The Roots of Play Parties: An Exploration
I first heard the term "play party" when a friend invited me to a workshop on Japanese rope bondage. I'll be honest: I thought shibari was a circus skill.
Group sex, kink and orgies had always seemed to me to be underground movements, inaccessible to the average person and long depicted by the media as sordid, shameful affairs shrouded in secrecy.
However, play parties are sex-positive gatherings. The play parties of today are a far cry from the debaucherously alcohol-soaked and drug-crazed parties of the past, with many current organizers choosing to focus instead on ethics, consent, sobriety and safety.
Sex parties throughout the ages
From sculptures of tantric sex and female worship in ancient India to fertility parties in ancient Egypt to the Romans illustrating group sex with the stroke of a paintbrush, play parties are not a new concept. Sculptures and paintings from all corners of the globe depict group sex.
Historically, the Renaissance had masquerades, the Roaring '20s had cuddle parties and the 1970s had orgies. It seems the roots of sex parties can't be traced back to a single origin, suggesting that group sex is a much more normative behavior than we may have been conditioned to believe. Group sex has been present in all walks of society throughout history but has mostly been hidden due to the societal norms and moral beliefs which opposed it.
Culturally, we can connect group sex with fertility and the start of spring and planting crops. Many different communities have held festivals to encourage fertility, worship and crop growth. These include Opet, the ancient Egyptian fertility festival, Beltane, a pagan celebration in medieval England, and even the famous Valentine's Day, which has roots in orgiastic culture thanks to the Romans. Group sex was not restricted to the rich and powerful—it was for everyone.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine indicated women were more interested than men in group sex fantasies, shaking off many misconceptions about women's perceived attitudes toward sex and love. A 2018 study exploring gender attitudes toward swinging found married women reported a higher level of polyamorous interests than their husbands by 8.8 percentage points.
However, just because anyone can organize a play party in theory, should they?
Ethical play parties
Sex-positive groups, such as Hedone and Parallel Universe in Berlin, and the New Society for Wellness (Ns-Fw) and Hacienda in New York City, are paving the way for responsible, liberating, artistic events. Websites and tickets to events create an easy invitation. You no longer need an "in" to play.
Many of these groups, including the Hacienda, employ space-holders—or "angels"—to act as both counselors and guides at their events. As Hacienda states on its website, "Consent is the fundamental building block of our community."
"Party planners can first build up a small foundation of people who are experienced and can then become space-holders," said Tasneem Handani, 34, a tantra educator living in India and former member of Hacienda. "I would advise against holding an amateur play party if you have not attended play parties before. Creating a safe container for people to explore is essential, which will only come from experience."
Clara Gallien, a co-founder of We Feast parties in Berlin, stretches her events over a full day and night to give people more time to acclimate to the group. Gallien started out attending swinger clubs in Paris before realizing there was a space for more conscious parties, away from the celebrity-rich, drug-and-alcohol-fueled functions she had once attended. Gallien believes the secret to a good sex party is letting the tension build, sometimes all day.
"The key is slowness," Gallien explained.
How do you get an invitation to a play party?
Some places, such as Hacienda, invite their attendees through an application process, while We Feast parties invite prospective participants to face-to-face interviews. Amateur hosts may not use the same protections and precautions, so be aware of this possibility.
"For a safer experience, go to a party which promotes thoughtfulness and sensitivity, and not just sex," advised Lily, a play party attendee living in Arambol, India.
As with most sexual taboos, the more they are explored healthily and included in a wider conversation, the safer and more enjoyable sex will be for everyone.