(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)
It was comedian Matt Roper – currently in India – who first told me about The Night of the Senses. This year, it is being organised by his photographer friend Grace Gelder.
“You’re not actually going to call it an orgy, are you?” I asked her yesterday.
“No. It’s an erotic ball,” she replied.
“A good combination of words,” I said. “Do you have a job title?”
“Apparently I am officially called The Director of Pleasure,” laughed Grace.
We were at Bar Italia in London’s Soho yesterday, talking about The Night of the Senses, which has been run by Tuppy Owens for 25 years to raise money for her Outsiders Trust, the UK charity which aims to raise awareness about sex and disability.
“So,” I asked Grace. “This year it’s you organising The Night of the Senses. Why you?”
“I originally met Tuppy,” explained Grace, “because I had started to develop a documentary film about sex and disability. We worked on that for two years and went to interview Tuppy at her home in Inverness. She’s in her late sixties now and said that, when she started running the event, all of her friends came. A few weeks ago, she said to me It’s the same as you guys. All your friends are gonna come. We’re all over sixty; it’s time there was a new generation of people starting to hear about it.”
“A new generation of sensual people?” I suggested.
“Well, it feels,” said Grace. “like there’s a lot more interest in this kind of thing right now. I’m not sure why. But people want really experiential things. The Secret Cinema has taken off. People want to go to an event and be integrated into it. There’s a lot of parties which touch on the ‘erotic’ like people who have hot tubs in the middle of their parties. But I think people are quite scared of putting on something that is so overtly sensual because they’re worried about How do you manage it? How do you handle it? I feel confident that I’m able to do that, especially having done erotic photography with people who start off really scared because they’ve never done anything like it.”
“And you’ve been to previous Nights of the Senses?”
“I’ve been to two.”
“How many people turned up last year?”
“About 1,000. This year’s one is in May with the Great Sexpectations semi-final in March.
“Basically, on The Night of the Senses itself, there are the events and included in that there’s The Erotic Awards, which have been running for about 17 or 18 years. They champion the stars of the erotic universe. People are picked out in different categories – books, films, campaigners – people who are campaigning for sex workers’ rights for example – artists, strippers, live artists whose work has an erotic element.
“The theme for this year’s Night of the Senses event in May is ‘The Zoo’, because Tuppy is a former zoologist, so it’s like a homage to Tuppy and the work she’s done over the last 25 years.”
“But,” I said, “as in movie disclaimers, no actual animals will be hurt during the production of this event?”
“Only humans dressed as animals,” said Grace. “Or zoo keepers. It leaves some space for the more kinky members of the public.”
“What was the theme for last year’s event?” I asked.
“And you officially only started organising all of this on Monday this week,” I said. “Why did you get involved?”
“Initiating my film documentary project about sex and disability,” explained Grace, “completely opened my world to all this stuff which I didn’t know about. I found it very, very fascinating… which fed into my own life and ended up initiating a sexual journey for myself… of liberation and exploration and that sort of thing.”
“Any details?” I asked.
“What sort of details?” laughed Grace.
“Preferably quirky,” I said.
“Well,” said Grace, ignoring this, “I had to go to The Night of the Senses as research, for example, and that blew me away. Going to the event was a real catalyst. You step into a completely different environment.”
“How?” I asked.
“Just because of the nature of the event. Tuppy has never said to people You’ve got to come to this, because it is still a sophisticated event where you need to have some understanding of being in a sexual environment. To be aware of what you’re going to go and experience. People just being completely open and free with their… fetishes, with their actions… but in a very safe and well-held event.”
“I know nothing about this world,” I said, “but I did once get dragged to the Torture Garden club about twenty years ago.”
“That’s very much more specifically fetish and power games,” said Grace. “The Night of the Senses has all of those elements, but more as well. There’s always a dungeon-type place, but there’s also a tantric space where people can get a massage and put their name down to be tickled with feathers: that type of thing. A lot of sensory stuff. So it’s a lot more… You don’t have to be into power games. And there’s a bit more of a theatrical aspect to it as well. There’s a sensuality chamber for couples where live musicians play along.”
“You said your eyes were opened…” I prompted her.
“I’d never been in a situation like that,” said Grace, “where there was every spectrum of people – people with disabilities, people who were older, younger, gay, straight, all spectrums with all sorts of fetishes. Apparently one year they had a turtle-neck jumper fetish corner. They have their own clubs.”
“For people who have a fetish for turtle-neck jumpers?” I asked.
“I seem to remember,” I said, “ that the film director Ed Wood had a fetish for angora sweaters. I think he had an angora sweater in every one of his films. Or it might have been his refrigerator that he had in every film. I have a very bad memory.”
“Interesting,” said Grace.
“When is your event happening again?” I asked. “I’ve forgotten.”
“Two events,” said Grace. “The Night of the Senses is in May with the final of the Erotic Awards as a stage show as part of it and, after that, everyone goes upstairs to play – or just watches – it’s up to you.
“But the first event is Great Sexpectations – in Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush on 22nd March. It’s a beautiful old music hall. Great Sexpectations is a sit-down table event, including the semi-finals of the live part of the Erotic Awards. The judges decide who will be finalists at the main event in May.”
“Is it like ice-skating?” I asked, “where you get awarded points on style. content and artistic interpretation?”
“It’s not like The X Factor,” laughed Grace. “Our judges watch and take notes and decide afterwards. Best Stripper and Best Live Artist are the two categories for the live aspect – It’s a cabaret, basically. I think we’ll also include a comedian and a singer, whereas the ‘stripper’ is anything from pole dancing to burlesque and boylesque. But then there’s also the author, photographer and the other categories at The Night of the Senses in May”
“Where is the main Night of the Senses going to be held in May?”
“The location of the venue is always released much later on to everyone who has bought a ticket. There has been trouble with the event in the past because of people campaigning against it or ringing the local council because of the nature of it. Some venues have an issue, but most people are totally fine with it: they know what it is and that it’s a fundraiser, so…”
“And,” I interrupted, “there’s no illegality of any kind. It is not ‘outraging public decency’ because it’s a ticketed event and people know exactly what they’re buying the tickets for.”
“Exactly,” said Grace. “You have to choose to go. You don’t just pass by and say Oo-err! I think I’ll pop in there and see what’s happening. And there’s a very clear code of conduct which is on the website.
“I’ll be updating the website in the next few weeks. Like I said, I only officially started organising all of this on Monday. There’s more to come.”
Grace asked me to say: “Any enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I am not sure this is necessarily wise, but what do I know?