When Michelle was 20 years old, she made an account on the dating site OkCupid. Prompted to fill out her sexuality, she indicated she was pansexual. It was 2009; Bumble, Lex, and other apps that centered women didn’t exist yet. Michelle (who requested a pseudonym to protect her privacy) had previously had two relationships with men, but knew she was interested in women. She was young, curious, horny, newly living in New York City, and ready to explore.
Her inbox filled up with offers from men.
“I found it impossible to date women online,” she told me over video chat. “I think there was this assumption at the time that if you were identifying as pan, you were definitely just doing it for attention. So I kept going out with guys because it was easy, even though I wasn’t interested in them, which is awful.”
One of her early dates invited her to a BDSM play party in Manhattan. Michelle had never heard of play parties before, but she knew she was kinky and was excited to attend. The club was in a basement in the East Village that would later be converted to an H.P. Lovecraft–themed bar; at the time, its main feature was a gap in the lounge wall that used to hold a fish tank and was now a suitable place to fool around in. Surrounded by exposed brick wall and plush red couches, attendees wore lingerie, formal wear, fetish gear, or steampunk attire. (“Later I was like, This is the trashiest space I could have been in, but at the time it was really cool to me,” she said.)
Michelle remembers three things about it. First, she had to leave her clothes on all night, because she wasn’t wearing underwear and nudity wasn’t allowed at New York clubs. (Many sex parties that allow nudity and penetration happen in semiprivate clubs that require patrons to become members or bring their own alcohol; restrictions and laws on what is and isn’t allowed vary from state to state.) Second, she felt embarrassed to be there with a man. And third, while the event was open to all genders, plenty of women were there with each other, tying up their partners in artful rope displays, or spanking each other with impact toys. “It was night and day, where I went from not being able to find any queer women [to date], to suddenly being inundated with them. It was awesome.”
Sex and play parties are often refuges for queer people in search of community, and that’s what happened for Michelle. She ditched the dude but met the people she would be friends with for the next decade. What followed was more kink parties, more sex events, more space to explore. Many of these parties were coed, although femmes and queer women vastly outnumbered other attendees in what Michelle called “a total matriarchy.” “Sometimes it felt like a release, because we all have to deal with patriarchy every fucking day,” she said. “It’d be like, ‘No, you as a dude don’t get to show us how to use this flogger — this woman will come in and knock your damn socks off with it. This is not your space.’”
Soon she started to attend events that were exclusively for women and nonbinary people. Several were part of Pride, or hosted by groups like the Lesbian Sex Mafia, the legendary women’s BDSM support group founded in 1981 by Dorothy Allison and Jo Arnone, but her favorite events were the more intimate and reliably hot ones hosted by her own friends — “a sapphic dreamland,” in her words. Some Michelle helped organize at her partner’s art studio. They spread the word through kinky social network site FetLife, and hosts would vet new guests beforehand, usually through coffee dates.
Then the parties started to slow down. Some people moved; others got sober and didn’t want the pressure of hosting. Interpersonal conflict played a role, as it often does. Michelle broke up with her partner and stopped attending the parties they organized together. She tried hosting her own events, but struggled with, in her words, “cultivating a sexy space.” “I just get in my own head about the logistics of a party. I’m like, ‘We must have ice,’ and people are like, ‘We wanna fuck,’ and I’m like, ‘Ice!’” she said. In March 2020, as COVID-19 rampaged through the city and the rest of the world, the parties Michelle was attending came to a complete halt. And yet, as restrictions eased, and nightlife returned, sex parties for queer women didn’t return in full force.
“Everyone just sat with themselves for over a full fucking year,” said Michelle, who is now 33. “Tons of people came out during that time, and now don’t know what to do with that.” I asked if she sees events for sexually curious baby queers like the ones she attended in her early 20s, and she can’t think of any. “I guess I just have to start dating more people,” she said; where she once went to parties to find women to date, now she’s attempting to date women to find parties. She’s still on FetLife but scrolls through the listings, struggling to find a new event to attend.
There is no quantitative data, at least none that I can find, on the state of lesbian sex parties; there’s only the sense of a vibe shift expressed by the people I’ve gotten to know intimately over the years through my own queer and kink networks.
A quick note: When I refer to lesbian sex parties, I am talking about parties for women who love women, though not everyone who attends is a lesbian. Often, these parties might describe themselves as “WLW” or “sapphic” to cover the range of identities at such an event. “Women and femmes” was a term I heard for a while, though this erased nonbinary and transmasc people. Some events have billed themselves as being for “women, nbs, and trans femmes.” This language shifts as our concepts of gender and sexuality evolve. Other events have taken the more concise route by clarifying the type of guest that isn’t welcome — namely, cis men. (Queer parties that cater exclusively to men are easier to find, relatively speaking, depending on what state you’re in, often through event listings pages for gay bathhouses.) Many people I spoke to for this piece identified as pansexual, bisexual, sapphic, queer, and gay, all identities I’ve used for myself at different stages of my life.
It would be easy to attribute the loss of such lesbian spaces to COVID, but in Toronto, where I live, I can readily find event listings for parties for gay men and straight couples. Friends in other cities report the same.
Trying to find party organizers to talk to on the record also comes with its own challenges, especially outside of major cities. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that many of these parties happen underground or, depending on state law, cannot be explicitly advertised as sex parties. Some simply don’t have the time: Lesbian Sex Mafia responded to my inquiry explaining that Pride month was a busy time, making me feel optimistic that they, at least, are thriving. I wondered, too, how many people with marginalized sexualities might be distrustful of mainstream media, especially as waves of regressive Republican legislation aim to paint even the most benign of LGBTQ+ activities as predatory or deviant.
One person who did immediately respond to my request for comment was Genevieve LeJeune, 44, founder and CEO of Skirt Club. Skirt Club describes itself as “a private network for intellectually and sexually curious women.” Rolling Stone described it as the “sex party that lets straight women be gay for the night,” a headline that ignores the fact that many of the attendees, including LeJeune herself, are bisexual.
Over a FaceTime call from the waterfront in Miami, she told me about the origin of Skirt Club: In 2014, she was living in London when she bought her boyfriend a ticket to a sex party for his 40th birthday. She had never been to one before and was excited to explore her bi-curiosity. “I walked into this party that was labeled ‘Where the girls make the rules,’ and realized very quickly that no girls were making the rules,” she said. Everything about the party seemed designed for male pleasure. “I was grabbed by the arm, slapped on the bottom by men,” she told me. She recalled watching one woman performing acts with another woman at the request of her male partner. “He was going crazy, and there was just no excitement in her eyes.”
Skirt Club opened in London in 2016, and has US chapters in New York, LA, San Francisco, Miami, Austin and Washington, DC, with plans to expand. Parties are member-only and take place in a private location, often a penthouse. LeJeune has a background in finance and asset management, but Skirt Club is now her primary source of income, and during the first year of COVID she was forced to take out loans to buffer the business. As indoor gatherings began happening again, she tailored parties to the cities that they were in. In LA, where she described the clientele as consisting of struggling actors waiting tables, she lowered the prices. In Manhattan, prices were raised to make up for the company’s lost income. I asked if the price hike has affected attendance, and she said the opposite was true. Demand for parties has skyrocketed. “Everyone is behaving like they have a bucket list they have to complete in the next year,” she said. In particular, she’s seen a huge uptick in women over 40. “I talk to them and they tell me, ‘Yep, the pandemic happened, now I’m getting divorced, and I want to have sex with everybody I can find.”
Skirt Club revels in luxury, while billing itself as a welcoming space for women who may be nervous about their first same-sex experience. “We’ve been coined by other sex parties as vanilla, but I just think we’re more accessible to the masses,” LeJeune said. The event’s visibility in so many cities means it’s certainly easy to find. Essays published in Cosmopolitan and the Hollywood Reporter describe Skirt Club events as liberating and affirming for attendees, but I can’t help but think about the people who are not in the room. The photo shoots that accompany articles about the parties feature thin white women. (LeJeune said that this is not an accurate assessment of the parties themselves, where photos are forbidden for privacy reasons; in an email, she said she is “currently conducting multiple photoshoots here in Europe to ensure we have a balanced and diverse image library.”) Prospective members fill out a questionnaire that asks them to confirm they have a vulva (“Trans women who are vulva owning are welcome to apply for membership and we currently have members identifying this way,” LeJeune said) and, struggling server clientele in LA notwithstanding, members in cities like New York tend toward the professional class. LeJeune ties women’s sexual empowerment to capitalist success; she told me “confidence in the bedroom leads to confidence in the boardroom,” a slogan that also appears on Skirt Club’s website.
I want to seek queer liberation far outside the confines of the workplace. So I keep looking.
On the last Saturday before Pride Month, I went for a walk through Toronto. I cut through the intersection of Church Street and Wellesley Street, also known as the Gay Village. It was a warm breezy evening, and the sidewalk was packed. I passed by a group of men outside a club wearing leather harnesses, collars, and pup hoods, and more men coming out up the street. My heart swelled to see them out in all their kinky glory.
Toronto has historically been home to a number of gay bathhouses. In 1981, 200 police officers raided four of them with crowbars and sledgehammers in hand, arresting 306 patrons and employees. That night proved to be the catalyst for Canada’s gay rights movement. Several bathhouses for gay men still operate in the city, with websites promoting play parties and events with names like CumUnion and Daddy Issues.
I turned the corner, walked down the street, and passed by Oasis Aqualounge, an “adult’s private members spa and lounge” owned by women. Straight-presenting couples were lined up outside. I checked the calendar and saw that it was Unicorn Night, for couples seeking a bisexual woman to join them in the bedroom.
From 1973 to 2010, this location was home to Club Toronto, one of the bathhouses raided in 1981. In 1998, Club Toronto played host to Pussy Palace, launched by the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee (the name was later changed to the more trans-inclusive Pleasure Palace). “And so it came to be that lesbians’ desire to attain the anonymous sexuality of gay men created Pussy Palace,” comedian Fiona MacCool wrote in the anthology Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. “After all, there is nothing more transgressive and anonymous than lining up for three hours on Carlton Street with all your ex-lovers and all your ex-lovers’ ex-lovers’ thesis supervisors.” It was, according to a blog post by organizer and activist Chanelle Gallant, the first queer women’s sex bathhouse in North America. In 2000, the Pleasure Palace was also raided by the police. Currently, there are no bathhouses in Toronto exclusively for women.
I like Oasis. (In 2017, I profiled them for a Canadian newspaper.) I’ve spent many summer evenings in their heated pool with a lover, her legs wrapped around me as I read out loud from a book of Colette short stories (we both knew how to cultivate a vibe). Admission to Oasis on a typical night tends to be $100 for solo men and couples, $10 for women. Even with this price discrepancy, there has never been a shortage of men when I’ve visited. Oasis has a strict no-harassment policy, and I’ve never felt unsafe or uncomfortable there, but I’ve been approached by men every time I’ve attended, whether I’ve been with my women friends or actively having sex with a female partner. We’ve enjoyed ourselves, but there was always the acknowledgment in the back of my mind that, yes, some men might be getting off on this.
Prior to the pandemic, Oasis played host to Sapphic Aquatica, a popular bimonthly party for women and trans folks. The last Sapphic Aquatica event was in early 2020. A notice on the website explains:
“Sapphic has always been literally our worst event from a financial standpoint. We have found that cis men are the only people who are willing to pay $100 or more to attend Oasis [...] We did not cancel it in the past, because we felt that the service to the community was worth it, to justify us having to subsidize it. But unfortunately, the pandemic was financially devastating for us. The Oasis owners have had to put in considerable personal money, just to keep the business afloat.” (When I reached out to Oasis directly, no one was available for an interview, but one of the co-owners sent me the same statement via email.)
Krista Burton, 39, identifies as a “big ol’ dyke.” A writer based outside the Twin Cities, she is currently at work on a nonfiction book for Simon & Schuster called Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Hunt Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America. Lesbian bars are not the same thing as lesbian sex parties, though parallels can be made between the disappearance of the two. There are, according to Burton, between 21 and 23 lesbian bars left in the United States (a few have opened up since her research started). When we talked, Burton had just returned from Oklahoma, the state with the second-highest number of lesbian bars, after New York. “In the red states, all the bars felt cozier,” she tells me. “They felt a little bit more necessary. Once you’re inside, you’re welcomed a little harder, because we know what’s outside.”
I asked Burton why she thinks lesbian bars are disappearing at a significantly higher rate than gay bars, which have also taken a hit during the pandemic but still exist in the hundreds. She cited the income gap as a major reason (a Human Rights Campaign study found that queer men tend to earn 4% less than the typical worker; for queer women it’s 13% and trans women 40%, though this is an imperfect sample that only looked at people with full-time jobs, which women lost at higher rates during the pandemic). But the phenomenon might be more existential.
“In 2022, what is a lesbian?” said Burton, who has identified as one for two decades. “Some people have a problem with me identifying as a lesbian because I’m married to a trans man.” As gay male bars tend to cater exclusively to a cis male clientele, Burton theorizes, lesbian bars have absorbed more of the queer community, which she doesn’t necessarily see as a bad thing. Twenty-one percent of Gen Z adults identified as LGBT in a recent survey, almost double the proportion of millennials and eight times that of baby boomers. “There’s a much broader definition of how people identify now,” she says.
I continued my walk and end up at Lavender Menace, a new bar that describes itself as a “lesbian owned & operated LGBTQ+ gathering place where everyone is welcome.” It was filled with lava lamps, smoke machines, and beanbag chairs, and was basically one Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack away from being the venue of my middle school dreams. Even on a Saturday night, it was less crowded than the other bars on the street. The clientele included older butches chatting quietly at a table in the corner, loud queens at the bar. I desperately want this space to survive.
There’s a second floor that’s used to host dance parties. I think of a lesbian friend I met on Tinder who told me about a leather dyke event that was hosted at a bar in Brooklyn; according to the invite, cruising was encouraged. I called up the bar in question, Pink Metal, to chat with one of the owners, who was happy to talk up the bar itself but declined to share their name publicly, to protect their privacy. The owner described Pink Metal as a safe space for queers and femmes especially. They opened the bar right before the pandemic and survived the shutdown by offering takeout orders. I ask what they thought about spaces for queer women disappearing.
“I feel like they were limited to begin with,” they said. “I think other venue owners think they won’t make money, maybe. Honestly, I don’t know. Any time we have a lesbian or femme event, it does really well. We have a line outside.” The leather dyke night was a particular hit; at least a couple of attendees had driven in from Philadelphia. I asked if there were plans to host another one, and they told me the organizer was considering it for the summer. Immediately after hanging up, I texted my friend, asking if we should plan a road trip to New York.
Back at Lavender Menace, I sat at the bar and ordered the queso dip. The serving was much bigger than I was expecting, so I turned to the person next to me and asked if she wanted to share. We got to chatting. She’s a recently out trans femme who had just moved to Toronto from a smaller city and was looking for queer community. She asked me about my favorite spaces, and I was stumped. I told her I wasn’t sure which of my usual prepandemic spots still existed. There’s a bleak parallel in sex-friendly spaces for queer adults disappearing as conservative reactionaries decry every other kind of queer space as being inherently sexual; even children’s storytime events at libraries aren’t safe from anti-gay and anti-trans harassment. We finished the queso. Before leaving for the night, my companion went to the bathroom and changed out of her lacy black slip dress into baggy black shorts and a t-shirt. “I hate wearing this shit,” she told me. “But you gotta be safe.”
Later, I posted on the text-based queer networking app Lex, announcing that I was trying to figure out why queer women sex parties seem to be disappearing. “Because we’re in the middle of a pandemic?” one person responded. A few other people messaged to say they didn’t have an answer, but were wondering if I could tell them if I hear about any good ones. Someone in Toronto mentioned Oasis’s Sapphic Aquatica.
Finally, I connected with Roísín, a 23-year-old living in Buffalo, New York, who identifies as “somewhere between a trans woman and nonbinary.” Roísín grew up in the Hudson Valley and went to Stony Brook University. She joined her school’s TNG chapter (TNG stands for The Next Generation, a group of kinky people under the age of 35, with independently organized chapters all over the country). When I expressed surprise that there was a kink club funded by her school, she directed me to the “List of Universities with BDSM Clubs” Wikipedia page. I saw my own alma mater on the list — apparently they were operating when I was a student there. Who knew!
Roísín had previously looked into lesbian bars, but one of the few she found had a reputation for being transphobic. “Throughout the history of the queer struggle, queer women have led more of the fight,” she said. “Now, as trans people are being more recognized, there’s this battle of, ‘We always had to fight so hard for these women-only spaces, and now you’re trying to take them from us.’” I asked how this made her feel, and she sighed. “It makes me sad,” she said. “It seems like it takes away from the actual fight, and it gives credence to the concept that gay men and gay women fought for separate spaces, as opposed to a large unified gay front fighting together for queer liberation.”
Her TNG club had plenty of other trans members, though, and they would often make pilgrimages to dungeons in New York City. “Everyone there was visibly queer, and femme was definitely the dominant category.”
She moved to Buffalo at the beginning of the pandemic, where a lot of her friends from high school had ended up. The underground gay spaces of industrial Buffalo depicted in late radical communist and transgender lesbian activist Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues no longer exist. Those lesbian and blue-collar bars (often one and the same, and frequently the target of police raids) were paved over during decades of urban renewal that decimated Black and working-class communities.
Roísín has struggled to find events in Buffalo like the one she had access to at school. Part of this is the struggle of life in the pandemic, but, she added, “Trying to create a queer space when you don’t have the money is really hard.” Buffalo is not exactly bustling with kink venues like New York City is. When I asked if she’s found any sort of queer community there, she said she had, through work: She got involved in the unionization effort at her Starbucks job, which connected her with other queers.
What Michelle, LeJeune, my friends, and strangers are telling me is true: Throughout the pandemic, people became increasingly desperate for human connection. For many people, including many queer women and nonbinary folks, this connection looks like sex, touch, pleasure, hedonism, liberation, sensation, debauchery, maybe some leather, and above all, community. The queer sex parties for women that have managed to survive in major cities are still well attended; the trouble is in tracking them down. For those who can swing it, they’re worth high admission fees, road trips across state lines — perhaps even a run-in with your ex.
In my wildest and most fanciful dreams, no queer is excluded from the orgiastic bliss that is our birthright, whether because of income, geography, or gender identity. It’s a feeling that’s shared by others. When I asked Michelle what her ideal party would look like today, she spoke in paragraphs, clearly having given it some thought. “I want an art fantasy space where people can make plans to do these elaborate scenes that you could never do anywhere else, with equipment that you'd never otherwise have access to,” she said, before zeroing on the most important part. “I want a space where you can meet tons of other queer gorgeous people and just, like, fuck.” ●