This article originally appeared on Tonic US.
I’ve been to quite a few sex parties over the years and, more recently, co-organized a handful of my own. Friends and acquaintances who have not attended a sex party are prone to quizzing me on the practicalities of how such an event goes down and I’m more than happy to share what I’ve learned. Recently, I was asked a rather more probing question about my experiences of communal fucking that got me thinking and now, writing. The question was “What have you learned about yourself from going to sex parties?” The answer is: a lot.
I had my first revelation at the first party I went to back in 2002. It was held in a suite of a storied rock and roll hotel. I was 25, still pretty green, and tasked with attending and possibly participating in an orgy for a writing assignment. The revelation—which came around 90 minutes into the soiree—was that I'd gamely stumbled into my own personal hell.
I’d arrived at the event—called a “play party” by regular revellers—with a vivacious partner on our third date. I thought I was going to blow her mind with what a free wheeling libertine I was and, at first, everything seemed to go according to plan. We were among the first people to have sex and I managed to get into the feeling of being watched by a room of strangers.
I spent the remaining seven-eighths of the evening, however, self-consciously grazing the buffet while she dominated the 40-person event with joyous, uninhibited abandon. In my long-harbored fantasies of group sex, I too was the life and soul of the party but I left that first outing convinced that I was too racked by insecurities to ever enjoy the realities. The more my date revelled, the more fleeting and lackluster my erections became until I was reduced to a limp observer—a veritable ghost at the feast.
Eleven years went by before I mustered the courage to show up at another—but this time, it was under the auspices of being for work. My date was a woman I’d been seeing for some months and, unlike the first misadventure, we had established boundaries ahead of time. We would be voyeuristic and exhibitionistic but, unless we both enthusiastically consented to changing the game plan in the thick of it, we’d only be having sex with one another. My second major lesson was that negotiating boundaries beforehand is a game-changer.
Open relationships expert Effy Blue affirms that play parties serve as a reminder that sex can and should be negotiated—both with partner you arrive with and potential partners you meet there. “Often in long-term relationships we settle into a routine of sex, think that we know our partner well and don’t engage in an ongoing conversation about our desires,” Blue says.
At a sex party, you may be dealing with new people and will have to “find your words” to express your boundaries and desires. “Although at first this can be daunting, with a bit of practice, you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and learn to ask for what you want and be clear about what you don’t want. And it can be very empowering when you get what you’ve asked for.”
For the next half dozen parties I showed up at, my partners and I had sex only with each other. Choosing a pace that worked for both of us enabled us to get increasingly comfortable with the heady sensation of being sexual in a group setting and therefore enjoying it.
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But it wasn’t until I attended the radically inclusive parties hosted at Hacienda Villa—a sex positive intentional community in Brooklyn—that I began to feel truly comfortable with myself in a group sex setting. I even let go of the pretense of “needing to go to a play party for work.” Massively increased body positivity is a fairly common, though unexpected, result that often surprises people after their first sex party experience, says New York-based psychotherapist Dee Dee Goldpaugh.
“Pornography is often the only exposure many people have to seeing others having sex,” Goldpaugh says, adding that while porn can have a positive effect on our sexuality, one of its drawbacks is that it most often depicts body types and genitals that are unrealistic for many people.
“Sex parties in a diverse city such as New York, especially when centered in the sex-positive community, are full of all types of bodies: fat bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, bodies with diverse genitalia, people of many ethnicities,” she says. She's heard, over and over again, expressions of exuberance and relief from clients who feel that they can relate to the natural sexiness of their own bodies differently after seeing different types of people owning it and celebrating their sexuality without shame in these contexts.
At Hacienda, Wonderland, and other parties that welcomed all genders, orientations, and body types I felt sexier and even re-evaluated what sexiness can look like. It affected my own preferences. That’s something that sex coach Kenneth Play can attest to as well. He tells me that prior to attending a play party, the thought of watching his partner have sex with someone other than him was an affront to his manhood.
“But watching my partner fuck was one of the hottest experiences I ever had. It wasn’t just surprising—it was life-changing.” Play says that having an opportunity to explore in a space in which everyone was on the same page enabled him to separate an abstract fear from a reality that turned out to be ego galvanizing, not ego destroying.
Similarly, I learned that becoming comfortable with witnessing and supporting your partner being sexual with other people feels a bit like acquiring a superpower. I certainly didn’t have the tools to deal with it at that first party in 2002. In fact it took attending a handful of play parties before I felt ready to take that next step.
Piggy-backing off of Blue's earlier point, sex parties let us witness the real diversity of sex and sexual preferences that don’t always come across in porn, Play adds. Some people love anal sex and some hate it; some people love lots of vibration and clitoral stimulation and others people prefer deep internal stimulation. “Everyone has their own unique sexual expression, and at sex parties you really get to see how diverse sexuality is,” he says.
While play parties can change what you like, Blue is quick to point out that they can be just as likely to affect who you like. “We tend to have an idea of who we are attracted to and then search for that one person,” she says. In that sense, play parties are an antidote to hook up apps that enable users to unsee people who fall outside of predetermined parameters. “A good way to think about it might be like ordering food off a menu where you might go for what you already know you like versus eating from a buffet where you see food that you'd never order off a menu. But it now piques your interest.”