These are dark days for Lotharios. Bars are closed, dating is on pause, and face masks are rarely comely. Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated sex columnist who has long touted the virtues of open relationships, recently told listeners to keep their sexual adventures online, in their head, or with someone in their house. “We are all monogamists now,” he said, sounding pained. New York City’s official guidance for enjoying sex while avoiding the spread of COVID-19 is even more restrictive: “You are your safest sex partner,” it states dryly.
This makes life complicated, or more complicated, for the 16 tenants of Hacienda Villa, a “sex-positive intentional community” in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The residents of this 15-bedroom converted Brownstone, all in their late 20s to early 40s, typically have several lovers and not a few sexual exploits on the side. They host scores of people for regular sex parties, sometimes several times a week.
A polyamorous lifestyle is undoubtedly ill-suited to our germophobic moment. Yet, the Villa’s residents seem to have an edge when it comes to thorny conversations about health and risk. “We’re all about responsible humanism, so we’re used to talking about how our behavior affects other people,” Kenneth Play, a sex educator and co-founder of Hacienda Villa, said.
Taking on many lovers demands quite a lot of talking, at least among those who hope to avoid both hurt feelings and sexually transmitted infections. Play, for example, has had hundreds of lovers over the years (he usually has an assistant book his liaisons), but he always wears a condom unless he is with his fiancée. She, in turn, has unprotected sex with only one other person, her other fiancé, who wears a condom with everyone else. “I think the sex-positive community has something to teach in a time like this, because we all know how to follow strict protocols to make sure everyone is safe,” Play said.
Hacienda Villa’s members moved quickly to respond to the pandemic. In a meeting on March 1, weeks before New York would report its first COVID-19 death and while the president was still promising the whole thing would disappear, they hashed out plans for regularly sanitizing the space and caring for potentially sick peers. Although they went ahead with a party planned for March 7, they offered refunds to anyone feeling ill, encouraged serious handwashing for everyone else, and promptly canceled all other events. By mid-March, they had quarantined a symptomatic roommate in his room and began limiting all lovers to primary partners, some of whom have moved in temporarily (a “corona bae”). Household meetings used to be potlucks once a month. Now they are weekly and conducted via Zoom. Residents also engage in a constant klatch over Slack.
“We function like a business,” said one resident who asked to be called “Lady M.” (Most Hacienda members prefer to use aliases to keep their private lives from their work colleagues.) Her analogy felt apt on a recent Sunday night, as the Villa’s members all called in from different floors and rooms for their latest household teleconference. The discussion, with its mix of strident pronouncements and delicate notes of passive-aggression, bore all of the hallmarks of a fraught, overlong office meeting among polite colleagues.
At issue was the fact that many of the tenants had interpreted a trial “lockdown” differently. Some thought it was still okay to venture out occasionally to see other people. Others left the house only when absolutely necessary, and always wore masks and gloves when they did. This “misunderstanding” was particularly irksome to those who embraced the stricter standards, many of whom argued they should be behaving as if they are all carriers of the disease.
“Okay, I admit I was really angry and frustrated at all the variance to what I thought we agreed to,” said Kristin, her voice wavering with controlled emotion. “I just think we owe it to each other and the community to go above and beyond what the CDC is asking for.”
Strider, a tenant with asthma — one of three in the building — insisted, with some impatience, that he felt just fine with the precautions everyone was taking already. “But we’re all doing different things!” complained Kristin.
House Lion, Lady M’s husband and “human pet,” tried to appeal to the others by bringing the conversation back to more familiar issues of consent. “I need to understand everyone’s risk-tolerance profile so I can decide if I feel comfortable sitting and eating dinner with you,” he said. But his request to know just how often other people planned to leave the house was swiftly shot down by a resident named Om as “completely unrealistic.”
In the face of this deadlock, Kristin suggested they should try to find common ground on what they do when they return home. “I think if anyone goes outside, they need to strip immediately and jump into the shower. I think it’s okay to ask that,” she said, her voice going up at the end, which made her statement a plaintive question. “We can make it sexy! I can lather you up and jump in with you!”
“So, when we walk in the front door, we need to strip butt naked?” asked Play, his eyes squinting with slight incredulity.
“I think it’s on brand, actually,” offered Zed Sultanof, the roommate in quarantine.
By the end of the meeting, which lasted well over two hours, the Villa’s residents reached some compromises. They agreed to limit most avoidable contact with the outside world, and allowed a roommate to bring in another lover (“She’s a very careful person,” he promised.) They established a plan for cooking and cleaning for another quarantined tenant, who was due to return from a trip to Bali (“Check the Google doc for her allergies,” reminded Sultanof), and reaffirmed that masturbation was essential to any wellness plan. They did not quite reach consensus on how they should reenter the house, but insisted they would all talk it through with their floormates, and promised to check-in again in a week. “I love that we’re meeting more often now!” Lady M gushed.
Play sighed. “This meeting was way too long,” he said. “I love poly people, but we are just overcommunicators sometimes.”