This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
On March 12, one of New York City’s most infamous sex clubs – a venue that’s been called “the Soho House of Sex” – sent an Eventbrite invitation titled “Save NSFW” to its members. There wasn’t a link to a ticket page; the club had already taken the decision to close up a few days earlier. Instead, they were asking their members for support to help them survive the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re a bootstrapped company trying to create something that’s never existed before. facing obstacles that feel insurmountable,” the invite read. “If you’ve ever had a great experience at NSFW or just believe in our cause, support us.”
Despite its 2,000 members who pay annual membership fees ($200 for single men and couples and $100 for single women), closing for even a few months would threaten the club with financial ruin. “We’re one of the only clubs in New York with a physical space that nobody lives in,” Melissa Vitale, NFSW’s Communications Director, tells me over the phone from her apartment in Brooklyn. “Other clubs are based out of people’s apartments or houses, our club is a dedicated space and our rent is huge.”
Bans from payment processors including PayPal and costs from previous venue evictions mean that NSFW’s profit margins are far narrower than you might expect. Like most businesses, closing for weeks or months without a financial fallback is not an option.
Fortunately, its community is rallying together to prevent its closure. “Everyone is giving what they can,” says Melissa. “People really want to make sure that when the dust settles from all this, NSFW is still there.” Members have been buying merchandise including branded hats and talisman necklaces and donating substantial sums to support the club.
One member, Steve, donated $500 immediately when he received the email. “The club is a big part of my life and I’ve met some amazing people through it,” he explained. “I’m in a position to be able to offer some support so I’m happy to do that.”
Social distancing is having a serious impact on kink communities, and sex clubs like these are a central part of members’ social lives and an important part of their identities. “A lot of people here in New York share their living spaces,” explains Melissa. “For kinky people, this can be really isolating. They might not want to bring a partner home, for example. That’s why safe spaces like NSFW are so important.”
NSFW aren’t the only ones leaning on their communities for help right now. Derek founded London’s femdom club Pedestal in 2003 and has had to shut up shop thanks to the outbreak. He says that the closure has thrown his personal life into uncertainty, but members of the community are working hard to help.
“I’ve spent the last 17 years running femdom events,” he explains over the phone. “Like a huge number of people in the kink world, I’m now potentially unemployable. But a lot of people who are the lifeblood of our events – dungeon monitors for example – people who have been with us for years, are helping out. Right now, they’ve been helping me with my CV, helping me get it out there and find new work while all this is going on.”
Derek went on to explain that the community were very understanding when he decided to cancel upcoming events. “Look after yourself and the people around you,” wrote one supporter on Twitter. Another commended Pedestal for their quick decision making, tweeting: “You are smarter than our government.”
Founder Derek says he was heartened by the understanding and thoughtful responses: “The great thing about our world is that people are very empathetic. Nobody was demanding ‘where’s my refund?’ Though they did all get refunds.”
Professional domme Katarina “theDommeKat” Pierce is one person whose work has been dramatically cut back due to the outbreak. Most of her in-person events and performances at clubs have now been cancelled. “I miss wrestling and pouring hot wax on people!” she tells me over email.
But she’s determined to help keep her community together: “It seems like dog-eat-dog is the knee jerk reaction, but clients, producers, models, dommes and other sex workers are all part of this wonderful kinky community and we need to take care of each other. Emerge stronger. Show the world we aren't deviants that don't have our shit together. We're a community and a force to be reckoned with.”
Like Katrina, people in the kink scene aren’t about to let coronavirus beat them. NSFW are seeing their shutdown as an opportunity to launch a new online subscription service featuring kinky tutorials such as “Sub/Dom: The Domination Submission Workshop” and a panel discussion on the subject of “Dating Under Quarantine”.
Evie Fehilly is a sex educator who runs classes on kink, BDSM, and sexual empowerment at Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium in Old Street. London. Earlier this year, Sh! expanded their event space to be able to accommodate more people, but they have now been forced to cancel all in-person events. But, like NSFW, they’re not going to be stopped that easily. Evie recently hosted an informal talk on sex on Sh! social media.
“We had almost a hundred people watching,” Evie tells me over the phone. “And there’s been a lot of interest, people have been commenting, saying they were sad to miss it, asking when the next one is. We’re hoping to move all of our classes online soon and perhaps charge a small amount. I think the kink community really understands the importance of keeping an independent like Sh! alive.”
It’s too early to know the full impact of coronavirus on all businesses – including sex clubs and the kink scene – especially now a lockdown has been announced in the UK. But if there’s one thing that might give them the upper hand, it’s that they’re already used to logistical knockbacks. Even before the outbreak of a global health crisis, kink communities were working together and thinking creatively about how to keep growing.
Katerina sums it up: “We’ve all seen the movies. The BDSM-ers and street punks are the ones who emerge from underground after the apocalypse and survive.”