singer is therefore floating around the lobby and in some instances, her body is completely upside down. Even in that position, she does not miss a note while singing a late Baroque piece. Moments later, a couple in their late 40s are performing a ceremony with fire reminiscent of Celtic traditions. They are naked beneath transparent white togas. Upstairs, in one of the exposition rooms, a sexologist holds a talk on the female orgasm. One floor up, a peculiar vibrator is offered for guests to try but in order to do so, they need to slide into a skin of rubber that seems to have a sensorial life of its own.

spain workshop meeting
spain workshop 2

The brochure the visitors were given says that the afterparty is in the “Oops” club. Pilgren explains that those going alone need a special authorization from the organizers of the festival.

Looking closer at the program on the brochure and looking at the club online, the mystery behind the special authorization is revealed. “Oops” is in fact a chic swingers club, so famed for its classy gatherings that the followers of that trend come from all over the world to pay it a visit.

It is nested in a modernist palace with a tropical garden, a swimming pool, and a terrace from which one may if one is not fully engaged, see almost all of Barcelona.

After walking close to 20 minutes uphill from the nearest metro station, no additional oiling up is necessary for any of the activities awaiting. The upper two floors are for couples or crowds with at least one female member.

But I wonder, why is Barcelona so sexually liberated–it’s a city with an erotic festival that openly sends journalists to a swingers club–while other places in Spain, including Madrid, still maintain a level of prudishness?

Pilgren believes it comes down to local government. Barcelona, in the Catalunya region, has a much more influential progressive party. “When we proposed a sexual education program to be implemented in schools,” she says, “the regional government in Catalunya…[had] no problem with this content, while in Madrid we were unable to get anything similar through.”

When asked when she dates the beginning of this social-sexual renaissance, Pilgren says that it is most likely when streaming platforms hit the market about a decade ago, with shows on sexual education and different types of sexuality. “This is real information. The internet itself brought just pornography and that contained no significant information in and off itself.”

Come Coronavirus

When the coronavirus took hold of Spain, much of the activity has moved online.

“I would say we had had an increase of some 15% in terms of the courses we sell since the beginning of the pandemic,” Pilgren emphasizes. “We had to temporarily put on hold those courses where physical presence is a must, like a massage, for example, but we were able to transform the majority of our offer to the online format, and the response has been excellent.”

“This phenomenal response is likely due to people having to stay at home and having more time to dedicate to their sexuality.”

Another company from the sector has seen an even more impressive boost in sales. Amantis, an erotic shop that found its Barcelona home in the artsy Gracia district, had seen a 250% increase in their online sales while also increasing the numbers when it comes to physical visits to their stores by 10%.

“This phenomenal response is likely due to people having to stay at home and having more time to dedicate to their sexuality,” says Pat Oliver who works in one of the Amantis stores in Madrid.

But not all seems lost on the physical front.

Touching, unmasked breathing, and freedom now live in La Semilla Bolonia, a fully self-sustainable commune that spreads over a large stretch of nature on the Sierra de la Plata above Bolonia beach, one of the landmarks of the Spanish summer with its long, light beige sand dune stretching into the sunset.

As I drive to La Semilla on an asphalt road full of holes, the high mountains of Rif rise vertically from the Moroccan side of the Gibraltar Strait. Eventually, I arrive at gates posted with signage in Spanish and English that there is an ongoing workshop and that entry is prohibited. But they open for me.

In 1997 three young Italians–Laura, Grazia, and Roberto–discovered the hills above Bolonia beach and fell in love with the ambiance. They set up the Cultural Association for Environmental Experimentation La Semilla with the aim of reviving the former rural setting and giving it a sustainable face where ecological values would be shared with the visitors.

On a beautiful patch of the southern face of Sierra de la Plata, they built a house to live in, a center for learning, a kitchen with a large eating area, as well as bungalows for visitors. Everything is recycled, down to the human waste of residents and visitors. In the compost bathrooms, sawdust is used instead of water.

Even in this laid-back place, there’s a reminder that the pandemic is not entirely absent: everyone is in face masks.

The 2.5-hectare property beautifully follows the layout nature has provided. Hanging beds are in chillout areas that are nested in the deep shade of the trees; bathrooms are strategically placed among trees so that they face Bolonia beach in the distance. Suddenly a Mongolian yurt comes into the line of sight and the hosts explain it’s made of recycled materials and offers pleasant, ecologically-friendly living to the 17 participants of the “Pathway of the Ecstasy,” a seven-day Tantra, primal dance, and Hatha yoga retreat offered by Jose Villoslada and Andi Riley.

Riley, a former pediatrician from London, and Villoslada, once a solar plant manager from Spain, fell in love with La Semilla in 2013.

“From selling sun energy, I moved to increasing my own energy through primal dance,” says Villoslada. This dance was originally called Tantric dance and it expands the living energy by addressing five components of the being—body, emotions, mind, energy, and spirituality. Meditation is one of the pillars of the teachings given by Riley and Villoslada.

“We walk through nature, work with clay, dance on the beach. The students are invited not to drink alcohol or take any drugs during the course,” Riley explains.

“In Tantra sessions, we focus not so much on the sacred sexuality, but on how sexuality lives in one and how to wake it up. It is a laboratory for laughing, crying, breaking down,” she adds.

Villoslada explains that each day they work on a different chakra, starting with the root chakra and moving up to the corona chakra.

“The students know well what to expect from the Tantra segment. There is no nudity, no intimate touching. It is not a field trip for exploring the less habitual sexual practices, but rather the road to finding the sexual energy within,” he says.

As Tantra moves away from the neon-lit industrial buildings of urban Barcelona to the sunny pastures of Southern Spain, as well as to the online domain, the sexual awakening made of touching is giving way to introspection, the silence of meditation, and increased environmental awareness.

With these adapted steps and a face mask ready, Spain keeps riding the spirit of this new open version of itself. After the long winter of repression, even the coronavirus seems unable to stop the thawing of taboos, restrictions, and outdated perceptions of matters sexual.