In the spring of 2010, the recession, marching across the land like a zombie army, flushed me from the tenuous life I had cobbled together in LA. Suddenly jobless, and approaching homeless, I fled to an organic vegetable farm owned and operated by an old friend in Humboldt County, California, and became a farmhand. My colleagues included a group of 20-somethings known as “the Kids.” They were a horny bunch, pansexual and polyamorous, and after a few weeks of sexy, confessional one-upmanship and twerking to sissy bounce, they were coupling and tripling feverishly.
I kept above the sticky fray, but before decades of bad behavior, self sabotage, and poor relationship choices left me a monkish neurotic, I’d had my share. I came of age in the sex-positive 90s, right in the thick of it. I pushed a cum-mop at the famous Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco while still in my teens. I shot B-roll on some greasy little pornos, dated strippers, tried my hands as an erotic masseur, checked out a swinger hotel with my girlfriend. As a cab driver in my mid-20s, I’d drive loops around the Tenderloin while tranny hookers sucked off their clients in the backseat. With a confident swagger, I entered the confessions game, but one of the Kids—skinny, Jewfro’d, with a thin mustache and bushy beard—had me beat. He told us how, onstage in front of a few hundred people, he’d fisted a woman while humming a tune and thumping a beat on a drum set consisting of her ass and the contact-mic’d bathtub they were sitting in. This was my introduction to the Impropriety Society, a group of local kinksters who throw elaborate and well-attended sex parties in Humboldt.
The Impropriety Society, Imps for short, rose from the ashes of an earlier group of sex partiers known as Club Risqué. The parties started as fund-raising events for a pirate radio station put on by a bunch of theater and circus geeks and were more like sexy parties featuring racy performances than actual sex parties. But as they evolved, actual fucking quickly came to the fore, and, being so far away from any urban center, they became a place for otherwise-underserved members of a variety of kinky persuasions to express themselves, replete with a separate dungeon area for the local BDSM community. From the start, an energetic, polyamorous couple was at the core of Club Risqué, and when their relationship ended a few years ago, so did the parties. A core group of Club Risqué veterans took it upon themselves to continue the scene, and they founded the Impropriety Society, drafting a mission statement and formulating a sex-positive ethos that stressed consent, self-awareness, responsibility, and inclusivity for all sexual orientations, gender identities, and all forms of personal expression.
Their first party was in May 2008. Every month or two since, they’ve put on small, low-key events that they call “socials,” for which they sell about 75 tickets. Taking place in one large room with only a few pieces of BDSM and dungeon gear, the emphasis is more on socializing, dancing, and, with the walls lined with mattresses, fucking. Twice a year, in spring and fall, they hold much larger events complete with a fully equipped dungeon and viewing gallery, several themed play spaces, a black-lit area full of mattresses called the cuddle room, a larger dance floor, finger food that strives toward gourmet, and a stage show. Selling up to 250 tickets, and with as many as 80 volunteers, they can be pretty big affairs, especially when you consider the ratio of trees to people in Humboldt.
I went to my first party, last year’s Halloween extravaganza, with Jewfro and two of the girls from the farm. It was held in the clubhouse of some obscure fraternal order on a desolate street in Eureka. I didn’t know much about the area at the time. The few months I’d been in Humboldt had been spent on a few acres nestled in a forest on the flood plain of the Eel River, though I would come in to sit at a café in the Old Town section of Eureka every week to do my internetting. The streets always felt haunted, empty but for a few tweakers huddling in the alleyways of the cheerless district, the old Victorians and brick facades echoey, like an abandoned set on a studio back lot.
The stage-show portion of the party was wrapping up when we arrived: a Star Wars spoof that ended with Princess Leia being eaten out by Luke Skywalker, who was in turn being pegged by a strap-on-equipped, female Darth Vader. Then the performers from the earlier skits joined the stage for a curtain call, and the audience (about 200 or so costumed people seated on the floor, or lounging on the mattresses and one another) went wild. The applause faded, the DJ started spinning, and ten minutes later, people were fucking on the mattresses along the perimeter of the main room. Not long after that, the thwacks of whips and paddles could be heard coming from the curtained-off dungeon. The Kids had a great time. They too had put on risqué costumes and eagerly and effortlessly eased into the sweaty mix.
Something that sets the Impropriety Society’s activities apart from most swinger-type parties is that they not only allow but encourage single men to attend. They even hold PG-13 events at local bars to reach out to the larger community. I was one such single dude, one of a handful of lurkers in street clothes sketching around the party. I’d check out the action on the mattresses for a bit, take in the view in the cuddle room, have a sit in the dungeon gallery, and then loiter pointlessly in the smoking section. And then I’d do it all again, for about seven hours total, watching my friends and strangers as they merrily sucked and fucked their way around the same circuit. I tried talking to one person one time, something about how nice her ass was, but when our eyes met, I withered and slunk away. As night turned into day, I was exhausted. I found one of the girls I had arrived with passing out in one of several kiddie pools in the cuddle room, and I crawled in next to her. She was Jewfro’s girl, but they had an open-ish relationship and we were flirty friends. She had a great butt that was the talk of the farm, and in that brief moment of reckless bravery that comes just before sleep, as Jewfro and our other friend gleefully watched, I pulled her close, we nuzzled, and I grabbed a grateful hold of one sweet cheek. That would be the culmination of my night of titillation and frustrating meekness: a passing heat across a sweaty palm. A half hour later, we were driving home in an unheated car through freezing rain.
I spent the winter back East, snowed in and lonely, getting fat on TV. As I wallowed with a bout of seasonal affective disorder, my mind conjured Humboldt; its dark chocolate soil and unique culture. I was comforted by the knowledge that I’d be returning in the spring, and as I lay on the lonely island that is my sister’s couch, I thought about the Imps.
About a month before the next Impropriety Society party I attended, a late-summer social, one of my closest friends suddenly died. A couple years my senior, he came out to me when I was 14. It was a radical worldview shift for a straight teen in rural New Jersey in the early 80s; he opened my eyes to the clandestine world of down-low jocks and predatory teachers. A poet and musician, he was a tough-minded and deeply perceptive social critic. He had a frank and healthy appreciation of sex, and although he identified as gay, he’d slept with more women than most straight men. He had always given me shit about my hang-ups and peculiar trips, sometimes gently teasing, other times throwing his hands up in frustration. I loved him dearly, and losing him almost overwhelmed me. To see his body lying there, sewn and propped into unlikely repose, was chilling and bluntly real. I wept with all of his other friends, and I moved through the grief. I realized a few things then: The loss and pain I’d been fearing my whole life, which caused me to hold at bay any hope of love or real intimacy, had just happened, and I was going to survive it. Maybe I could stop being afraid.
This is where my head was at as I drove to the party; down the jarring river road, across the Eel, and then onto the Avenue of the Giants, with its looming, enormous redwoods vaulting toward the sky. I drove past towns whose names were synonymous with the food I ate: Shively corn and tomatoes, Ferndale grass-fed beef, Loleta cheese. The headlights cut through fingers of fog, past grazing cows, hitchhiking crusties, and tiny, eclectic communities that suddenly felt alive to me.
That night, when I walked into the dance studio where the Imps were holding their summer event, the first thing that seized my attention wasn’t the two nude, middle-aged women awaiting their beatings on a St. Andrew’s Cross, or the pair of fatherly, silver-haired gentlemen with smeared eyeliner in drag, or the ass-up bottoms astride the “spanking benches.” What caught my eye, a few feet in front of the DJ table, standing motionless amid the small throng of revelers, was a blind man clutching his collapsible white cane, his head slightly cocked the way blind people do. He was balding, with short, brown hair and a thin mustache, and his lazily wandering eyes were slightly sunken. Among this randy and perverted group, he was the Unicorn. Despite their diversity in age, race, orientation, and kink, the rest of the partygoers could be lumped into a single, monolithic category when compared with him. I pulled my eyes from him finally, swept the room with a timorous gaze, and waded into the mix.
It was a memorable night. Early on, all the hottest 20-somethings coalesced like bubbles into a big, sticky, heteroflexible fuck pile in one corner, squirming and writhing for a couple hours. A woman was wrapped tight in plastic wrap and then duct-taped, head to toe, like a mummy. A man was ass-fucked with a dildo, then cleaned and diapered. I saw a face furiously fucked, her head held like a watermelon. Thighs were slapped and asses whipped while nipples were clamped with clothespins. At the foot of one bed was a fuck machine. It was your basic model—a dildo stuck to the end of a metal rod, jointed to a second rod that was attached to a revolving metal plate powered by a small electric motor. The machine sat alone, set to a slow, sexy rhythm, and all night long it made sweet, tender love to the nothingness a foot above an empty twin-size mattress.
As the evening wore on, a woman caught my attention. She appeared to be in her 30s, petite with a Dark Lolita look. She was dancing with a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and captain’s hat who was a bit older than her. They soon headed for a bed, and I followed. At the foot of every mattress were two laundry baskets marked with signs—DIRTY and CLEAN. As Dark Lolita changed the sheets, her man, let’s call him Yacht Rock, walked away to hit the restroom or whatever. I sidled over to her furtively, and she immediately gave me a look that said, “What the fuck do you want?” I got flustered, told her to never mind, and turned to retreat. Realizing that my actions might be playing especially creepy, I turned back and, to save face, I came up with the brilliant, and not at all icky, “Uhh… if you guys are going to play, do you mind if I watch?” She said sure, as long as I kept a respectful distance, but it was plain she wasn’t psyched about it. I slouched away, red-faced.
A little later, Dark Lolita was astride Yacht Rock and, still clothed, they were grinding their crotches together. They happened to be using a bed adjacent to one occupied by a couple I’d interviewed earlier. The couple were newbies, fresh off their first public sex act: His dick poking through his boxers, he had hunched over her prostrate body and thumbed her clit while penetrating her with glacial slowness. When she finally came, it was the most purely experienced pleasure I had witnessed all night. They had cuddled for a while after that in a post-orgasm haze, but now they were half-sitting up, looking sort of stunned as they took in the room. I asked whether I could sit with them to talk some more. The debriefing quickly turned casual, and we were discussing the newbie woman’s PhD thesis when Yacht Rock suddenly turned to me and declared, “That’s enough!” I was stunned silent. He continued, “This is the second scene you’re interrupting. This is a scene space, not a social space. The social space is over there.” He pointed to the other side of the room. “I’m just trying to get there,” Dark Lolita added, “and I can’t get there with you talking.” I was mortified. I mumbled apologies, nodded to the newbies, and split.
I found Jewfro, whom I’d gotten to come with me, and told him what had happened. He just laughed. Then Yacht Rock appeared in front of us, still clearly upset. He informed me that he was, in fact, the Impropriety Society’s head of security and listed the various rules I’d broken as he detailed my insensitivities. I apologized profusely and pleaded ignorance. He half-relented, apologized for losing his temper, and then we shook hands and he walked off. Soon after, I was approached by a smiling bleached-blond woman in her early 30s wearing a grass skirt and coconut bra. She said she was the Vibes Master.
There was a spiritual element within the Club Risqué community that created the Vibes Crew, a group within the larger group that charged themselves with elevating the mood of the party by projecting goodness to everyone they encountered. The Vibes training involved developing intuition, learning to read people’s energy, and throwing “energy balls.” A somewhat secularized version of the Vibes Crew carried over to the Imps. They have foregone the throwing of energy balls, but their agenda remains pretty much the same: to lead with their vulnerability, visualize positivity, and reach out to those who may be overwhelmed or nervous.
The Vibes Crew headmistress hadn’t actually witnessed my exchange with Yacht Rock; she was just introducing herself and checking to see whether I was enjoying myself. Still, I told her what had happened with him and Dark Lolita, that I had interrupted their scene. She asked me whether I’d read the waiver. The waiver is posted on their website and a copy of it needs to be signed by every attendee upon entry, whether they’re a volunteer, the head of security, or just a guy off the street. It covers the basic dos and don’ts and releases the Imps from liability. I’d signed it, of course, but I had treated it more like a TOS agreement for a software update. (It seems important to point out that it also contains the following clause in bold capital letters: I UNDERSTAND THAT MY ATTENDANCE OF THIS EVENT DOES NOT MEAN THAT I WILL GET LAID.) Apparently I’d broken protocol on several points. Taking me under her wing, she explained the formal nature of interaction at the parties. No one touches anyone, no matter how casually or innocently, without asking permission. That is the first stage of an important concept she introduced me to that one must grasp to fully enjoy a sex party: the negotiation of a scene. A scene that may involve being tied up and hung from a rafter, having hot wax poured on your genitals, being paddled until your ass and thighs are a mess of hard, purple contusions, or just straight fucking will often start with a simple “May I shake your hand?”
Some while later, I spotted Dark Lolita. I was certain she hated me. From a wary distance I watched her circle the room as I tried to appear disinterested and unphased, staring blankly at the various scenes unfolding around me. Her circuit soon brought her into my orbit. Our eyes met, and a warm smile spread across her face. She offered her hand to me and asked, “Can we start over?” We did, and it completely reset my vibe.
Near the end of the night I watched two cute hippie couples twist around each other like licorice. The Unicorn approached and, tapping the edge of their mattress with his cane, tried to sit, plopping his butt onto their legs. He shot back up and attempted to move to another mattress, repeatedly bumping into the laundry bin below. Someone moved it for him and guided him to an adjacent mattress, where he finally took a seat. He sat there for a while, quiet as he methodically squeezed his hands around his cane. Then, unprompted and with sudden movement, he reclined, unzipped his pants, and began to furiously masturbate with the fingertips of both hands until he had an angry little purple boner. A few people gathered, watching, but not close enough to communicate their presence or to lend a hand. He lay there jerking off for some ten minutes when, just as suddenly as he’d started, he fumbled his dick back into his pants and zipped up. But apparently he wasn’t finished, because he then stuffed his hand down his fastened pants, his arm pulsating in spastic, arrhythmic motions as his lips pulled taut against his teeth. He was engaged in an epic struggle, but I didn’t stick around to find out who won. Sensing the night was almost over, I made a quick circuit of the room, trying to take in everything that remained of the night at once in a confusing crescendo. Then the lights came on, signaling the end of the party, and, squinting, everyone hunted down their clothes.
The next party I attended was this year’s Halloween party, and the Imps and I had been in complicated negotiations for months so I could take photos at the party. I arrived early, and as I watched the manic bustle of the volunteers setting up the Enchanted Kinkdom—putting up the well-glittered decorations, running through light cues for the stage show, setting up the dungeon and the cuddle spaces, preparing the food—I was suddenly struck by the fact that this is entirely self-motivated. There are no corporations sponsoring this event. Nobody is getting paid to be here; not the founders, the performers, the DJs, or the department heads. In the parlance of the group, they are holding space for one another. And then the guests will arrive, and they will hold space for them, too. Some of them will play rough in the dungeon, some will fuck, and most of them will dance and watch and flirt. Some will feel like they’ve finally come home; others will be nervous as hell.
It was a big deal in the community that they were letting me take pictures. No one had ever been allowed such access before, and it was ruffling feathers. There was a thread discussing me and my intentions in the Humboldt forums section of Fetlife, an alternative-lifestyle social-networking site. They referred to me as “the Journalist.” The local weekly had done an undercover exposé of a party a few years earlier that some members of the community had taken offense to. Some felt the descriptions of participants were too revealing. Others didn’t appreciate the secretive way in which the story was reported. So I created a profile on Fetlife and started a thread wherein I spelled out who I was and what my intentions were. I told them about my hang-ups and my dead friend. I also started the same thread at the Imps’ Yahoo! Group. And then, just to show that I, too, was willing to have some skin in the game, I posted an arty yet explicit nude self-portrait, which, as a ginger, gives new meaning to the term “redwood curtain.”
This party was different from the last one. In the intervening couple months, I had been interviewing various members of the community over burgers or coffee, at farmers’ markets, and in their homes. Many of them became my friends. The actual sexual aspects of the parties, I have to admit, don’t really do it for me. But I witnessed firsthand the transformative power that the community can have, when someone spends their entire lives in deep shame because of their predilections, and then suddenly they find a whole group of people who will love them for it.
Dark Lolita and I developed a particularly sweet bond, casual but tender, and I surprised myself with my openness to it. Is this an end to all my hang-ups? Not likely. I’ve already left for the winter; I’m always leaving. But it was a good start.