Tel Aviv's 'Sextival' lacks gentle touch

"Trust me, the Israeli public is not ready for what goes on in Europe."

Playboy 88 224 (photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)
Playboy 88 224
(photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)
Tel Aviv has joined a list of prominent cities around the world - including Berlin, London and Barcelona - that host festivals dedicated to the world of love and sex. A recent three-day exhibition held at the Tel Aviv Port's Hangar 11 was the brainchild of model turned entrepreneur Nitzan Kirshenbaum, who had been toying with the idea ever since she attended a sex fair in Berlin in 2004. The event was highly publicized in the media, not only because it was Israel's first, but also because it had been organized by a woman. In male-dominated Israel, and with the adult industry's tendency to cater primarily to male taste, the fact that a young woman was heading such an initiative did not go unnoticed. Kirshenbaum devoted six months of non-stop work, including many sleepless nights, to organize the event and drum up the hype around it. "I'd been playing around with this idea for a long time. Sex is such an important part of adult life. It shouldn't be hidden away. Everyone was very supportive, as were my parents and friends, who encouraged me to go through with it. I expected many more objections. I hope to make it an annual event," Kirshenbaum said when Metro finally caught up with her at the festival's opening. Tall and blonde, with a convincing girl-next-door look, Kirshenbaum has been interviewed incessantly for both local and foreign TV and radio, magazines and newspapers. "All the elements came together really well and the openness that was shown to the idea were a pleasant surprise," says Kirshenbaum. "All of a sudden, everyone wanted to be involved," she laughs. Media preparation commenced about two months ago, when Tel Aviv streets were inundated with large, attention-grabbing "Sextival 2008" ads on nearly every block. The posters depicted two perfect, bikini-clad specimens posing suggestively. The city's major entertainment magazines wrote up provocative articles that piqued the public's interests, describing the festival's expected shows, prizes, and special appearances. The major attraction on the festival's opening day was a striptease contest that was broadcast live on the digital cable channel Ego, whose programming is geared toward males aged 18-45. "People are really into the idea of this dancing contest. I've received many compliments on the originality of it and I've even been told that other festivals are thinking of adopting it," gushes Kirshenbaum. The dancers were provided courtesy of the Club HaBursa near Ramat Gan's Diamond Exchange. A mysterious VIP area was set up in the top section of the lieu, which turned out to be a private strip club for paying customers only, who sought to enjoy Israel's notorious hands-on approach to strip shows - an option unavailable during the shows in the main area of the venue. All of the clients were men. The festival's grand prize, however, overshadowed the strippers. Playboy, the Sextival's largest sponsor, provided the closing day's grand lottery prize: a trip for two to Hugh Hefner's legendary Playboy mansion in Beverly Hills. More commonly used for concerts and parties, the Hangar 11 platform was divided into booths of varying sizes for the three-day Sextival, in which companies and organizations could showcase their products and services. Kirshenbaum says she took the business-to-business system she saw in Europe, especially in Berlin, and applied it here. Cooperation between the industry's various enterprises is key to making an event like this a success, she explains. From chocolate, wine and candles to lingerie, sex toys, and board games, every bedroom accessory appeared to receive its due representation. Adult films played on loops on flat screens mounted at various spots throughout the hangar, and a wide assortment of films catering to every taste were available for purchase at almost every booth. Both men and women took turns lounging on the expo's sole water bed (complete with satin sheets) and lined up for the free massage sessions with professional masseuses. Playboy Bunnies flew in from Greece to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the eager men who lined up for the privilege. Usually rowdy Israelis lined up in an orderly fashion, most likely cowed by the two stern-looking, Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike security guards who growled at anyone who dared shove or push. The only festival attraction devoid of people was the Jacuzzi, but only because it was set up right next to the strippers' stage, which proved much more popular. Even the lone male model who eventually waded in couldn't entice the swarms away from the stage, camera phones ready for the next striptease. Conspicuously hairless from head to toe, he looked like he spent every waking moment lifting weights, doing pushups and/or flexing his massive muscles. In his underwear, he slowly dog-paddled from one corner of the Jacuzzi to the next while wiggling his eyebrows at every female who walked by. Fetish-oriented interests catered to the more adventurous types, with booths featuring whips, latex suits, chains and other devices meant to enhance the pleasure/pain continuum. Models clad in fake black leather and latex paraded around, acting out S&M sessions at their booths and on the stage. Elsewhere, a male "swingers" organizer whose motto was "where you will find the perfect couple" informed this writer that he hosted lavish parties in various locations in the center of the country. Only couples and single women were invited into his tent to talk about the advantages of alternative lifestyles, and people signed up right on the spot for the next "private party." Meanwhile, one of Israel's many adult Web sites demonstrated its newest innovative service, which centers on the web cam. The screens of various laptops and PCs were set up, showing girls in various states of undress. Guests were invited to give the girls their next task by speaking into microphones, and, voila - another piece of clothing would come off. Representatives of Durex, the international condom manufacturer, promoted safe sex by handing out free condoms. One display featured a giant inflated condom with men in white costumes holding signs such as "I want to be a boy" and "Mommy?" while jumping up and down. The trapped swimmers were an amusing spectacle and proved a popular photo op for the cheering crowd. Styled after Berlin's annual Love Parade, often described as the world's biggest party, the loud dance music, low roaming lights and three makeshift bars gave the Sextival a convincing club-like feel, while the no-room-to-breathe ambiance completed the allusion to the Tel Aviv nightlife scene. Unlike similar events, such as London's yearly Erotica Convention and Finland's Kutemajärvi Sex Festival, which are held during the day and often into the night, the Sextival began at 6 p.m. on each of its three nights and lasted until roughly 2 a.m. According to Kirshenbaum, sexual awareness in Europe is on a wholly different plateau than in Israel and North America. "This event," she said, was softened up for the Israeli public. "We tried to focus on the foreplay aspects of sex. We weren't trying to shock anyone, so we toned it down quite a bit for Israel. Trust me, the Israeli public is not ready for what goes on in Germany and other European countries," she smiles knowingly. Some European festivals, boasting "enlightenment" and many more years' experience in such matters, provide live sex shows, much harder sadomasochistic sessions and demonstrations of fetishes involving various bodily fluids. A different plateau, indeed. A feeling that the whole event had a much too commercial feel was echoed many times throughout the night, and when the erotic dancers got onto the stage, the men flocked - but the women hung back. "There's something missing," a woman in her mid-twenties shouts over the music. "It's all about sex toys and strippers. I didn't come here to see that. It's not sexy enough, not erotic enough. I expected something different." The glitter, fake breasts and wigs, gawking and cheering - while perhaps exciting for a man - is not most women's cup of tea. Not least because the unforgiving lights only accented, for some, the dancers' cellulite and bad complexions. The ambiance emphasized a harsh reality that the average woman prefers not to associate with either love or sex. The presence of a number of men in expensive dark suits with open collars and heavy gold chains, much too reminiscent of the Sopranos, and menacing stares who were there to "protect" the dancers only added to the vulgarity of the display - especially in Israel, where seemingly not a week goes by without a story about violence against a woman making headlines. Contrary to the festival's promotional claims, while its overall atmosphere would not be earth-shattering to the mainstream public - which is fed a regular diet of sexuality in the media - it was certainly neither laid-back nor casual. This writer felt she had attended a large entertainment venue whose main focus and attraction was the strippers. While fun and often funny, the educational aspect the public was led to believe would be the purpose of the event was not there. There were no workshops, no easy browsing or discreet shopping, and while subtlety is not Israelis' forte, the go-for-the-jugular and misleading approach was slightly intimidating for the average person, especially for the ladies. While far from being as outlandish and explicit as its Scandinavian and German counterparts, the Sextival was still a first for Israel and - gentlemen, ask a lady - a first time should always be gentle and considerate.