In 2020, Daisy* knew she wanted to sleep with women, only she wasn’t exactly sure how. Dating apps seemed daunting and lesbian bars too intimidating, so when a few of her coworkers who were also good friends mentioned Chemistry, a sex party in New York City, she figured that might be the place to start.
Chemistry is a private, members-only party, but joining felt as easy as applying to a coworking space: Daisy visited their website, sent an email, filled out a questionnaire, and, when accepted, was added to a newsletter list. Then she waited for the next party date to arrive.
It was on Valentine’s Day. The theme, which Chemistry sets months in advance, was “My Apocalyptic Valentine.” In retrospect, as a respiratory virus loomed, it was foreboding, but in those early months, it was simply funny. Although the Hong Kong office of the international ad agency Daisy works for had closed and its employees were working from home, she felt safe. If people were worried about catching anything, it certainly wasn’t the novel coronavirus.
Daisy arrived at the party in a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, around 11:30 p.m. Projectors displayed wastelands on walls, and biohazard signs abounded. People walked around in plague doctor masks—the European kind with beaks—which they later shed along with their clothes.
In the main room, Daisy drank a whisky to calm her nerves. The crowd swelled as a burlesque show began. “Just wait, in ten minutes this space will be empty,” an acquaintance of her coworker said. Daisy laughed, but he was right. Once the performance ended, the room drained of people like water in an inlet at low tide.
Daisy wandered into one of the “play rooms,” which were appointed with beds for communal fucking. Within minutes, a woman and her male partner approached her. Daisy was wearing a hazmat-suit-esque top that buckled at the neck. “Do you mind if I unclip this?” the buxom blonde woman asked. Suddenly Daisy remembered why she was here. She agreed, verbally and enthusiastically, per the party’s rules.
Together they found a bed. The rest unfolded as expected. The man switched condoms as he toggled between Daisy and his real-life partner. Their encounter ended when he came in the blonde’s mouth. As Daisy collected her clothes, her coworkers, who happened to be watching, gave her a thumbs up.
Back in the sparsely populated common area, Daisy lingered for a few minutes, and then headed out. It was 1:30 a.m.; still a reasonable hour. She felt both exhilarated and relieved. It was simply sex: straightforward and consensual. And then it was over. There was no exchanging of numbers; no awkward departures.
Driving home, blissfully alone in an Uber, Daisy had no idea that her first threesome would be her last sexual encounter for nearly a year.
The dry spell happened unexpectedly. In light of lockdowns, first dates were postponed. Sex parties were canceled. “People were reporting a lot of struggles in their sex lives and relationships,” Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a VICE contributor, told me over the phone.
His research, “Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19,” surveyed 1,559 adults between March 21 and April 14, 2020, and confirmed these struggles. The reasons were unsurprising: depression and stress, which squash libido; and, of course, social distancing, which made meeting new partners almost impossible. But it wasn’t all bad. One in five participants in the study claimed to be experimenting more. They tried new positions, toys, porn, role play, sexting, and acting on fantasies. For a minority, sex and relationships improved.
As long as people have been having sex, they’ve been having group sex. Paleolithic artists painted group scenes on cave walls. Romans hosted legendary bacchanals. Cleopatra supposedly slept with more than one hundred men in one night. Historically, group sex was ritualistic and religious, and therefore often forced. More recently, given changing religious mores, attitudes toward sex, and female liberation movements, it has become recreational, which requires a culture of choice.
“Recreational group sex can be a way to rebel or mark status or individuality depending on the setting,” said Katherine Frank, a cultural anthropologist and the author of Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex. “Unlike other mammals, humans have sex in private, which is unique, and when you breach that it can be a powerful experience.”
In our modern era, group sex is the most common fantasy, according to Lehmiller, who surveyed 4,000 individuals for his 2018 book Tell Me What You Want. He conducted another study early this summer with the Kinsey Institute and the sex toy company Lovehoney, called “The Summer of Love,” exploring how people’s sex lives had changed since the start of the pandemic.
The newer findings were heartening. As we eased out of lockdown, more people reported more sex and masturbation. While 51 percent reported becoming more experimental, 49 percent of Americans said they were less interested in having a threesome, and only 23 percent were more interested in attending a sex party. (A whopping 2 percent of Americans claimed to have had their first threesome during the pandemic.)
Lehmiller attributed this apparent contradiction of more sexual variety but less interest in group sex to the unique dynamics of social isolation during the pandemic. People were bored and could experiment, yet the widespread encouragement to avoid others made having multiple partners, especially simultaneously, less appealing. But sex parties have always been about more than horniness. For regular participants, explained Frank, they’re often about community.
As COVID cases rose in the U.S., sex parties didn’t stop. A November swingers convention still went forward in New Orleans—and 41 attendees later tested positive for the coronavirus. If anything, the parties just got smaller. “There were more private events happening, like gang bang parties or blow bang bukkake parties with maybe 10 or 20 people,” said Zhana Vrangalova, a New York City–based sex researcher, speaker, writer, and consultant. “Some of those during COVID were with masks.”
But like many businesses, sex parties pivoted. In cities with lockdowns, public events focused on safe community gatherings. Betty Kaya, the host of Taste in New York City, held Zooms early on. “We had little silly trivia things, like go to your kitchen and get a spatula and do something weird with your partner,” she said. “Some people were masked and then they actually performed”—meaning had sex on camera. The Zooms didn’t last. There were technical glitches, and Kaya herself “was with my parents so it was hard to hide in the room and host a Zoom sex party.”
When the weather improved, Chemistry planned beach meetups at Fort Tilden and park picnics in Prospect Park. Members came with nonmember friends; families came with their kids. Nothing about the meetups was sexual. “These meetups are something that we started during the pandemic to keep a little connection to our community without the parties,” Kenny Blunt, one of Chemistry’s co-founders and the executive director, told me on the phone.
I attended one beach meetup on a June Saturday a week before Chemistry’s sex parties resumed. The day was blue and breezy. A dozen people were spread out on towels between two tents. A pride flag violently rippled in the wind. The technical director for Chemistry talked about the old days. “Le Trapeze was like a sexual concentration camp,” he said, referring to a now-shuttered Manhattan club. “It was the most miserable experience ever. If no women were involved in the management of the party, it was more exploitative.”
Most sex parties today initially started as disruptors. Unimpressed with “the scene” (a common phrase for the sex-positive community) back in the early to mid aughts, replete with its deli trays, paid dates, and “hardcore porn on walls,” according to Blunt, founders started their own, where the focus was less on sex and more on connection through good music, good performances, and good vibes.
In New York City, dozens of parties popped up—Taste, Chemistry, Hacienda, NSFW, the Killing Kitten’s White Party, One Leg Up, and House of Scorpio are a few popular ones—all with their own distinct take. “Sex is more of a backdrop,” as one polyamorous couple at Fort Tilden told me.
Under the tents, one woman shared her homemade sugar cookies, which we ate eagerly on our towels. Most people at the meetup had attended Chemistry before, except one man in salmon shorts. His girlfriend had suggested it, and now that people were vaccinated, he was ready to experiment. At one point, Blunt pulled out a joint. It was like any beach hangout, only with the promise of potentially having sex with someone in one week’s time.
“I’m hoping this party is the rapture,” said Ali, a Chemistry DJ, about the upcoming party.
“I can sense the energy,” Blunt said. “I think it’s gonna be crazy.”
Five hundred and four days after lockdown, Chemistry finally had a sex party. It was the Fourth of July weekend, and the theme was fireworks. I went with my friend Lucy,* who wore a gilded minidress and clutched a bottle of Espolón tequila (all Chemistry parties are BYOB). I disclosed my attendance as a journalist to everyone I spoke with that night, which was further evidenced by the pen and paper I held in my hand.
The location was a Bushwick town house. (“Please enter from the street quietly—we never want to bring any attention to the outside world as to what is going on inside!” the email read.) As first-time attendees, we were asked to sign waivers before entering; everyone had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test beforehand. Inside they checked our names, and we paid $70 to enter.
“J.J. is leading ice breakers,” Blunt explained, indicating the gathering inside.
“Which one’s J.J.?” I asked.
“He’s the one with his ass out,” pointing to his bare cheeks. “We call him the ProfASSer.”
It felt like being at a middle school dance, awkward and unpredictable. Upstairs, through the courtyard with a fire pit and up the exterior stairs, was the actual party. Three pretty bartenders stood behind a kitchen island labeling people’s alcohol bottles with their names. A red-white-and-blue bra hung from the overhead light.
The crowd was mixed. One couple looked like someone’s rich parents chaperoning: he with a burnished tan and she in tasteful diamonds. There was a woman in a wheelchair with ruby hair. An older woman with silvery hair had a Breton-striped shirt. Many people were draped in American flag paraphernalia. They were middle-aged. They were in college. They were fit. They were curvy. They were tall. They were short. They were Asian, white, Black, mixed, and in varying tax brackets.
Eventually the mood loosened, as it does at every party, with time and a little alcohol. On the third floor people milled, examining the empty play areas as if touring an open house. I tried to speak to J.J., the ProfASSor, but mid introductions he yelled, “Hi!” Then, “Sorry, my domme and her husband just got here,” before quickly crossing the room.
At 11 p.m., the burlesque show started. A girl dressed like the Statue of Liberty read the rules to everyone: “No phones. No photography. No glove, no love.” Another sexily stripped to Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem” and rubbed a melting popsicle over her body—thigh, ass, spread-open pussy—for chosen audience members to lick. The nudity put people on edge. A couple close to me started caressing each other.
When it was over, Lucy and I went to the bar. As I ordered drinks, she started making out with a tall Black man she had met moments earlier. She led him by the hand to “go upstairs,” which was the euphemism (along with “go downstairs”) for having sex with anyone you found attractive.
My own match happened out of happenstance, like a game of musical chairs where two people suddenly find themselves next to each other once the music stops. Thomas,* who wore a long sequined robe, was standing behind me at the bar. He was friends with the hosts, and had helped set up a Sybian in the basement.
“Do you want to see it?” he asked. I nodded. Downstairs, almost a dozen beds had been laid on the floor. Many of them were still empty, and those that were occupied had only one couple to a bed. He took me by the hand toward the Sybian, a saddle-shaped device with a horizontal vibrator embedded in its center. He spread Saran Wrap over it as you would a pan of freshly baked cake. I straddled it. Thomas controlled the intensity, and I closed my eyes. He asked if he could touch me, and I verbally agreed. On my right, a woman in a mesh tutu was giving her partner head. Across from me, J.J. shared a bed with his domme and her husband, his ass now inexplicably covered for the first time. (Later I would overhear him say that the coverage was strategic for maintaining an erection initially.)
I never climaxed or came close, but the sensation felt good. We made our way back upstairs, where Lucy was now with Thomas’ friend, a tall, graying, Mads Mikkelsen look-alike, on one of three dorm beds. Two of Thomas’ couple friends were fucking on a bed in another room, and he touched the man’s shoulder. “Want to join us?” the friend asked. I declined, but said we could watch.
The woman’s arms were tied behind her back. “I did a shit job,” the man said of his shibari work. As dirty talk, he asked her to list all the dairy products she had eaten that day. “She’s lactose intolerant,” he said. “Anal would be bad.” It was charming, their intimacy. The way he flipped her and touched her and how his every movement was met with a high-pitched, “Yes!” I found myself craving the shorthand that’s developed with a long-term partner, and suppressed an impulse to gently bite her right breast.
By the end of the night, I was overwhelmed and depleted. I had too many nerves and not enough sustenance. I felt queasy for no distinct reason, in the way you do when you’re little and your mom strokes your hair because she senses you’re sad. Only there was a reason for my sadness: I was newly single. Straddling the Sybian, seeing so much intimacy around me, I mostly missed the person who had touched me for a year and a half.
After 16 months of social distancing, human interaction—in any form—is overwhelming. And watching countless people fuck on beds in multiple positions with endless partners is particularly overpowering. When I entered Chemistry, I wondered how COVID had changed our sex lives and if that would propel people to attend sex parties, but the many first-timers I spoke to at the party had already been interested in group sex prepandemic. COVID pushed them to finally try it.
As one couple told me around the fire pit, “I’m surprised by how no-big-deal it is.” It was their first party. She wore a silver wig. He had noticeable biceps. They were friendly and here from San Francisco, “working from home.”
If anything, real life became more like sex parties as a result of COVID: conversations around consent—are you comfortable with handshakes, touching, masks on or off—became normalized and frequent; communication around boundaries and disclosures—who you’ve seen, how many people would be present, how recently you traveled—did too. Even testing became an ongoing habit, something people in the sex-positive community do frequently.
“Sex clubs and parties make that communication explicit and necessary, and that’s a really good thing,” said Frank. “If COVID had any upside for sex, maybe it would be better, more intelligent, and less panicked conversation about STDs,” she added. “People can talk about it without blaming or shaming, you know.”
Shortly after the burlesque show, a young woman approached me. Her breath smelled like wine, and she was intrigued by my presence as a journalist. Her name was Hannah.* She was a comedian and a lesbian who was disappointed by the crowd that night. Then she revealed she had lost her dad to a heart attack in June. “It’s conflicting to be part of the bacchanalia but carrying grief,” she said.
Although people came here for different reasons—to experiment, to sleep with as many people as possible, to have fun with their significant others—everyone also collectively experienced something similar: the potential to have sex straightforwardly, safely, and without stigma. Beyond sex, we all had endured the trauma of a deadly pandemic.
What no one explicitly said throughout my conversations—with experts, hosts, guests—was why people hadn’t been having sex over the previous year and a half. The reason was obvious—people were afraid of getting sick or infecting others and potentially dying—and it went unspoken. Despite the reverie and ecstasy happening around us, that proximity to death silently tethered our experience that night to each other. At some point that evening, I thought about a line from the short story “Lust” by Susan Minot: “After the briskness of loving, loving stops. And you roll over with death stretched out alongside you like a feather boa, or a snake, light as air.”
I had no way of knowing how many people in the room had lost someone, or how they had coped during the pandemic, but I knew that we all carried our private grief—Hannah with her father; me with my relationship—and I suppose going to a sex party was one form of collective, cathartic release.
Alexis Cheung is a nonfiction writer from Hawaii. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair, the Believer, and T, among other publications.