By Eric Francis

NORTHWEST HERBAL FAIRE in Bellingham, Washington is an annual, weekend-long outdoor festival where herbalists, flower essence specialists, and a wide variety of green witches and craftspeople gather to share their ideas and products, and listen to live music. In the Pacific Northwest, you can be sure it's pretty good live music.

A few years ago, I was a returning presenter there, speaking about something called the Doctrine of Signatures.

This is the Hermetic principle that says (for example) that the Sun, sunflowers, gold, the heart, love, leadership and Leo are all part of the same idea. In astrology, we associate a planet and a sign; but astrology is part of a larger system of organizing the natural world, and there are many more associations than the few we usually hear discussed. The Doctrine of Signatures is what brings these associations together.

Scanning the workshop board when I first arrived, I noticed that nobody had scheduled a class or group of any kind that discussed sex. Despite sex being a lovely, vital and challenging part of the natural world, and a subject that is part of the practice of nearly anyone who works with others, I was not surprised. It's a discussion that for whatever reason, people usually avoid, particularly in public. Even most therapists have no specifically required training in sex or sexuality. The ones that do most often acquire their knowledge on their own. It's considered a kind of special interest, despite the obvious general appeal of the subject, and the fact that handling the subject well requires both literacy and a comfort level with the discussion.

So, looking at this workshop board, I had an idea. It started as a joke. I took an index card and marker and created an event called "Cunnilingus and Clover." A presentation area called Shady Grove was available Sunday at 1 pm, so I posted my listing there, had a good laugh, and walked away. This was a pretty good joke for the Herbal Faire because of its wholesome feeling, the predominantly female attendance at the event (but with plenty of the kind of guys you would expect -- the kind who like women), and the fact that clover is an excellent female tonic. It almost sounded like it could be a real presentation.

Also, while the Pacific Northwest is not a hot bed of radical activity, it's one of the most socially libertarian and tolerant parts of the country. However, I had not thought all of this through; being a great lover of pranks, I just tacked my "workshop listing" to the board.

Then in the course of the weekend, three strange things happened.

The first was that every time I came back to the workshop board, the listing was still there. I thought for sure somebody would take it down. Every now and then I would watch as people scanning the workshops for something interesting would stop and fixate on my little sign with a mildly stunned expression, not quite knowing what to make of it.

The second surprise was that the next day, I overheard someone talking to her boyfriend about this great workshop she wanted to attend Sunday, which she referred to by name. Now it was my turn to be a bit stunned. At this point I realized the joke was on me and she might not be the only one interested. So, being a good citizen, I decided to turn the joke into reality and go ahead with the discussion. Certainly, if people were interested, I would be there.

During my free time Saturday, I looked around for a book with a good illustration of the red clover flower, which was easy to find, and while I was at it, asked a few opinions from herbalists on the medicinal properties of this rather helpful herb.

It turned out that when you magnify red clover, you get a cluster of tiny reddish or purplish flowers that look just like vulvas. They are sweet smelling; bees like to make clover nectar into honey; and it's popular with humans, too.

Medicinally, clover is rich in plant estrogen, it increases urine and bile production, and is generally calming. It helps with cardiovascular strength and is a good herb to take if you have to break up congestion in the lungs. And it's used in the herbal treatment of several female cancers. So clover also worked out to be a good example of the Doctrine of Signatures; it looks like what it's good for. The heart and lungs are important for sexual energy. And the idea of clover gives the feeling of a nice, wide-open field to play in.

My Doctrine of Signatures workshop went well. I started with a few different examples, and we had a great discussion because it was a well-informed and astrologically savvy crowd. I could pretty much name a planet or a sign and there would be a few people who could come up with the corresponding herbs and their healing properties. It was a fun, intuitive discussion -- when they're loose and you go with the flow, astrology classes often are.

The next day, 1 pm rolled around and I showed up in earnest at the Shady Grove. I did no pre-organizing or recruiting for my unofficial workshop, because I wanted to see who just appeared. I had prepared the basics for the opening of my presentation, just like the past 20 workshops I had done -- but my plan was to turn the discussion over to the participants right away, figuring a handful of people might show up.

However, I still had surprise number three ahead of me -- which was that about 40 people arrived, men and women of a variety of ages. The Shady Grove, this little clearing furnished with bails of hay, was stuffed with interested, curious or eager participants. A representative from the main office was there, too. And I thought, well, this should be fun. Let's see what happens.

I began the discussion by introducing myself as a full time astrologer and sometimes sexuality workshop presenter, and a published writer in both fields. I summed up my presentation on the Doctrine of Signatures from the previous day, introduced the subject of red clover, and passed around this beautiful magnified photograph of the flowers from a book I had purchased from one of the vendors.

After this herbal invocation, I said something like, "Discussion of healthy, positive sexuality is fairly rare, but this is what we're going to do today. The floor is open for discussion of cunnilingus -- that is, giving oral sex to a woman -- as a nourishing experience." I explained that nourishing could be in any context, emotional or physical, for either or both partners, and asked if there was anyone who wanted to speak.

Well, the discussion began, and it built momentum -- and soon, a life of its own. As one person after the next shared their feelings of giving or receiving cunnilingus, it seemed the next person felt safer doing so, and it went on that way. The conversation evolved, and people shared stories of bisexuality, orgasm, female ejaculation -- all openly, with dozens of people listening. I actually had to do very little. As usually happens, some natural-born facilitators emerged, and one young woman had everyone particularly riveted with sharing her feelings and stories. A man held the audience rapt with stories of his girlfriend learning g-spot orgasms a few years ago.

Now, this is get-real subject matter, but in a friendly way. And there was a maneuver involved. All the usual socially-accepted frameworks for discussion sex and sexuality -- such as romance, pregnancy, disease, rape, pain, abuse and so on -- were temporarily set aside. We were left with a space that was open to describe pleasure, initiation, feelings, desire, and our growth and experience as erotic beings -- the kinds of subjects that are usually glossed over or skipped entirely.

We had a space where we could listen to the feelings and experiences of others and not be embarrassed. I was in workshop presenter clover heaven.

When the end of the hour arrived, the discussion showed no sign of ending. Some people left, many heading for lunch or another event -- particularly The Living Tarot, which was about to begin a performance nearby. But about 10 people stayed behind. Those who remained formed a circle and the discussion went deeper. Fortunately, the Shady Grove was available for the rest of the day; we were there well into the afternoon.

I don't think there was anyone who attended who did not feel that something pretty amazing had happened. We were aware of this, sitting in our lush forest in the woods of northern Washington State, talking about how good we felt about sex. Missing were glamour, official certification, or even official permission to hold the workshop. It started as a friendly erotic joke that I thought both women and men would get a good laugh from.

I think we need more of this. But the question is how and where. How do you frame discussions about sex in a positive light? Well, for one thing, it's always a little daring, because we are well armed with sex-negative language and concepts, and for the most part, we're accustomed to hearing and using only those.

So I would offer these suggestions, some of which will work whether you have a partner or not, or whether you want to include them in the discussion or not.

Be creative, for one thing, and remember to seize any good opportunity you get.

Remember that everything is an experiment.

Keep it light, for another -- but not too light. Giggling and laughing are a sign of discomfort, and that is the ice that needs to be broken. There's a real need for grounding and a touch of bravery, and if possible someone in the room to have experience with holding the space open for such a discussion. I also feel it's important to have both men and women in the discussion together, because we need to learn how to be open and feel comfortable discussing sex and sexuality with one another. We need to see how much we have in common.

The "battle of the sexes" is largely a marketing device, indeed, an industry based on the false notion that men and women want absolutely different things. The common ground between the sexes is rarely touched by mortal feet.

Other ideas for how to get a discussion going include having a sex toy "Tupperware" party; erotic literature evenings; an erotic art slideshow, using both modern and classical images; and for the ultra bold or cinematic, an evening where you may share your favorite erotic home videos among friends.

I am proposing here that love and sex are not enough. What we need to return to a natural state of awareness are communication and clarity, and these take practice. I think you'll discover that the results will be healing and heart-opening -- and that (contrary to common fears) boundaries will not fall apart and come crashing down, leading to the end of Western civilization or your marriage.

It seems to me that in truth, this could really be the beginning.   

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