An interview with our Festival Director, Jo Balmforth by Adultmatchmaker.com.au.
Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the 'why' I do what I do.
Please let me know what you think.
Jo Balmforth is the festival director for Celebrating Sexuality, a unique weekend retreat held in Melbourne with a festival atmosphere for the exploration of sex and relationships. We talked to her about the festival, how it has evolved and what the future holds.
Q. The image of a weekend-long sexuality festival conjures up images of orgies and piles of used condoms so tell us what really happens at Celebrating Sexuality.
A. Haha, I don’t hear that description as often as I did in the early days.
The weekend is best described as a retreat with a festival atmosphere. It centres on workshops exploring intimacy and connection and learning how to bring more fun to how we relate.
We work hard to create a space where people feel safe to explore and learn. We achieve this by having everyone attending the opening or induction and setting agreements – and then not having new people coming and going. There is a focus on boundaries and consent and together this allows people to go on a journey.
I feel like the event is accessible and down to earth – well, that is certainly what I hear from the people who keep coming back.
Q. Your background is in health care so how did you become involved?
A. When I was five I said, “when I grow up I want to run a sex and relationships festival”. *joke*.
The way I became involved was a succession of things throughout my professional working life in mainstream health.
During my nursing career, I specialised in cancer and palliative care. We have all heard the stories of what we are most likely to regret on our death beds. That we are very unlikely to wish we had spent more time at work.
Rather, it is the connections with other people that are most important. It is likely to be those lost or loss of connection with others that hold the deepest sense of missing out and I saw this as an unfortunate truth.
Through my work in health, I met a lot of people, some of them very lonely – or at least feeling alone at the time. From there I became interested in how people connect and communicate. As I delved deeper, it fascinated me how colleagues actively avoided speaking to patients about these topics; and this extended to sex and most anything to do with it.
There was an assumption that if people were facing serious illness or death they no longer had needs and desires.
Of course, it wasn’t during the immediacy of the situation – but as human beings, we need connection and especially at times of illness.
I did do some work around this where I could, unsurprisingly a lot of the attitudes were born from other health professionals discomfit with the topic.
The way I came to this festival was through my own exploration of sex and relationships – which I started after a 14-year relationship broke down. I wanted to help others avoid what I went through. It all just came together.
Q. The festival has been running for 8 years now so what have you found are the most popular workshops at Celebrating Sexuality?
A. Really, it comes down to the person or people facilitating the workshop, every time. I think at some point we have all learnt from someone who inspires us – perhaps to push ourselves further than we imagined we could – and feel safe to do so.
There are some workshops that explore what may be considered taboo topics – spanking, rope, anal play. For sure these get the most numbers in the class but in the end, they will not necessarily be considered the most popular.
Feeling safe to explore is the key, profound things happen when the right mix of information, facilitation and safety happen – perhaps especially so in this work – but anytime we try something new we need to feel we have the resources to meet the challenge or at least someone to catch us if we fall. I feel like we do that well.
Q. One of the questions I would have if I hadn’t attended is do I have to get naked and are all the workshops mixed gender so tell us more about what newbies can expect at this year’s festival.
A. What I want to provide, and I feel like we have – is a space that for most people will feel safe to enter and look at what they need to. I am not trying to be everything for everyone, but I see the festival as an opportunity to open up to new possibilities and then dive in and explore.
There is no sex in workshops, and this is something that I stipulate with the presenters. People receive information and they will have a profound experience; - they may reach orgasmic states...but one does not need to have sex to learn about it. People do not have to work with anyone they do not feel comfortable with – the facilitators are experienced enough to reduce this from happening and there is space given for self-responsibility.
I also don’t feel it necessary to provided gendered workshops. We did in the early days and actually, these weren’t attended as well as the non-gendered. Times are moving on.
As for nakedness, it is absolutely fine if that is where someone is comfortable. The levels of undress are however weather dependent ;-)
Q. I’ve seen participants say they come back in following years because they feel they’ve found such an open and accepting community. What do you think first-timer attendees are most surprised about at the conclusion of the Festival?
A. I think what they are most surprised about is how it all feels so natural and how normal everyone is. I don’t mean normal in an everyday sense, perhaps human is a better word.
We have a team of people to provide emotional support and this includes a number of qualified counsellors. But they rarely get called on, the people attending really look out for each other.
Q. Who comes along to this type of festival and do you feel a residential program attracts a different type of participant?
A. I fully recognise it is a relatively bold step to come on a residential personal retreat – but people fly to Bali for that kind of thing and this is basically in your own backyard!! Although, for sure it isn’t for our attendees who fly in from all around the world!
It is a real mix of people – different ages and lifestyles who attend. I would say the people who enjoy it the most are looking for more spark and sex in their relationships and those who would like to keep refreshing what they already have.
Ultimately, they want more than a hedonistic experience. They want to come away with some tools and information that will take them forward.
Q. Consent has obviously been in the news a lot recently. Consent and self-responsibility have always underpinned the festival’s teachings and conduct. How do you see the discussions around consent and things like the #metoo campaigns which have sprung from it changing the way we relate to our sexual partner/s?
A. Our focus on boundaries and consent as well as self-responsibility have been keys to the success of the weekend – and are threads that run throughout.
Even people who have would have thought themselves relatively or very confident learn a lot more about their ‘yes’ and their ‘no’ than they expected. I feel like this is because a lot of how we relate is learnt unconsciously and through trial and error. In this type of space, you get an opportunity to examine the old patterns and behaviours, air them out. Doing this allows you to figure out how you want to relate. This is much healthier than using someone you love, care deeply about – or just want to have a good time with!!
I regularly have people tell me how challenging themselves in this way has flowed into their professional lives – so, not only helping them to feel more in control in sexually intimate relationships; but also in their professional roles.
Q. In relation to the festival, what are you most proud of achieving?
A. Put simply, helping people to feel normal about what is a normal human expression.
Q. You are quoted as saying that intimacy is a public health issue. Why do you believe that?
A. I worked in cancer and palliative care for 25 years and I met a lot of people grappling with serious illness and death.
We tend to understand intimacy as associated with a sexual or romantic partnership. Of course, it is but travel more deeply and you understand that intimacy comes in many different forms.
My own experiences of intimacy have been felt walking side by side with another, a child reaching for my hand, a deep hug, snuggling with a pet, a gathering of good friends and shared humour.
It’s a deep feeling that someone else ‘gets me’ as I have presented before them. I feel seen and connected.
Feeling seen and connected is ultimately what intimacy is, and that is really what we most crave. Too many people are missing this and that is not good enough. Let’s give them spaces to figure out what is important. It is too important not to.
Q. What do you say to the people who declare “I don’t need to learn about intimacy, my relationship/s is/are already good”.
A. I would never insist everyone has to. It is down to them and whomever they are relating with to decide the state of their relationship – and if it is satisfying.
I would however say that it is a thing of the past to think that learning about sex and relationships was for those people who were broken, whose relationships were on some level, failing.
As I said earlier, most of what we know and have learnt about how we relate is unconscious – we have all been hurt at some point, if you don’t stop and look at it how are you going to know what you need to let go of and heal?
For this reason (and many more!) it feels essential to me to find spaces or situations where we can uncover and let go of what is holding us back – make space for the good stuff .
Q. Tell us about the first sexuality or intimacy workshop you attended and how it changed your perception?
A. That was in 2010, mainly what I found that sexuality workshops and education was siloed and closed off. To get involved you had to dress a certain way or know the language and rules...be “conscious” or know someone who was already “in”.
I understand to a degree why it was like that, there are some quite ridiculous laws and social rules around sex and sexuality, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to be in spaces and with people who accepted me for who I am and however I present – and I wanted to offer the same.
Q. You said that the landscape of contemporary sexuality education has changed since the festival began and has gone from being underground to visible. But when it comes to our youth, are we doing enough?
A. The emergence of formal education has changed the landscape dramatically.
There are some weekend courses about that are great, but we need programs that set future facilitators up to be able to assess/identify the learning needs of the people in front of them – and teach practical and valuable information. In Australia, the main program that has profoundly impacted the quality of facilitators is run by the Institute of Somatic Sexology.
When it comes to our youth, we need a different approach to how we teach them about sex – mainly by focussing more on relating and relationships, boundaries and consent. The latter applies to all relationships, not just intimate and sexual ones.
Q. If you were given $10million towards improving relationships in Australia how would you spend it?
A. I’d want some research into the best education and training aimed at adults. Then I would lobby the government to fund it Australia wide. The adults can then teach kids.
Q. Given you have people travel from overseas to attend, why do you think the festival has been so successful?
A. I am totally humbled by the fact that people see my event on Instagram or facebook, book a ticket and jump on a plane to travel half-way across the world to hang out with us for a weekend. And just as humbled when they drive an hour from Melbourne.
Organising and running this weekend is a huge responsibility and absolute privilege – and one I take very much to heart, as do my amazing crew of people who help pull it all together on the weekend.
Maybe that's it? People see how much we take it to heart and how much we care.
Q. Going back to our first question, are there any myths about residential sexuality festivals that you'd like to debunk?
A. I cannot speak for all residential sexuality festivals – but Celebrating Sexuality festival is one where you will learn a lot about yourself, things that you will be grateful to know, and you will have a lot of fun.
If your intention is just to pick up then it won’t be for you.
Q. Do you have a dinner party story you'd like to share?
You mean like the person who had planned to leave on Sunday night but asked to stay to Monday as they had had so many orgasms it was not safe to drive?
Q. If you could give the younger you some advice what would you say?
A. Start my sex and relationship education much earlier than 37 years old. Much earlier!!
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p.s. Celebrating Sexuality has helped hundreds of individuals around Australia to feel more confident & free to express pleasure and desire, learn more about how to please their partner or future partners, learn more about what pleases them; and to feel safe to experiment.
If you feel you don't know where to start, or you just want more, now is your opportunity to take a radically different approach and understand how you have been standing in your own way.
Let us help you to finally experience sex & relationships in a way you deserve.