Going to a sex party taught me a lot about my own internalized shame
Growing up, not many people talked to me about sex, but the few who did made one thing clear: It was a big deal. Health class discussions around sex focused on pregnancy and STIs, the teen magazines and self-help books I read advised me to wait to have intercourse until I was in love, and friends warned me about “being used” and “getting attached.” Plus, the girls in my school who had casual sex were deemed “sluts,” as if their sexual activity made them less respectable.
I didn’t have access to people or resources that would allow me to question this thought process, so I took the advice from around me and developed a rule for myself: no sex unless I was in a relationship. Since I’d also learned that “sex” means intercourse and acts like oral sex or mutual masturbation don’t really “count,” I allowed myself to do other sexual things with casual partners. Sometimes they’d try to pressure me into intercourse after they’d pleasured me, but it was important to me not to do anything just because I felt I “owed” it to the other person. With the exception of one longterm friend with benefits, I steadfastly held to my no-intercourse-outside-a-relationship rule throughout my 20s.
I held to this belief even as I became a sex writer, went to clothing-optional resorts, and explored fringe sexual practices like extended orgasm and sexological bodywork. Having that one rule allowed me to feel in control and like I wasn’t a complete “slut” in my eyes in the midst of all my sexual exploration. Even last summer, when I accepted an invitation from my friend Daniel Saynt to attend a sex party at his New York City sex club NSFW, I went with the intention that I’d maybe make out with someone, maybe fool around a little, but definitely not have sex.
At sex parties, pre-approved attendees gather to mingle, and, if they wish, they can “play” with other guests on one of many beds scattered throughout the floor. NSFW—as well as another club I later joined, N.Y.C.’s Hacienda—was focused on promoting sex positivity and combatting shame. NSFW even has an updated definition of “slut” on its wall by author Dossie Easton. It reads, “a person of any gender who has the courage to live life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.” Messages like this made me start to wonder if the restrictions I put on my sexual behavior were really about self-respect or whether I was actually still dealing with internalized shame from childhood.
Likely due to a combination of this shame and the fact that I was still getting comfortable with sex parties, I stepped into this new world slowly. After a few months of going to sex parties, a few guys had fingered me, and I’d engaged in mutual masturbation with a couple of different people, but that was it. I had a weird sense of superiority about this—I wasn’t like “those girls” who would just do anything with anyone; I had high standards. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I personally thought these women weren’t fully respecting themselves by engaging in what I perceived as indiscriminate sexual behavior.
And yet, I envied those women who looked so happy and free when they allowed themselves to do whatever they felt like at sex parties. Their view of themselves didn’t depend on their sexual activity.
Soon after I discovered sex parties, I started talking to a sex and relationship coach about increasing my capacity for pleasure and finding more dating partners. When I mentioned my little rule to her, she said something that stuck with me: “It is important to feel respected and valued by your sexual partners,” she explained, “but that can look a lot of different ways. It can look like a relationship, or it can look like a considerate, attentive casual partner.” When she said this, I realized that I could respect myself, be appropriately selective about my partners, and stay in control while still engaging in casual intercourse if I wanted to.
After that conversation, a guy I’d made out with at a bar a few weeks prior came over and I surprised myself by having intercourse with him. What was even more surprising was how good I felt afterward. There was no emotional attachment, no sense of being used, none of the things people had warned me about. I’d just had a good time and connected with someone. A little bit of guilt crept in afterward, but I squashed it by reminding myself I’d developed a new standard for my sexual activity: If I felt respected, I would move forward. And he was very conscious about my consent and pleasure, which made me feel highly valued.
Even though I’d loosened my rules around casual sex a little, sex parties still seemed like too informal of an environment for me to have intercourse in; I was happy to just keep going to them and engaging in other sexual acts. Then, a few months later, I found myself back at an NSFW party when an unexpected opportunity presented itself.
Toward the end of the night, I got into a conversation with a cute guy who seemed really nice. “I’m a little shy about these parties,” he said, “but if you’d like to come back to my place, I’d be interested in that.”
I wasn’t sure initially, but I knew he was approved by the club’s application process, which included a test of their understanding of consent in order to be admitted. He assured me there was no pressure.
So we just lay down and cuddled on a bed at NSFW instead of going to his place. But the fact that he had no expectations made me feel comfortable with him, and, apparently, he was getting comfortable with me, too. We started kissing, and then he started going down on me. I felt a little nervous at first, but I eventually tuned out the rest of the room—which was pretty empty, since the party was winding down—enough to orgasm.
We cuddled a bit more afterward, and some conflicting feelings started coming up for me. I wanted to have sex with him because of my own desire, but I also felt like I owed him it.
“When someone does that for me, sometimes I feel pressure to fuck them,” I admitted. If we were going to have sex, I wanted it to come from a place of open communication and honesty.
He laughed. “Don’t worry about that. I like doing that for its own sake.”
We talked a little more; then, as we were spooning, his hand found its way between my legs. Another orgasm later, I started to consider the fact that this man was a more generous lover to me than most of my past boyfriends had been. He definitely met the criteria of being a respectful partner. The fact that he put no pressure on me to reciprocate made me feel safe and comfortable with him. And the sounds I was hearing from people having sex nearby were turning me on.
“I know I don’t have to have sex, but I think I might want to,” I told him.
“If you do, I’m definitely interested,” he said. “But only if you’re 100% sure.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t quite at 100%, but maybe I could get there. “Let’s take it a step at a time,” I said. “Take off your shirt.” He did, and we started kissing again.
“Take off your pants.” The way he’d attentively listened to me was allowing my bossy side to come out, and I was loving it. I started touching him, and physically, I knew my body wanted it. Maybe it was okay to listen to my body this time. But first, I checked in with my mind. The only remaining concern I had was getting pregnant.
“Even with a condom, I’d prefer you don’t finish inside me,” I told him. I didn’t want to take any chances at all.
Feeling empowered by how closely he was listening to my clear instructions, I continued giving them during sex, telling him what thrusting motions felt best for me and then asking to get on top.
Then, while I was on top of him, the sexy EDM that was playing in the club turned to cheesy Christmas music. “I think that’s our signal to go?” I laughed. It was 3 a.m., which was closing time.
“This is fun,” he smiled up at me.
“Yeah, it is,” I said. It was a sweet moment I wouldn’t have expected in such a setting.
After we got dressed, he walked me home. When we got to my place, he kissed me, then texted me “goodnight” with a kissy face.
The following day, thoughts like, “My number just went up for who?” and “Sex is sacred. It’s supposed to mean something” haunted me. But ultimately, I felt like those were thoughts to work through. The truth was, what had happened did mean something, and it was sacred in its own way.
By honoring my true desires and boundaries, I was worshipping my own body.
Plus, I had been selective in my own way. This man had earned my interest, not based on his commitment to being my boyfriend or some other purity-culture-inspired standard but based on his attendance to my pleasure, his concern for my consent, and the care he showed throughout the encounter. He had his own gentlemanly code of ethics that considers all women worthy of walks home, goodnight kisses, sweet texts, eye contact during sex, and all other forms of respect. Because, truthfully, we’re all those girls—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The previous night’s experience had affirmed my ability to ask for exactly what I wanted—and find a partner who would listen. I learned to draw boundaries that helped me feel comfortable and to pursue fun as a goal in of itself, because I deserved it. I may not have been in love with the person I shared this encounter with, but it helped me love myself unconditionally, regardless of who I had sex with.