On a Saturday night in August, in a cavernous basement in Bushwick, Brooklyn, about 60 people milled around under a ceiling covered in cherry-red twinkly lights. Some clutched Solo cups. Many wore costumes: There was a young woman with fairy wings, a devil-angel duo, a trio draped in ivy. Lining the periphery of the room were beds — mattresses on the floor with dark-gray sheets — on which, in a matter of hours, many of these people would be having sex.
The basement — and the rest of the three-floor brick townhome above it — was owned by Hacienda, which functions both as a live-in community and an organizer of sex parties and educational workshops. The party that evening, Fucked-Up Fairytale, was slated to start in earnest in a half hour. Eventually, there would be about 175 partygoers, but this smaller group arrived early — showing identification and proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the door, first — for orientation and a consent workshop, which Hacienda requires for guests who are new to sex parties, new to Hacienda parties, or both.
Leading the orientation was Rene Bolanos, the company’s event producer. His chest was bare and completely smooth, but beyond that, he wore fox ears, paw mittens, and a rainbow tail that wagged as he wobbled across the mattresses to facilitate a series of consent-focused exercises. At one point, he explained that there were safe-sex stations throughout the venue, all of which included items like condoms, dental dams, lube, wipes, and hand sanitizer — the last of which Hacienda didn’t offer before the pandemic. “One time, I confused the hand sanitizer with lube,” Bolanos said, laughing and shaking his head, “and accidentally put hand sanitizer in my partner’s pussy.”
The crowd gasped, then giggled. “Sign of the times,” I heard myself say.
For the first year-plus of the pandemic, indoor parties of nearly 200 people seemed like a distant memory for many New Yorkers, not to mention indoor sex parties of that size — although smaller gatherings, as well as Zoom sex parties, happened in perpetuity. But, in the spring, as more and more New Yorkers became fully vaccinated, hot vax summer seemed imminent. An April study done by the Kinsey Institute (in partnership with Cosmopolitan and Esquire) seemed to confirm this: Of the 2,000 respondents, 46 percent percent said they were engaging in more sexual experimentation, while 19 percent said they were more inclined to pursue an open relationship in the future. (Monogamy had a moment, too; 52 percent of single respondents said that a committed relationship is what they wanted next.)
And then, hot vax summer seemed like it was over before it had really begun. After a frenzied spring, people burned out on socializing and small talk. As the Delta variant spread, New Yorkers of all stripes had to reassess their risk of catching the disease, even if they were fully vaccinated. But there was at least one place, it seemed, where that feeling of uninhibited joy, of celebrating togetherness after a long period of isolation, raged on: at sex parties.
Over the course of the summer and early fall, I attended four different New York–based sex parties: one in June, one in August, one in September, and one in October. None of the parties allowed phones. Two of the four parties required proof of vaccination; the other two allowed a negative COVID test. Party guests and employees told me that people seemed hungrier to attend — and, once they were there, to explore — than ever. Several also observed an unprecedented influx of newbies — a trend that dovetails with the Kinsey study, in which nearly half of respondents were interested in investigating their sexuality in a more intentional way.
SNCTM — a private members’ club that hosts sex parties in New York, as well as Los Angeles, Miami, Moscow, and Kyiv — was one party that saw a particularly robust increase in applications from people who were new to sex parties. Robert, the company’s managing director, told me over the phone that the club saw applications from twice as many first-timers as before the pandemic. (Additionally, a representative from Killing Kittens — a members-only sex party that’s headquartered in the United Kingdom but holds events in New York — reported that since the start of the pandemic, its New York membership has grown by 25 percent, and the U.S. traffic to its website and accompanying app has increased by 300 percent.) For single men, annual memberships at SNCTM start at $10,000; women, once accepted by the club, can attend for free. (By comparison, annual memberships at Hacienda, in Bushwick, are priced at $120.)
In June, I attended a SNCTM masquerade party at a three-floor penthouse in Soho. At the time, SNCTM required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, but when a friend and I arrived at the party, a host confiscated our phones for the evening without checking our testing or vaccination status. The company’s guest coordinator, whom I’ll call Kelly, greeted us shortly after that, standing in the center of a living room where, hours later, hired performers in animal masks would have sex live in front of guests. When we told her we were first-timers, she calmly directed us to fellow newbies in the room — including two of her friends who had road-tripped from Boston for the occasion.
In the crowd at SNCTM, women outnumbered men, though it was often difficult to parse who was a guest and who was hired by the company as a waiter or a performer — as well as how guests were supposed to interact with employees. During the performance, my friend and I sat on the floor and watched two women perform oral sex on a naked man; all three were hired by the company. Seated on a chair next to me, a dominatrix with a sleek, blonde bob — who was also hired by the company and who I later saw whipping a man tied to a Saint Andrew’s cross — heckled the male performer by name. “He’s not even hard,” she hissed to her friend, cackling. The man then began gyrating on the floor, inched over to me, licked the back of my bare knee, then leaned in so we were face to face. I shook my head. He backed away and began making out with a woman nearby.
One couple who attended that same SNCTM party — a man and a woman, both cis — later told me their post-pandemic sex party experiences have been especially transformative, in part because of a refreshing influx of new faces. “We go to these parties quite often,” the man told me. “Previously, it wasn’t super-repetitive but was somewhat repetitive,” he said, referring to the crowd. “We love meeting new people — and now we get to.”
Kelly, the guest coordinator, also said that many of the first-time applicants had just navigated major life changes. When she joined the company in late 2019 — as a recent college graduate, she’d applied on a whim by emailing the info-at address on the SNCTM website — she started out doing back-end work like organizing member data. By spring 2021, she had moved to Los Angeles and switched to a client-facing role, interviewing prospective new female guests. When she began working through the backlog of “hundreds” of applicants, she noticed that “a good amount” of women had gone through a breakup from a long-term relationship, had gotten divorced, or had switched careers during COVID. “For relationships and exploring sexuality, and exploring different careers and different life paths — I think it was just the breaking point for a lot of women out there,” she told me.
“When a situation like a pandemic hits, people sit back and they’re able to be reflective,” says Kassia Wosick, a sociology professor at El Camino College in California, who has spent the last 20 years studying cultural shifts in sexuality. “This past year just kind of took us down a few notches to where we were able to be a little bit more real with ourselves and try some things, because you just don’t know how short life can actually be — or maybe you realize that it’s short and you don’t know what’s on the horizon.”
Another theme across the four parties was unparalleled enthusiasm from guests — including at Fucked-Up Fairytale, the Hacienda party I attended in August. As the writer and sex columnist Zachary Zane put it in a piece for Men’s Health: “This was by far the most amount of sex I’ve had at any sex party,” he reported. “Hours upon hours. Old partners. New partners. Pegging. Threesomes. Foursomes. Everything. It was incredible.”
Though I opted not to have sex at Hacienda myself, the mood in the space felt particularly electric. A 20-something woman wore light-blue fairy wings that flapped in the air as she gave a blow job to a man atop a giant teddy bear. When I asked a woman if she was comfortable with me staying in the room while she was tied to a Saint Andrew’s cross and flogged, she told me it “made her wet just thinking about it.” A group of friends, all of whom were attending Hacienda for the first time but had met at an orientation for another New York–based sex party, enthusiastically switched partners throughout the evening. At one point, needing a break from the action, my date and I headed for the kitchen. To our left, a woman hung suspended in a black leather cage; a man prodded her with a violet wand, delivering small electric shocks to her body. To our right, a chef put the finishing touches on the main course for the evening — a suckling pig curled into a pan with an apple in its mouth — which guests devoured.
It was also during this time that a man propositioned both my date and myself at the same time. “I never do this,” he said, “but you’re both so beautiful.” We declined the offer. He smiled warmly, did not press the issue, and the three of us continued what was otherwise typical party small talk. Oddly enough, feeling comfortable saying no in the middle of a sex party — and having the person hear and respect it — felt very freeing. (This was not the case in every interaction I had while reporting. At SNCTM, for example, late in the evening, another friend and I stood talking in the kitchen near the open bar. A few feet away, a man bent two lingerie-clad women over the countertop. With a black leather riding crop, he smacked each of them on the ass. He turned to me and asked if I wanted the same treatment. “I don’t,” I told him. “You do,” he said, then in one swift motion, reared back and whipped me anyway.)
Largely, though, the parties emphasized consent, as well as the importance of building a close-knit community of guests. At Débauche, a smaller party I attended in early September that took place in another Bushwick apartment, I met a man who was bartending, and asked to go by the name Tone. Across the intimate, parlor-like space, guests perched on velvet couches and chatted with one another. In the next room — which was lined with beds and red tulle curtains tied with artificial ivy vines — other guests started to play.
At the bar, my date and I talked with Tone as he mixed us a cocktail; he told us that many of the 60 some-odd guests were frequent attendees, and that several had also met up to play or socialize in smaller groups over the course of the pandemic. (Beth Sparksfire, Hacienda’s events director, also observed a similar dynamic: “I think what was really popular was groups of friends,” she said. “Like, 15 people getting an Airbnb. People took that seriously, too — a lot of people did testing before the weekend.”)
Although Tone was working as a bartender that evening, he later told me that he actually co-owned the space, along with his fiancée and their business partner. Although Débauche, the party I attended, was hosted by another person, Tone also throws parties in the space under the name Tribu Y Piel. Tone, who is a person of color, also told me that, when he and his fiancée first began attending play parties about six years ago, they quickly noticed that most were overwhelmingly white. So the following year, they began throwing parties with the goal of creating a safe space for Black and brown people — and specifically Black and brown women and LGBTQ folks — to connect and play without feeling fetishized. “Being able to explore ourselves as a group and individually in a space that we know is safe — I think that really helped a lot,” he said.
Another party with a similar goal is the Wink, which was founded in the fall of 2019 by Marcel and Carmen, a queer couple who are both people of color. “We’ve gone to parties in the past where we felt underrepresented, both as people of color and as openly queer individuals, and it affected our ability to have a good time,” they wrote in a joint statement on the Wink’s website. “This made us want to create our own space where our guests can stand out by being one of the crowd.”
This summer, as the Wink resumed hosting in-person parties, they, too, saw an influx of new applicants — though, as Marcel told me over the phone, a substantial number of them didn’t find out about the party via the usual routes, like through friends or best-of-NYC lists. “We get a lot of people who were just like, ‘I was just Googling — I was just looking for this kind of thing,’” he said. “I think we just have good SEO!” (Lo and behold, when I Googled “queer sex party NYC,” the Wink’s homepage topped the list.)
When I attended the Wink’s party in early October, which also took place at the Hacienda townhouse in Bushwick, I met a woman I’ll call Hallie, a program manager at a large tech company. A few days after the party, over the phone, she told me her nine-year marriage had ended during the pandemic. Around this time, a friend recommended she read The Ethical Slut, which explores how to maintain multiple sexual relationships at the same time in a manner that’s honest and equitable. “I couldn’t put that book down,” she said. “I read it in one night — like 300 some-odd pages. It really spoke to me. I’m like, ‘Wow, there are other people that have a similar feeling.’ It’s when I realized: I’m polyamorous.”
As the pandemic wore on, she downloaded the dating app Feeld, and then, after she was vaccinated, attended her first play party in the early summer. That particular party, she told me, was dominated by cis men — she estimated the ratio of men to women was around five to one — and the vibe gave her a bit of pause. “I’m a trans woman,” she said. “Post-op, and generally passing — like, I don’t know if you knew! I don’t keep it a secret, but I don’t advertise it, either. So I’m trying to just make sure that places would be accepting — or not wanting to surprise anyone or have a crowd that is like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ right? Or avoid any trans-related violence.”
The Wink, however, was a breath of fresh air. “The word trans didn’t come out of my mouth once the entire night, which is fantastic,” she said. “I saw there was a bunch of pre-op trans women doing a scene, or a couple of scenes, at one point. That was a very telling sign for me. The fact that they were there just having fun — I very much noticed, like, okay, they’re comfortable here.”
Before we hung up, Hallie told me that later that day, she was going on a date with a friend from the sex party, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — a sequence of events that would have been largely unthinkable at this time last year. “Whether anything happens tonight, or another night, who cares?,” she said. “This is fun.”