I thought I would emerge from Shh, a new women-only sensual healing retreat with outposts in England and on Ibiza, with skills to help hone my sexual prowess and render me goddess-like—in short, make me total catnip to men. Instead, I came home with an eyelid stye so hideous it forced me to cancel the hot date on which I’d planned to practice my new powers.
I blame that stye on the bucketful of tears I shed at Shh. I didn’t plan on crying. Rather, when I got the brief from my editor—“We’re sending you to a luxury sex camp in the English countryside”—I imagined primers on burlesque, oral sex, and multiple orgasms, not baring my soul to the bone in a room full of strangers. Granted, it was in an exquisite room in a gorgeous Georgian estate surrounded by Dorset farmland.
The brainchild of London-based best friends Lucy Arrowsmith and Vikki Van Someren, the four- to seven-day retreat aims to combat stress, exhaustion, trauma, and the loss of female identity and sexual energy. It took the partners more than a year to assemble their team of nine female practitioners, who combine holistic healing with group therapy, sex and relationship counseling, and liberal doses of empathy and compassion. “We want to help women rebuild their self-confidence, so they can achieve their potential,” Van Someren says. “We help them identify and release whatever’s holding them back, so they can nurture themselves as women and as sexual beings.” Van Someren, a former media executive, practices what she preaches: She used similar modalities to work through issues stemming from her own childhood sexual abuse.
“Nurture” and “nourish” are key words at Shh, and, as corny as it may sound, the atmosphere is distinctly womblike. The staff tries to make guests feel secure and supported at all times. When my eight-woman group arrived after a sodden two-and-half-hour train ride from London, we were greeted with brightly flavored red pepper soup and delicious pineapple-ginger smoothies before being shown to our rooms, which were stocked with Jo Loves candles and fresh-cut flowers. Mine had vaulted ceilings, an enormous bathroom with a sunken marble tub, and a view for miles.
The program is equal parts hedonism and hard work, and our work began right after lunch, with a group therapy session. Led by our guides, Maya, a clinical sexologist; and Annie, a psychotherapist who specializes in sex and relationships, we sat in a loose circle of trust and started “sharing.” Two women wished to put the “spark” back into their marriages, another wanted to stop choosing bad partners, and a fourth desired longer, stronger orgasms. I think of myself as an extrovert, but it wasn’t easy for me to open up. “Err … I’d like to work on my intimacy and commitment issues,” I said lamely, as I alternately fidgeted and fixated on Annie’s earrings—delicate filigree rose-gold and crystal labia that swayed gently as she spoke.
I began to relax as I listened to the women divulge their intimacies and to the constructive advice offered by Maya and Annie. Maybe it was the supportive environment, but we all broke down while talking about our matters of the heart, which extended way beyond sexuality to things like loss and issues of self-love. Luckily, a good measure of humor accompanied all the sniffling self-revelation. We smiled as we cupped our own breasts in “a journey of self-nurture,” placed our hands over our “mound of Venus” during meditation, and discoursed about vulva types. We cracked up over the concept of orgasmic birthing (impossible, said the moms). And we were thoroughly giddy after doing an Osho Kundalini Meditation, in which we shook, rattled, and rolled to discordant music for 30 minutes, and then lay perfectly still, curled up in plush cashmere throws, for another 15.
The group work was complemented by individual therapy regimens prescribed by our guides. I tried out two practices I wish I’d known about sooner: transformational breathing, a controlled-breathing meditation to release tensions in the body; and Emotional Freedom Technique, a sort of psychological acupressure to vanquish trauma. Each day was capped off by an otherworldly massage or a session with Samantha, an energy worker whose combination of acupuncture and Reiki would have put me into a deep slumber, if it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t want to miss the communal dinners.
By the end of the retreat, no one wanted to leave. We had been cosseted and cared for in every way imaginable. And while I didn’t pick up any pole-dancing pointers, I took away something bigger (bigger, even, than my stye). As Van Someren puts it: “If we can unlock our sensuality and connect to our femininity, it’s about so much more than just sex. And when you understand that, every element of your life becomes richer, more rewarding, and more intriguing.” Including sex!