A Return to Sex Parties
In June, the New York City Health Department released new COVID regulations, and in true New York City Health Department fashion, the guidelines were surprisingly explicit, instructing residents to get vaccinated if they "attend sex parties or get-togethers with large groups."
Wait, so are people having sex parties again?
A sex party, in case the term isn't descriptive enough, is a gathering where people get together to chat, sometimes eat and/or drink and have sex with other guests if they desire. Some are more couples-oriented, with swingers looking for threesomes or swaps, while others are populated with singles. They might take place at a sex club specifically for this purpose or at a host's house.
Every sex party looks a little different—and that's been especially true in light of the pandemic. Sex party organizers have had to adjust their operations during COVID times, and partygoers are excited to get back to semi-public adult activities, but not without some extra precautions.
COVID may be pushing people to engage in safer sex practices they should be considering anyway.
NSFW, an elite New York City club that hosts events at its space in SoHo, closed down and switched to virtual parties during last spring's initial lockdown period, then opened back up in the summer during Phase 4, with limited capacity and temperature checks at the door.
"The decision to reopen was a tough one, but one we felt we needed to make," said NSFW's founder Daniel Saynt. "So many members were suffering this trauma alone, and we wanted to be the light at the end of the tunnel—a place that could offer a little warmth and normalcy in a world that felt so cold at the time." This June, Saynt offered free passes to people who were vaccinated and saw a surge in attendees as a result.
Los Angeles–based BDSM clubhouse Sanctuary similarly shut down during the heart of the pandemic, according to Savannah Sapphic, who works there as a professional switch (playing both dom and sub), but they've been open for the whole time she's been working there since March. Right now, Sanctuary is running as usual with a few adjustments, she said: "At the front desk, everyone has their temperature taken, and they sanitize their hands. We ask that masks stay on unless you're vaccinated, in which case you're free to be maskless."
Some venues have been more conservative in their operations. Hacienda, a sex-positive community in Brooklyn, stopped holding sex parties from March 8, 2020 to mid-April 2021, while they focused on digital gatherings such as educational workshops, naked yoga and virtual sex parties where members watch one another get naughty at home. They reopened in 2021 with sexy brunches, where they limited their capacity and required vaccinations for people who hadn't yet had COVID.
"As we've continued to host events, we are keeping safety as a top priority by requiring proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test and offering refunds to anyone who is not feeling well," said Beth Sparksfire, Hacienda's director of events. "We have records of all guests at our events in case we need to do contact tracing."
Cat, a 24-year-old retail associate and barista, went to a sex party in Tampa in late May that similarly required everyone, except a few immunocompromised attendees, to be vaccinated. Despite the precautions, many people are ready to jump back into some X-rated pleasure.
"The energy was palpable—people were hungry to chat and horny to play," said Ryn Pfeuffer, a 48-year-old writer in Seattle, of his visit to NSFW in mid-June. "In late March, I attended the reopening night of a swingers' club in Seattle and immediately left. I wasn't ready for that 0 to 60 level of human interaction. Also, it's difficult to flirt while wearing a mask. Three months later, though, I felt safe and ready."
Hacienda membership applications have surged recently, Sparksfire said. "A lot of people are eager to live life to the fullest, get to know new people and dive into new experiences."
But while many people feel ready to return to sex parties, it may take some extra work for them to prepare themselves. Over the past few months, Saynt has found it extra important to remind people who have not interacted with groups in a while of consent policies, such as asking before joining a group that's playing. He's also been more conscious of reminding guests of safer sex practices and recommends the docuseries "How to Have Sex in a Pandemic" to those who want to prevent the spread of COVID as well as STIs.
In fact, COVID may be pushing people to engage in safer sex practices they should be considering anyway. Sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D., who ran safer sex parties in San Francisco during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, implemented some policies that would be useful to anyone looking to reduce their chances of contracting COVID or STIs, such as using barriers for all penetrative sex and asking permission before touching anyone or anyone's toys.
'So many members were suffering this trauma alone, and we wanted to be the light at the end of the tunnel—a place that could offer a little warmth and normalcy in a world that felt so cold at the time.'
Another plus that's come out of the pandemic? The wide reach of virtual sex parties. Saynt feels that COVID ultimately benefited NSFW, as their virtual parties (where people watched performances, played games like Truth or Dare and watched one another get sexy) attracted members from all over the world. "It allowed many of them to see what we were about and discover a space that was safe and judgment-free," he said. "Many of them began making trips to NYC once we reopened to be able to see the Clubhouse for themselves and experience our community."
If attendees retain the best of sex-positive culture—openness, friendliness, unconditional acceptance and consideration for boundaries— the sex party scene may not just get back to normal but actually reach a more evolved state.
A sense of safety is in the hands of attendees, so each person can make a monumental difference by following regulations and respecting others' boundaries. "The sluts and kinksters in my life are so diligent when it comes to consent, safer sex and communication," Pfeuffer said. "There's a dedication to safety, and we look out for each other. I feel safer, COVID-risk-wise, playing unmasked and indoors at a sex party with these communities than going to a mall with a bunch of strangers."