Last Thursday, organizers for New York City’s Horse Meat Disco circuit party blasted out emails advertising their upcoming Labor Day event in Queens. Promoters promised men could enjoy dancing to three DJs in the expansive warehouse venue between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
But in an addendum that felt eerily reminiscent of the early days of 2020, the email warned about a fast-moving virus that could shut things down — though this time it wasn’t COVID.
“AN IMPORTANT NOTE ON MONKEYPOX: We are keeping close tabs on the ongoing outbreak and are working with the city's health department to prioritize the safety of the community,” party organizers wrote. “If at any point we feel it is unsafe to continue with the event, updates will be issued.”
As concerns over the coronavirus waned for many people amid new treatments and a less severe variant (even though cases and deaths are ticking up again), summer 2022 had been shaping up to be the slutty summer many were waiting for. Yet queer men have suddenly found themselves wondering once again whether it’s safe to party.
“It's been a challenging time to throw a party in general between COVID and just a lot of different things happening in the world right now,” said Tyler Hopf, one of the organizers of San Francisco’s bimonthly Gemini queer day party, which was recently canceled due to monkeypox concerns.
With monkeypox virus spreading around the globe, the World Health Organization has said men who have sex with men have made up more than 98% of known cases in the current outbreak. More than a quarter of the 28,220 cases worldwide have been in the US, with every state but Montana and Wyoming having identified cases so far. Amid a faltering vaccine rollout, the Biden administration has declared a public health emergency.
Prolonged skin-to-skin contact during sex appears to be the primary (but not only) method for transmission in this outbreak, and the WHO has advised men who sleep with men to temporarily reduce the number of sexual partners and reconsider having sex with new people.
But Rosamund Lewis, the technical lead for monkeypox at the WHO Health Emergencies Program, also said people should avoid “the exposure in places that may put you at risk, such as crowded settings where lots of physical contact may take place among people who may already be at risk.”
Wait, is that scientist-speak for circuit parties?
For the uninitiated, a circuit party is like a rave for queer men where attendees are typically shirtless and dancing in close quarters for hours on end. With revelers feeling uninhibited thanks to alcohol or drugs, there can be a ton of making out, grinding, and even fucking in some venues that might have adjoining dark rooms.
In short, it’s a good place for a virus to spread. In fact, experts believe this current outbreak can be traced to two circuit parties in Spain and Belgium. In the US, monkeypox began local transmission in the Dallas area after the Daddyland Festival in late June and early July, which included a number of big parties.
Why do circuit parties pose a risk?
Given skin-to-skin transmission is the main way monkeypox is spreading, dancing up against other shirtless queer men for hours on end certainly poses some risk for catching monkeypox, according to the CDC and experts who spoke with BuzzFeed News.
Aniruddha Hazra, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, said that while sex was the main method of transmission, “other behaviors that may confer risk around monkeypox would be maybe going to crowded raves, circuit parties, or places where people don't wear a lot of clothing and you probably would be crowded and rubbing up against folks for an extended period of time.”
“The problem is that this is skin to skin,” said Sarah Bauerle Bass, director of the Temple University Risk Communication Laboratory in Philadelphia, “so if you are in close quarters for a period of time dancing and sweating and the light might be low and you can't see who you're dancing next to, those can be risks for [monkeypox] because it's coming in contact with rash and the pustules from the rash itself.”
Carlton Thomas, a gastroenterologist in San Diego who has amassed more than 320,000 followers on social media, where he gives out health advice for the LGBTQ community, said he has been to circuit parties himself in the past but is sitting them out for now. “I am not a fan of these events right now because of the environment they create with lots of exposed skin, tightly cramped spaces, and often substances that reduce inhibitions and make one ‘touchy-feely,’” Thomas said.
Is it safe to go to a circuit party?
That depends on a lot of factors, including whether you’ve been vaccinated against monkeypox and how long it’s been since your first — or, better yet, second — shot. (People begin to build immunity to the virus in the days and weeks after one dose, but it takes two doses to be considered fully vaccinated.)
“If you've been able to be vaccinated and you've had both shots, then you do have that...immunity and are not going to be as nearly at risk of getting it as you would if you did not have any kind of vaccine,” Bass said.
In its public health advice, New York City is urging people to avoid circuit parties, as well as sex parties and “and other spaces where people are having sex and other intimate contact with multiple people.”
But the decision about whether to go also depends on your risk tolerance.
“Everyone has to make their own decisions,” said Grant Roth, a public health researcher and a coinvestigator on a community-led survey on monkeypox in New York City. “I can provide some information and guidance, but at the end of the day people are going to do what they want to do.”
Roth himself has purchased a ticket to the upcoming Horse Meat Disco party; he feels comfortable going because he’s had two vaccine doses. He suspects many other queer men won’t be in a party mood, but he hopes the increased vaccine rollout in New York will bring cases down by Labor Day weekend.
“In a way, it's aspirational to have a circuit party like Horse Meat that’s scheduled out in September,” Roth said. “My assumption is that the people who are throwing it are hoping that by then we will be in a better place with the response.”
What can I do to lessen the risk of catching monkeypox at a circuit party?
If you do choose to attend a circuit party, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk, including wearing clothing that covers a lot of skin (like long sleeves and pants) and minimizing the number of people you touch. In particular, the CDC also says to avoid touching any rash you see on other people.
“You can still enjoy yourself and have a good time, but maybe keep your shirt on or maybe try to stick with friends or people you know throughout your time at a party or rave,” Hazra said.
Roth advised, “For those who are gonna go, I would say try to keep your shirt on, try to keep distance as much as possible, form a little pod or group of people, and only dance with each other or only make out with each other all night.”
How are parties responding?
Gemini, the canceled event in San Francisco, is not a circuit party; it’s a daytime event that typically draws a gender-diverse crowd of about 500 people who dress in costumes and tend to keep some form of clothing on. Still, Hopf and his fellow organizers didn’t feel comfortable throwing their August party due to the monkeypox threat, which they suspected would increase after other big summer LGBTQ events, like Chicago’s Market Days festival. With the limited vaccine supply in San Francisco and across the country, ticket sales had also been slower than usual.
“We also ourselves were getting a little worried,” Hopf said. “And we were getting messages on Instagram of, you know, ‘How are you preparing?’ Or ‘How are you mitigating the risk of monkeypox?’
“And so through all of that, we had a discussion, and we thought everyone's safety is far more important than just throwing a party,” he said.
But Hopf doesn’t judge other events — circuit parties included — that are going ahead, such as last month’s kink-friendly Dore Alley event in San Francisco. (As a precaution, at least one guest opted to wear a sweater.)
The annual Pines Party on New York’s Fire Island also went ahead last month, although organizers warned guests to “please be respectful of your fellow attendees’ boundaries around physical closeness and minimize skin-to-skin contact to lower the risk of transmission.”
Organizers also urged partygoers to stay home if they were ill or had been exposed, and they made it easy for these people to get tickets refunded.
The email that recently went out from Horse Meat Disco organizers contained information about monkeypox symptoms and how to procure a vaccine appointment as well as advice on wearing clothing and only dancing with trusted friends.
“I think that is responsible and that they are trying to provide information about harm reduction and how do you reduce that risk if you aren't going to come,” Temple University’s Bass said.
She reasoned that canceling big events would only push parties underground. “If they're not having an organized rave or circuit party, then maybe it happens somewhere else where they don't really have anything in place to try to help people or tell them how to reduce the risk,” she said.
Even Thomas, the San Diego doctor who is temporarily sitting out circuit parties, said he did not support the forced cancellation of these events.
“Mandating events like this to be stopped is a dangerous precedent, and where does it stop?” Thomas asked. “Shutting down bathhouses? Dating apps? Sex clubs?
“There is a level of responsibility I feel that party promoters need to demonstrate about risk stratification and management. People are at different levels of vaccination, and some are postinfection and recovered. These things need to be taken into account. Provide more space and less crowding, and education about risk factors and the fact that you need to give time to allow vaccines to become effective.”
And for people like him, who are waiting out the risks of the current outbreak, he urged patience.
“I don’t think this situation is a permanent start but a temporary hold,” Thomas said. “The dick will still be there in four to six weeks.”
Katie Camero contributed reporting to this story.