Content warning for trans-antagonism and rape culture.
I’ve been doing kink in private for years, but in the past six months I finally broke out into the public kink scene and went to my first two play parties.
Play parties are events in public or private venues where people do BDSM in front of other people. Play parties may include sex, but they also might not. What’s nice about play parties is that people can share knowledge and toys with each other, discover new play partners, have observers to intervene if something goes wrong in a scene, and of course, there’s a certain exhibitionistic thrill to doing kink in front of other people that many BDSM practitioners enjoy.
As you might imagine, I was excited to attend these parties. But as my friend Lunas has written before, there are a lot of safety issues associated with kink communities in general and play parties in particular. So I was also apprehensive about whether I, as well as the other party guests, would feel safe and supported.
My experiences at these two parties were different in ways deep and complex enough to really get me thinking about what set them apart. Here is my perspective, as someone new to the public kink scene, on what was good about these parties, what could be improved, and how kink communities can make their parties fun and safe for everyone.
Play Party #1
This party was hosted at the house of a friendly acquaintance of mine. He is an experienced kinkster who had hosted play parties before. His house had quite a bit of space, with six rooms open for the party. I knew the host and some of the guests, though none of them were close friends or partners. I did two scenes at this party, one with someone I’d just met, and one with someone I’d met once before. One of them was quite good and the other was all right.
The first thing I saw when I came into the house was a whiteboard with all the rules for the party written out (though they were also included in the invitation.) There was a table in the kitchen well-stocked with snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. When a critical mass of people arrived, the host explained that each room had clearly designated bounds for what kinds of play were allowed there, including two rooms where no play was allowed so people could retreat if they liked. I found that the rooms were well-equipped for their purposes, with beds, yoga mats, and ottomans. There were first aid kits and safety scissors readily available.
The host invited the right number of people for the space, so it neither felt too empty nor too crowded, with a good mix of genders, kink role preferences, and experience levels. I learned a lot from watching people more experienced than me, like a couple of rope tops who set a woman into a beautiful upside-down suspension, and got to introduce someone else to submission for the first time. I enjoyed the cuddly atmosphere in the no-play room, which let me unwind in a cozy way after I was done participating in and watching scenes.
The host had a hard time putting guests at their ease. It took a long time for people to start playing, and even then it started with only one scene, so that everyone there was just sitting and watching that scene. At that point I stepped up and asked if anyone wanted to play, because I wanted to take some pressure off the people in the ongoing scene. It was apparent that a lot of guests felt awkward, to the point that when one couple did eventually have sex, they closed the door to the room, which I don’t feel is in the spirit of a public play party.
One guest was someone the host met on Fetlife and had never met. I was uncomfortable with this, and my fears were justified: the guy was kind of creepy. He tried to heavily hint me into playing with him, finally outright asked, and when I said no, loudly moped about how he was never going to get to play with anyone. Of course, this ensured that nobody else would want to play with him either.
One of the guests at the party was someone I know to be a serial rapist. I avoided being in the same room with him, ever. Another guest I strongly suspect to be a predator. I don’t think the host knew about this, but he should have done due diligence and asked around about the people they invited. If he had done his homework, the truth about the serial rapist would have surfaced.
At the end of the party, when everyone was cuddling in the no-play room, the host made a rape joke. Especially after seeing the serial rapist at the party, I started to really wonder whether his sympathies lay with victimizers or their potential victims, and I left the house. After the party, I spoke with him about my concerns, and he apologized, but rather formally via text message, in a way that made me suspect he was trying to appease me rather than enact real change. I declined to go to any more of his play parties.
Play Party #2
This party was hosted at the house of some friends of mine, one of whom is an experienced kinkster. None of them had hosted a play party before. I had a hand in planning in that I suggested some of the rules. Their house is small; four rooms were open for the party, one of which was a no-play room. Most of the people at the party were my friends, as well as three of my partners. I did four scenes at the party, one with a friend I’d never played with before, three with partners. I enjoyed them all very much.
The kitchen table was well-covered with food and non-alcoholic drinks when I came into the house. All the play rooms were covered in squashy pillows and sheets where there weren’t beds or couches, and were equipped with safer sex supplies. We sat around talking and showing off our toys, and when most of the guests were there, the hosts went over the party rules (which were also in the invites) and did an introduction circle where everyone said their name, their preferred gender pronouns, and what they were hoping to do at the party. This created a warm and welcoming atmosphere that really helped people open up.
This party also had just the right number of people for the space. Every room was occupied but not overflowing. The scenes I did had very appreciative voyeurs, who asked politely before coming to watch. When my subs and I invited them to comment, they were very encouraging to us. Their lovely compliments helped both me and my subs try things we’d never done before, much less in public. I will note here that many people do not like comments during a scene, and most other scenes occurred without commentary, but I asked for audience reactions and everyone in my scenes found them personally rewarding, especially because some of my subs had body image issues and felt much more positive when they heard reminders that their bodies looked great the way they were.
By the end of the party everyone was naked and feeling comfortable that way, regardless of whether they’d chosen to have sex or not. There was a feeling of collective accomplishment, like we’d all created a unique space together.
The major issue with this party was that all the trans* people were misgendered at least once, including one of the hosts, even though preferred gender pronouns were explicitly stated in the introduction circle. It’s hard to feel safe and sexy when people around you deny your gender.
There was also a cleanliness problem. Many toys were not cleaned after use before being put down on a play surface. This meant that some people played on pillows or sheets that had body fluids on them they might not want to be exposed to.
What I’ve Learned
After these experiences, the #1 piece of advice I would give to anyone hosting a play party is to thoroughly vet the invite list. By far the most serious threat to safety I encountered was the serial rapist at the first party. It’s impossible to be completely sure that no one at your party is a predator, but do all the research you can to minimize the risk, and have rules and monitors in place so that any predator who does slip through is quickly caught and evicted if they try to hurt anyone.
I know this isn’t always easy. I vetoed one of the invitees to the second party because I’d heard him make rape jokes before and that raised major red flags. He is a well-respected member of my kink community; vetoing his invite made him upset and made one of his friends at the party upset. It was still the right thing to do. The thought that went into the guest list, I think, accounted for many of the differences between the two play parties.
Both parties had policies about consent, safewords, safety, and what kinds of play were allowed where. But neither of them had policies about voyeurism or safer sex. I think it’s a good idea to have some kind of policy about who is going to be watching a scene, even if the policy is simply that anything you do may be watched by any other guest at any time. This can help people decide what they’ll be comfortable doing at the play party. An alternative policy is that people have to announce what scene they’ll be doing in a room so people can decide if they’re comfortable watching, and anyone else who comes in after the scene has started has to ask if it’s OK to watch.
I think it’s also a good idea to have a set of best practice about safer sex instead of leaving it up entirely to the guests. At both parties, fluid-bonded couples (people who regularly don’t use barriers with each other) were having sex without condoms, and not everyone used barriers with sex toys. It is difficult, and perhaps undesirable, to enforce rules about barriers, but it would be nice to have reminders next to the safer sex supplies about when they should be used.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the misgendering problem at the second party. Misgendering was more commonplace there than I’ve observed at regular parties with such a high percentage of queer people (I believe only two people at the party were straight.) I fear this may be because of essentialism: when you see someone with their clothes off, you see their genitals, which in Western culture are rigidly associated with a binary gender. For this reason, I think the hosts should state before or after the introduction circle, “Regardless of the body type or expression of the people at this party, you must respect their pronouns and gender identity. Do not make assumptions. If you get someone’s gender wrong, apologize and correct yourself. We want to make a safe space for people of all genders.”
Finally, I think the power of the hosts cannot be overstated. There was an X factor at both parties, an atmosphere. The feeling of the first party was awkward, performative, almost professional. I felt like I was giving a demonstration during both scenes instead of losing myself in the moment. The feeling of the second party was warm, intimate, and playful. In my last scene, I had a profound flow experience, and an hour seemed to pass by in a few minutes.
So what accounts for this intangible difference? Well, at the first party, the hosts talked about what was going on in professional terms, like they were running a conference.
We need to make sure there are an optimal number of people in this room.”
“There are some very experienced players in this room who you can learn from.”
“There is a rope scene going on upstairs and a wax-play scene going on downstairs.
At the second party, the hosts were encouraging and talked about what was going on like their friends were doing something really fun and exciting (even if they didn’t know the people involved.)
Come in and watch Tanya and Sandy! They’re getting started with wax-play and they really want voyeurs.”
“Kate, you look so beautiful tied up like that. I am so glad you came to this party.”
“Is it OK if I come in this room? I heard some very interesting noises from down the hall.
If you want your guests to value safety and follow the rules, then you should too. If you want your guests to go out of their comfort zones and meet new people, then so should you. If you want your guests to call out misgendering, then correct people who use the wrong gender pronouns. Be the change you want to see in the world.