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My Night at a Quarantine Sex Party for 69 Horny Strangers

Can digital sex parties take the place of the real thing, or are they just replacing porn for the kinky and delusional?

It’s early on a Friday night and I’m showered and made-up quarantine-style, top half groomed and bottom half lounging in secret sweatpants as I patiently gaze into the deep abyss of my laptop’s webcam. The “digital sex party” I’m attending is about to begin. 

The futuristic and entirely online affair — cheekily dubbed “Playdate: Lockdown Edition” — is an extension of the New Society for Wellness (NSFW), a high-end, curated and members-only “open love club” in NYC. Often referred to as the “SoulCycle of sex,” the education-heavy, cannabis-friendly club has earned a global reputation for the “literal, not figurative star-fucking,” that happens there, and has since become the de facto spot for Manhattan’s sexually liberal thirtysomethings to, as Harper’s Bazaar so eloquently put it, “smoke, fuck and chill.” 

On any given pre-coronavirus night, visitors to NSFW’s Manhattan Clubhouse could expect to find anything from a sexually charged cocktail party to an all-out orgy happening in their sleek, well-stocked surroundings. Perfectly appointed socialites in cocktail garb could likely be found fingering snacks, free-flowing CBD treatments and each other as they observed erotic workshops and listened to music, the evening evolving from what felt like a high-end happy hour to something a little more riqsue. “It’s not supposed to feel like a sex party; more like a party where anything can happen,” says Melissa Vitae, NSFW’s publicist. “Though, we do have members who come in and immediately go for the sex swing.” 

Their digital edition — assembled in rapid response to the coronavirus pandemic — promises to pull out all the same stops, only from the safe and enforced comfort of its members’ own homes. Tonight, a musical performance by Kat Cunning is scheduled to kick things off, followed by a DJ spinning “vibes” and a slew of “erotic performances” designed to keep all 67 of us in attendance entertained, aroused and mentally removed from the isolating anticlimax of coronavirus quarantine.

The first 20 minutes of the event reads as an earnest attempt to recreate something as personal and touch-centric as a sex party, but somewhere between the awkward icebreakers — “Male here, Fort Greene, alone and losing it” — and a hybrid BDSM/Tantra demo where a Dom tells his sub to breathe through her “yoni” before lovingly strangling her into consensual unconsciousness, I’m struck by a question I never thought I’d ask myself at a sex party, let alone one that’s happening inside my computer: Can digital events like this one really take the place of in-person parties, or are they just repurposed porn; a placating, “next best thing” meant to numb the boredom and isolation of quarantining alone? 

As lockdowns lengthen and the massive cock block of social distancing becomes the begrudging norm for people all over the world, the answer, it appears, would be both. 

Like it or not, digital sex parties have already begun to fill the shoes of their now-archaic real-life cousins. With coronavirus forcing mass quarantines throughout the globe, the way people date and fuck has been radically transformed. Online dates and hookups for singles and separated lovers have fast become the new sexual standard, but it’s only been in the past week or so that sex party organizers, kinksters, swingers and other group sex connoisseurs have realized that it’s possible to digitize their events and broadcast them to a global audience. In New York, one queer underground sex party was held on Zoom, and on Saturday, legendary London sex club Killing Kittens held a masked orgy for 100 people via video call. There was, apparently, a “bath” performer. 

NSFW, whose first-ever online event took place last week on the video chat website GetVokl, has been one of the earliest adopters of the online sex party trend. “The moment coronavirus started to really hit New York, we immediately shut down our clubhouse and stopped doing in-person events,” says NSFW founder and “professional provocateur” Daniel Saynt, explaining that doing so initiated somewhat of a small midlife crisis that ended up with him fleeing New York for the tiny, relatively coronavirus-free island of St. Martin. “My entire source of income and my entire lifestyle was based around bringing people together, but now that gathering in groups is illegal, I had to rapidly reassess what we could do to keep going.” 

After consulting with his members and smoking some “primo, creativity-enhancing weed,” it hit him: Why not just do it online? “Anything you can do at a party, you can do on the internet,” he explains. “The sex might look different and you obviously can’t touch each other, but it’s still sex — or as close as you can get to it without a partner. So many of our members are alone right now, or quarantined in living situations in which they can’t express their sexuality. I feel for them — people need touch and physical intimacy. They need an outlet. Without one, they’re going insane.” 

That much appears to be true — judging from the sheer volume of regrettable, “Hey, how r u?” texts people have been getting from their dirtbag exes during quarantine, the rapid proliferation of thirsty lockdown threads on places like Reddit and desperately bored masturbation data viz projects lonely hearts in quarantine have been creating to pass the time, a real, viable sexual outlet is something most people need.

And thus, “Playdate: Lockdown Edition” was born. A curated “digital play experience” attended by a diverse group of singles, couples, kinky people and newcomers from all over the world, the three-hour event was, and likely will be, the closest thing most people will have to a sexually explorative experience in coronavirus confinement. “I fucking needed that,” says Nicole, 33, a colleague and fellow quarantinite who attended the party (her first sex party, actually). “It definitely doesn’t feel like you’re in a room with real people, but I don’t care. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t need some actual human contact at this point.” 

Here’s how it works: After filling out a member profile, being vetted by NSFW’s “council” and paying a modest fee ($10 for members, $25 for visitors), you’re sent a link to a GetVokl chat room where there are four screens participants can “claim.” The largest of the screens is reserved for performers, educators, musicians and anyone who wants to fuck on a larger screen between their sets. Below, in the other three windows, people in various states of partnership and undress stroke themselves, strip and watch. No one is required to participate — over half the audience watches as faceless voyeurs identified only by whatever first name they’ve chosen to use for the evening. 

A welcome speech from Saynt and round of introductions start the proceedings. A handful of people claim the screens, tell the audience where they’re from, and as is customary in corona-world, drop some relatable tidbit about quarantine life others nod their heads in vigorous agreement to. Some minor technical difficulties make for a clunky start, but the mood begins to lighten as more people chime in to express how excited they are to not only see other people after an extended lockdown, but see them semi-naked. Even from a sanitary, cross-country distance, the tension between the audience is palpable; everyone seems giddy and alert, thrilled at the sight of other people and collectively waiting to see which sacrificial lamb is brave enough to hook up first.  

A song by Cunning follows. While she sings, she takes off her top to reveal a lacy purple bra, stopping halfway through her set to make out with her guitarist. It’s cheesy, but also kind of hot. Though I’ve set up my profile with no picture and my webcam is off, watching them gives me a voyeuristic jolt and a strange sense of connection to the other people in the room. With the performance happening live, unscripted and only for us, I feel like I’ve been inducted into something secretive and intimate; something only I (and the other 60-something people in the room) get to see. 

Like any video call, the sound is horrible. And depending on the Wi-Fi connection of the person broadcasting, their faces are either crystal-clear or just 12 large, flesh-colored pixels shifting and rearranging like Tetris blocks on the screen. There’s also the slight problem of angles. While you can shift where you’re standing at in-person events to get a better view of the action, digital sex parties are limited to what the person broadcasting shows you, which, as one guy on the far right has been demonstrating for a curiously long time, isn’t always what you want to see. Holding his phone close enough to his face to lick it, he fills the entire window with a zoomed-in, fish-eye view of his nose and upper head, the likes of which bob up and down to the music as he stares into the camera. It’s not the most arousing imagery, but then again, we’re at a sex party. In-person or online, the sex — or lack thereof — is served buffet style. Whatever’s there is what you get. If you don’t like what’s in front of you, you just move down the line. 

A window away to the left, the view is much better. A man and woman in their 20s have completed the Herculean task of affixing a webcam to their ceiling, and are in the process of giving the audience a bird’s-eye view into their bed. Bathed in pink light and already in their underwear, they stroke each other and kiss before procuring a Hitachi Magic Wand and laying it beside them where it sits at the ready. Again to the left, another couple — slightly older and entirely more tattooed — recline together on their bed with their webcam trained directly on his crotch, which she grazes lightly with her fingers as the music picks up. Later, he’ll reveal a cheetah-print man-thong. 

A rolling group chat sidebar provides the peanut gallery. There’s some praise for Cunning and the occasional sext — “I’m so fucking hard, my heart is pounding” — but, as is the style du jour, the conversation never strays far from the elephant in the room. 

“We’re in quarantine,” writes the female member of one couple, seemingly in no relation to what’s happening on-screen. “Has anyone worn clothes this week?”

“You’re doing COVID cleaning, right?” says someone in response. Even in an escape from COVID, you can’t, it seems, escape COVID. 

But hark — a distraction: Suddenly, one of the windows flickers and the evening’s first publicly fornicating couple breaks the ice. The chat erupts with praise, and a collective sigh of digital relief passes around the audience who, inspired by the rough, doggy-style sex on the lower left, starts to follow suit. The moment feels pivotal, like we’ve transitioned from a rag-tag menagerie of horny lockdown mates united by boredom into an actual, functioning sex party; one that, despite taking place thousands of miles away and within the 15-inch border of my laptop screen, actually feels, in a vague and dystopian way, like the real thing. 

“That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, this could work,’” says Saynt, who says he’d previously been on the edge of his seat as minor technical difficulties and the uncertainty of a new format made it difficult to know whether his first digital party would be a success or a flop. “As soon as I saw there was a couple on the screen that had started to play, everything fell into place and I knew it was going to happen.”

And it does. Within minutes, everyone who’s claimed a screen is either fucking themselves or someone else. It’s a cornucopia of body parts, a racket of moans, and with three or four windows being occupied at a time, it’s hard to know where to focus my attention. It’s as if I’d opened up four different porn videos in four separate windows and played them all at once in bulk — messy, discordant and not necessarily “hot” (you can’t choose what you’re watching so there’s no guarantee what’s happening on screen will be for you), but admittedly, four times as stimulating nonetheless. 

More than that, though, it all feels exceedingly normal. In the weeks since coronavirus hit, both video conferencing and porn binging have become part of the familiar fabric of daily life, so a digital sex party like NSFW doesn’t feel quite as revolutionary or out of the range of possibility as it might have just a month or two ago. In fact, though this is the first digital sex party any of us have attended, it’s a proximate enough representation of the real thing that most people I spoke with after the event happily lost sight of the fact that, for the time they where in the room, they were they’re on the forefront of a trend never before seen in sexuality; one that’s likely to set the pace of sexual interactions for months to come. 

Simon, a 28-year-old NSFW regular who attended the event, was also struck by how “normal” it all seemed. “I didn’t feel like I was part of a larger community or seeing my long lost friends,” he says. “For me, it was just a novel type of entertainment, but since I’m bored out of my mind, something I’ll happily take.” When I ask if he’d go again, he replies with the email equivalent of a shrug: “Sure! I’ve got nothing else to do!” 

But for others like Nicole, the event was, in many ways, even better than a physical party. “I’ve always been too afraid to do something like this in real life, so the fact that I could experiment and dip in my toes like that was really exciting,” she confides. “It was a low-pressure thing and I got to see how it all might work in-person, if I ever get out of this house.”

That’s why Saynt is hoping to keep his digital parties running for a long time to come. “Even after COVID, and even after you can open up New York City, people will need this kind of thing as an outlet,” he explains. “That’s what’s most exciting for me right now — it gives us an opportunity to open up the NSFW experience to a global audience and to the people who might be afraid to make that first step. And that’s a lot of people, unfortunately. They’re afraid of sex; they’re afraid of their own sexuality; and they’re afraid of rejection. Sex has so many judgments and shames that it’s placed upon people, that even joining, getting accepted and then finally making it to your first event is a difficult first step for them. Digital sex parties show that it doesn’t have to be.”

The only problem other than fish-eye guy? Privacy. Right now, anyone could, at any time, screen record, screenshot or take a video of what they’re watching on a separate device, upload it anywhere, and out everyone who occupied a window during the party.  “That’s a hard one,” says Saynt. “Right now, we have it in our rules that if you’re going to get on camera and be in one of the four windows, you should wear a mask if you don’t feel comfortable being seen.” Most of the people who weren’t wearing masks have already accepted that risk and are comfortable with it; according to Saynt, they’re either used to being on screen or feel secure knowing that the carefully curated NSFW membership and community guidelines will prevent that from happening.

NSFW is working with its chief technical officer on privacy measures (likely ones that would alert the group if someone starts recording), but as of right now, their digital parties are just like their real-life ones — there’s an inherent risk involved, and if you’re not willing to accept the consequences of what that risk could entail, then stay anonymous and watch from the sidelines. “You can still join the conversation, enjoy the entire experience and enjoy the visuals of it without presenting yourself and being on the camera,” he says.

“This is absolutely the wave of the future,” he continues. “Right now, there’s no other option. Even after enough people have gotten the virus and recovered, I can still imagine a scenario in which in-person parties will have to be organized and curated based on who’s gotten the virus and has antibodies so you don’t risk infecting anyone new. It’s going to take a while for it to be safe for perfect strangers to meet like they did again, so we’re not going to stop doing digital parties like these for the immediate future.” 

In fact, they’re only going to increase them. In the next few days, NSFW will be rolling out a new menu of more specific events — male only, female only, couples’ only, kinkier ones and parties for swingers, all of which will start going live three times a day in two-hour blocks across different time zones, with rooms maxed out at, you guessed it, 69 people.