San Francisco has a proud kinky history of being on the forefront of sexual freedom, from the psychedelic sensory orgies of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to queer liberation, non-monogamy, and beyond. Since the sexual revolution of the 60s, there’s been no city in America where more people are more happy to take their clothes off and shake their bits, despite the fog.
Much has been written about how the culture and fun has been sucked out of the city since the second tech boom. It would stand to reason that when the artists, musicians, and writers have left, the sex parties would dry up. It’s hard to find time to orgy when you’re working two jobs to pay for that $4000-a-month studio apartment. Threesomes are tricky on a murphy bed.
In actuality, they’ve just gotten weirder, more organized, more frequent, and sometimes don't exactly involve sex. From lunch break tantric speed dates, to lakeside eye contact parties, the world of organized intimacy and orgy adjacent gatherings in Silicon Valley is positively engorged right now.
But it’s a different world than in the heyday of West Coast free love. Just as Burning Man morphed from a hippie circle on Baker Beach, to a multi-million dollar, helicopter valeted, elite event attended by the richest men in tech, San Francisco sex and intimacy parties in 2019 have been forever altered by the world of tech and money.
Hippy communes in San Francisco used to be born out of political discontent and a primal desire for sexual liberation. The current popularity of living polyamorously is just as much about having more people to share the rent. Nevertheless, the new San Francisco transplants of the second tech boom are craving intimacy, and local event organizers are more than happy to help. A look on Eventbrite or Facebook on any given weeknight will present various new ways to get cozy with strangers—from lectures on tantra, workshops on “rope play,” sold out cuddle parties, something called "the Heart Fuck!," and another promising “Somantic Exploration”—a “very special evening of dance, connection and PLAY!” And those are the ones operating in the light of day rather than the secrecy of night. (More on that in bit.)
One PG event, the curiously titled Cacao, Consent and Conscious Dance Party involves a ritual imbibition of Europe’s new chocolate-y party drug, after which revelers can explore the opaque “cutting edge of humanity’s social evolution through new paradigm partying.”
Nick Meador, that party’s organizer and an “RYT-200 yoga instructor, transformational life coach, holistic event producer, and mindful entrepreneur” tells me he believes the Bay Area “is a good sandbox to experiment with new social structures and community constellations” and that people here are more willing to try new things and think outside the box than in other parts of the country. “I've traveled a lot and I've never seen this unique mix of practical self-development opportunities, social justice initiatives, and a willingness to explore the taboo and the unusual,” he says.
Elsewhere, those wishing to make connections can simply look into one another’s eyes. That’s the thrust of the world’s biggest eye contact experiment on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland, where the high is delivered not from cacao, but from the release of Oxytocin, the hormone that leads to empathy and love, which is linked to making eye contact.
Allyson Darling, a writer in San Francisco, attended the mass gazing event, which she described as “more intimate than an orgy” for The Bold Italic, an “online magazine that celebrates the character and free-wheeling spirit of San Francisco” where I serve as a senior editor.
“The overall vibe of the event was...weird,” she tells me. “Some people were social and talking and joking around people sitting on the ground and staring into each other's eyes. People’s goals for attending the event were rooted in intimacy."
“There are few things more intimate than looking into someone’s eyes for an uncapped amount of time, whether they’re strangers or not," she says.
I moved to San Francisco in 2007 from a farm in the middle of nowhere England where any talk of sex parties involved a field of sheep. I came here because it was the coolest city on earth. As the start-ups soon became the biggest corporations on earth, it felt like that freewheeling spirit was getting lost. But no matter how much money floods in, it somehow still feels like a place where everything is about taking risks.
Walking around a city where everyone thinks they are changing the world can be exhausting. You can smell hubris on the streets, alongside a lot of other undesirable scents. But in an industry where even at the biggest firms, team-building cuddle puddles and micro-dosing mushrooms at work are encouraged, the idea of finding new unchartered ways to love each other seems very normal.
The extreme end of the buffet of intimate sharing in the Bay in 2019 involves hedonistic gatherings of up to 700 people lasting up to four days on the grounds of museums, dilapidated hotels, and warehouses across the Bay. These infamous events, hosted by an unnamed event production company, happen every few months. They are satirical and self-aware, and beyond the Eyes Wide Shut atmosphere and chemical ingestion, host an array of interactive psychedelic art, pranks, and theater.
Writer Ahmed Kabil recently attended one such night and described seeing everything from a baroque butthole photography project to mating unicorns in a widely-read piece he wrote about the experience in a post on Medium. The parties form part of what Kabil describes as “the Bay Area’s thriving psychedelic underground.”
“Counterculture and cyberculture have been inextricably linked in the Bay Area since the 1960s, and I do see an unbroken chain of influence from the first large scale multimedia happenings to the current goings-on in the Bay Area underground,” he tells me when I ask if he felt like the current rise in organized revelry is due to a primal want for intimacy and debauchery in the face of the corporate take-over, or just San Francisco being San Francisco. “Technologists with a communal utopic bent and a curiosity for exploring altered states of consciousness have always been a part of that space, and will continue to be.”
Most of this New Era of Intimacy is clean (albeit out there), consensual fun. But just as the Summer of Love was eventually hijacked by pimps and bad dudes looking to use “Free Love” as an excuse to bang anything walking along Haight Street, the more drug-fueled orgiastic “cuddle puddles” of today have been exposed as toxic and sometimes dangerous events that revert back to a very unprogressive and misogynistic dynamic, in which entrepreneurial tech 2.0 entitlement and hubris is leveraged to excuse treating women, usually lower on the career ladder, as little more than sex toys.
Even at the innocence of an eye contact party, the line between connection, intimacy, and sex can feel blurry.
“I don’t know that I would do it again,” Darling tells me. “There was a really beautiful moment that I shared with an older woman where we both started crying, she had a very wise and calming presence. It was such an intimate, shared experience it was hard not to feel a little emotional. When she started getting tears in her eyes, I couldn't help but feel emotional myself. I’ll remember that always. But the creepy men whose eyes I looked into who made me feel like they had an ulterior motive almost made the experience not worth it for me.”
As a result, many of these parties have started laying down rules to promote safety, such as a ban on alcohol and drugs, or risk reduction specialists. Others guarantee a gender balance in those attending.
The average young person moving to San Francisco today may no longer be a hitchhiker escaping a conservative town in search of art, free-thinking, and mind-altering drugs. Instead, they are more likely a recent graduate from a top college who has survived a five day interview process with a large tech firm, moving into a corporate sponsored condo in Mission Bay they’ll see 15 hours a week. The much hyped death of art and culture in the Bay Area may have led to many musicians moving to LA or Portland and artist collectives and shared spaces closing down due to an invasion of start up money and astronomical rents. But all of that hasn’t quenched the city’s thirst for getting off, getting weird or finding new ways to connect. Whether that be through cacao, eye contact, or cuddles, or some other kind of kink, the Valley—for all its known faults—isn't vanilla.
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