"We live in a culture that doesn't acknowledge the importance of appetite," complains Mama Gena, the proprietress of Mama Gena's School of Womanly Arts. Mama Gena sports a head of very blonde Shirley Temple curls and a gold lamé suit at home one recent afternoon. "Nobody," she says, "teaches us to really examine or explore the details of what creates a totally succulent, gratified, dewy, fabulous, lubricated life!" New York women are experts at denying themselves -- depending on the month -- carbs, sugar, dairy, fruit. They wear tall, spindly heels that uncomfortably cramp calves overdeveloped by so many hours with the personal trainer. There is very little that's pleasant about a Brazilian bikini wax, and not much to recommend the absence of stockings on bitter winter mornings. Mama Gena's devotees -- boldface models doted on by paparazzi, business women with big titles and bigger offices, chic creative types with hunky husbands and cute children -- know all of this. "Even when you go to a party, it's like work," one best-dressed glamazon sighs. "Everything is about success and about fame, and that's great, but after a while, you start to feel like you're lacking."
What does Mama Gena have to say to these high achievers with existential angst? You're just underlubricated. Have ice cream. Have orgasms. Tell your man to touch you right there.
"I think a lot of women just have their lights off," she says. "I'll see women on the street and say, 'Look at that beautiful woman. There's no reason for her lights to be off.' These women need to learn to trust their pussies. Not their vaginas, their coochies, their down-theres, but their pussies. Vagina is the wrong word, because it's referring to your internal cavity."
Mama Gena explains that using the word vagina is not unlike calling your penis your prostate. "When women use the word pussy, it sets them free. They flush, they get all crazy. They feel all wild. It snaps a woman into her sassiness."
So, on a typical weekday evening twenty New York women pack up their pussies in La Perla thongs and make their pilgrimage to Mama Gena's brownstone in the West Eighties to learn to say the word ("They shout it!" Mama Gena swears. "We have to restrain them sometimes!") and to take classes with titles like "Training Your Man," "Power Play: The Art and Science of Hexing," and, of course, "Trust Your Pussy." While at school, they call themselves sistergoddesses. Mama Gena's students are not unusual or eccentric -- you'd find the same cross-section of New Yorkers in a spin class at Equinox. A few lawyers, some Upper East Side moms, a debutante, some jewelry designers. They dress in Sigerson Morrison mules, Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses, Earl jeans. They dabble in yoga; they love sushi. They are toned and plucked and blown dry. And they are absolutely willing to share with one another, in graphic detail, tips on masturbating.
'Before the class, I would intellectualize decisions,' says one sistergoddess. 'Now, I make choices based on what turns me on. You have to be trained to do that. It doesn't come naturally.'
Mama Gena, whose real name was Regena Thomashauer back when she was an actress-teacher-waitress type, has devoted the past ten years to being mother figure to the lost, pleasure-challenged female population of Manhattan. She is their ur-goddess, their Eros enabler, their heroine. She is originally from Philadelphia, and her father was a psychoanalyst, a true Freudian. But Thomashauer wasn't interested in that type of therapy. She tried it back when she was still hoping to make things happen with her college boyfriend. But it just didn't work for her. "There's no deliverable outcome at the end of therapy," she complains. "Like my dad, he's been in therapy for 40 years." What Thomashauer was interested in was the conversations she'd had with girlfriends at Mount Holyoke College. "It was like we had a handle on the career thing, but in terms of relationships, we didn't know anything."
When Thomashauer met her husband, Papa Bruce, she wanted to figure out how to keep the relationship going, and so the two embarked on a series of classes at More College near San Francisco. Eventually, they brought what they'd learned to New York and began counseling couples. "He was third generation in a family business," she says. "I went to one of his meetings with him, and I was like, 'We're getting you out of here.' " And she did. The first courses they taught were called Relationship Technologies and focused on the couple as a unit, on how to take a good relationship and, over time, make it better (they still offer these sessions). They also began personal coaching, which some gratified clients describe as six months of therapy condensed into 60 minutes. But about three years ago, Thomashauer had what she calls her Dangerous Beauty moment.
"I'm watching this movie, and by this time, we have tons of clients and we're noticing there's a certain thing I have not really been able to address with women in particular," she says. "In the movie, the mother says to the daughter, 'You can go to convent or you can become a courtesan.' So she goes to the convent and she sees that they're about to cut off her hair and she says no way and she goes back to being a courtesan.
"So her mother says to her, 'If you want to give pleasure, you have to know pleasure.' And it was like, da-ding! No one teaches women how to know pleasure. We aren't educated into the womanly arts. Nobody teaches us how to flirt, how to own our own sensuality. We're always looking to our husbands and our boyfriends to make us gratified and happy.
"My school is really about dipping your toe into the waters of womanhood; it's a courtesan academy. Selfishness is our ultimate goal, because what no one teaches us is that if you're not pleasuring yourself, you don't have the surplus to take care of anyone else. But if you learn how to take exquisite care of yourself, you're like, Give me your tired, your poor!"