If you've never been to a sex party, what do you picture them looking like? Mysterious, elite soirées featuring masks and creepy rituals, à la Eyes Wide Shut? Sweaty orgies where people penetrate one another as a way of saying hi? Some other intimidating, sordid fuckfest that's probably best left to more extroverted, hyper-qualified sex-havers than the likes of you?
You're not necessarily wrong, but there are plenty of sex parties where you'd fit right in. Super-elaborate sex parties do exist—as do super chill, casual ones.
What is a sex party?
Sex parties (often referred to as “play parties” in BDSM circles) vary widely, but is generally understood to mean a private or semi-public event where guests are allowed to engage in sexual activity with one another, often in full view of other guests. The idea of going to any kind of sex party might seem intense to newcomers, they're often perfect places for the shy-but-curious to expand their sexual horizons. Parties can help you to meet like-minded people who are into the kinks and fetishes you are and who may be willing to explore them with you—or who can make you feel less skittish about sex more generally, since everyone's there for similar (horny) reasons. It’s a misconception that all attendees are required to have sex; plenty people go as voyeurs, or out of curiosity, or show up fully intending to get it on only to change their minds when they show up. Parties are also especially great for anxious people because at any one worth attending, consent is paramount—and often mandatory.
Whether you're planning to team up with a partner or explore on your own, you deserve great sex, and parties are specifically intended to help their attendees out with that. Here’s how to respectfully and safely make your sex party debut with fewer nerves and more excitement.
Before You Go to a Sex Party
1. Find the right venue.
Maybe you've wanted to hit up a sex party for a while, but you aren't sure where to go. Most big cities have get-togethers and clubs that cater to multiple price points and sexualities, and plenty host special events or parties for first timers.
As a first step, try searching online for “swinger" or “adult” parties and clubs and your city’s name—plus "LGBTQ," if that's you—to see what's out there. See if the places you find have guest safety policies and if they're in key with your boundaries. Some clubs also have public reviews on Google, Yelp, and Facebook—you can use this as a chance to get a general sense of the club and the different events they offer.
Sex clubs legality vary from state to state, with rules and requirements depending on whether alcohol is being sold (many places are BYOB), cover is being charged, or if full nudity or penetrative sex is being allowed. Some places legally cannot explicitly advertise sex, hence the coded web searches above. Generally, even the more lax states require clubs to be private, meaning everyone attending needs to be a member. (I have a growing collection of membership cards for places I’ve visited once, making for a killer page in my scrapbook.) This process can be as simple as signing a form at the reception desk or as convoluted as submitting a written application and photos online weeks before you plan on attending. All the more reason to research beforehand.
Outside of the basics, Fatima Mechtab, the Marketing Director, Event Producer, and Business Partner at Toronto’s Oasis Aqualounge, recommended looking for answers to the questions, “What type of environment do you want to find yourself in? What are your sexual fantasies, or your desires?”
Maybe you don’t live in a big city, there isn’t a club near you, or a big crowd just isn’t your scene, but you don’t know how to find smaller parties. You can join online communities that'll help with that search. FetLife a social networking website for kinky people which frequently lists events of all different sexual stripes. Jordan*, 33, narrowed her search on FetLife to find an invite-only party in downtown Toronto. “That it was women-only made me feel more comfortable,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone if it was co-ed.” (She also said she’s made friends almost every time she’s gone, which is another good way to learn about private parties.)
You can also feel out whether you know people who might want to DIY a party with you. Sarah, 30, grew up in Christian household in Oklahoma City, and longed to find a sex-positive, queer-inclusive community where she could explore those parts of herself. At 27, she joined a Facebook group for Oklahoma City atheists. Intimate conversations about sex and relationships within the group helped her meet like-minded friends, whom she began hosting monthly parties for, starting with a manageable group of 12 people. Each one starts with a meeting to go over safe-sex guidelines and make guests aware of one anothers' boundaries.
2. Figure out a plan for going alone—or bring a friend or partner.
A reputable club or larger party can feel safer if you’re going alone. Which you might be! It could be that you're self-conscious about going with someone who knows you in “the real world,” that you want to open yourself up more to meeting other singles, or that you just don’t know anybody who you’re comfortable enough asking if they want to go to an S&M party with you. When I'm checking out a new club, I abide by my first-date rule: I tell a friend I trust that I’ll be out all night and where I’ll be, so they can check in with me the morning after and make sure I made it home all right.
You can also bring a friend. The first time Jordan went to a sex party, she brought a more experienced friend to help her navigate the scene. Going with a partner or regular sex buddy is also a popular option. “Bringing someone along may help with the vulnerability of being alone,” says Dr. Shannon Chavez, a psychologist and sex therapist based out of LA. “It also can be a turn on for you and a partner to enjoy being voyeurs or participate in group play. You can take that energy home and it can help open you both up to novelty and sexual exploration.”
3. Set firm boundaries for yourself beforehand.
I’ve attended large, co-ed parties where I’m mostly interested in hanging out in my lingerie and making out with strangers. At smaller parties for women and femmes where I know the other attendees, I’m more comfortable engaging in impact play, but I still don’t like getting fully naked. It took time to learn what I was comfortable with, and I did this by going slowly and checking in with my feelings. The first time I went to a club was solely to see what it was like and to get comfortable with the space. At every party, I have my soft boundaries (things I may only be into, depending on the scene and general atmosphere of the event) and hard boundaries (things that are completely off limits). Knowing what my boundaries are helped me communicate with others at parties, where I could confidently tell other guests simply “I don’t do that,” or “I’ll see how I feel later.”
If you’re bringing a partner, there are more factors to bring into consideration beforehand. Will you be playing with each other exclusively, or other people? If it’s the latter, are you ok watching each other, or would you rather they take it to a private room? Are you comfortable hooking in front of a crowd? What will you do if one of you makes a connection with a stranger while the other person is feeling shy? “Talk about emotions that may come up such as jealousy and how to deal with it,” says Dr. Chavez, adding, “Identify ways that you can take care of your needs and be supportive of one another.” Maybe you’re ok with your partner having sex with other people, as long as they check in with your regularly throughout the night, or maybe you are willing to hook up with other people, but only as a couple. Come up with some ground rules, and keep the lines of communication open with each other once you’re there.
4. Dress decently.
You don't have to get naked (or even take off your jacket) at sex parties, but it’s nice to dress up a little for the sake of other attendees: Wearing laundry-day sweatpants and ratty sneakers can be a mood-killer when other people are trying to get their freak on.
Different events might have dress code (like leather gear), or fetish-imposed restrictions (such as the ever popular Clothed Female Naked Male nights), or themed costumes (I’ve been invited to a party inspired by the 80’s women’s wrestling TV show GLOW where homemade outfits were encouraged).
For general events, lingerie is a safe bet, and a slip dress or a floor-length robe are good gateway looks for beginners. Otherwise, a stepped-up version of what you think of as "everyday nice clothes" is fine for events without specific dress codes.
What to Do (and Avoid Doing) at a Sex Party
1. Respect other attendees.
Mechtab, who gives lectures on preparing for your first visit to a sex club, urged people to manage their expectations about hooking up: Nobody is entitled to sex, not even at a club designated for it, and paying the cover fee is not a guarantee that you will get laid. Even if you show up with a partner fully intending to have sex, feelings might change once you’re actually at the venue. Sex parties can be nerve-racking! Be extra gentle with each other.
Get permission before touching anyone, even in a "friendly" way. A quick, flirty, “Can I touch you here?” is the way to go (and can be really hot, depending on how you say it). Many clubs have an “ask once, and only once” policy. “People can obviously come up to you and ask if you want to have sex,” said Mechtab. “This is an environment where it’s OK to do that. If somebody says no, [Oasis Aqualounge's] rules dictate that you can not ask again.”
Don't join other people's hookups unless you've been specifically invited to. There might be a lot of action happening around you, and it can be tempting to jump in, but don’t do it unless you're invited. If you’re watching or masturbating, stay back far enough as to not interfere with people having sex, and be prepared to politely back up or give them more space if they ask you to. Definitely do not butt into an active BDSM scene (including anything involving restraints, impact play, and rope play): It can be dangerous to break the participants' concentration, and you risk hurting yourself or others if there are toys whipping around.
2. Don't get wasted.
You might want to drink if you’re nervous, but getting sloppy drunk (or otherwise under the influence) at sex parties does not make for a good time. You want to be in control of your faculties in order to be able to consent with what’s going on around you. Likewise—and this should hopefully go without saying—don’t hook up with people who are clearly wasted, even if they are initiating play with you. When Sarah hosts parties, she makes sure to have one completely sober person watching over the room.
3. Feel free to decline propositions.
If you’re used to going to bars only to have to avoid some guy who won't accept that you’re not interested: That shit will generally not fly at a sex club. The first time I went to a big party on my own, I was lounging against the wall sipping a Diet Coke when a man came up and said, “Excuse me—may I please give you a foot rub?”
I replied, “No, thank you,” and he walked away and left me alone for the rest of the night. It was that simple! Later, I saw him giving a foot massage to a woman who seemed to be really enjoying it. Everyone won.
4. Communicate your boundaries before you hook up—and ask about others'.
Sex can mean so many different things for different people, and before any sort of hook up you should make sure you and the other person are on the same page. If you’re ok with oral but don’t want to have full penetrative sex, tell them that! Are you into dirty talk? Is it important for you to leave your underwear on? Do you have a safe word you use when a scene is getting too intense? Are you looking for a no-strings attached spanking? Do you like to be cuddled and reassured after a BDSM scene? Do they? What are both of your hard and soft limits? Again, having this conversation can be as hot as it is important.
“Be direct and aim for understanding. Look at the alternative of not talking about it openly that leads to hurt feelings or conflict,” said Chavez. “Be open to hearing your partner’s needs without reacting abruptly. Try to be curious and ask questions if something is not clear.”
5. Advocate for yourself.
All of the above rules about being considerate of others also apply to how other people treat you: As in any other space, you are not obligated to be sexual. If someone makes you uncomfortable, tell the host, the venue’s staff, or another attendee. You have the right to stop sex or a scene at any point. You don’t have to explain your reasons, even to yourself, if you’re just not feeling something. There can be internal pressure to pretend to be chill or game for things you’re not interested in for the sake of the party. I promise, even the wildest, most outgoing seeming people have their limits.
Fred*, 45, has been attending queer play parties in Oakland for years now. He was recently at a party where he was engaged in a scene with two other people, in the middle of a large room with lots of attendees watching. Everything was going well; the scene was negotiated beforehand, and things were getting hot, but Fred was feeling overwhelmed.
“I had that thing, where this old, trained behavior of, ‘I can't stop now, I've already said yes, I'm going to disappoint people, maybe they'll think I'm not attracted to them, what about all these people watching that are really into it?’” he said. “Then I remembered, No, this is what we do here. We say what we need.” He told his partners he needed a break, and they didn’t ask him to explain himself. He went to get some water, they continued the scene without him, and when he was feeling better, he rejoined the party.
6. Take a break if you need one.
Following Fred’s example, there’s no shame in needing a break from the action if you start to feel overwhelmed. Sarah's parties have a designated “dark room,” a chill and quiet sex-free bedroom where guests can take a breather. “It's far enough away from the party so that you're completely removed, but you don't have to leave the event," she said.
Don’t be shy to ask your host if there is a quiet spot where you can rest or regroup. If they don’t have a separate room, find a quiet corner, and let someone else know what’s up (“I’ll be fine, I just need a minute alone”). Filling other people in will let them know there’s no crisis but that you don’t want to be bothered. In my experience, people are generally very understanding about this type of thing, more so than at regular parties where smalltalk can feel inescapable.
If you’re going to a party or club with a friend or partner, Mechtab recommended deciding on an exit strategy beforehand where you can remove yourself from a situation without having to explain or call attention to yourself, which you might feel shy about doing in the moment. “It can be a code word; it can be a nonverbal cue to signify that you need to change something in the situation," she said. Maybe you just need a minute to regroup, in which your partner can discreetly take you to another room, or maybe you have a code that it’s time to leave the party altogether.
7. Practice safer sex.
Every party I’ve been to has had readily accessible condoms, lube, and gloves available, but if you know you’re going to be having sex, it never hurts to bring some from home for backup. Different clubs (e.g., dungeons or specialized parties) may have different amenities available, but bring your own (clean!) sex toys, like vibrators, impact toys, and restraints, from home. Use condoms with dildos and change them after each partner. Don’t use other people’s toys without permission. If you’re doing wax play or other messy activities, put your own sheet down and ask your host if there’s a specific space available. Clean up after yourselves. It’s not only hygienic, it’s good manners.
8. Don’t take photos or videos without explicit permission.
Most clubs have strict rules about cameras—taking pictures or videos will get you kicked out, if not permanently banned. Smaller or private parties might be more lax. I know a woman who rents a mansion decked out in vintage art and taxidermy twice a year and invites women and femmes to come out in their luxest lingerie—in that environment, it can be very, very difficult not to take selfies, and so photos are ok with a few rules.
When pictures are allowed: Even if people seem chill and look cute, ask before you take others' photos. THEN, ask before you post on Instagram, even if the photos don’t seem that racy to you. (Some people might just not want to advertise where they party or who they’re with! That’s their business.) If they're OK with you posting, ask if they want their names, faces, or tattoos obscured. If all that asking makes you uncomfortable, put your camera away!
All of this is to say: You are a hyper-qualified-enough sex-haver to hit up a sex party or club, because the only true qualifications are to be respectful and open. (Oh, and as a final rule: if you’re at the IHOP and you recognize someone that you met at last week’s sex party eating pancakes with their extended family, do not go up to them and compliment them on their flogging skills. Be cool.)
If you take the tips above into account and end up going to a party, take some time to check in with yourself after (and do the same with any friends or partner(s) who joined you). Did the party live up to your expectations? What did you like about it, and what could have been better? You might not have gotten the chance to do everything you wanted or explore all that sex parties have to offer, but that’s OK—all the more reason to go back, now that you're an expert and everything.
When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy at the subjects' requests.
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This article was updated for clarity on July 20, 2022.