At a two-story artists’ warehouse in North Oakland, a woman in a mesh, skin-tight dress and matching bunny ears greeted me and other guests at the door with a smile and a question: “Are you a dog, cat, or bird?”
This wasn’t a trick question or a charades prompt, but a code employed by the sexy-but-not-explicitly-sexual party called 2nd Base. Using the animal-identification code as a guide, 2nd Base attendees can better and more easily gauge where other guests fall on the consent scale. For instance, if someone identifies as a dog, that means, according to the rules on the group’s Facebook page, “This person does not need to be asked before you initiate contact. They won’t be offended by being touched or approached with respect. They may say ‘No thank you’ if they aren’t feeling it, or they may pant in delight. Give it a shot.” A cat wants “things on their own terms. Ask before initiating any physical contact please or you might get some claws!” And a bird “does not want to be approached by you. Be friendly and inviting and wait for them to approach you when they are ready.”
Consent is the name of the game at 2nd Base, a makeout party in which kissing, cuddling, and above-the-waist touching are okay, but pants stay on. The parties have been going on every month or so for the past year, and were started by Ruby Rogers, a sex educator and hedonism facilitator. In addition to the cat-dog-bird example, rules about consent are posted throughout the warehouse, and are also presented verbally by Rogers during a brief talk introducing the event early on in the night.
Rogers, who also runs a semi-regular “Hedonism Retreat,” in which participants experiment with different kinds of pleasure and playfulness (and, occasionally smash things), said in an interview that the animal-identification system was a great way to “subversively explore that everyone has different boundaries. What your boundary is, is not what their boundary is — and that’s okay, you can still play with people who aren’t like you. Varied comfort zones are actually really great, not a hindrance.” David Pullman, organizer of the House of Yum Cuddle Club, stated in an email that he invented the animal-identification system as a way “to give people a sense of safety/control over how they would be approached (or not) by others.”
After guests get a quick rundown of the party, they enter an adult playground, complete with ambient music, mattresses, and pillows on nearly every surface, an aerial silk sling, and a BYOB bar with mixers for sharing. During my recent visit, a breast massage workshop was also underway upstairs, as well as a gleeful rope bondage scene, and enough making out to feel as though I had been transported back to high school.
For all its trappings of sexiness, 2nd Base is a party that involves no actual sex, and it’s part of a growing trend of East Bay events and communities that are seeking to redefine how we view and experience sex and intimacy. Together, they represent a conscious move toward creating connections, bonding, and touch that doesn’t involve genitals, fluid exchange, or awkward propositions, and they have taken off in a big way.
“I really like to have a feeling of reckless abandon, especially in a group play space,” Rogers said. “I realize, for me, the fundamental, basic thing is knowing everyone in that space is practicing good consent and that I’m safe. Then I don’t have to constantly negotiate every interaction I have, because my human rights are being respected. It’s totally selfish. I’m just making a fun space for me to play in.”
At parties such as 2nd Base, the script that guides our typical encounters with intimacy and sex is being replaced. In the new script, hosts ask guests to reimagine their thresholds and limitations and to not follow the usual cultural rules that dictate how men and women should behave with each other. Participants have to make up new rituals, exploring their own desires and boundaries at the same time. In taking sex off the table for a moment, a new kind of liberation can materialize.
“For some people, it’s ‘training wheels’ — a way of experiencing intimacy with strangers without going for the big guns of genital sex, with the intention of moving toward genital sex later,” wrote Janet Hardy, sex educator and co-author of The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures, in an email. “For more, though, it’s a way of getting back to values around touch — so many of us are skin-starved! — affection, physical nurturance, heart connection. The sexual revolution of my youth, and the sex-positive feminism movement of my midlife, have given us a lot of information and support for sex, but it feels almost like, as a culture, we went from holding hands to penetrative intercourse without really exploring all the stuff in between: the kissing, the nibbling, the cuddling, the skin-on-skin.”
Carol Queen, a Good Vibrations staff sexologist, founder of the Center for Sex & Culture, and author of Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, stated in an email that “intimate connection is valuable to people and not everyone gets it in a partner. For people without a partner or for those who don’t want to have that sort of relationship, such a party might be a terrific option. It helps people feel part of an intimate community without having be a sexualized one — not everyone wants that.”
Hardy also thinks that part of the appeal lies in the notion of taking care of each other. “At least in mainstream culture, women are asked to provide tons of nurturance while receiving very little, and men are asked to do without any nurturance at all except what they can wheedle from their female partners. Somehow, we’ve forgotten how to take care of each other physically without fucking each other, and that’s tragic.”
Jakkz (who didn’t wish to divulge her full name), a woman I met at 2nd Base, who also runs a regular film screening, discussion, and community-building event around polyamory called Non-Monogamedia Night at rotating houses around the East Bay, said that parties such as 2nd Base have provided her with an opportunity to reexamine “something that’s very familiar in a different way, and that’s certainly the draw for me in going to those [events]. I think there’s an aspect of social exploration with other people — physical exploration — but there’s also a lot of self-exploration that occurs within those spaces.”
Such explorations of the familiar also serve as a kind of re-education. As Jakkz put it, “In a way, it feels like we’re going to school for all this stuff as adults. We’re going to workshops and we’re exploring all of this stuff because we didn’t have the opportunity as young people, as pre-pubescents. And hopefully you can teach old dogs new tricks because it’s happening.”
Marcia Baczynski, a sex educator and relationship coach who runs the website Asking for What You Want, and is one of the cofounders of Cuddle Party (along with another sex educator, Reid Mihalko), also looks at the work she does as a foundational approach to intimacy. “I teach people how to touch, which doesn’t seem like a thing you should have to learn how to do, except we are taught not to feel pleasure or enjoy things too much, so a lot of us have that cut off,” Baczynski said in an interview.
“We need more and more foundational pieces around how we notice what we want, and how we talk about it,” she continued. “You can take all the blowjob classes in the world, but that doesn’t actually lead to good sex.”
Cuddle Party, the events run by Baczynski, isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. She and Mihalko started putting on the events eleven years ago in New York City (They both live in the East Bay now, and Mihalko has moved on to other events and workshops). Though the concept has been around for a while, cuddling events have garnered a renewed interest of late, what with the rise of “cuddlers for hire” (people who charge $50–$500 a night for one-on-one snuggling with a stranger) as well as the recent release of Cuddlr, a location-based social-meeting app for cuddling.
When Baczynski was orchestrating her first Cuddle Parties, she didn’t realize they would take off in quite the way they did. There are now parties in eight different countries, and the largest event had 110 people, Baczynski said. “It was crazy. I had microphones.”
Baczynski said that, in the beginning, people tended to confuse Cuddle Party with a sex party. “Reid and I are both sex educators — if we wanted an orgy, we would just have an orgy,” she explained. “We wanted this, a non-sexual environment where people could experiment with this stuff. There’s a huge need for that. Do people want environments where they can have sex? Sure. Do those exist? Yes. Not in a structured way. Not in a way where people know that the rules are going to be really clear. Which is why we trademarked it and are really enthusiastic about getting people certified to run cuddle parties. If you are using the Cuddle Party name, you can go and expect these things to be in place.”
Research has shown that non-sexual physical contact has a profound impact on people’s emotional and physical well-being by increasing the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin and decreasing cortisol, the stress hormone. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami found that a massage from a loved one eased physical pain and helped combat depression. There’s even evidence that touching makes professional basketball teams perform better (read the excellent “Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA” by UC Berkeley researchers Michael W. Kraus, Cassy Huang, and Dacher Keltner).
Baczynski said she thinks there might be a correlation between Americans’ relative lack of touch and obesity rates. “Informally, I think that Americans are so overweight because we lack touch. The reason is that we eat because we know we’re hungry for something. … We think it’s for sex. I’ve had so many people come to cuddle parties saying they thought they wanted a romantic partner for sex, but actually what they need is a cuddle buddy.”
She also noted that a year after she started certifying people for Cuddle Party, the facilitators had collectively lost 230 pounds. “None of us were on diets,” she said. “There’s something to this touch thing.”
Despite our highly sexualized society, there are very few outlets available to us to experience physical touch outside of a romantic or sexual relationship. “I don’t necessarily want a mortgage with somebody just so I can get touched,” Baczynksi said. In creating these separate spaces around intimacy that are not explicitly for sex, events and communities such as Cuddle Party function as small alternative rifts in the dominant cultural paradigm. In participating in them, hosts and partygoers are re-negotiating set expectations and social contracts.
“I think non-genital parties are hugely important,” Hardy stated in an email. “There are a hundred reasons why redefining sex away from the genital is a critical task — STIs, of course … aging bodies that still desire intimacy but whose genitals may no longer cooperate; people whose sense of identity is not in accord with the shape of their genitals and who are uncomfortable engaging genitally for that reason — you get the picture. Exploring this kind of experience helps us discover other pathways to all the things we want from genital sex — intimacy, arousal, vulnerability, sometimes even orgasm — without the rigidity of genitally dictated roles, and without the risks — and the safer-sex logistics — of genital sex.”
At Queer Spin the Bottle, another example of a consent-based intimacy party that takes place in Oakland, the classic game you might remember from junior high or high school has been given a much-needed makeover. “What we’re doing is supporting people in communicating better,” said Quetzal François, who hosts QSTB parties every few months, along with her co-creator Claire Woods.
Queer Spin the Bottle is an inclusive party game of chance and choice: A bottle is still spun, per the old rules, but instead of merely kissing the person it lands on, a partygoer draws from a stack of cards that have activities written on them. The deck changes each time, François and Woods said, and activities range from the purely silly to the more overtly sexual. Examples of some of the sillier ones include, “Hug awkwardly,” “Write a dirty haiku,” and “Enact porn with gummy bears.” François and Woods are kink-positive, so many of the cards also include commands to, for example, “Leave a mark: Use a pen, cane, teeth, lipstick, or other,” or enact a “Spanking gauntlet: three-minute time limit.” Unlike traditional spin the bottle (or even truth or dare), consent is mandatory at Queer Spin the Bottle, which is why all “dares” are treated as a negotiation. For instance, if a participant draws the “Hug awkwardly” card, he or she would then ask for permission to hug the recipient, e.g. “Is it cool if I awkwardly hug you?” And the person being hugged then has the chance to say yes or no, or even make a counter offer, such as “I’m not so into being hugged right now, but I’d like to high-five you.”
Queer Spin the Bottle, as its name implies, has taken the awkward, heteronormative game of our youth and queered it — bypassing the forced intimacy of the old rules in favor of a more egalitarian and playful framework. In addition to practicing consent and negotiation, the purpose of Queer Spin the Bottle is to develop friendly intimacy and connection, François and Woods said. “Don’t come expecting to end up with a date or relationship,” François noted. “The space is mostly for people to create friendships.” Another goal is also to have fun, of course. “We like to end each night with a puppy pile,” François said.
Perhaps the biggest draw of events such as QTSB, 2nd Base, and Cuddle Party is the space to learn to advocate for our desires, learning what our desires are, and learning how to say no — aspects of sexuality that can be particularly challenging, especially for women.
At Cuddle Party, for instance, people don’t just come to cuddle — they come to practice saying no. “It’s a really good laboratory for practicing saying no,” Baczynski said. “I’ve come to believe learning to say no is the single most important skill we all need. If you can’t say no, then it’s not safe to get close to people. No is the key to intimacy, basically.”
Misha Bonaventura, who lives in Alameda and runs Adorata, an event at which women experience an evening of adoration from trained professionals, echoed similar sentiments about fostering communication as a key to intimacy. “A lot of it is about getting clear about what somebody wants and getting the understanding of the consent part,” she said. “Or not even consent, but just what do you want and how do you ask for it. Can you even ask for it?”
Like other event coordinators to whom I spoke, Bonaventura is a sex educator and trained communicator (She also runs a mediation business called Clearing Conversations) who is focused on creating safe and open environments to explore intimacy and trust in ways that would be difficult to foster at a typical sex party. As AdorationForWomen.com notes, “This context offers a level of safety for women to open in places they rarely feel they can go.”
Adorata is one of the newer intimacy events in the East Bay — Bonaventura held the first party in a private penthouse overlooking Oakland’s Lake Merritt in September, and the next one is slated for January 3 in Emeryville. Partygoers can choose from a number of different adoration services from men and women trained in the art of female pleasure. Services can include full-body massage, blues dancing, foot baths, affirmations, cuddling, eye-gazing, and sensation play with Shibari rope practitioners (an artistic form of Japanese rope bondage); wait staffers are also on hand to serve food and drinks. “The experience of receiving touch, attention, attunement, healing, and unconditional love without the expectation of reciprocation is invaluable and something that most women do not have a lot of experience with receiving,” as one woman’s testimonial on Adorata’s website put it.
Bonaventura said her goal with Adorata, and with Trustable Sluts, a community and Facebook group she runs for sex-positive women to participate in discussions, events, and meetups about honest relationships is “to create social change around women in sexuality — so sexual liberation that’s socially responsible. How do I create a community of people who are sexually liberated and socially responsible and how do we balance all of that?”
Events like these are part of an evolving sexual landscape, created at least in part as a response to our increasingly alienated world, a world in which we are more likely to “like” something by clicking a button on a website than we are to touch another human being. Intimacy parties offer a new script that’s tailored to individual needs, one that helps satisfy a desire for connection in a safe and non-explicit way. “We are not all the same, sexually, and most of us neither get that message nor the information about sex that will allow us to know who we are,” said Queen of Good Vibrations. “It’s worth it to learn more about sex, to consider our desires and experiences, and move in the direction of authenticity and pleasure.”
Hardy, the sex educator, recalled a story that Ava Taurel, one of the first women to teach female domination classes, told in one of her workshops: “A woman was asked to give an order to her husband. She ordered him to crawl and bark like a dog, which he obediently did — but Ava sensed something ‘off’ about the transaction, and asked the woman, ‘Is that what you really wanted him to do?’ ‘No,’ she confessed. ‘I really wanted him to come stand behind me and run his fingers through my hair, but I didn’t think that was okay to ask for.’ And that’s the problem with rigid scripts right there: We miss out on what we really want because ‘people like me don’t do that,’ or ‘I was afraid to ask,’ or ‘I knew she/he wanted something else.’
“At minimum, exploring non-genital intimacy adds to our repertoire of ways to connect with one another — emotionally, spiritually, erotically,” she continued. “At maximum, it teaches a skillset of figuring out what we want, asking for it, and negotiating ways to make sure the other person gets what they want, too — skills that can help us far beyond the bedroom.”
In many ways, the Bay Area is always in the process of reinventing its sexual identity. And because, for instance, baby strollers are now a regular fixture at the Folsom Street Fair (which is known for BDSM and kink), perhaps the logical extension of Bay Area sex radicalism is a move toward something slower and more foundational.
“I think we lead lives that are more complicated and stressful than our brains can keep up with,” said Hardy. “Pretty much every waking hour is spent in intellect, dealing with words and numbers and abstractions. … As a result, we’re starving for reconnection to our animal selves, the part that wants to be stroked and cuddled and puppy-piled. The fact that this movement is gathering steam in tech centers like the Bay Area is probably not a coincidence.”
As Baczynski put it, cuddle parties are “for people who don’t know where to start but know they need something. Great, let’s start there, not with stroking people’s clits. That’s a little advanced. Let’s not start with a sex party or a tantric workshop. Let’s start with sitting in a room with people fully clothed and noticing what it’s like to really feel an object, even a cellphone that we touch all day long, but don’t feel. Really simple stuff.”
Each party has its own set of rules, but all are defined by their deliberate structure, focus on consent, and implicit understanding that intimacy encompasses a full spectrum of desires. Sex is beside the point. This isn’t to say that sex isn’t ever a result from an event like 2nd Base. Rogers joked that her party is sometimes referred to as a “blue balls” party, but she realizes that guests sometimes want to take things further than the party’s rules allow, and she helps negotiate that kind of exchange as well.
At a time when California recently passed a statewide law, Yes Means Yes, which fostered explicit rules about consent, and when sexual assault on college campuses (and elsewhere) is rampant, the importance of explicit consent is finally getting its moment in the sun. “I think a lot of people think of verbal affirmative consent as a business talk you have at the beginning of having sex. Just like people think you have one sex talk with your kids,” said Rogers. “But it should be a running topic. The whole time you are having sex, it should be an ongoing conversation, negotiating every step of the way. It can be sexy and flirty like ‘Yeah baby, touch me harder’ and ‘I want this there’ and ‘That’s the way I like it.’ That’s not a business negotiation — that’s hot, dirty, and excellent.”
In addition to requiring consent, the parties are intentionally kept on the small side: Adorata had 30 guests, Queer Spin the Bottle and 2nd Base are capped at about 25 people, Cuddle Party typically has 5 to 20 participants per party. And almost all of the event facilitators I talked to had been to each other’s parties, knew of each other, and were supportive of each other, lending even greater weight to the notions of community and the power of connection. Such connection was one of the impetuses for Bonaventura’s Trustable Sluts community. “We don’t have to compete,” she said. “We can stop the feelings of scarcity. We can start to be honest about our sexuality and be in it and celebrate it.”
The origin of the twentieth-century orgy arose from a similar and (dare I say sweet?) notion about connection and community. According to journalist Terry Gould, the first modern sex parties, or “key parties,” involved Air Force pilots and their wives on military bases during World War II. For his book The Lifestyle, Gould interviewed two researchers, Joan and Dwight Dixon, who explained to Gould that such rituals were less about sex and more about bonding. These pilots and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual, with a tacit understanding that the two-thirds of husbands who survived would look after the widows.”
In the sex-saturated bubble of the Bay Area, where at times it feels as if you can’t throw a dildo out of a window without it landing on a sex party, it’s interesting to see that what many of us actually crave is connection, to be truly in our bodies, and to know how to ask for what we want. Consent parties allow us a brief respite from cultural norms, and show us that intimacy encompasses a broad spectrum of desires — some sexual, some not.
As Baczynski eloquently put it, “Intimacy is the revealing of things that are vulnerable and knowing or strongly suspecting that revealing those vulnerabilities won’t be held against us.”