Our intention was only to watch the virtual sex party.
I was working on a story about how sex clubs have transitioned to virtual parties during the coronavirus outbreak and, during my research, I was invited to one.
I would have to ask my husband to be there with me, so I’d feel more comfortable, but I was down to go. It would make the story much more interesting, and it sounded like fun.
I wish I could say that I was the type of woman who was so unapologetically confident in my sexuality that things like sex parties didn’t phase me — but I’m not.
The reality is that, for most of my life, my sex life, no matter how vanilla or wild, has always had a direct link to shame.
I grew up going to Sunday Mass in a Filipino-Catholic community where I learned very early on that premarital sex was the fastest way to hell.
That kind of religious education made this part much harder: I’d been molested multiple times before fifth grade and had virtually no guidance on how to process it. I probably had myself convinced that I, a child, was responsible for committing a grave sin.
But that was decades ago.
The 29-year-old woman sitting across a web camera with her husband on a Saturday night has had years of therapy and enough personal growth to attend a virtual sex party, and maybe even like it. So we logged on.
An hour into the party, my husband and I were playing truth-or-dare with a group of couples. We were kissing while fumbling my top off, at the request of a dark-eyed, long-haired woman wearing horns.
I moved awkwardly and felt embarrassed about it, but I also felt kind of powerful. The other people on the call gently encouraged us. My confidence grew as the night progressed.
The next morning, I woke up remembering the night before in a happy daze.
Then this thought immediately followed: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The New Society for Wellness (NSFW) started throwing virtual play parties two weeks after New York City went on quarantine lockdown.
Daniel Saynt, the club’s founder, told me he had gone into a depression after the stay-at-home orders forced his club to shut down.
“When you host three to four sex parties a week, you have a certain amount of dopamine in your system and this general high-y-ness because you’re just, like, surrounded by this really positive sexual energy,” Saynt told me in a video call from a beach in St. Maarten.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, NSFW held its events at its headquarters, often billed by the media as a place of opulent, ultra-exclusive hedonism. It’s where kinky 20- and 30-somethings, who are carefully vetted and approved, gather to hang out, smoke weed and have sex in all ways conceivable.
An unnamed 29-year-old actor once described the club and its members as a “king’s court” to The Hollywood Reporter.
“There is literal, not figurative, star-fucking here,” she said.
The actual clubhouse, as I’ve seen in pictures, looks like a luxurious and sensual acid trip. Rooms are filled with velvety curtains, psychedelic art, chains, a bondage cross and a lot of red light.
Every member is required to take a course on, not just consent, but enthusiastic consent. It’s called, “How to Ask for Sex.” The club also offers educational workshops, including ones on tantra, the art of shibari (Japanese rope bondage) and how to be a proper dom and sub.
Two days after the virtual play party, Saynt told me that people have transformational experiences all the time at their headquarters.
“It could be a life-changing experience that puts you on a different course with a new partner or makes you realize that you’re more open ... or more curious, sexually, than you thought you were,” Saynt said.
It can make you “more interested in ropes all of a sudden, something you’ve never really pursued before but now you can, and now you have a community,” he added. “Life-changing experiences happen every week.”
I envy people who live life like that.
Not just because of the sex with famous people or erotic transcendence but because anytime I’ve embraced my inner hedonist and enjoyed it, I’d have anxiety the next day.
I didn’t realize just how much my abuse had affected my sex life until after I started going to therapy when I was 26.
In my first week, I learned that I had been experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time. It surprised me, but it made sense.
That explained my random urges to scream in my car anytime a memory of my molestation crept into my head. It explained why I, a generally happy person, could so easily dip into depression. It also explained why I always seemed to need a glass of something to enjoy any kind of intimacy.
That’s what two years of therapy and a round of a psychotherapy treatment known as EMDR did for me: It showed me patterns that I was good at ignoring.
It allowed me to see myself as a whole person, instead of a girl who had experienced something completely messed up as a child.
But no one tells you that when you start healing from sexual trauma, you start to think a lot about sex.
My husband was the first partner I ever felt comfortable enough with to talk to about my sexuality. I could talk to him about things like threesomes and being attracted to women without feeling any shame or judgment — or without first needing a drink to open up.
When it came to acting on those fantasies, however, I’d revert back to my old ways of being. I needed to relax into myself with a glass of wine and, almost always, I’d have anxiety the next day.
By the time I reached my second year of therapy, the memories of my abuse became less triggering and I was kinder with the way my body reacted to it.
I started to think often, “I forgive you for hurting me. I forgive me for hurting me, too.”
In the days after the NSFW party, my husband and I talked frankly about why I was so anxious about what we had done.
During those conversations, I asked him things I would have only asked my therapist. It felt like I was taking a deep, slow breath out.
We talked about why my legs sometimes tense up uncontrollably when we have sex, like a door wedged shut; why I need a fountain of wine to feel comfortable; why, even when I had a lovely sexual experience, I’d wake up the next morning feeling this way.
That week, I finally got a chance to ask him, not my therapist, for help.
Those talks brought us even closer in our marriage. I understood what Saynt meant when he told me that “life-changing experiences happen every week.”
Shannon Chavez, a sex psychologist in Beverly Hills, told me that people who have sexual trauma may experience a disconnection from their own pleasure “out of fear, fear of feeling those feelings.”
“Sometimes even a disconnect physically from your body,” Chavez explained. “Especially if there’s been a shutdown, numbness or dissociation” from the traumatic event.
Survivors can also have trouble trusting their own pleasure and, as a result, they won’t give themselves permission to have the experience of it. I dealt with that by drinking enough to enjoy myself without overthinking it and by punishing myself with guilt the next day.
“So much of that [pleasure] has been taken away through an experience of trauma that there’s a lack of trust and intuition of knowing what’s OK [to feel],” Chavez told me.
So what if you’re a woman who is still trying to heal from her trauma but who also wants to be a fully embodied sexual goddess?
I didn’t actually ask Chavez that question, even though I wanted to. She answered it anyway.
“[The trauma] may be a part of your life because you went through it and you coped with it — but it doesn’t mean that you have to identify with it,” she told me.
I wrote that down and read it over and over again.
“It doesn’t mean that you have to identify with it.”
Now that NSFW is hosting virtual parties, the barrier to attend events is much lower.
If you were the type of person who could fantasize about such erotic revelry but didn’t have enough courage to show up to a party, now all you had to do was sign into a chatroom from the comfort of your home.
NSFW’s club leaders still have to individually approve each new person. Saynt told me that he had to turn away about 40 people who wanted to buy a “traveler” (non-member) ticket to Saturday night’s event.
But, once you’re in, you become a 2-inch square among rows of squares filled with people in various areas of their homes dressed in lingerie or like they were at a night club, or maybe they were just a black square with a white name.
The experience can be as anonymous as you want it to be. Saynt encourages people to wear a mask or keep their cameras off if they’re shy about it. Voyeurs are welcome. There’s no pressure to perform.
After about 15 minutes of entering the party and listening to people talk about their favorite quarantine kinks, I pretty much said “fuck it” and turned on our webcam.
NSFW’s virtual parties are anchored by performances.
When I was there, a brunet woman was slowly stripping her lingerie off to moody music while playing with hot wax and squeezing juicy fruits into oblivion, then rubbing them over her body.
When she was finished, everyone showered her with praise (the show was freaking mesmerizing) and asked her what fruits she had been using (a pomegranate and blackberries).
As another show (a shibari demonstration) got started, the hosts sent out links to smaller themed rooms that guests could filter into.
I thought we could get by on mute in the couples room but, not long after we joined, the host, a woman wearing horns who was with a man in a captain’s hat, asked us to pick “truth or dare.”
In a panic, I said “truth” and froze up when she asked us what our secret fetish was. In another panic, I yelped, “Dare! Dare instead.”
I was nervous, but we complied with her request. All I needed was to see my husband smiling at me, and I felt safe and I melted into him.
Throughout the night, I could hear voices from the computer say my name, or “that’s beautiful” or, “I’m really loving the braid,” and I’d feel flush with confidence.
My husband and I went to sleep very happily that night.
“Everything’s going to be OK,” my husband told me two days after the party. “Nobody’s mad at you. We had a good time.”
I was in a shame spiral. I had felt so powerful and bad-ass at the party, but now my heart felt tender, and I wanted to know why.
My husband is the only man in my life who’s ever listened to me ― patiently and without expressing anger or asking questions ― as I talked about my past.
When I was a kid, a person once made me and a boy my age assume sexual positions in a locked room. It was a game called “movie theater,” and we were told if we told anyone about it, this person would run downstairs and tell our parents what was happening and we’d be in big trouble for sure.
The day after NSFW’s party, that’s exactly how I felt: Like I was in really big trouble.
But I wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t. Right? There’s no way I’m in trouble. Why would I be in trouble? I’m an adult! I’m allowed to make my own decisions.
Again, my husband gently reminded me that we had done nothing wrong and that I was safe.
Sex clubs may seem like a world and a butt plug away from most people’s comfort zones, but according to Chavez, they can be the safest place for people to explore what sex means to them.
It’s a space where clear consent is typically part of the culture. It’s also a place where people can talk openly about real sex ― not the glossy version seen on porn ― and all things adjacent without being judged.
“We’re not born knowing how to communicate about sex. It’s like a language. We have to learn it,” Chavez said. “It takes practice, and we may fumble a little bit at first, but that’s OK.”
Shame is also a normal part of that process, and survivors of sexual assault may even find some solace from that by leaning into kinks.
“Maybe there are power dynamics at play,” Chavez explained. “You get to be in control and really work through that piece of violation ... that was part of what created that trauma response.”
A web camera and a chat room became that space for me.
I decided to be there because I wanted to. No one forced me. I didn’t need a glass of wine to accept the invitation. At the party, someone commanded me to do something, but I obliged because I wanted it.
There were no adults downstairs to threaten me with, no pressure to be silent about it. It was just me and my husband having a good time doing something we enjoyed.
We have since talked about going to a party in real life once the quarantine orders are lifted, and neither of us is ready to jump right in just yet.
For now, we’ll keep exploring what we like in places, including digital spaces, that feel hot and comfortable to both of us
This time, with a lot less shame.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.