Swing, Kink, Orgy & Play: Why Sex Parties Matter

Sex parties across London and the UK are closing, and it matters. So why do we fight for Fabric and mourn Plastic People, but forget to care about inclusive, liberating, diverse, celebratory nights of sex?

While much has been said about the city’s dwindling club scene, the gradual erasure of sex parties and the venues that host them has gone mostly unnoticed. With every new high-profile club closure – Fabric, Ministry of Sound, Madam JoJo’s, Dance Tunnel, Plastic People – there has been outcry, petitions and placards. Few people are aware that the same market forces are threatening to push out London’s sex party scene for good. 

If you’ve never been or even wanted to go to a sex party of any kind, you may think these changes don’t matter. Yet the issues that currently threaten their existence should concern anyone who wants to live in a London that offers a night out beyond curfews, overpriced drinks and Ed Sheeran. They matter too for those of us that care about sexual expression and preserving queer spaces – as well consenting adults having the freedom to collectively explore a fundamental human drive.

Much like any genre of music, sex parties can be subdivided into a range of related, yet distinct, forms. Play parties and orgies differ from swingers parties or kink events. They take place in a range of different spaces – regular clubs with a separate playroom full of beds, dedicated clubs, dark rooms, dungeons, and more private domestic-style environments. The last few years have seen the closure of historic sex clubs and saunas such as Chariots, The Hoist, Stunners and Murder Mile, along with the dark room at The Eagle, and nightclub Shapes, which hosted one of London’s largest sex parties. Numerous nights such as Peer Kink and Klub Fukk have also folded. With the remaining venues across London under considerable financial and licensing pressure, suitable spaces are becoming harder to find.

The reasons behind this are the same ones that affect anyone trying to run a club night in 2017: venues are dealing with increasing overheads following the gentrification of their neighbourhoods, and local councils are more inclined to side with residents and private property developers than clubs. This is a challenging enough environment for ‘regular’ events, but when you add in societal misunderstanding and apprehension about play parties, it becomes nigh-on impossible to find suitable spaces. Jamie Moon, who runs Seeking Venus and has been involved in numerous other erotic events, said: "I spent a year looking for the right venue and it was a hard slog. We have all the typical scrutiny a ‘vanilla’ event would have… people have concerns over how loud an event is, how late it will be, drugs, alcohol. And then they have the added complication [because] there’s a sexual element to it."

Tobias Slater co-founded the London outpost of international ‘arty sexy party’ Kinky Salon (KSL). For him, "Things have changed across the board. Entire historic venues like the Astoria and the Coronet are gone. When it comes to the sex scene, there’s a slow chipping away of what was already challenging and niche. It’s a continued marginalisation of something that was previously accepted on the fringes in Hackney, in Vauxhall. Those areas where it was once permitted are seen as the final frontier."

"We’re investigating other venues that might suit our needs and it’s impossible. It’s not just the sex element, it’s looking for venues in general that are happy to take a risk on things that might be outside their comfort zone," says Alice (a pseudonym), an organiser of queer-friendly event Sparkle Hard. For Helen, who runs From The Flames events, "The biggest obstacles I’ve faced are rising costs, also finding venues with good transport links that run into late hours, and venues that already have fetish play furniture and equipment installed."

Organisers also find themselves in the double bind of being asked to run quiet, controlled events with conscientious guests, while also ensuring the event is a commercial success for the venue. This means a hire fee, and also bar sales – but sex events are not generally very boozy, as Mark, who runs popular swingers party Fever, says: "Where there is a rival clientele of young people drinking until the early hours, frankly it’s going to be a lot more lucrative for [the venue] than swingers. There’s alcohol at our events, but for obvious reasons, not too much." Sex party guests are therefore seen by venues as Schrödinger’s swinger – both dangerously raucous and not partying hard enough to cover a minimum spend. And while the media is typically very fast to cook up drug- or sex-related incidents at play parties, they are no more frequent than in the rest of the clubbing community. If anything, because sex parties prioritise getting and giving sexual consent, it’s rare to see anyone completely off their face.

These limitations affect events of all type, regardless of size or history – even Torture Garden, the longest running and most commercially reliable of nights – have to move from venue to venue. It’s especially challenging for organisers attempting to get new events off the ground, though. Pierre co-founded the event Slapstick in early 2016, looking to create something a "little more sociable and more fun" than the bigger fetish nights. Slapstick ran successfully until the unexpected closure of Murder Mile studios in June 2017. "Three weeks ahead of our next event we received an email from our venue saying the landlord had pushed them out. We panicked, and ran around London trying to find an adequate space." The only suitable space he did find was "way, way too expensive – we’d be putting ourselves into debt. Since then we haven’t found anything really."

Sex club closures have an impact on more mainstream club nights, too. Pennie, who works for the techno night KAOS, attributes that event’s changing nature to their move from sex club Stunners when it closed in 2013. "It was never just a sex event, but it was in a sex venue." As a result of the relaxed environment, and the mix of people that attended, the night was "beyond queer. The diversity of the crowd was insane. It was so inclusive." Moon also observes the loss of that community feeling as events have shut down or moved further out to smaller venues: "These parties used to be eclectic and we were celebrating and revelling in that. Now they’re dissipating."

A complete lack of legal clarity around sexual event licensing is an additional hindrance. There is nothing illegal about consenting adults having sex in private, but once they do it in public there are potential indecency charges to worry about. When sex occurs in proximity to licensed acts, such as a programmed performance, stripping or the sale of alcohol, it can threaten the granting of that licence. As licences are agreed between local councils and venues on a case-by-case basis, there is no benchmark for what each licence permits. One organiser told me she’d heard of instances of councils including bizarrely specific stipulations, such as the number of spare toilet rolls provided in each cubicle, so that they would have a way of stepping in and revoking a venue’s licence should they ever be unhappy.

It is hard to establish whether any venues have agreed with their council explicitly not to permit sex as part of their licence. However, several gay clubs in Vauxhall have purchased sexual entertainment licences to cover the play in their darkroom. This seems at odds with the purpose of that specific licence, which is intended for activities such as stripping and lapdancing. In 2009, Proud Gallery Camden successfully challenged an order to obtain a sexual entertainment licence to cover its burlesque and cabaret shows, arguing that their events differed from those offered in a strip club. Camden Council said that any venue offering "entertainment of an adult nature" needed the licence – yet said nothing about events where patrons were having sex. When it comes to queer sex, too, the law is typically ambiguous. It does not, for instance, define what constitutes sex between people without penises, nor does it delineate between sex and kink in a public context. Alice tells me Sparkle Hard have spoken to venues "that will have some levels of kink, but are not happy with sex", while Genevieve Lejeune, who founded women-event Skirt Club, has found some venues more receptive to a women-only sex event: "Generally they’re okay with it because we’re just girls, and there’s this connotation of ‘What’s the worst you could do?’" With so much undefined and unclear in the law, venues are often left to make that call for themselves. As Mark confirms, "Not many people understand the law in this area. You can’t blame them for that, it’s very grey. Not many places are prepared to have some of our events as they perceive it could risk their licence."

If venues do take this risk, there’s little to stop a council from capitalising on this ambiguity to get rid of elements they feel no longer suit an area. In 2016, after an alleged sexual assault at a sex party, Hackney Wick club and community space Shapes was forced to shut. This was justified by a police claim that the venue had hindered their investigation. Owner Seb Glover has since refuted this claim, and has spoken publicly about his belief that this incident was used to accelerate Shapes’ eviction, as planning authority London Legacy Development Corporation had wanted them out for a long time.

Despite greater social understanding of a range of sexual preferences and identities, there’s still huge stigma attached to attending sex parties. One organiser approached to contribute to this article felt unable to do so because she works in the public sector, and fears attracting attention. Alice from Sparkle Hard reiterates this: "Our community comes from such a wide and diverse spectrum of society – nurses, actors, teachers, lawyers – we have to be so mindful of their privacy. For all of us, this a part of our lives, but it’s not all of our lives." These fears are not unfounded: it is still possible for British employers to fire you on the ground of your private sexual activities, and the belief continues that enjoying a certain kind of sex with other adults makes you unfit to do your job, or be around children.

Because of this stigma, few feel able to advocate publicly for the continued existence of sex parties just as they come under threat. When you do, you can be met with ridicule, disgust or just incomprehension as to why it matters if ‘fringe’ sexualities are allowed to exist freely in London. But not only does it matter if we want to preserve London as a home for those with desires outside narrow parameters, it matters as an issue of sexual expression. With licensing left to each individual (politicised) local council, there is a worrying amount of space for these decisions to be morally, politically and financially motivated. This is especially troubling in a political climate where a desire for privacy is interpreted as suspicious, and unelected bodies like ATVOD (Authority for Television on Demand) are able to regulate the pornography we consume.

We should care too for the disproportionate impact these closures will have on LGBTQ communities. Queer, DIY events rarely have the same budget as their straight equivalents, while established queer-friendly spaces have been hit hard with closures across the capital. As historic queer venues such as The Joiner’s Arms, Kazbar, Candy Bar and Green Carnation have disappeared, safe, accessible places for queers to meet and fuck are becoming harder and harder to find. Pennie from KAOS and BiKink says that when she and some friends attempted to put on their own queer kink event they were forced to give up when they couldn’t find a space. "We weren’t looking to make money – any profit would have gone to charity. There are just so few places with a late licence any more. The ones that there are don’t want people like us."

Much like Fabric’s harm-reduction approach when it came to patrons’ drug usage, play spaces often do valuable work when it comes to making their guests feel safe. Unlike in nightclubs or gigs, where unwanted groping, attention or provocation is depressingly common, most play parties ask guests to read their code of conduct or core principles before arrival, followed by a conversation on the night itself. Genevieve tells me, "We have an etiquette policy, but also at the beginning of every event we do a little talk. We’ll gather everybody, introduce ourselves, talk about the concept behind Skirt Club, that this is an empowerment tool… and to respect one another. We always talk about safe sex, we’ll pull out a dental dam and explain how to use it." At Kinky Salon, guests are asked to adhere to the PAL system in which you attend in a pair: "You are responsible for your PAL’s behaviour and they are responsible for yours. If either of you violate the charter, you will both be held responsible." From The Flames and Sparkle Hard have monitors in their play space to keep an eye on guest safety. KSL and Seeking Venus have wellbeing teams on hand to help with a range of problems, from being too intoxicated to having someone make you feel uncomfortable, through to having a fight with your partner or feeling overwhelmed. These are radical steps compared to modern mainstream clubbing, which so often feels like an endurance test of hostile, cattle market conditions, with minimal care given for patrons’ mental or physical safety.

The diminishing of the play party landscape is even more frustrating because it is inversely proportional to demand. KSL, Fever, Skirt Club and Sparkle Hard sell out their events quickly, and they have the kind of engaged audience base that other promoters would kill for. As Helen points out, "More people are joining the scene, so demand for venues is going up. We need a bigger pool of venues that are kink-friendly." Without dedicated sex spaces, or venues willing to open their doors to these events, London risks becoming a city where diverse forms of sexual expression are swept away by gentrification.

It is hard to know how to fight back, but we can begin recognising sex as a form of culture – one just as significant as music or performance, and just as worthy of protection as Fabric or the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. When I ask Slater why he thinks people’s interest in this sexual subgenre continues to grow, despite everything, he points out that this scene is far from niche. "This isn’t a fashion trend. This scene – the queer scene, the kink scene – has existed in London for a long time. This is an expression of people’s lives and connections. It matters."

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today