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Promoting Consent: The Business Of Safer Spaces

A person performing burlesque with feather fans
flickr/Peter Roan

More clubs are taking inspiration from the LGBTQ and Kink communities for how to run their sex parties.

I walked through the door with you
The air was cold
But something ‘bout it felt like home, somehow

I’m not entirely sure why, but as I entered the party I had Taylor Swift’s song “All Too Well” in my head. Considering I had never been to this location or one of these events and I wasn’t arriving with anyone, the lyrics had no relationship to what I was actually doing; attending a members-only intimate party via an anonymous erotica club. Not quite a sex party, although that was certainly available to anyone interested in partaking. It was more of a hyper-flirtatious gathering for adults; consenting, eager adults.

Each party begins with some icebreaker games for the newer members, accompanied by music and live burlesque or acrobatic performances. There are tables with snacks set out, encouraging the seventy or so members to meet and mingle. Behind some doors are the actual “playrooms” where guests can engage in sex, erotic play, or just sit and watch. Ever mindful of my journalistic integrity, and crippling social anxiety, I remained an observer.

It was fascinating to watch the playroom, a room of maybe fifteen people, some in pairs, some in trios or more, all in different positions and various states of undress. As I stood holding up the wall as though it would crumble behind me, I was approached by a beautiful woman in ripped jeans and a crop top with her hair natural and teased out.

“First time here?”

“Yes.” I was certain she could hear the T-Swift refrains repeating in my head.

“Cool. I mostly just watched when I first started coming here. Let me know if you have any questions.”

“Oh, do you work for the club?”

“Nope, just know it can be intimidating at first.”  

She smiled warmly and walked away, the goal not to out me as a newbie but to offer some support in an intimidating scene. I breathed a sigh of embarrassed relief and moved on to the next track from Red, pressing down my skirt as I had decided my inspiration for the night was Kathleen Turner from “Romancing the Stone.”

This type of friendly interaction is not a perk of parties like this, it’s the point. The atmosphere is designed to be a communal, artistic, space. Sex is available if you want it, but it’s not necessarily the end goal, and it’s certainly not the only thing available. It was my maiden foray into a private play party, but certainly not the first event I had attended where enthusiastic consent was a selling point. And that’s becoming far more common for clubs that host these kinds of events.

One of the most popular spots in the Brooklyn scene is House of Yes, a dance club and performance space located in Bushwick that has gained notoriety for its themed parties as well as its guidelines regarding club behavior. The rules are listed on the website, when purchasing a ticket, and are visible on walls throughout the club:

Behave with beauty, connect with intention. We are obsessed with Consent. Always ASK before touching anyone in our House. If someone is violating your boundaries or harassing you, please speak to a security guard or any staff member. We have a zero tolerance policy for harassment. If you feel something, say something, and we will help.

Each night at House of Yes is different to accommodate the different interests of the attendees. A Tuesday night may feature amateur burlesque, followed the next day by an aerial circus and DJ, and an early no-booze-on-the-dance-floor dance party for the nine to fivers. The website is clear that this is a space for anyone wanting to try something different from the norm. Imagine Studio 54 but without a crabby owner outside telling you that you’re not cool enough to come in.

And while clubs like House of Yes put a premium on safety, they are also careful about how they promote consent policies and lay out expectations to clientele. I spoke with Katie Rex, creator of the queer fetish party BOUND, who this year moved her events from exclusively underground to public spaces like Elsewhere.

“I don’t know of any club that markets itself as a safe space. To call a space a ‘safe space’ you would have to screen every single person entering the door and evaluate their behavior while intoxicated before entry. The only proposed safe spaces are completely underground. Clubs are certainly upping the ante when it comes to the priority of safety and how to manage unsafe people, but it would be completely irresponsible for a space to say they can promise none of their patrons will act out of line.”

The application process to the private party I attended is detailed. Currently the club encourages female members who may bring male dates, but has recently opened up selective spots for men who have displayed appropriate behavior at previous parties to attend events by themselves. While the club does not have language directly addressing submissions from prospective non-binary members, it makes clear in the questionnaire that the goal when vetting members is mostly about your vibe.

The questionnaire I filled out had the standard questions, “Age,” “Zip Code,“ “How did you hear about us?” then followed with more thoughtful inquiries like “What made you interested in us,” “Describe your current relationship and what you think [Party Name] can bring to it,” “Do you trust your partner?,” “Do you feel comfortable communicating your needs and desires with your current partner or other intimate partners?”.

This was the first of many surprises when researching this scene; how deliberately it draws a line around what type of members they’re looking for, establishing from the outset that this wouldn’t be an unsupervised fuckfest, but a community of like-minded adults who wanted a place to comfortably explore and experience different parts of themselves, either sexually or creatively.

The atmosphere is designed to be a communal, artistic, space. Sex is available if you want it, but it’s not necessarily the end goal, and it’s certainly not the only thing available. Click To Tweet

This type of vetting is inherent to private parties, and bringing it to a public space like has not been as simple as posting rules on a website as Jacqui Rabkin, Marketing Director, and Consent Co-Director at House of Yes, and I discussed.

“A lot of it is very straightforward. You make a policy, you make it visible, you make a system for reporting,” she says. “You have to know your limits, and know what your knowledge base is and what your capabilities are and if you want to have a safer space … you should build a team, you should talk to other members of the community who are also doing this.”

The other Consent Co-Director is consultant Emma Kaywin, a sexual health writer and activist who works with clubs, private parties, and music festivals, training staff how to manage public play spaces. It’s become a vital part of the House of Yes program, specifically for their House of Love events, which mirror private parties, but with more limits on what can take place.

“The Consent Team and program we have in place is modeled after real play parties. We have active guardians; people walking around the club kind of monitoring,” says Rabkin. “We call them ‘Consenticorns’…[they] have been trained by Emma in de-escalation techniques and bystander intervention, just the basics of how to approach people so you can step in and offer people help without causing a scene or a complication but also they have these light up beacons so someone can find them easily if they need help.”

The queer community has been managing the “safer space” movement for far longer than their more cis-hetero counterparts. The inclusivity and safety of many queer clubs and roaming parties underscore the nuanced language around sex that many marginalized communities developed because of the very real threat of violence that hangs over the head of anyone considered other. Safer spaces needed to exist where people could express the very basic desire to represent themselves honestly, without harassment or judgment.

It’s not surprising then that straight women were attracted to these spaces. When fear polices your daily life, regardless of exactly why you are being targeted, anywhere you are able to simply breathe comfortably is a welcome relief. Moreover, those communities were often required to police themselves to avoid bringing unwanted attention from anyone on the outside.

Safer spaces needed to exist where people could express the very basic desire to represent themselves honestly, without harassment or judgment. Click To Tweet

Self-policing is also a part of the kink community that, while not an apparent physical presentation, labors under a societal stigma that pushes it underground. Kink works only when lines and boundaries are drawn very clearly before physical interaction. Fantasy scenarios are outlined over text or email, safe words are established early, and aftercare is often essential before a play session can be considered “complete.”

These rules are not only important for physical safety, but they also acknowledge that sex and intimacy can be emotionally challenging for any number of reasons. In the current #MeToo era where predominantly cis-hetero men and women are still grappling with dangerous societal gaps in sexual communication, this type of prior consent was bound to find its way into the mainstream.

While these spaces were not and are not free from any form of harassment or problematic behavior, their emphasis on community safety and clarity of purpose is a welcome jolt of change into more public spaces where people have not yet figured out how to communicate desires or boundaries. As House of Yes became more popular and saw its audience expand, they had to make changes to how they approached and enforced their policies.

“When we became really really popular we got this tsunami tide of people who maybe don’t have the best etiquette on the dance floor and the vibe started to change,” Rabkin tells me.

“Too many people, more spectators, they’re not dressed up, they’re not overly friendly and they’re not participating. They just show up to see what crazy shit is happening. If you’re going to survive that you need to be very proactive about trying to orient and educate your new clientele.”

The club initially attempted to combat the changing crowd by instituting a mandatory costume policy, but realized shortly thereafter that such policy was excluding lower-income patrons who may find the need to spend money on a costume prohibitive, as well as tourists who want to attend but may not have packed a feather crown in their suitcase. They relaxed the policy to greatly encourage people to express themselves through their look, as well as providing a costume box for guests to get their make up done, restyle their outfit, or pick up some accessories to signal that they’re excited to participate in the night ahead.   

Combining the inclusivity and artistic expression of many LGBTQ clubs with the rules of consent in Kink culture is a powerful bulwark against sexual inequality, a pervasive and harmful construct that thrives on fear and silence. The only way to combat it is consent and communication, but also to remember that communities are not static. Reimagining and reinforcing rules to meet changing tides is just as important as establishing them in the first place.

Boundaries are there to make sure guests feel at ease, that they know what is expected of one another and how to behave. It’s not just about being safe, it’s not just about saying “yes,” it’s about allowing people the space to express themselves in ways they have been conditioned not to. You can do something, or nothing, and no one is entitled to pressure you either way. Once the threat of violence or coercion is removed, once a true sexual equality is established, the possibilities when exploring that physical and mental space become exciting rather than intimidating.