“The health situation cannot suppress the irrepressible desire to fuck.”
That’s what Robin (who asked that Motherboard not use his real name) wrote to Motherboard from Paris, where he says he has frequently attended and hosted orgies throughout the pandemic. With a strict curfew from 6 PM to 7 AM, after sunset the chestnut tree-lined boulevards of Paris are all but empty these days as Parisians shutter themselves indoors.
Yet, despite a curfew as well as a pandemic that continues to rage across the globe, behind some of those doors Robin and others have continued to organize orgies and swinger parties anyways, with some citing them as integral to quench a thirst for social connection. In fact, at the end of last month French police stopped a 100-person warehouse orgy in the outskirts of Paris.
Motherboard spoke to eight people who had attended orgies or engaged in group sex during the pandemic. All of them self-identified as ‘libertins,’ a French term used to describe a sexually open-minded person who usually engages in group sex or swinging. Some of them had tried swinging and having virtual sex parties via Zoom and other video chat software but that they had returned to in-person meetups.
You can think of ‘libertanage,’ then, as the French and at least traditionally more bourgeois older cousin of the 1960s free-love movement. In the past, libertanage tended to be associated with France’s political, social, and intellectual elite who gathered in Paris’ famously selective libertine clubs, such as Les Chandelles—the club’s strict dress code was even the focus of a 2015 Vogue article.
While clubs like Les Chandelles certainly still exist, many of the people—including the ones that Motherboard spoke to—who identify as libertins nowadays are not necessarily from the upper echelons of French society. In fact, a libertine in his early 20s who I spoke to said that those in his circles intentionally set out to reclaim the term by hosting parties that were open to all and queer-inclusive.
Regardless of the semantics around the term itself, they agreed that libertenage was not an activity, but rather a lifestyle that can be both liberating and draining, and an integral part of their sexual identity.
“Libertins recognize each-other in any place, since it is between a sexual orientation and a lifestyle,” one self-identified libertine said. “Being a libertin is a matter of respect: respect of your partner's body and desires, respect of your own body, it means a real honesty, and above all the respect of privacy.”
Engaging in in-person group sex during a pandemic comes with a very particular set of risks however, first and foremost of which is obviously the risk of contracting the virus. It would probably be impossible or at least very difficult to organize a masked and socially-distanced orgy or swingers party. In November of last year, for example, 41 people tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a swingers gathering in New Orleans.
That’s why one couple in their early 40s that Motherboard spoke to said that they only attended private sex parties where everyone had been previously tested for COVID-19 and only with people they knew—although they acknowledged that they were still taking a risk.
There’s also the government’s restrictions around gatherings and movement. Those breaking curfew can be fined €135 (~$160) with those repeatedly breaking the curfew risking a fine up to €3,750 (~$4540) or even jail time.
“Because of the curfew, people are more careful about their condition when leaving the apartment,” Robin wrote. “Already people are careful to pay attention to the fact that they are not too stoned so they don’t look too wrecked if they meet cops. Otherwise things haven’t changed too much. The desire to have sex has taken over the health restrictions. There is a thirst for meetings.”
“It’s come and go,” he added. “There can be five in the bedroom and four in the living room or vice versa. We are responsible for ourselves and for others. We don't push anything, if you don't want to be touched, you settle down, you smoke your cigarettes and you talk to people. It's not always a continuous hard fuck.”
For some libertins used to the large and at times chaotic world of the libertine clubs, the pandemic has been a time of experimentation. Some decided to move online, opting to have sex via webcam for spectators and or partaking in virtual sex parties. In some cases it was also an opportunity to form more intimate bonds with the people they were having sex with.
“Being at home, in a comfortable sofa, developed some inclinations, such as our bi-sexuality, or activities that need more privacy, time and patience (like pegging a man for me),” one couple in their mid-thirties said. “Since we now have a special relationship with some people we get to know their fantasies and develop a real complicity. A discussion about sex at home will always be more honest, quiet and passionate than a discussion at the bar of a club with loud music. We have really straight-forward conversations with our sexfriends and that leads to an increase in knowledge and skill.”
Those who continue to engage in group sex know that many will undoubtedly question their behavior in the context of a global health crisis. Reconciling the urge for social, sexual, and emotional satisfaction with that reality can be a difficult struggle for some.
“We do feel at times bad, but we have also done things to try to avoid the COVID,” one person who had frequented orgies with their partner told Motherboard over the phone. “And anyways, I think that those people who judge us have also broken the rules in other ways. It is only natural. There is hypocrisy here. Yes there might be 100 libertins in a place somewhere, and we don’t think that that is a good idea, but what about the thousands of ravers who party for two days without anyone stopping them, eh?"
And less of a struggle for others.
“Fuck [French president Emmanuel] Macron,” another said. “I think people have a clear need for social connection and meeting. Everything is closed, people are alone. We cannot, you see, stay with cages around our pussies, and you know, dicks forever. Now at least in France we are vaccinating people.”
In any case, said Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist, resident expert at the Kinsey Institute, and author of the book Tell Me What You Want, the paradoxical appeal of group sex for some is that it exactly offers an express antidote to the void of social and physical intimacy that has come with the pandemic.
“I suspect that some people are combining their needs for sex with their needs for social connection in the context of a group sex environment,” he told Motherboard over Zoom. “I think, you know, that parallel to that with these underground COVID behaviors is that there can be that thrill of breaking the rules, that you could potentially be caught, and that amps up arousal and excitement.”
There are also of course libertins who have decided to opt out from in-person gatherings entirely; an easier prospect for some than others. One couple said that friends of theirs had grown lonely and that they missed the community. Some even became depressed, they said. But for others the transition to a more sexually moderated lifestyle comes with its own pleasures.
“No it wasn’t difficult,” one couple wrote. “We see our ‘horizontal’ friends in a ‘vertical’ context, without playing. Swinging will wait until we can practice safely."
“It's the same difference between a candlelit meal with a lover and a meal with friends,” they added. “Both have their pleasures, [but] are not in competition or mutually exclusive.”
Whether engaging in group sex in the pandemic or not, sex educators like Lehmiller continue to emphasize that people try to be responsible as they can with their choices. And, whatever those choices are, that people try to be as safe as possible.
“Of course, as a sex educator and researcher, I do have to encourage people to be responsible,” Lehmiller said. “I have to say, the safest sex you can have is with yourself, but of course it’s unrealistic to expect that people are going to be totally celibate for months or years. If you're going to engage with other partners, take safety precautions.”