Behind a secret door in London’s upscale East End, women are embracing their inherent sexualities and discovering self-love.
Before your mind plunges into the gutter, I should point out that save for a few unsnapped bras and kicked off shoes, the entire group is fully clothed and there’s not a battery-operated device in sight. This time.
This is the weekly meeting of the Scarlet Ladies (SL), where women across all ages and postcodes gather in a plush upstairs lounge, to discuss all things sex-related, from turn-ons to Tinder dates. A guest speaker leads the Scarlet Ladies in a seminar, workshop or class themed firmly around the female sexual experience.
"The secret art of penis massage was apparently quite a tutorial"
Previous sessions have included striptease classes, lectures on tantric sex and Q&As with a professional dominatrix. These sex-ucational evenings are interspersed with sex-themed socials such as sex-positive pub quizzes and Talking Sex open mic nights. Tonight, it's a ‘Welcome to Your Body’ workshop led by sexological body worker Jessica Parker.
As well as giving women the opportunity to learn new skills (the secret art of penis massage was apparently quite a tutorial) SL is first and foremost a safe space for women to be completely open. “We exist to help women everywhere to grow in confidence, love their bodies and live boldly in all aspects of life, without fear or shame,” explains the website.
"If you can't feel good in your own skin, it'll prove difficult when someone wants to kiss every inch of it"
While great sex and headboard rattling orgasms are a focal point for SL, self-acceptance underpins the majority of the group’s work, with ‘Who I Am’ being the Scarlet theme of 2019. The thinking is: if you’re unable to feel good in your own skin, it’s going to prove difficult when someone wants to kiss every inch of it.
Unnatural beauty standards, repressive gender roles and judgmental attitudes towards female desire are all expounded and gleefully stomped upon during the Tuesday night sessions.
"It's not that women don’t know what they want"
“It’s not that women don’t know what they want, women know. But so often the thing that’s holding them back is being OK with, and being accepting of, who they are,” said Jannette Davies. She co-founded the group in 2015 with personal transformation coach, Sarah Beilfuss. While Beilfuss has now stepped down from her role as ‘chief stigma smasher,’ she still runs the monthly Scarlet Circle coaching group which utilises her counselling skills.
The origin of SL was actually a diatribe over coffee, with a frustrated Jannette ranting to Sarah about gender double-standards, relationships and sex. “Sarah said: ‘Jannette, why don’t we just make a group that focuses on these things? These are things that I’ve thought, but I’ve never heard anyone else say. I thought I was on my own.’ So, we started Scarlet Ladies.”
"Like sexual butterflies"
SL has gone on to gain a dedicated core of members ranging in age from 22 to 55. The group’s main base is in London where 60 Scarlet Ladies get hands-on in the secret room behind a bookcase. But there are also over 100 global members who get to be part of the Scarlet community online and can attend events at a reduced price.
Some members also arrange meet-ups outside of the Scarlet evenings, including nights out at Torture Garden and Club Subversion socials. It’s not uncommon, say Davies, that members feel empowered to finally explore lifelong fantasies, whether that be femdom play, or simply asking their partner for a massage. Like sexual butterflies, members emerge from the meetings brimming with newfound confidence and ready to flutter their carnal wings.
"Overcoming the ingrained idea that 'nice girls don’t do this or that' has been really important for me"
Louise, 35, a Scarlet Lady of two years from Bermondsey, says that going Scarlet has helped her feel more connected to her body. Like Jannette, she grew up in a religious family where sex was considered taboo.
“Just listening to other women talk about their bodies and their hang-ups was so reassuring and made me feel a whole lot more normal," says Louise. "Also overcoming the ingrained idea that ‘nice girls don’t do this or that’ has been really important for me.”
Feeling abnormal is a common obstacle that the Scarlet community deals with. From hang-ups over labia size to anxieties about dating preferences. Finding out that other members agonise over the same thing goes a long way towards demystifying these toxic insecurities. SL’s ‘Talk Sex. Change Lives’ campaign revealed that 70% of women feel more empowered when they can talk freely about sex.
"Women are more in charge of their own sexuality than they’ve ever been"
While the brain remains the most sexual organ of the body, the Scarlet Ladies pay due attention to the physicality of female pleasure. There have been talks on unlocking the female orgasm, a couple’s guide to anal sex and instructions on choosing the perfect sex toy. It seems that women are more in charge of their own sexuality than they’ve ever been. But there remains a distinct lack of discussion around how to get to the desired knee-trembling destination, which SL provides in droves.
Another issue often broken down at the Scarlet symposiums is the misrepresentation of female sexuality. The main culprit here is mainstream pornography, especially the heterosexual variety. If straight porn were to be taken as reality, the female orgasm is achieved almost exclusively by penetration. Such preconceptions are challenged through Talk Sex parties and workshops on body confidence.
"We learn sex skills, how to give blow jobs, how to give amazing hand jobs and how to tickle someone"
Yvonne, 36, from Highgate, turned Scarlet in 2017 and credits the group with enabling her to explore her fantasies. “A typical night is a mixed bag," she explains, "there are these groups where we learn sex skills, how to give blow jobs, how to give amazing hand jobs and how to tickle someone. But there’s this really soft, sweet genuine side.
"It’s opened my horizons and made me aware of things that maybe I wasn't aware of and I think it’s made me feel kind of empowered.”
Scarlet Ladies is a space for all things sexual to be discussed, which includes sexual experiences which may have been traumatic or non-consensual. Of the group’s various seminars there have been talks given by sexual trauma specialists and frank discussions about the importance of boundaries.
"I have had quite a few abusive relationships. It was helpful to hear that other people had had similar experiences"
A 2018 report on Crime in England and Wales shows that one in five women over the age of 16 will have experienced some kind of sexual assault, the majority of which go unreported. Speaking up is the first step in the fight against normalised sexual assault. For the survivors, it is often a vital part of healing and working through the experience.
Says Yvonne: “I have had quite a few abusive relationships. Some would say it was rape, some would say it wasn’t, depending on your perspective. But it was helpful to hear that other people had had similar experiences.”
Such is the power of honesty and openness which Scarlet Ladies facilitates so well at its meetings. Whether you’re interested in trying something new, battling an insecurity or overcoming a painful experience, there is power in voicing your truth and having it met with a resounding ‘Me Too.’
"It's the nitty-gritty, sexy kinky and also it's the loving, comforting, giving you a hug"
“It’s the nitty-gritty, sexy kinky and also it's the loving, comforting, giving you a hug, understanding your experiences kind of set-up," says Yvonne. "I like how it has multiple facets, multiple sides to it. That's the best thing about coming.”
Sessions such as the Scarlet Circle are strictly members only, but many have guest passes for non-members and the group holds open-house taster sessions a few times a year. To retain a level of intimacy, London membership is capped at 100 women, although people pick and choose which evenings to attend. The weekly sessions are usually sized between 10 and 20 women, with more Scarlet Ladies turning up for socials.
In the future SL plan to open new chapters in other UK cities, but for now, it is helping women feel confident and closing the orgasm gap one Londoner at a time.