Nicolle Hodges:

Consent and sex party communities, Part 1

Photo credit: Yohann Libot via Unsplash

This article is the first in a two-part series on Sex and Psychedelics. Part II will be published on March 18, 2020.

When sexually-liberated people come together in anticipation of varied physical intimacy, convivial socialization, and interpersonal bonding, it differs greatly from the typical models of sexual association generally known to public clubs and lounges. Anonymity is encouraged in that attendees may speak of what they saw but not who they saw at these private functions. The communities that host and attend the events tend to be closely knit, open-minded, sexually curious, gender-fluid, kink-leaning, and generally accepting people who might have found themselves, at some point, wanting to release from societally imposed constructs and explore, expand, or even obliterate their identity—or they are simply craving playfulness, novelty, and a sense of belonging among other “free spirits” and non-conformists. But it goes beyond that too.

With the rise of psychedelics from subculture to the mainstream once again, should there be procedures for integrating mind-altering substances into today’s private sex party scene? What are the communication prompts needed prior to and during the event? Do guests assume the full responsibility of self-governance, otherwise, who is liable for any adverse outcomes? And what does the intersection of sex and psychedelics mean for the strict definition of consent in an already compromised environment?

This two-part series on sex and psychedelics seeks to answer those questions.

“Safety is subjective,” says Effy Blue, relationship coach, educator, and author of Play Party Etiquette. “It’s about risk tolerance and everybody is different. There are some people who won’t cross a road on a red light and others who will jump out of a plane, which, in the context of a sex party, comes down to how comfortable someone might be talking about STIs or how they feel on psychedelics or other intoxicants.”

A research paper in The Journal of Sex Research that examined patterns in group sexual activity found that one of the most common themes was the understanding that: "Nobody does anything they don't want to do."

“You can really only give consent from a clear mind,” says Blue. Her point being once psychedelics are introduced, the validity of consent becomes muddled for all involved and the lines of what you might want or not want to do could be swayed by the substance of choice.

“People already struggle with giving and asking for consent when they’re sober. We fear rejection so people just don’t ask and opt to see what happens instead, or people don’t say no because they want to be nice and don’t want to seem like they’re not ‘fun’.”

Once you add psychedelics, our discerning sober-minded self takes a seat and shifts into a state where emotions are amplified, thus making social interactions, often riddled with nuances, more complicated.

There might come a point in the night when you feel like you and a stranger are dancing in another place and time, your bodies meld and worries melt away, dissolving into the pleasure of the moment.

Or, you might be triggered by someone’s facial expression, a song, or a creeping sense of aloneness amongst people you don’t recognize, suddenly tangled in a sensory web without a foreseeable end.

For every psychedelic—whether it’s the uptick of ketamine, the love-dump of MDMA, ego-loss of magic mushrooms, or far-reaching prismatic galaxy-voyaging potential of LSD—when our thought patterns are loosened, the results are entirely unpredictable, and depending on who you are and where you’re at spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, you’re going to have a different hallucinogenic and sexual experience.

“By partially checking out, which is what you’re doing with psychedelics, you’re also checking out of the situation when it’s everyone’s responsibility to be safe and aware,” she says.

That’s why it’s important to be self-reliant. Figure out what substance and dose works for you, do a mental check-in during the week leading up to the party and be honest about your headspace, which might mean staying completely sober. If you choose to put on your psychonaut suit, shoot for “enhanced” rather than talking to the moon. You're more likely to enjoy yourself when you not only feel comfortable and safe but are also contributing to the overall positive experience of other party-goers; it’s not a selfish endeavour.

“Driving is dangerous but we have seat belts to mitigate risk, using psychedelics is the same,” says Blue. “What if you inadvertently drag someone into a sexual situation where they didn’t know you were on something, or if consent was breached, you don’t feel accountable because you were tripping? There needs to be a safeguard.”

Taylor Oakes, a digital domme who runs a private chat group called Humans That Don’t Suck, where members regularly share sexy personal stories and invites to sex-positive events throughout Toronto and then meet-up to “pre” before an outing, is creating that safeguard.

Oakes, whom I met in the summer of 2019 in the middle of my own experiments with psychedelics and rising curiosity about sex parties, became equal parts friend, collaborator, and gatekeeper to a community I had been searching for. When I first walked into her apartment (dressed as a leather-clad hunter with my partner sporting deer horns poorly glued to his forehead in tow) to see a gathering of equally-leathered humans whom we’d be getting to know before even making our way to the sex party (my second, ever), I knew I had stumbled into something special.

If set and setting are the primary determinants of a positive psychedelic trip, then relationship-building in a smaller group while sober contributed to an overall sense of comfort, and therefore, trust, in the flow of the evening once at the party. If, at any point, any situation felt like a little “much,” I could gravitate to people I knew.

“I’ve been to events where we have had a pre-gathering and those where we haven’t, and it’s been such a difference between grounding and centering ourselves with the group, and having that opportunity to share space, talk about boundaries and limits, and really connect as human beings before sex is on the table,” Oakes explains. “We ask things like: what are your intentions for the night, how do you want to go in, what emotional body do you want to act from? It’s been a really great way to get everyone into the same headspace and set up for proper check-ins and evaluations throughout the night.”

You never know what's coming your way when taking a psychedelic, instead, it’s advised to surrender to the experience of altered consciousness and ride the waves. That’s why Oakes suggests a secondary level of grounding once at the party. First, know where your people are, where the bathrooms are, and so on, to get familiar with the space—and yourself in the space—and then decide whether or not to take psychedelics.

“Trying to have an in-depth conversation with someone for the first time when you’re intoxicated or tripping can be hard, so being able to bring people together ahead of time to kind of ‘meld minds’ helps align you with people you might want to play with or who can help you ground if you’re having a moment of anxiety or insecurity,” she says.

If familiarity is a raft in a sea of uncertainty, it’s even nicer to know who’s in the same boat.

As the typical human trudges deeper into the valley of adulthood, they are increasingly less likely to embrace novelty. The revelatory potential of psychedelics can strike one with the force of a grand piano from the sky. Incessantly reluctant to release control, but nevertheless, intrigued by the prospect that one can still be caught off guard by life and that there is no age by which our desire to explore withers or the faucet of our fascination runs dry, the intersection of the unfamiliar, psychedelics, with the familiarity of sex, is an enticing venture whether partnered or solo. We desire to transcend and escape the drudgery of merely existing; we need meaning and divine explanation; we seek to see patterns in our lives that make the mess make sense; above all, we want to connect. It is in large part because of psychedelics’ ability to lower inhibitions, heighten senses, and help instigate profound moments of insight or empathy, forgiveness or clarity, some describing it like years of therapy in a night, that these potent drugs have retained a prominent place in private play party culture, where the atmosphere is already primed for vulnerability and intimacy. But for all its net-positive accelerated bonding properties, the overhanging concern remains the dance of consent—one that requires sober-minded people to communicate consistently, verbally as well as non-verbally (body language, energetic attunement).

“The scary thing about psychedelics in play spaces is that you can’t have those intimate conversations beforehand, and it’s exceptionally difficult to negotiate for socially awkward people, especially in an altered state, and then not really being sure that the perceptions of the signals people are giving you are entirely accurate. I think it’s, to be honest, a recipe for disaster,” says Pat Smith, an ex-biologist and current writer for the psychedelic movement. “It can feel like an internal battle where one side of you wants to have this incredible connected experience, and the other side is like, ‘wait a minute, are they into this, am I being really creepy, am I pushing limits, are we going to come down and they will feel violated?’

Smith suggests a “sex menu” to offset the potential of miscommunication.

“At a basic level, it’s a list of your turn-ons and turn-offs, what you’re willing to do or not, how you like to be touched, how you like to touch people.”

I ask if it’s like a name tag that says, “Hi, my name is, I’m on M, and I like butt-play but only after midnight”?

“It could work! The way I’ve seen it done is that people exchange sex menus beforehand, either as a list of preferences or some other written form.”

Effy Blue, however, sees it as a cop-out.

“Having an aesthetic label that says, “I’m into this” or “I’m not into that” won’t work because I think we need to be able to have conversations with people. If you can’t talk to them maybe you shouldn’t have sex with them,” she says. “Plus, sex is so intertwined with how we’re feeling. Maybe you had a long week and you think you just want to socialize, but then you have some good conversations, and now you’re stimulated and horny and find yourself in the middle of a gang bang!”

Does the predetermined “sex menu” or label or sober promise-to-self no longer apply?

Humans are complex, and we’re constantly seeking tools to transcend our hardwiring. We want others to know we’re flawed and to accept us for our imperfections so we can feel safe to just be. We used to live in groups of a hundred people, where the illusion and pressure of perfection would have been impossible to uphold. Now, we live in private, curated, filtered ways that perpetuate unrealistic ideals that cause us to feel like we’re always performing for our thousands of “friends.” Our flaws become the failures that isolate us rather than the commonalities that bond us.

Sex parties help us see our shared, stumbly, beautiful humanity. It is deeply moving.

A study in The Journal of Sex Research on drugs and sexual behaviour says that when a stimulus like psychedelics is presented, one experiences all possible responses to a situation simultaneously. This provides an experiential richness, freshness, and inter-relatedness which then, theoretically, allows for the possibility of the emergence of new behavioural responses.

When in close proximity to other humans, say, crisscrossed in an orgy while on the come-up, you pick up on the myriad of minimal cues which lead to the lushness of a moment—a wrinkle by the eye, the sound of laughter, the pinkness of skin, the fullness of lip—that cue deeper associations to self, age, history, and social dimensions, charged with all the feelings of lust, anger, love, kindness, protectiveness, vulnerability, joy, and so on.

Consent isn’t so glaringly “in our face” in our regular lives, at least, it’s fair to assume we aren’t often surrounded by throngs of naked, horny humans; just clothed, horny humans. Sex parties can teach us about consent by revealing the nuances of human interaction, and teach us how we might realistically navigate communicating about sexual matters, which add another layer of complexity, in a lasting, respectful, tailored way.

The best parties have an overarching feeling of “we’re all in this together”. Whatever one chooses to do becomes a contributing factor in the health of the whole. Now, imagine the power of bringing that mindset into the world; the things we could learn if we lived without shame.