Courtesy Our Gourmet Life.

An Erotic Dinner Party Gave Me a Whole New Perspective on Sex

After a series of heartbreaking losses, including much of my hearing, I felt totally disconnected from my body. Then I went out to eat.

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Apr 30 2019, 2:08pm

Courtesy Our Gourmet Life.

A waitress crawls along the massive wooden table, fishnets and impossibly short, black skirt moving rhythmically as she inches toward me. In her hand is a glass of cool, cloudy liquid, which she presses against my neck. I feel the soft down of my neck hairs rise and my skin prickle from the cold glass. She instructs me to smell the liquid, which is sharp and citrusy and pops in my nose. From here, she tilts my head back and presses the glass to my lips. The sweet, acidic tang of the drink rushes over my tongue and I taste lemon and ginger and something crisp, possibly apple. She has barely touched me, and yet, as each of my senses is brought glaringly—intimately—to attention, it feels as if this stranger and I have had sex. A kind of sex, at least.

Each of us carves our own path away from heartache. Mine often happens to involve hedonism. It’s been helpful in the past for getting me to move on—possibly not in the direction I need to go, but in some direction. This year has been epic in its shittiness, for me. My six-year primary relationship ended and then, a week later, so did my other year-long relationship. My mother had a debilitating stroke; my closest friend stopped speaking to me; I was violently mugged; then, right before Christmas, I was laid off. In the aftermath of all those consecutive losses, I felt emptied, like a shell—disconnected from my body.

Navigating such trying circumstances can often feel compounded by the fact that I'm partially deaf. I miss countless conversations, chances for connection, and belonging because I struggle so much to hear what's being said to me. That made it even harder to break out of the cycle of detachment and isolation I was caught in. So, I began to search for things—anything—that might lead me back to myself, back into my body, back into some approximation of connection, however temporary.

It is in service of this un-numbing that I reached out to Our Gourmet Life, an “erotic dinner party” that has been taking place regularly in San Francisco for almost ten years, and the event at which I found myself being seduced by my server. Founded by self-taught chef Chris Hubbard and conceived by him and his wife as a way to say “thank you” to their friends in Paris for hosting them, the Introductory Erotic Dinner promises an enigmatic evening and a “new realm of sensuality.” (There’s an Intermediate Dinner, as well, in which the number of courses and the levels of eroticism are kicked up even higher.) As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time in my head, especially when sex is concerned, spending an evening in thrall with my senses sounded like precisely what I needed.

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Courtesy Our Gourmet Life.

The rules of the dinner are minimal: No photography, no phones, and no touching the servers, unless invited to do so by them or the host (which happens frequently), and only above the waist.

At the beginning of the night, my date and I arrive at the loft apartment and wait in the foyer with a handful of other nervous, smiling couples, along with one solo man. Next to where I stand is a human-sized stack of boxes filled with jockstraps from a neighboring business—a good omen, I feel.

We are led one by one into a spacious, airy loft, handed a glass of champagne, and told to sit on one of the many leather sofas that dot the venue. Appetizers entail seared strawberries drizzled in balsamic vinegar, green garlic panisse, and dates stuffed with goat cheese—placed directly into our mouths by one of the 11 or so servers, who are dressed sharply in black and white and wearing masks like out of a masquerade ball.

We sit down at a long, U-shaped dinner table with an ornate, bronze cock (the bird variety) standing in the center. As they place the first courses before us—a vegetable stew and a salad of mixed greens, pecorino, pear, and toasted almonds in a champagne dressing—the servers trail their fingers up my arms and shoulders, or gently tuck a wave of hair behind my ears. Meanwhile, a group of other servers in front of us start slowly caressing each other and peeling off each other’s clothes, and in one case, two servers remove another’s bowtie with their teeth. Soon, I find that it’s entirely possible to forget about not just my food, but the notes I’m supposed to be taking in order to write about this experience. I also decide, upon seeing a rare and delightful scene involving the teasing of two hot, male bisexuals, that I do not especially care.

My wine glass is filled again, with a Domaine De Montine viognier, and then a Château de Chaintré chardonnay, each of which bring a slow, tingly flush to the surface of my skin. A server kneels at my side and says she requires my assistance. I rise from my seat and am brought before a beautiful man, leaning elegantly against a wooden loft beam, and am instructed to undress him. Unaccustomed to stripping strangers, I set about unbuttoning his crisp, white shirt and peeling it from his broad shoulders tentatively, awkwardly, running my hands over the soft curls of his chest hair as if I were petting a bar of soap.

I am later asked to strip another male server, who is laid down on the table by several female servers, arms outstretched, crucifixion-style. I do not hear this command, however, until my date nudges me with expectant eyes.

“What?” I say.

“Rub him!” he replies.

“Oh!” I hop up and find a free spot on his body (a forearm) and massage it gingerly.

It's not uncommon for me to miss commands like that. And that makes navigating consent and pleasure even more taxing and difficult than they already are when both partners can understand each other clearly. Here, though, the misunderstanding doesn't take much away from the moment because I'm so fully indulging my better senses: smell, touch, taste, sight.

As the night goes on, I increasingly allow myself to stop engaging in the ceaselessly exhausting task of attempting to hear when I cannot, and focus my attention on my other senses. Conversations swirl around me, of course, but I mostly pay no attention to them, distracted as I am by the erotic theater playing out before me—the food, the intimate glances, the subtle caresses. Unlike sounds, the immediacy of another’s touch is not something I ever have to question, parse, or doubt.

By the time dessert comes, I am vibrating—smiley and a little drunk. The sweet treat consists of a creamy chocolate mousse topped with raspberry coulis and caramel, and is served next to a crunchy meringue. I am tipsy enough to trail a dollop of mousse on my date’s skin and lick it off.

After the final plates are removed, guests have a chance to mingle with each other, their partners, and the servers, and in instances where parties want to take things further, there is an adjoining, spacious room full of beds, couches, and other surfaces on which one can attempt to break Dan Savage’s rule that one should always fuck before eating.

It’s almost 11 PM by this point, and I am both relieved and disappointed that my date does not want to stick around to see what orgies may flourish in such a charged environment. But I am full enough as is, in more ways than one.

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Courtesy Our Gourmet Life.

By the end of the evening, I had realized something unexpected: That accessing pleasure often simply requires paying the right kind of attention. We often go about our days on autopilot; We so rarely stop to fully experience what it is we’re doing, even when those experiences are pleasurable. Partly, this is a form of self-protection. We spend so much of our time avoiding being tuned-in and vulnerable in order to protect against pain that we become numb to its inverse—pleasure. I am guilty of this when it comes to hearing loss: I fog myself with alcohol in order to cope with difficult and awkward social situations.

Tasked with intentionally enjoying and employing each of my senses for an entire night, however, I suddenly felt more attuned to my body. Even days later, I noticed the way a warm breeze danced on my skin; the roasty, oily scent of my morning coffee; and the first tangy burst of a fresh orange slice popped in my mouth, the juice running down my fingers. Mind you, I’m not one to be turned on by oranges, ordinarily, but simply by taking a moment to notice it, I found myself awoken to this common fruit’s visceral potential.

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As each of us struggle to create meaningful lives while also trying to escape the endless news cycle, the cult of social media, and the treadmill of “productivity,” what we pay attention to matters tremendously. Building the muscle of sensory consciousness gives us a heightened awareness of our external and internal realities, and helps us figure out what we are feeling in our bodies, and what they need. In other words, our experience of life depends on our focus.

If I spent the majority of my time fixating on all the things I miss as a deaf-ish person, I would be miserable. This isn’t to say I don’t ever complain about what I lack—I am human, after all. But part of waking up from the stupor of grief is recognizing that I've had all the sensuality I need all along. I just need to put it to use.