I walked into a loft in Oakland, California, six years ago. The space had brick walls and six metre ceilings, and afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows. Dozens of people were sitting on the floor in the living room, catching up in groups of two or three. A handful were helping themselves to fresh fruit in the kitchen. I filled up a glass of water and settled into a cozy spot in the living room, joining friends I’d met in this very loft at a brunch party weeks before.
Soon, we heard the clinking of a spoon against glass: it was time for the welcome circle. We arranged ourselves in a giant, winding oval. Our host went over the rules for the party, and we all went around the circle introducing ourselves, our pronouns and our desires.
We were queer. We used all the pronouns. We wanted to talk about books. We wanted to fuck someone with our new dick. We wanted to meet other activists. We wanted to snuggle.
We were fully present and joyful and sparkling and I loved every minute of it. I’d found my home: a sex party where everyone was sober, where I could play my heart out and still get home and in bed by ten. Magic!
That day I broke in a new harness and dick under the watchful eye of elder dykes—and I discovered a bunch of new books to read. It was perfect.
Sex parties raise lots of questions: What do I wear? What if no one likes me? What is the etiquette for having sex?
The best parties are miraculous spaces. You can ask for what you want, negotiate in good faith and expect everyone to hear yeses and nos with grace. You can see all kinds of people—different shapes, sizes, colours, genders, orientations—expressing joy. You can lend a partygoer a hand or a bottle of lube.
I often wish the rest of the world had such standards for consent, such appreciation of beauty, such care for one another’s well-being.
I can’t remake the world. But I can help you find the right party for you—whether it’s a collection of glory holes or a virtual orgy. So here’s how to get started.
Live in a country with an effective government response to the pandemic
Sex, which typically involves a lot of sharing of saliva and air, is an effective way to spread colds, flus and the novel coronavirus. The virus which causes COVID-19 lives in our spit and the respiratory droplets we expel when breathing, talking, singing and moaning. You could try to have sex without getting a partner’s saliva or air anywhere near you, but it’s harder than you might think. Say someone gives you a blow job, then you touch your dick and then your face—that’s still saliva contact.
The coronavirus has also been found in semen and fecal matter, but we don’t yet know if exposure to the semen or fecal matter of an infected person presents a transmission risk. Similarly, we don’t know if vaginal or anal intercourse presents a transmission risk. To find out, we’d have to identify infected people who’d had sexual encounters involving vaginal or anal intercourse without any sharing of saliva or respiratory droplets, the more likely of culprits.
The problem with any kind of oral sex is the saliva of the person doing the licking or sucking. Oral secretions are infectious, and there’s just as much virus in asymptomatic COVID-19 patients as in those who are visibly sick.
The safest activities, according to the public health departments of New York and San Francisco and the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance of Ontario, are masturbation, limiting physical contact to partners within your household and shifting sexy time with partners outside your household to text, phone and video chat.
If the pandemic is still raging in your area, your local sex party communities have probably moved to virtual events. (Yes, you can have a sex party on Zoom.) Even hookup apps Grindr and Scruff are encouraging virtual sex.
That said, all social encounters during the pandemic involve risk, just as all sexual encounters do—the key is negotiating risk openly and honestly with your potential playmates. Consider putting together a stable social bubble of lovers with risk profiles similar to yours. Talk about your immune systems and any pre-existing conditions that might make navigating COVID-19 more challenging. Commit to shared norms of wearing masks, washing hands thoroughly with soap and water and staying at least two metres apart from folks outside your bubble. If your bubble wants to throw a party, consider COVID-19 PCR tests (also known as polymerase chain reaction tests) for everyone before entry and five to seven days after the party.
Playing outdoors with plenty of fresh air circulating is safer than indoors, but if you don’t have access to a private outdoor space, use the largest and best-ventilated indoor space you can find. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after play—this was true before the pandemic, and it’s even more essential now. Finally, wearing a mask over your nose and mouth will reduce risk. If you’ve ever wanted to try on a fetish hood, now is your chance.
All that said, staying home is your safest choice. And whether virtual or IRL, the steps are the same.
Find a reputable party organizer
Google “sex-positive events” in your city. Look for workshops on sexuality and kink. Which people and organizations pop up over and over?
If any of your friends go to sex parties, ask them about their experiences. They’ll tell you what you can’t find online. A great party organizer will easily answer your questions about access, culture and safety.
Find out who’s allowed at the party: Some parties are open to all genders and orientations while others have specific LGBTQ2 nights. Many parties have restrictions based on gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics, and some spaces are difficult for wheelchair users to access.
Cost can be another barrier. Many charge for tickets to cover the cost of venue rental, safer sex supplies, setup and cleanup. Some parties offer a sliding scale for lower income folks.
Some parties are designed for swimming and fucking in fresh air and sunshine; others are designed for exquisite flogging on a Saint Andrew’s Cross. Some parties require a dress code for admission or for the party itself, and some have statements of their values or traditions that show those values in action.
Finding out how a party facilitates sexual health is a critical step. Many parties offer safer sex supplies and guidance on sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing. The best parties model STI conversations to make it easy for attendees to discuss their status with each other.
Consent policy is another crucial element. Many parties require attendees to acknowledge consent rules before entering. The best parties model consent conversations for attendees and have strong incident reporting and accountability practices. For example, repeatedly asking someone to play after they’ve told you no may result in being removed from the party and having your access to future events suspended.
Ask about the substance use policy: Some parties allow attendees to consume alcohol and drugs, which can impair the ability to seek and offer consent. Find out what the boundaries of responsible substance use are at any party.
For many partygoers, privacy is a top concern. Many parties prohibit photos and require attendees to keep the identities and activities of fellow partygoers private. Some parties also offer guidance for what to do if you run into a co-worker or someone you know from outside the party scene.
Get to know the community in non-sexual settings before your first party
Going into a room full of strangers can be intimidating for anyone, and adding sex into the mix only ups the ante. When you get to know fellow partygoers in a more neutral setting, you set yourself up for success: You’ll see lots of familiar faces when you walk through the party doors or log onto your first virtual orgy.
Attend an orientation for new members; go to a picnic, a happy hour or a virtual coffee; or volunteer to help maintain the physical space. Sex club buildings still need painting and gardening, activities that can be done wearing masks and at a safe physical distance. You’ll help out partygoers while you learn and get more comfortable.
These activities also allow for conversations with established community members about their parties.You can ask them, “What do you love about this community?” “What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?” and “Have you ever been to a party where no one wanted to play with you? Tell me about it.”
If the community offers several types of parties, ask which particular party that person would recommend for a newbie. Find out what kinds of people go to the newbie-friendly party. Are they all skinny cis white people? And always ask: What do people wear?!
Get a ticket to your first party
Sign up for your first party and congratulate yourself for taking the first step!
Now visualize your mildest and wildest fantasies. What’s the mildest thing that could happen at this party that would leave you with a huge grin on your face? What’s the wildest? For example, a great conversation with a new friend could be the mildest. A sex act you’ve always wanted to try could be the wildest.
Then imagine overcoming your fears. What would you do if your worries actually happened? For example, if you’re nervous about how to gracefully deal with rejection, imagine asking someone if they’d like to make out and hearing a no. Then imagine telling this person, “Thank you for taking care of yourself” with genuine warmth, and having a great time anyway, anchored by your mildest and wildest.
If you have a history of trauma, identify your triggers and ways you can self-soothe. Consider asking your therapist for help. Books like The Body Keeps the Score and Trauma and Recovery are great resources, too.
Ask your doctor or your local queer health centre for a sexual health checkup. They can order STI screenings, prescribe PrEP (a daily pill that prevents HIV) and answer questions about the risks of various activities.
Go to the party!
Ask a friend from the community to go with you, introduce you to a few people and be there for you if you need to talk through something.
Wear something you feel great in. Bring your own safer sex supplies and your favourite, freshly sterilized toys.
On party day, take a deep breath, walk through those (possibly virtual) doors and get to know some people. Use your words:
- Would you like to…?
- I’d like to…
- Yes, please!
- No, thank you.
- My safeword is… What’s yours?
- I was last tested… and I was tested for… and the results were… What about you?
- My safer sex practices are… What are yours?
- More/harder/faster, please
- Less/softer/slower, please
Have no expectations about outcomes. Just enjoy being in a space where we are all allowed to verbalize our desires. It’s a rare gift.
Special considerations for online parties
I confess that I haven’t been to an online party yet. I spend all day online for work, and I treasure disconnecting from devices in the evenings. So I reached out to friends for a few tips. William Winters and Misha Bonaventura are the creators of the Bonobo Network, a group that generates community, capacity and connection in the sex-positive, non-monogamous world. (Full disclosure: I am a member.)
Here are Winters and Bonaventura’s quick tips for first timers at virtual parties.
Know that you’re not alone
A lot of people have been worried about showing up to a virtual party solo, Bonaventura says. “A whole bunch of people are just masturbating or being with themselves in that space. You don’t have to worry about being the only one not part of a couple or moresome.”
Have fun with your space and your outfit
In a virtual event, you’re on camera. “Make sure you have good lighting and pay attention to your background,” Bonaventura says. “Choose a place where you feel sexy, and dress up! Extra credit for multiple camera angles if you have multiple devices.”
Be aware of your own desires
“It’s important to attend virtual parties with a sense of both what you might want to get out of it and also what you might want to contribute to the space,” Winters says. “If you’re seeking connection, then plan for that. If there’s an icebreaker or a game room, or any space that allows you to have lower stakes connections with people, take advantage of those.”
Create ways for lots of folks to participate
“Creating experiences for people can be really exciting,” Winters says. “For instance, I like doing a butt plug club, which is a concept I borrowed from Dixie De La Tour in Bawdy Storytelling. I’ll announce, ‘At 10:15, we’re all going to insert our butt plugs! Pin my screen and join me.’ That can be a really fun way of creating engagement with a bunch of people.”
Know that anything can happen—but nothing might
“One of the big Bonobo mantras that we offer is high possibility, low expectation [spaces],” Bonaventura says. “That’s a really important aspect to making a successful party like this for yourself, just so you don’t get disappointed.”
Make space for all your feelings
“It’s been really interesting to show up while I’ve been in this space of feeling pretty sad and disconnected, and actually working through that,” Bonaventura says. “Just being with my feelings, and also sometimes having a really awesome time—actually getting the connection that I needed or wanted, or even having an orgasm and crying, and having that be okay, just being in my sadness while also in my pleasure.”
In BDSM communities, aftercare means taking care of each other after a kink scene ends—it’s a good practice for all kinds of sex.
Sex parties can be intense. Staying fully present, virtually or physically, requires significant emotional energy. Even if you have a great time, you may feel low or down after the party ends.
So take care of yourself post-party: Drink lots of water, eat food that nourishes you and do whatever feels comforting to you. You may also want to debrief with a friend or partner, write about your experiences in a journal or go for a walk.
You just did something big and scary. You’ve learned something new about yourself. I’m proud of you.
And I hope that you, too, find your own version of the sober afternoon magic that brings me so much joy.