Once a year it makes its way to Edmonton, and its arrival comes with a barrage of advertisements promising a sexy good time. It’s Taboo: the Naughty but Nice Sex Show.
I’d been hearing about Taboo since 2011, not only thanks to a looming billboard ad but because the show seemed to promise some of my college friends the chance to openly explore aspects of their sexuality which was otherwise off-limits to them. For many of those friends, simply coming to Red Deer College had meant the freedom to affirm and express themselves in ways they had been unable to do back home in smaller, more rural towns.
While I harboured minor jealousy of friends that went, it was more because I lacked their bravery, rather than feeling that I had missed out on a raucous weekend. I, too, was exploring myself and relationships and had come to the conclusion that most things sexual were not only alien to me but often uncomfortable, frequently boring, and especially mortifying if expressed publicly.
At the time, sex felt something like a joke that everyone but me understood the punchline to. As a result, attending a sex show like Taboo seemed like subjecting myself to an entire comedy routine of in-jokes which I would forever, embarrassingly, be on the outside of. So I didn’t.
When 2019 rolled around, however, I thought I might be ready. Time had passed, I had learned (and unlearned) a lot about myself and about sexuality in general. My own skittishness about some things had lessened, and Taboo now seemed like another opportunity to test the waters.
A close friend and partner agreed to come with me, and since she had attended a previous Taboo show, I felt I could have no better guide. Her enthusiasm for the event helped to stoke the fires of my own curiosity, and though I still had little idea of what to expect on the other side of the Edmonton Expo Centre’s dark curtains, in I plunged.
Whatever I thought might be waiting for us, the giant unattended table of plastic sunglasses was the last thing I expected.
Had we come on the first two days of the event, it is likely that the table — which belonged to Taboo’s main sponsor, MyFreeCams.com — would have been attended by a number of staff, all beaming smiles and coquettishness, handing out the sunglasses directly and promoting the web- site. Having gone on a Sunday, however, the overall tone of the event was more laid back, and for good reason. According to Kevin Blackburn, Show Director of Canwest Productions Inc., that previous Friday and Saturday “were packed wall to wall both nights”.
“It was the best (Saturday) we’ve had in three or four years, for sure,” Blackburn continued, indicating that the Sunday quietness might have been beneficial to the event staff just as much as for easily overwhelmed attendees like myself.
Blackburn would know. He’s been working with the Taboo shows for the last 15 years of the event’s 19-year-long run. During that time he’s not only acted as show director in Edmonton and Red Deer, but Calgary, Vancouver, Regina, and Montreal. Taboo even had a brief but successful run in Abbotsford, British Columbia, which Blackburn described as “the Bible Belt of western Canada.”
“We had picketers outside and church groups that didn’t want us there,” Blackburn said, “but the show was an overwhelming success. We had a lot of people at the event.”
Successful though Taboo might have been — perhaps for many of the same reasons it was so attractive to my friends in Red Deer — the event was cancelled in 2012 and has not returned to Abbotsford. By and large, though, Blackburn thinks that most Canadians are open to what Taboo has to offer, and even less sexually inclined folks like myself might find something worthwhile.
“I would say that 15 years ago when sex wasn’t as mainstream, that definitely we would be looked at in a different sort of light,” Blackburn told me, “but people, in general, being more in touch with their sexuality, (sex) being more mainstream, it’s really changed the event and … there’s something for everyone. There’s seminars, there’s shows on the stage, there’s all different kinds of shopping, there’s even a dungeon area.”
Believe it or not, I mustered the courage to enter that dungeon. Put on by the Alberta Sex Positive Education Community Centre (ASPECC), in addition to an information table covered with brochures and pamphlets, the dungeon also had an area in which to try out melted wax, electro sexual stimulation with a violet wand, suspension, and various forms of being struck, such as by flogging or paddling.
Bolstered by my partner’s encouragement, I asked a few questions of one of the volunteer dungeon attendants — master, I suppose — and decided to give the flogging a go. I had a number of disciplinary tools to choose from, including something that looked like a sawn-off cricket bat, but opted to try a cat-o-nine-tails. The volunteer was friendly and professional and gave me a strict set of communication rules by which to indicate whether he could continue to flog me, flog me harder, or ease off. I walked away from the experience with a slight tingle to my backside and a more or less neutral feeling towards the act, but a real appreciation for the level of consent involved.
My experience in the dungeon is, according to Blackburn, something that they strive for in all aspects of Taboo. “We try to stay very neutral here and be all-inclusive with everything. I think operating in that way and having zero discrimination puts us in a comfortable space. We take consent very seriously,” Blackburn said, “We don’t want anyone to have a bad experience here and … It’s important to us for there to be a safe, comfortable atmosphere at the event.”
Something that was also obvious in Taboo’s mandate was to be as informative as it was entertaining. Seminars were held regularly over the course of the weekend, with both a kink-specific stage and a more general taboo stage covering topics from a beginner’s guide to swinging (no, not the playground kind) through how to incorporate marijuana into your intimate life.
“Every year we bring in different sex educators to talk on different topics … so it’s always fresh education and always up to date,” Blackburn told me.
“Obviously it’s not an event that we would encourage families with kids to come down to, it’s not appropriate, but … we get a lot of comments from people who sat down at some of our seminars and learned something they never thought they would learn at a trade show.”
Like any trade show, Taboo is also a business venue, and while I was at first astounded by the variety of vibrators and insertable instruments available for purchase, the deluge of dildos quickly lost my interest. The only one that truly stood out was the Satisfyer Pro Penguin, and that was largely because it had an adorable silicone bowtie.
While the sex toys were an expected part of Taboo, what I hadn’t counted on was the sheer number of cannabis-related vendors and exhibits.
“Cannabis used to be something quite taboo and so was always part of the event,” Blackburn noted, “now that cannabis has become more mainstream there’s more people selling those products and we don’t really say no to those people because we don’t really say no to people who want to sample wine or whiskey or vodka at the event either.”
Despite my options, the only things I ended up purchasing were a bottle of water and a bowl of popcorn, which my partner and I shared while watching a drag routine by Mr. Terri Stevens and Chi Chi on the mainstage. Incidentally, Taboo also was my first real experience with a drag show. Chi Chi, a former world-champion baton twirler, was particularly impressive, though I found myself grinning and grooving along with Terri’s rendition of Kesha’s “Woman” because it was a genuinely fun performance.
We decided to leave after the male strip show by Body Heat, Edmonton’s own exotic male revue. The strength involved in some of the men’s performances was appreciable, but of everything I saw and experienced at Taboo, this was the only thing to actually make me uncomfortable. I should state that we did not leave because of the male strip show, simply that by the time they came on stage, both my partner and I were tired and simply less interested in this particular performance.
Though I came away from Taboo having learned a few things, as Blackburn had promised, I was also left with the sense that sex-education is as important as ever, especially around issues of consent, sobriety, and safety. As Blackburn also noted, anyone with access to the internet can find much more explicit content than which is available at the show, and not always is this content accurate.
From the picketers of Abbotsford to my own Catholic junior high sex-ed class which told me the Holy Spirit was responsible for erections within marriage (the devil being responsible for them outside of marriage, I assume), there’s a lot of misinformation and fear around sex and sexuality, even in the 21st century. Taboo might not be the place with all the answers, but it is a place to explore, and I would certainly go again.