The line snaked out of Atlanta sex club Trapeze, as around 20 people, dressed in white lingerie and chest-baring white dress shirts, waited to get in. It was a pleasantly cool June evening and the smell of perfume, cigars, and fried food permeated the air. I was standing in line with my boyfriend. It was our first time back at a sex club since they started reopening, and the place was packed with mask-free revelers who paid $80, on top of the $50–$100 membership fee, to fuck people who weren’t their partners.
We gave our Absolut Lime to the clerk (the club is BYOB per Georgia law), and I teetered on my $20 Dolls Kill lucite heels to the main bar and food area, where couples on the prowl guzzled the booze they had brought and noshed on cheesecake. Early 2000s heterosexual porn played on an LED screen dangling over an espresso machine. A woman in lingerie wrapped her body around the stripper pole on the dance floor, drinking in the lust greedily as revelers ogled her and her husband awkwardly dad-danced nearby.
My boyfriend and I spotted a couple in their 30s or 40s — she was gorgeous; he looked like Fred Armisen — in the main bar, where people were mostly clothed.
“Are you vaccinated?” I asked.
“Yep,” they responded.
And that’s about all the discussion we engaged in with a Colombian couple named Jorge and Isabella (names have been changed to protect privacy) before we headed to the plebian “play area.” (Trapeze’s pricier Diamond Club, where guests enjoy silk sheets, condoms, lube, and chicken and waffles was sold out.)
Trapeze barely shut down during the pandemic, closed just last April and May, but people have only returned in bigger numbers more recently. I talked to Nikki, a middle-aged clubgoer, who said she liked the club because “Trapeze felt like the most normal place during the pandemic, the only place I could relax because nobody was wearing masks.”
In the back room, shirtless men with towels knotted around their waists played pool with seminaked women, while a man masturbated in the corner (there is always one guy jacking off in the corner at a sex club — no matter the country, city, or time of day). It felt as if the revelers were openly rebuking death, going full hedonist, drinking and orgasming their way through their COVID anxiety.
Clothes are not permitted in the play area, so we waited in line behind Jorge and Isabella to remove our clothes and don towels in the locker room. A joyful horniness filled the air as we chatted. My boyfriend explained to Isabella where I fit on the Kinsey scale, and she concluded that I was 20% to 30% gay, which seemed to be enough for her.
We found an empty private room with a glass wall and began making out with the couple: me with Jorge, my boyfriend with his wife. Then Isabella and I kissed. As we gazed through the window, we saw a woman in the adjacent room getting gang-banged doggy-style by four different men. One of the men waiting his turn caught me staring, and I awkwardly waved, always unsure of the etiquette in a sex club. Misinterpreting my wave, he left the room and tried to enter ours. Jorge jumped up and locked the door. Soon after we had sex in a variety of combinations; at one point I found myself talking to Jorge about a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood as Isabella had sex with my boyfriend. Then we cleaned up, put our towels back on, and said goodbye, enjoying the complimentary donuts, bacon, and cake before we left.
Our experience with Jorge and Isabella made me feel like the pandemic was over, or at the very least gave me a break from thinking about it for a few hours, which led me to wonder how the pandemic had affected our desires for physical contact, both sexual and nonsexual. I wanted to know what sex clubs and parties, along with their platonic cousins, cuddle parties, looked like now that more people are vaccinated. Although cuddle parties have a fundamental difference from sex parties — think backrubs not blowjobs — they do share some things. Both involve consensual touch and intimacy in a semipublic place among strangers who are driven by an appetite for physical and emotional connection.
Were people still too scared to touch strangers or were they so starved for physical contact that they were willing to take the risk at a cuddle party? Has the bacchanalian revelry resumed nationwide at sex parties and clubs or are things more subdued? I spoke to sex experts, professional cuddlers, sex club owners, swingers, and cuddlers to find out.
Billy Procida, host of The Manwhore Podcast, has been to five group sex events since May. He said his motivations for going to sex clubs had shifted. Before the pandemic, he went to sex parties with his girlfriend to explore new sexual experiences. Then in May 2021, four months after he and his girlfriend broke up, he attended his first sex party and it felt different, not just because he was alone. “Before I started to flirt with people or tried to hook up, I just wanted to go see all my friends and just give them a big fucking hug and be like, ‘Hey, how are you? Glad you survived.’ And then there's a sexual element of it — like, Oh, it would be great if somebody wanted to touch my cock.” Although he didn’t have sex at his first party back, he said he still had a lot of fun. “It was joyful. We are all right next to each other and we’re barely wearing clothes, and more importantly we’re not wearing masks, and I'm not scared about that because I’m vaccinated. Like, why isn’t that the commercial to get vaccinated? Get vaccinated and then you can go to orgies.”
A recent study by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and Lovehoney determined that 20% of people were more likely to attend a sex club this year than before the pandemic (26% of men and 14% of women), while 55% say they’re less interested, and the other 25% have the same level of interest. The study’s lead researcher, psychologist Justin Lehmiller, told me this didn’t necessarily mean that sex clubs were going to be less popular postpandemic.
Before the pandemic, he said, the number of Americans who had actually been to a sex club was pretty low; according to one study, just 6.3% of men and 5.2% of women said they had been to a sex party or swingers club. “Even if a majority say they’re less interested, you still have a really sizable minority who are more interested, so the overall number of people going to sex parties in the near future could actually increase if you’ve got this motivated minority,” he said.
Sex-party enthusiasts were also back in action at Atlanta’s The Loft, a divier, cheaper club than Trapeze. Though The Loft seemingly never shut down, business only began picking up at the end of January 2021. When we arrived, the bored front desk greeter handed us a form to sign in between bites of Twizzlers. “We understand that we are using the club’s facilities during a world-wide Covid-19 pandemic and understand and accept all risk and consequences thereof,” it read. A man held up a thermometer to our foreheads, and we walked in. About 50 people were inside the club; some I spoke to told me it was their first time back since the pandemic began.
As we made our way through, a woman in high-heeled magenta shoes and fishnet stockings swung in a cage while a man in a backwards baseball cap took pictures of her. We walked to the upstairs loft area, which was virtually empty save for the tattooed, buff retired marine in a black Loft T-shirt working as a bouncer in the couples-only area. Beneath a “Starry Night” knockoff mural, the rubber sheets on the two open beds were unsullied. Lysol, Glade, and hand sanitizer gel perched on a ledge, at the ready for cleanup.
The bouncer said attendance at the club had been increasing. “More and more couples are showing up,” he told me. Down below I saw two women caressing each other in front of the DJ, and a couple seated on a bench, the woman’s hand furiously stroking her partner’s penis. As if on cue, a couple entered the room where I was standing. He took off his shorts and sat on the bed, and she fellated him as the ex-marine told me there was “no 6-foot social distancing rule unless you have a 6-foot dick.”
In Atlanta, the sex party scene was thriving, but throughout the pandemic, the South has been more casual about COVID restrictions overall. I spoke to Beth Sparksfire, director of events at Hacienda, a New York City–based sex-positive living community that also puts on play parties, to see if the appetite for sex clubs was similar in New York. She told me that applications for her community were way up during the pandemic.
“There’s a newfound appreciation for being in close proximity with other people, quite frankly. People really crave that sort of in-person connection. … There was so much being alone over the last year and a half that people are dying to get out,” she said. “There’s an element of reinvention. I think that during the quarantine people had a chance to really look at their lives, and maybe they made some decisions about how they wanted to live differently or take more chances … once they were able to safely do so.”
Recently, Hacienda has hosted three “small sexy daytime brunches,” which are “less intense” than the nighttime parties, Sparksfire said: Avocado eggs Benedict, a charcuterie board, and an orientation chat take up the first two hours or so. “It’s not a full-on fuck-fest right away,” said Procida, who attended a brunch recently. But postpandemic the brunches have been even more relaxed. “Everyone was so happy to talk, everyone was so happy to hold someone, to make out with a new person. I think everyone kind of forgot: Well, yeah, we should probably go downstairs and fuck at some point,” Procida said.
In May, Hacienda held its first nighttime play party in over a year. About 175 people attended, many of them newbies. “There was a lot more demand, but I put a cap on the tickets, because I don't want the experience to suffer in any way because it’s too crowded,” Sparksfire said. She told me that proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test was required for entry. During the party, a DJ blasted music, a firepit glowed, and appetizers made the rounds. Revelers frolicked in the hot tub, received tarot readings, and gazed at a fire-eater, as Hacienda employees steered sex carts that held condoms, lube, paper towels, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
While the party was a success, it didn’t turn out how she expected.
“I expected the event to be super high energy,” she said. “It’s the hot vax summer, right? There’s just general buzz in the air. Usually, I’m running around almost a little scatterbrained and overwhelmed. I was really surprised that there was a sense of zen to it. … There was a real sort of immersion in the moment, which was absolutely lovely.”
Perhaps this was because the party was full of new members, who’d paid $40 for three months or $120 for a yearly membership. It would make sense that the pandemic-induced sense of mortality made us reconsider our priorities. “What could be more like living your life to the fullest than going to a sex party? I think people are really hungry for that,” Sparksfire said.
I heard a similar story from Genevieve LeJeune, founder of Skirt Club, a sex club for women who are bisexual, lesbian, and bicurious, most of whom have male partners. Before the pandemic, Skirt Club received about 5 to 10 applications a day, but applications have skyrocketed this year. On a recent day, LeJeune counted 73. She attributed the increase to the lockdown, when couples who spent months holed up in their homes began to ruminate about “how to spice things up,” as well as “fantasize about how we can get what we want out of life, yet maintain our relationship together.”
LeJeune told me that many members have husbands or boyfriends who support their women partners going; some even suggest it. And unlike Trapeze and its ilk, Skirt Club doesn’t allow men to attend. “A lot of men are more accepting of women with women than they are … of partner swapping out or having an affair. This just seems like a safe option,” LeJeune said.
But it’s not just discussions among couples that are causing women to explore. “The pandemic has definitely boosted women thinking about themselves and having the time now to consider their own pleasures,” LeJeune said. “I think there are a lot of realizations for women who question their sexuality but are afraid to act on it — this realization of I want to live my life fully now, and I'm not going to listen to what others think or say.”
For people who went to sex clubs before the pandemic, the reopening has been joyous. Swinger couple Dorian and Cassie Del Isla said one post-lockdown event at a club in Paris was wild. “People were completely crazy and really horny. It was like after jail,” Dorian said. “It was a big orgy,” Cassie added. “The pandemic is affecting us in a different way because we have a lifestyle that we are quite free in our mind, with our body, so we were just like in prison. So now I think we just want to be free.”
They both think more couples will try swinging now that clubs are reopening. “People stay too long together in their houses,” Cassie said. “Sex is life. Everybody wants to fuck another person. It doesn’t mean that they do not love you,” added Dorian.
Of course, not everyone who is starved of human contact is flocking to a sex club. Some want their physical contact sans sex. For those people, cuddle parties are the better option. I went to San Francisco to visit one of the first of those events held this year to see whether cuddling had also made a comeback.
Before I went to the sold-out party, I met with its host Yoni Alkan, an Israeli sex educator, tech worker, and cuddle professional with dark hair, a beard, and a warm smile, and his friend Keeley Shoup, a full-time cuddle professional, at Alkan’s apartment in San Francisco.
One of the first things he emphasized when we spoke was the difficulty of communicating that cuddle parties weren’t just big orgies — no genital or breast touching is allowed. “Our culture equates touch to sex so easily. So people hear about cuddling… And they think, Oh, cuddling. It’s either that thing that we do before sex or the thing that we do after sex,” Alkan said. “One of my clients, his husband passed away a few years before he came to see me, and throughout those years, the only way he could get that touch is to go on Tinder or Grindr. And every date that he would get, he would have to have the sex that he did not want to, in order to receive that touch. … We are a touch-deprived society.”
Shoup chimed in, saying she calls this the “train problem.” “As adults, after adolescence, cuddling is seen as something that happens on the train to get to sex. And what we try to do is say, like, Actually, no, there’s an entire station. You can get off the train at cuddling and that can be your destination. It’s not just the part of the car of the train that gets you to sex,” she said as she waved her hands in the air, each fingernail colored a different shade for Pride. “People’s bodies, if they haven’t experienced platonic touch, aren’t used to what that feels like. It’s like having to build new tracks to go to another station.”
Shoup, who had just come from a two-hour session of one-on-one cuddling, said, “My business is booming. It’s bigger than it was prepandemic right now.”
Shoup charges $100 an hour for her sessions, which range from one to six hours. (Alkan charges $160.) Before the pandemic, about three-quarters of her clients were male (“It’s because of the lack of access to platonic touch,” she said). Now her clients are about 45% male, 40% female, and 15% nonbinary.
“The women that I see were often put in the position over the pandemic of being some people’s exclusive touch provider and caregiver. And so they didn’t get to receive in a way that felt replenishing or nourishing to them. … And so they’re realizing, Man, touch is important. Because now we kind of get it as a culture a little bit. It’s shifted slightly: Oh, I can have this for myself. I need this too,” she said.
When I took a Lyft to the HeartLab in the Mission District of San Francisco to actually experience a cuddle party for myself two days later, I was immediately asked for proof of my vaccination status. Then Alkan greeted me and told me to take off my shoes. “Do you want a hug?” he asked. I said yes, figuring that refusing a hug at a cuddle party would be like turning down a free iPhone at an Apple event.
Inside an airy room were two beds surrounded by couches, and a memory foam–covered lounge area, where a man in a tie-dyed shirt lounged next to a giant stuffed bear. Cheetos, lime Tostitos, brownie hummus, and cut-up vegetables sat on a table in the corner. I grabbed a pita chip and made my way to a couch draped in a yellow sheet. A man wearing an “I’m Really a Cat” sweatshirt plopped down next to me. He told me this was his third cuddle party, and he was thrilled to be back. Most of his friends didn’t know he was here, he said, because of the stigma.
As we sat talking, about 20 or so more people entered the space, sprawling on the floor pad, some draped across each other, wearing blissful smiles. They had all paid $35 to spoon and embrace and massage each other.
After Alkan introduced himself, the rest of us did the same. “I haven’t hugged or touched another human in a year and a half,” said the man in the tie-dyed shirt — his name was James. “I know I need touch, but I’ve been feeling cautious,” he continued, adding that he’d been coming to cuddle parties for a few years before the pandemic. The crowd, sprawled across the couches and designated cuddle spaces throughout the room, snapped their fingers in approval.
“We’ve been teaching ourselves to be uncomfortable and afraid of other people and now we need to unlearn that,” Alkan said.
With the introductions over, Alkan continued the welcome circle and consent speech. He told us to pair off for an exercise in accepting rejection. We took turns asking each other “Can I kiss you?” and answering “No,” whether we wanted to or not. I turned to the woman on my left. “May I kiss you?” I asked. “No,” she said. I felt bad, even though I knew that was the point.
When we were done, we turned back to Alkan. “You’ve all just been rejected and rejected someone, and you’ve lived to tell the tale,” he said, then told us there were breath mints and mouthwash in a cove next to the bathroom. “Pants stay on the whole time. This is a nonsexual event,” he said, as a woman lay draped across a couple, her head resting on a plush bunny. “Spooning, caresses, massages are all allowed, but you have to ask permission and get it,” he said. He also addressed the most common question people have at a cuddle party: What happens when someone gets horny or has an erection?
“You’re allowed to be aroused at a cuddle party and that’s where we’re going to stop it,” he said. “Don’t ask for someone’s number at a cuddle party. Wait till the end.”
Then Alkan announced it was time for “free range cuddling.” I was sitting with two men — a high school history teacher in South Park sweatpants and a cuddle professional — and we decided we’d cuddle together.
Cuddling can’t be any weirder than having sex with a stranger, I thought. But with the afternoon light pouring through the windows, the Cheetos in the corner, the lack of alcohol, it all felt a bit like a bad game of spin the bottle at a seventh-grade birthday party. I wondered whether my reaction was more about my hang-ups — my need for dim light, night time, and a few vodka sodas — or whether humans just aren’t meant to embrace strangers fully clothed in the light of day.
The cuddle professional in my platonic threesome pointed to the inflatable bed covered with a fitted yellow sheet in the center of the room. “Want to go there?” he asked me and the history teacher. We both answered yes. I felt more scared than I did during my first actual threesome in college. For one thing, my college threesome didn’t have an audience. I grabbed my wintergreen Altoids, popped two in my mouth, and offered them to my cuddle partners. They both accepted.
I sat on the bed. The cuddle pro sat down in front of me, and the history teacher sat behind me. We began massaging each other’s shoulders. As we kneaded, I felt completely self-conscious, worried that I looked ridiculous to the other guests. But then I looked around and saw James in a blissed-out state, leaning back into a woman who was caressing his stomach, and a mixed-gender group of five people embracing in the corner. I felt less awkward, recognizing that I wasn’t violating the cuddle party’s social norms, but instead conforming to them.
“Some people say you can get drunk with cuddles, and get high off your own biological drugs,” one of the partygoers told me. And it seemed like that’s what was actually happening to the people around me.
If everyone else can let go, I can too, I decided. So I tried to stay in the moment as much as possible, although there were times when it was hard to focus on the massage as the history teacher told me about his ex-partner forcing him to have sex against his will. “She’s the reason I’m here,” he said. “I need to explore consent and control and touch that doesn’t end in intimacy.”
Twenty minutes of massaging later, I got up and went to the snack bar, where I spotted James again.
“What did it feel like to finally get touched?” I asked him.
“It was very moving. I feel like crying,” he said. “It feels like a starving man getting food or a thirsty man getting water.”
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that spending over a year in our homes — with partners or without — has left us craving human contact. We are social creatures who need touch and intimacy, not just from one person, but from a variety of partners. Cuddle parties offer a safe space for those who want their intimacy free of sex. Yet after my weeks of exploration at cuddle parties and sex clubs, I realized that most of the people I met who were seeking contact were those who’d sought it out before the pandemic. While Hacienda and Skirt Club are seeing more applications, the sex club stigma has persisted even as we emerge from isolation. What would it take for our society to accept sharing touch with someone who isn't your partner?
The pandemic seems to be destigmatizing certain aspects of modern life — such as remote work and schooling — but hasn’t over a year of isolation shown us that we can’t depend on ourselves or a partner for all our physical needs? It made me hopeful to see that sexual desire and intimacy can flourish even during a time of so much fear. “We are a touch-deprived society,” Alkan said. “And touch deprivation causes so many really toxic and harmful side effects. We see what repression does, and it's another form of oppression,” Shoup added.
For those who want their connections with a side of cunnilingus, sex parties provide a safe environment. “I started going back to the parties because I wanted to experience that sexual energy, and if you want to feel desired, being grabbed by a bunch of sexy, horny people telling you you look pretty is not a bad way to do it,” said Procida. “[You can’t] replicate that at home even with a partner. … I hung a glory hole in my apartment during COVID, and I still can’t replicate that energy.” ●