I have known Phillip Coupal for barely two hours when I find myself browsing through his collection of leather jackets, high heels and a variety of flogging tools. Coupal smiles and laughs as he demonstrates his favourite, a black faux-fur whip, on my arm. A massage table sits in the middle of his studio, which is decorated with Coupal’s own artwork and an array of eccentric ornaments, including a wooden penis sculpture and a full-sized St Andrew’s cross. Behind cupboard doors, visitors can find neatly labelled bins containing ropes and ties, a few wooden spoons and more dildos than the average imagination knows what to do with.
Regardless of what his collection might suggest, Coupal’s work at Awaken Studio, located at 270 Carlaw Ave, seeks to take the focus and emphasis off sex and create a safe, pleasurable environment for queer male individuals, couples and groups to explore their sexuality.
Visitors can book part-day, full-day or weekend sessions with Coupal, which he describes as an “experiential embodied erotic exploration,” or attend structured group-touch exchanges, like “Taoist Erotic Massage” and “Sensual Touch and Tantric Exploration.”
Clothes are removed at the beginning of these five-hour group seminars, which usually consist of about 10 people. Coupal welcomes the tension that accompanies stripping down with a group of strangers. “Being naked makes everyone equal because clothing takes away from who we are as sexual beings,” he says. “We as a society are not educated that it’s natural to be sexual.”
Coupal says that there is sometimes a misconception about what takes place at his studio. His practice’s goal is not to contribute to the unattainable standard that the queer male community is presented with, but rather to teach his visitors to come as they are and accept themselves. “Sex sells. Naked sells. Communication is different,” Coupal says. “The focus is on the whole body to be an organism of sexual pleasure.”
Sexual pleasure definitely makes its way into the seminars. During “play days” at Awaken Studio, guests are put into pairs for 20 minutes to experiment with their own sexual desires. One activity has partners take turns filling in the blanks in the sentence, “For my pleasure, I would like you to ___________.”
“The biggest thing people take away is asking for what they want and not giving what they think they should be giving,” he says.
However, Coupal also works with clients who keep their clothes on during their time at his studio. He says his role fills Toronto’s need for a bodyworker that isn’t all about sex, but he also describes himself as a counsellor, sex coach and educator.
Coupal holds a certification in life skills from George Brown College and has worked as a counsellor since 2005. He became a coordinator for Body Electric School, which offers workshops in personal growth, eroticism and consciousness, but after leaving his position to host his own seminars, he was able to open Awaken Studio in January 2012.
The Queer Heart Talking Circle is a new monthly session Coupal is offering to queer males who feel isolated from the “big gay world.” The circle held its first meeting at Coupal’s studio on Jan 12, and he says the group is already looking forward to its next meeting, on Feb 9 at 1pm.
The eight members will be seeing Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary at Buddies in Bad Times as part of their plan to go on cultural outings in the queer community. Coupal looks forward to new members joining the circle, and says, “This is about building community right here in the city. It’s open to the queer world; everyone is welcome.”