“What are you wearing to the sex party?” she texts. I’m at work, and even though no one has ever read my phone over my shoulder, I instinctively look around.
“We’re not going to a sex party,” I text back. “Actually, if you think about it, we’re going to a no-sex party.”
“I don’t care if we’re going to Andromeda or the moon, we’re still waaaaay out of my usual stratosphere. We’re going to space.”
She has a point. We’re definitely going to space. And I need to go bra shopping.
San Francisco is an overflowing playground of sex-positivity. From burlesque shows to kink fests, the city has a reputation for “letting your freak flag fly.” Where else can you check your STI status, grab some free condoms and attend a talk on making dungeons more ability-inclusive at your friendly neighborhood coffee shop?
For many who come to the Bay Area, their explorations within this queer/kinky/gender-blender of a culture become their own personal reenactment of Alice in Wonderland. But kink parties and street fairs have never been my precise cup of tea. The joy in being part of this community, for me, has been more so in finding a place where being queer is the 17th most interesting thing about me.
But when a fellow bartender introduced me to Sustainable Hedonism, a community of folks across gender and sexuality spectrums “focused on finding and sharing both ethical and sustainable ways to embody a life lead by pleasure,” I was intrigued. And when I read that they were throwing a Second Base Party — replete with makeouts, sensory play, and sexy touch, but with genitals being off-limits — I had a Goldilocks moment. Could this be “just right?” I phoned a friend.
A few weeks later, we arrive at an artists’ loft that makes my 90s heart sing, and are greeted by folks who seem genuinely happy to welcome new people. Our tickets are checked, we’re given name tags for our pronouns and bags for our personal items. We are reminded to turn off and put away our phones, then asked to select the bracelets that will identify our preferences for the evening. We can choose Bear (red) meaning that we pre-consent to physical compliments and non-sexual touch as a means of initiation; Bunny (gray) meaning that verbal consent is necessary before comments and/or touch; or Bird (white) which means that we wish to initiate interactions and are not open for unsolicited propositions. We decide to be bunnies.
The vibe is less den of sin and vice and more cozy with a chance of sexy. The dress code seems to be “whatever makes you feel good.” Shoes must come off and underwear must stay on, but all other dress/undress is up to personal comfort levels. There are about 30 of us, in everything from sequined mini dresses to velvet jumpsuits to corsets and fishnets to a menagerie of onesie animalia. The floor is covered in soft mattresses, cozy blankets and pillows, and there’s a sign on the ceiling pipes that says, “Yes, these are weight bearing!”
There is an orientation given by our gracious host, a femme sex educator named Ruby. She talks about her frustrations with the expectations of sex parties — how pressure can be a buzzkill. She talks about her love of making out, sensory play, sensuality and the indulgence of pleasure. She tells us that she created Second Base events for herself and is happy to share the idea. As a group, we take a deep breath. “Remember,” she says, “you’re in a room full of people who are all here to feel good.” The music begins.
My fellow space cadet and I are mostly observers for our first moonwalk, but the world we are privileged to witness is extraordinary. We soon stop worrying about whether we’re wearing the right thing (I chose a lingerie set and kimono, she’s in yoga pants and a tank top) and focus instead on the beauty of a room full of people who seem blissfully unselfconscious, focused on giving and receiving pleasure.
One woman is giving massages with an auto buffer. She has a line of people awaiting her attention. Someone else is using the aforementioned pipes and a ship’s worth of rope to engage in a self-suspension worthy of Cirque du Soleil. A trio is making out on the couch. It sounds like some spanking is happening in the other room. A small group is playing with blindfolds and feathers — each taking turns as the center of attention. No one is inebriated or sloppy; everyone just seems giddy and excited. The feeling is contagious.
I have more than one discussion about how long it’s been since I’ve used the term “second base,” though the metaphor seems to have been common to schoolyards across the country. Most everyone remembers making out as first base and sex as a home run, but the rest is a bit murky. Second is above-the-waist touching, but over/under shirt inspires debate, as does third: is that mutual masturbation or oral? What is shortstop? Is oral sex, sex? We’re adults! We should know this!
By the time someone in a sequined speedo and nothing else declares that the party is shutting down, I realize that, for a few blessed hours, I’ve totally forgotten the outside world and all the background panic that living in it entails. I feel recharged in a way that no Netflix binge, or coloring book, or manicure has ever managed to approach. This, it immediately occurs to me, is self-care.
For many of us, our emergence as sexual beings has been measured incrementally: Our first kisses, caresses and intimate exchanges are each marked and revered as their own occasions. But once we go “all the way,” as I learned to think of sex in middle school, the joy of the journey can be lost. Wonderment and trepidation subside and we’re often left with an extremely narrow (clinical, heteronormative) definition of sex. Anything else gets regulated to the realm of foreplay. An appetizer. Not the “real” thing. But when I think of the thrill of the first time my crush kissed me in the school library in the last week of our all-girls math and science camp — and the thrill of all the first kisses I’ve shared after it — it becomes painfully obvious that human sexuality bears no resemblance to the escalator model taught in sex ed (and that’s if we’re lucky enough to get it.) The truth is so much more complicated, and so much more delicious.
The genius of the Second Base Party lay not in its wonderland-like disregard for puritanical ideals of shame and suppression, but paradoxically, in its restriction. By taking our assumed and heteronormative definition of sex off the table, it removed the illusion of a finish line and enabled us to slow down and rediscover the rich array of pleasures available to us.
When we stop viewing sex as an act to be completed, we allow it to be an experience that is savored. And that can open up the whole galaxy.
Molly Conway is a playwright and writer living in Oakland, California. You can follow her on Instagram @moxiequinn for periodic updates about her garden and Frambly Dinner. She has yet to finish a cup of tea while it is still hot.
Collage by Madeline Montoya.