Sophie takes a deep breath before heading down the concrete steps into what looks like an underground cellar, its dark entrance concealing the feverish passions within. (Her name, and all names in this story, have been changed to protect privacy.) She takes a step forward and relaxes. She knows this passage well. What might seem like an unassuming hole-in-the-wall to many is a gateway into a world of fantasy – a party where (almost) anything goes. She grabs her partner’s hand and walks ahead. This isn’t her first time or theirs together, but the thrill hasn’t faded.
Sophie and her partner have been in a mostly monogamous relationship for the past five years. But now and then, they like to venture to a sex party – to embrace some of their more adventurous sexual urges (they’re both fire signs) and reconnect and remind themselves of what they find attractive about one another. And they’re not alone. Sex parties boomed during the pandemic, and last summer was even dubbed “the summer of sex parties” as more people look to open up their relationships. In the strictest sense, these parties are places where sexual activity isn’t just present but is encouraged – always safely and with respect, of course. Yet they’re still hardly regarded as conventional bonding activities for monogamous couples, compared to, say, bouldering. They can be organised parties or simply “sexy events” where the promise of sex exists but isn’t mandatory. And they can range from small-scale intimate gatherings to orgies where the thrill lies in the sheer scale of choice. Group activity? You’ve got it. Performances? Look over there. A space to indulge your bondage fantasies? There’s a wall for that.While sex parties seem to be returning, they’ve always existed in some way or form, both for open and closed couples. Swinging parties – husband and wife swapping – have a long history but are comparably more rooted in heteronormativity, while modern sex parties take a more omnivorous approach to sexuality. Still, the idea that sex parties can be an intimate act for couples isn’t well-documented, apart from in the essential The Ethical Slut, which describes the thrill for monogamous couples of having sex in a “sexy place complete with an appreciative audience”.
Ingrid, a 38-year-old who works as a doctor in Amsterdam, has been going to sex parties for 20 years now. She’s also part of an active BDSM community and says sex parties can be an incredibly positive experience for a couple. “If you know that you have fantasies that lay beyond monogamous vanilla relationships, it can be a very positive experience,” she explains. “A lot of people mistake BDSM and sex parties as being uncomfortable, but this is where some people can be their true core and in a much healthier and safer place, without judgement.” For some, that can bring them closer to a partner. Ingrid says one couple she’s friends with both knew they were kinky but didn’t know where to start, and it was only after going to a sex party and meeting people who were experts in BDSM – spanking, specifically – that they felt comfortable exploring things. “When you go home, maybe you have a chat about the fantasies that you have,” Ingrid says. “It acts as a prompt and allows for questions and conversations that otherwise may not come up.”The closeness you get out of the experience is one of the major thrills for Matt, a 55-year-old finance professional who’s been attending sex parties and hosting them for over a decade now. “I never go to sex parties alone – always with my submissive,” he explains, referring to his partner in BDSM play. “I love it when others look at her. To a degree, it’s about sex, but it can also just be about the tension.”
The element of letting go of control can be where the real excitement lies for couples. Matt occasionally attends larger organised sex parties put on by sex clubs or high-end private venues, which he says are increasingly more common, but he prefers smaller, more private parties organised at his home or a rented venue. Not only are they more intimate, numbering around 8 people, but they’re a way for people new to the scene to explore things in a safer, more controlled environment. “I always make everyone feel comfortable first – offering a glass of wine, letting people settle into themselves,” he explains. “I’m into impact play, whipping specifically. I host sessions, which typically take two to three hours, where I whip the submissive in front of people, many of whom are married couples. And people join in along the way and can leave whenever they want.”Couples, in particular, are the major demographic, he says, many of whom become regular guests or enjoy watching each other engage in fantasies and kinks they may not have known they had. It’s the immersion into fantasy that’s what makes these events so special. “It’s all about trust – if you don’t show it, you can never expect it back,” says Matt. “Part of these parties and this community is about seeing what will happen – what could happen – and trying it. Sometimes I think I experience more in a night than some people do in a lifetime.” That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. And anyone who’s been to a sex party knows that consent and communication are key tenets of enjoying things. Knowing where your boundaries start and end – as well as your partner’s – is crucial to getting the most out of what can be an intensely fulfilling experience. “Especially for people going for the first time, communication is key,” says Ingrid. “You don’t want to overstep any boundaries, so make sure you have that conversation upfront. I’ve had times when I wasn’t feeling good about my role and wanted to leave and times when my partner wasn’t. I think it’s important to be able to connect with your ‘animal brain’ but be honest when it doesn’t work.”Although sex parties are built on the physicality of the experience, words play just as pivotal a role, both within and beyond the confines of the space. “Make sure you challenge each other and explain when you find something erotic”, says Ingrid. “Tell your partner if you’d like to do something more – that could be having sex with somebody or joining a group – or what you like about what you see happening in front of you. Often, you can both be excited about the same scene but for very different reasons. That’s the beauty of sex.”