I’ve since learned that that wasn’t true back then, and it isn’t true today. All kinds of people went to sex parties in the 1970s — and still do.
I had been researching a book on open marriages trying to replicate a study from the 1980s that found couples in open marriages are happier, closer and after 15 years are more likely to still be together.
The couples I interviewed were in open marriages and some were swingers. An open marriage means you can have sex outside your union with no repercussions, while swinging meant the two of you enjoyed sex with one or more partners together.
None of the men had bad porn mustaches and very few were tattooed, mainly because their jobs wouldn’t allow it. The people in my study were doctors, lawyers and business owners. One couple, who I will call Hannah and Jeff, suggested I accompany them to a sex party. While I was admittedly curious, I didn’t think I could go through with it. I was content just hearing stories and having them answer my questions.
That’s when my editor said, “You’re going to have start going to parties with them. You can’t just study people from the outside or you’ll never understand their lives.”
I called Hannah to ask when the next party was — and if she could get me an invitation. She said, “You can come with Jeff and me, but you have to bring a date.”
I learned that this particular party required you to bring a “PAL,” which stood for “Pervy Activity Liaison.” With no shortage of male friends who agreed to volunteer in the name of science, I decided to ask my boyfriend.
In theory, asking any man, gay or straight, to attend a sex party seems like something they would jump at the chance to do. In reality, if it’s not part of their regular lifestyle, it can be quite anxiety provoking.
A month out, my boyfriend’s response was, “Heck yeah, I’ll go!”
As the date grew closer, he began to think about what that might mean and began to make up excuses. “It says it’s a costume party. I’m not going to wear a costume,” and “I think it’s supposed to rain Saturday night. We’ll never get a cab home.”
It’s true, it was a superhero-themed party, but it also said that if you didn’t want to dress up, you didn’t have to. Second, Jeff agreed to drive us both ways, so a cab was not going to be an issue. He had no more excuses.
On the way, it occurred to us that we hadn’t discussed any rules. We didn’t agree on what we would and wouldn’t do once we got there. Would we be forced to have sex with strangers? If everybody was naked and we were still clothed, would that be weird? Since we had never been to a party like this, we imagined all kinds of scenarios we hadn’t prepared ourselves for, and here we were on our way there trying to make these decisions that suddenly seemed incredibly important.
We agreed on no sex with strangers, and we would make every attempt to keep our clothes on. Again, in theory this seemed prudent, but once there, we realized how silly our anxieties were.
The party began in the main room, which was replete with several stations for BDSM and no shortage of people who began to partake. On a microphone was an MC who thought he was at The Learning Annex. He had a prepared lecture on the history of pornography and how feminism positively affected porn imagery.
On four large screens, he showed us what he called “good porn” versus “bad porn.” Good porn highlighted women being in charge, having orgasms and choosing who they would and wouldn't have sex with. Bad porn were images of women being objectified or used as receptacles. This drew applause from the crowd, some of whom were in superhero costumes, while the rest were dressed in black. He then told us to go enjoy the party, which sent a group to a smaller room across the hall.
In that smaller room there were several mattresses on the floor and a larger bed that looked like two kings pushed together. It was well designed, like a set on a Broadway stage awash with curtains, candles and two vases full of giant palm leaves. The room also had a plate-glass window, which was no accident. For all the exhibitionists, there were an equal amount of voyeurs — a symbiotic relationship. Some couples had sex while other couples watched. Several had sex in ways we had never even considered, nor which piqued our interest.
The party happened in waves. Everyone stayed clothed for the first wave of the party, and nobody talked to anyone they didn’t know. During the second wave of the party, those who enjoyed sex in public did so with their PAL. We didn't stay for the third wave of the party, but I learned from Hannah later that people began to loosen up and approach each other for threesomes and foursomes.
Unlike my image of sex parties in the '70s, everyone there enjoyed what they were doing; and more importantly, they had partners who had the same desires — or were at least OK with it.
Most of my night was spent at the bar watching my boyfriend down vodka cranberries. It occurred to me that our car conversation was incredibly academic since we weren’t going to suddenly become swingers. You either are or you aren’t, and we weren’t.
It didn’t rain. We got a cab easily so we didn’t have to wait for Jeff and Hannah. On the ride back, we had a very different conversation, one where we had to come to grips with the fact that we were what swingers called, “Vanilla.” People who, sexually speaking, were considered unadventurous and dull, and we were OK with that.
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