I was a sex-party virgin until a few months ago. I’d avoided the scene thanks to a personal laundry list of preconceptions drawn from bad erotica and a genuine fear of naked strangers. That all changed a few months ago, when I first attended New York City’s only large-scale, invite-only play party. (For the uninitiated, a “play party” is a gathering of people who will (potentially) have sex with each other.)
To get into said party, you must be referred by someone already on the list, and regular attendees are incredibly selective about their invitees with good reason. If you break the rules, you won’t be the only one barred from entry: the friend that invited you will also be banned. I received a recommendation from a lovely married couple who I met while working on a story about consensual non-monogamy last summer. I was grateful for the referral, but still had to go through another layer of security: meeting the organizer of the party. (Not all attendees go through this particular round of vetting, but I aimed to be transparent about being a reporter.)
The organizer, a gentleman in his early 50s, doesn’t court journalists (unlike the people who throw the media-hyped Killing Kittens parties). Instead, he is understandably wary. He’s worked for almost five years to build something fairly idyllic (as far as sex parties go) and takes great pains to protect his venerable institution. Maintaining the secrecy of this particular party requires overseeing a cadre of comrades and volunteers who are not just on the same polyamorous page but are equally invested in keeping the community small enough to function and thrive. (I agreed not to share the name of this party.) There is tremendous attention to detail for each party: scheduling, guest lists, security, staffing, and location-scouting.
If the organizer approved me, I would attend partly as a writer and partly as a curious civilian. I told him I had no idea if I would play—the word often invoked at the invitation stage—until I got there.
Although I consider myself sexually adventurous and ravenous, I’ve never felt safe or comfortable enough to explore this outside the boundaries of my apartment or that of a lover’s. In the last few years I’ve happily witnessed a veritable explosion of options for women to pursue pleasure. Yet there are still so many reasons not just to be wary, but often, to be afraid.
Sexual spaces (at least for the hetero set) are almost exclusively men’s spaces, where male gaze controls the way women move our bodies and the way we see ourselves. I wondered if a play party might offer something different and wanted to push my own boundaries, to test myself, to see if I was missing something. Could I remain totally open to whatever might come up without being in a constant defensive stance? (Feeling safe in the protective arms of a sex party is probably the weirdest way to realize that you emotionally armor yourself against attack at all times, but here we are.)
There was a DIY-CAPTCHA style trick in the list of rules—an extra word that I had to find in order to get the next email.
The night before the party, I received an email from the organizer with a maze of rules that I committed to memory. This is when I began to realize that was to be an equal playing field in theory, if not in practice. Pleasure would be forbidden without robust and constantly monitored ethical check-ins.
A small selection of the rules:
- Zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, including nonconsensual contact, harming others, and making anyone feel unsafe.
- A definition of consent not rivaling any I’ve seen before except for in workshops at women-owed sex shops – a full-on treatise on “yes means yes.”
- Equal contribution from all genders: no tiered pricing.
- Guests must remain sober enough to be able to ask for and provide consent.
- Safe sex: condoms must be used with all non-fluid-bonded partners, and changed between partners.
There was a DIY-CAPTCHA style trick in the list of rules—an extra word that I had to find in order to get the next email. Once you identify and reply with the extra word, then and only then do you receive the next email, with the location (a posh hotel in Manhattan) and password for the door.
Tickets are purchased via Paypal, and men and women pay the same amount to avoid a room full of lecherous older men and younger women seeking “favors.” This is yet another tick in the feminist column: Most other sex parties only charge men, creating a “men buy, women comply” model. This is one of the many ways women are encouraged to be the subjects of their own sexual narrative at this particular sex party—not the objects we end up being in our everyday dating lives.
Even though I appreciated the rules, with this many levels of screening, I still had no idea what to expect—or what to wear. I tried on everything in my closet and settled on a black minidress with a mesh bodice that I once wore on New Year’s Eve. I put a heavy gold chain belt on my waist for a fetishlike effect, then texted a selfie to the guy I’m dating, who was fully aware of my adventure and being extremely cool about it all.
I met the couple who’d invited me at the hotel bar, and we slipped into the elevator to make our way upstairs before the doors closed at midnight. We were greeted by a beautiful, bejeweled woman who offered a basic orientation: Always ask, “May I touch you?” before engaging in play. If you ever feel uncomfortable, find a guardian and ask them for help. She pointed to her armband to show me how to identify the roving guardians.
I entered the gorgeously appointed two-story penthouse suite and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of open-minded people in various states of undress. It did not feel licentious—it felt liberating, almost instantly. Although I spent the night watching piles of beautiful naked bodies writhe on assorted beds, all I could think about was how absolutely safe I felt. It was #YesMeansYes meets Hedonism 2.0.
Beyond the sex, it was hands-down one of the best NYC parties I’d been to in a while, with two floors of excellent DJs, vegan hors d’oeuvres (there are also vegan condoms and lube), and decadent cocktails.
It was #YesMeansYes meets Hedonism 2.0.
As I made my way toward the dance floor upstairs, a cute, shaggy-haired man in his 30s gestured to me from where he had been sitting between a woman’s fishnet-clad legs. “Your eyes are exceptionally beautiful and soulful,” he said, after beckoning me to crouch beside him on the floor. “Thank you,” I offered genuinely, inches away from the woman’s left foot, which was resting on his shoulder. I turned to smile at her and she grinned back. He then told me that I’m a kind, nurturing person; he could see this in my eyes, too. Strangely, it didn’t feel like a line; he was not inviting me to join them (although I’m sure he wouldn’t have been opposed if I signaled my availability).
More than anything, this was a genuine moment of human connection in the midst of lots of hearty sex and sensual dancing. And that’s the thing: I felt authentic intimacy all around me. It may have been casual, but it was not cheap. After we chatted, he once again buried his face between his partner’s legs.
Soon after, I danced with a medical student, and then met a very sweet brunette in the line to the bathroom. I revealed myself as a reporter but admitted that I was also there to explore my own desires. She let me know that her friend would really like me. An hour or so later they found me in the hallway outside one of the upstairs bedrooms. When she introduced me, it became clear that they wanted me to join them. (I’m slow on the uptake; apparently this is what she was trying to tell me earlier.)
I shared what felt like my entire life story nervously, not leaving out that I was newly dating someone. Despite my anxiety, I was drawn to them and kissed them both, but still felt too nervous to do anything but allow the man to gently caress my shoulders, neck and waist. I could not stop apologizing because in the end, I felt like an unintentional tease. (I had recently spent the night with my new guy, and it was just too soon.)
Even though I gently rebuffed them, I enjoyed their company, and the three of us watched various couples have sex on a mattress in the next room. Then I had an epiphany: I’m probably not an exhibitionist, but voyeurism is totally fun.
Even though I didn’t end up playing much in the end (a bit of kissing doesn’t feel like it counts), I still felt like a sexual equal. In this place I was desired, desirous, and completely in control—and if I wanted to lose control, I’d be perfectly safe, too.
Even though I was there without a partner on this night, I felt secure enough to let myself feel a delicious vulnerability,the kind that you must feel with a lover before you let yourself go completely. There were a few actual embraces, but the truth is that I felt embraced by the entire room all night long.
Illustration by Max Fleishman