"How can there be no penetration?" asks Bae, the night before Liquid Love, when I will roll around on a plastic sheet with strangers. "If some guy has an erection, he's going to want to put it in you!" Bae has been lying there thinking about this, and I do not know what to say to reassure him. The truth is, I am dreading it, but I feign nonchalance in case Bae says, "don’t go then!" Backing out is not an option. The unbearable awkwardness of it is precisely what attracts me. Last summer I went to the beach at Brexit-on-Sea, at the height of the burkini-ban, wearing a burkini and a backpack. Uncomfortable is my catnip.
All participants must take a plus-one, but instead of Bae, I've invited Amber, a female friend who is actually looking forward to it. Amber and I discuss whether we'll get naked, agreeing to bring bikinis, then see what everyone else is doing. I have an overwhelming anxiety that I'll catch a skin condition. Amber is afraid there will be fat people. "I want oil on my boobs, but what if take off my bikini top and ugly people want to rub against me?" I tell Amber she doesn’t owe anyone a boob-rub. She says, "I know, I just don't like fat people."
As Amber drives towards the tower block in east London where Liquid Love is held, she tells me she fears our drinks will be spiked. It is a week after the Grenfell Tower fire, and I am more afraid the building will burn down, but I reassure Amber that I know a girl who's been to Liquid Love three times. I do not tell Amber that the girl looks like a Victoria's Secret model who advertises Alpen in commercials set in Swiss Alps. I do not want to share my sense of foreboding that everyone will look like a supermodel, and I will look lardy and lumpy and possibly be turned away.
We time it to arrive at the last minute, as I do not do small talk. Nor does Amber. "Did you bring any cake?" I ask, as we run around the building looking for the door. We are panicking now, afraid we won't be let in. The email was clearly worded — latecomers will be turned away, and traffic woes mean we are pushing our luck. "No, I just brought some food for myself," says Amber, "I’m not sharing it!" I have bunged some grapes in my bag, but neither of us want to get involved in the post-session food sharing, suggested in the email. We are terrible, selfish, anti-social people. That is why we're friends.
Eyal the organiser answers the door. He's friendly and entirely unthreatening, and suddenly I'm not as petrified as I was. His flat smells of incense and Amber later tells me she's surprised he didn't tidy up. We sit fully clothed in a circle while Eyal talks us through the rules. They are pretty much no wanking, no penetration and no standing up on the sheet once it's oily. There's a two-taps-means-no policy, if anyone's wandering hands are unwelcome. Eyal, who gets naked but doesn’t get involved, has been running Liquid Love once or twice a month for the last two years. His neighbours are yet to take part.
At the end of the talk, we're invited to take off our clothes, as many or as few as we like. Suddenly there are bare ballsacks in close proximity to me. I have never seen anyone take their clothes off so quickly. I use the bathroom to stall for time, waiting to see what everyone else does before I decide whether to wear my bikini. When I come out, I'm relieved to see a woman with her knickers on. I point her out to Amber like I’ve spotted a De Beers diamond ring at a boot fair.
We stand in a circle and Eyal tells us to look at the various body parts of everyone else, starting from the feet up. When he gets to genitals, Amber whispers, "I feel like we cheated!" Amber is wearing black lacy knickers and I'm in some stripy bikini bottoms. The sort of swimwear Bridget "Big Pants" Jones might wear to the beach. Aside from one other woman in her knickers, everyone else is naked. I feel an expat in Spain, eating egg and chips (telling the BBC why I voted Brexit).
I opt for a blindfold and after oil has been poured on me, I lie on my front, trying to convince myself that this is no different to going for a massage, while berating myself for lying there like I'm in rigor mortis. Bodies slide against me and I'm pulled into the centre of the room where it feels like that scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore do some pottery. Only, I am the pottery.
The Liquid Love blurb asked us to be "open to both touching as well as being touched" but I cannot do it. I feel selfish and rebuke myself for being uptight and English, but when I get into the car with Amber after, she tells me she too lay there in a blindfold, unable to look at anyone or touch them back. Amber has had sex at Torture Garden. Amber is not English. I wonder if I have been too hard on myself. Maybe my awkwardness is not due to being uptight and English. Maybe it's because this is fucking mental.
The iPod is playing a song off Austin Powers and I can feel a flaccid cock on my foot. Bae need not have worried about anyone trying to penetrate me. I am more rigid than any penis in this room.
I have spent the majority of the session on my stomach, my breasts inaccessible beneath me. Turning over, I feel, would be crossing the line, taking this beyond the legit massage I'm trying so hard to kid myself this is. But my bladder tells me my position is not sustainable, and several people have slid across the back of my legs, their weight pressing my knee-caps into the floor. I can't take much more of this or I'll be walking like I've had a visit from some thugs.
I do not want to lift my blindfold to make my way to the bathroom, but if I don't go now, olive oil won't be the only yellow liquid people are rolling around in. As I sit on the toilet, I pick someone's pube off my stomach and wonder what the fuck I'm doing letting randoms rub against me, when I've got a beautiful boyfriend at home. As it happens, we split up a few days later (for unrelated reasons), and I wonder if I'd have experienced it differently, if I'd been single.
We finish up with a "Love Train" sitting on the floor in two lines. Liquid Love facilitators Jessica and Dione each sit at the end of a line, touching the back of the person in front of them. The idea is that each person copies what they feel, replicating it on the person in front of them. I fail to grasp this, and sit there for some time waiting to start. As I am not touching the man in front of me, he is not touching anyone else, so the Love Train ends at me. Amber is sitting behind me, stroking my back. I wonder why she is doing this and politely pretend not to notice.
Showered and dressed, I ask Dione how he and girlfriend Jessica feel about seeing each other with other people. "It strengthens our relationship," says Dione, stroking a naked girl next to him. "We're taught to believe jealousy is a sign that someone cares about you," he continues, as his cock rises, "but actually it's not." So events like this don’t jeopardise your relationship? "On the contrary!" contributes Eyal, "we have relationships starting at these sessions!" He tells me a long-term lesbian couple came to an event, and left in a love triangle with a guy who's now a permanent part of their relationship.
As we walk to the car, Amber catches sight of blood stains on my sundress and says, "oh my God, are you bleeding?!" I realise I am. Someone's toenail caught my calf at the end of the session, but I hadn't realised it had ripped my skin. My anxiety levels bubbling over, someone sensible spends the next 12 hours assuring me I can't have caught HIV.
My aversion to forced fun has not been altered by attending the session, but if you're up for getting slippery with strangers, Liquid Love is certainly somewhere to do it.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.