It’s a Friday night in June of 2003. Three media satellite trucks surround a sex shop in Kitsilano while an unknown number of undercover cops sit among the audience within. On the floor, a man and woman lie naked and covered in paint, ready to perform oral sex in the 69 position in what is arguably Canada’s first-ever live erotic art show. As the lights dim, everyone has one question on their minds:
“Is this guy going to be able to get it up?”
John Ince, co-founder of The Art of Loving, the sex shop itself, laughed as he remembered the experience. Ince, a UBC law alumnus-turned-sexual activist has spent his life studying sex, fighting for it in court and the political realm, and finally helping others get better at it.
In his early twenties, Ince visited the Khajuraho Group of Monuments in India and was inspired to see erotic sculptures depicting group sex placed next to ones of deities and other day-to-day scenes.
“I saw a civilization that revered sexuality,” he said. “[It was] the first time I’d ever gone, ‘Wow, not every civilization represses it.’”
Originally working in forestry law, Ince used his law degree to begin representing people involved in cases surrounding sexuality. The interest in these cases eventually led to his independent research at Robarts Library in Toronto, where he began to study the correlation between autocratic societies, religions and familial structures with negative views surrounding sex.
“Sexual fear helps authoritarianism and authoritarianism breeds sexual fear, so it’s a reciprocal causality. It’s an inner state of fear,” he explained.
Ince believed the way to enhance his research was to get experimental in his own life. This is why, in the early ’90s, Ince lived in San Francisco as a “closeted straight man” — he was an active participant in the gay community, even though he identifies as straight.
“I started taking erotic massage workshops in the gay community in San Francisco,” he said. “... For the first time, I saw how sexuality could be taken out of a romantic context, and into almost a spiritual context … So I set up an erotic massage school in Vancouver.”
Back in Vancouver, Ince juggled practicing law, running his business and writing his first book The Politics of Lust. A year and a half later, he decided to pivot to a different business model with his partner Vera and open a community-based store.
“Our interest was to offer seminars where we’re not just selling objects but we’re bringing community in to learn about sexuality — that was our passion.”
It was at this shop where, in 2003, artist Martin Guderna asked to display his erotic art show Public Sex, Art and Democracy — and to have a live piece of performance art to go with it.
“Over a couple of bottles of wine, we figured it out.”
Ince and Guderna decided to cover a couple in paint, allow them to perform oral sex on each other and then to wrap their bodies in a canvas: a three-dimensional experience becoming a two-dimensional piece of art.
But a couple of weeks before the show, the Vancouver Sun reported on it, prompting the police to threaten Ince with an indecent offence charge.
“We could punch each other silly in the art gallery, but we couldn’t have a sexual connection,” said Ince. “Bizarre laws. [But] they hadn’t done their homework, they didn’t know that I was a sexual activist who’d gone to court many times.
“The police didn’t back down. We didn’t back down.”
The officers didn’t halt the show that night, so the exhibitionist couple performed as scheduled. The man was indeed able to get it up — Ince called him an “incredible sexual athlete” — and this set a precedent for the shop.
“Because of our history of being sexually on the leading edge, we were confident no one was going to come after us.”
This allowed The Art of Loving to venture into new territory: sexual education workshops with live demonstrations.
“We were just talking about how to pleasure an anus, how to stimulate a woman to ejaculate, and we could show videos but people were saying, ‘You know, it would be great if you could have somebody with the chutzpah to be a model for that.’ We discovered there was both a market and people willing and interested in describing their experience.”
From 2005 to 2011, Ince also helped lead the Sex Party, a political party focused on improving sexual education in schools, removing restrictive laws pertaining to sexual performance and working against the prohibition of non-exploitative sex work.
With such a variety of work in this field, it may be hard to decide which of Ince’s ventures has been the most successful. While Ince cites his books as one of his greatest personal achievements, he also finds joy in his shop having brought so many people together.
“I really value the community-making that Vera and I have done, at making The Art of Loving a little bastion of sex-positivity in a very progressive city.”
On February 6, the shop held one of their regular rope bondage seminars, with a trained kink professional teaching a class of around 25 people how to tie a number of different knots in a safe and sexy way. The audience ranged from people as young as their early twenties to those in their fifties or sixties.
As the class began and the instructor cracked jokes while handing out lengths of rope, any nervous jitters faded from the crowd and participants began tying themselves up, tying each other up and — for one particularly adventurous couple — asking the writer of this article to get freaky and join a strange, three-way tying session.
The small, intimate space of The Art of Loving helped to dissolve any tensions and set the room at ease to participate without self-consciousness. This was exactly the community that Ince had hoped to cultivate.
The Art of Loving holds different workshops throughout each month on everything from creative kissing to impact play to fisting. Its sex seminar calendar can be found here.