When it comes to etiquette, the discerning gentleman or lady has a number of resources at their disposal. There are, of course, the classics: Emily Post, Miss Manners and Amy Vanderbilt. Then there are the contemporary versions of those classics — e.g., Travis and Teresa McElroy of the Shmanners podcast.
Inevitably, though, all of these guides tend to leave out some, shall we say, less openly discussed scenarios. Such as: the sex party.
Admittedly, it’s a topic that’s even too big for me to cover — at least by myself. And so, I requested the assistance of two knowledgeable experts who also happen to be good friends of mine. We’ll call them “Jay” and “Betty.” Jay is a sex-party veteran, and the only person I know who’s more obsessed with etiquette than I am (on the latter count, he’s a big fan of Philip Galanes’ Social Q’s column in the New York Times). Betty is no slouch when it comes to soirées of the sexual flavor either. Plus, she’s an analytical genius, a fashion icon and an academic with a wide-ranging knowledge of sexual subcultures. Also, I once saw a guy go down on her while she was reading her poetry onstage at — you guessed it — a sex party.
But let’s back up: before you jump in to witness a similar spectacle or engage in one yourself, you need to do your homework.
Both of my experts agreed: Advance planning is the key to a successful sex party experience. That means knowing both the simple things (i.e., the location and dress code) and the complex ones (i.e., the culture of the space). You don’t need to do a full ethnographic study of underground sexual societies, but you should at least know the basics. “Every sex party has different rules and a different vibe,” Jay says. “Walking in without knowing them, can make you look like a fool at best and a jerk at worst.”
What kinds of rules and norms are we talking about? Things like the use of verbal versus nonverbal cues to signify interest, safe sex and who to talk to if something goes wrong or you need help. Some parties will helpfully provide these details on their websites or invites — and if not, you can always email the organizers.
Regarding safe sex, many parties will provide condoms, but you can also bring your own. And while barebacking is sometimes the assumed default at gay-oriented parties, that doesn’t mean you have to do it. “I’ve never been rejected or shamed because I asked someone to use condoms,” Jay says. “They just say, ‘Okay! Where are they?’ and I grab one or point to them and we’re back at it.” And regardless of whether you practice safe sex or not, you should be getting STI tests on a regular basis anyway.
On a more emotional and psychological note, Jay emphasizes the power of positive thinking: “Coming in with low expectations or a negative attitude — like no one will think you’re hot or whatever — sets you up for a shitty night from the jump.”
Get a Friend
Are you going to arrive alone, with a date or with a few friends? Jay suggests coming with a friend if it will make you more comfortable, with the caveat that “sticking together too much can stop others from approaching.” Meanwhile, Betty says you should definitely consider showing up with a date. “Having sex with someone you’re already familiar with can be a good way to ease into public sex,” she advises. “Then you can each go off on your own or cruise for a third party.”
Betty reminds us, too, that typical American social mores don’t go out the window just because you’re in a fuck dungeon. “Bring singles and tip the clothes check, bar staff, and performers — especially if the drinks are complementary,” she says.
So now you’re standing in a dark basement, chic loft or someone’s borrowed condo. What now? Well, this might sound strange, but don’t pressure yourself to have sex. I know, that’s the whole point. But give yourself some time to take in the space, mill around and maybe even chat a little. Jay tells me he didn’t hook up the first two or three times he attended a party, and even now, sometimes he’ll just linger in a dance or hangout area socializing if he’s not feeling it. Betty mentions that some spaces have private areas away from the exposed space that are an option for the shyer set. And for the ultimate in anonymity, there’s always the glory hole, which she describes as “a low-stress way to ease into a space.”
Speaking of private versus public spaces, Betty notes that while there will be group sex, “That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all, even if it’s taking place in a more public area. If you like what’s going on and wanna join in, figure out if that’s welcome.” In other words: It’s always polite to ask.
Jay adds that at a mixed-gender party, straight men in particular should be conscious of not being creeps. “We should keep in mind that sexism, misogyny and power dynamics don’t go out the window just because it’s a designated fuck zone.” It’s really no different than interactions at a bar or other social spaces: “The most important thing is to be attentive of the other person’s interest, whether explicit or implicit. If someone doesn’t seem into you, leave them alone ASAP.”
Rejection is a part of life, sex parties included. It can hurt, but as Jay puts it, “One of the wonderful things about a sex party is that a single rejection (or even a few) doesn’t have to define your night. Somewhere in a sweaty basement full of perverts is a pervert who wants to get with you.” Additionally, you’ll likely be exposed to a wider diversity of people at any given party than your normal dating pool. Jay sees these situations as opportunities to examine the kinds of people we find attractive and our personal preferences, which are obviously shaped by the society we live in.
“No one should fuck anyone they don’t want to fuck,” he concludes. “But while we’re surrounded by so many different naked people, it can be cool to think honestly about why we only desire a certain narrow section of them.”
If this was your first party, ask yourself some questions afterward: How did you feel in the space? What worked for you? What didn’t? Maybe you’ve decided you don’t want to do it again, and that’s totally cool. Sex parties aren’t for everybody. I should also note that they aren’t always well-organized or all that much fun. But for each event that turns out to be an asexual cheese-and-crackers affair, there’s a room somewhere else full of sweaty people having a great time.
Oh, and one last appeal from Betty: “Don’t fuck in the toilet stalls. Come on. You can fuck literally anywhere, except the places where people actually have to pee.”