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Sex positive clubs in Philadelphia have historically been under the radar, but inside, these clubs are any but. | Image: iStockphotos
 

“I'm from California, so when I moved here 10 years ago, I searched for a dungeon-club experience that felt right,” said Mistress Zeneca, creator of Cherry Noir, a kinky play party that celebrates seven years in Philly this fall. 

It takes place at Saints and Sinners in Olde Richmond, one of the few venues in the city that offers this strictly adult kind of fun.

When she arrived in Philadelphia, she initially found the scene difficult to enter. “Every party felt like a cliquish bore. No one talked to people they didn't know, and it felt standoffish,” she said. “I decided to create parties the likes of which I wanted to go to, with the emphasis on welcoming and getting to know people. I never want any of my guests to feel like they are invisible.”

It can be hard for adults to make friends, and attending a sex party might already be fraught with anxiety for some people. Add Philadelphia’s notoriously hard façade to the mix and Mistress Zeneca has her work cut out for her. 

How exactly does one make a sex party more friendly?

“We have a set of Ambassadors of Love, whose whole job is to chat people up, keep everyone safe, make introductions, handle issues and guard scenes that need it,” she explained. “There are also fun kinky and geeky themes.”

Cherry Noir tends to crank it up to 11 with the themes, lighting, music and classes. “This is a labor of love for the Philadelphia community, so all feedback is heard, and we continuously try to make improvements,” she said.

Mistress Zeneca is not alone in describing the work of organizing safe, accessible, kinky parties as a labor of love. The job requires a lot of planning, onboarding and clever marketing to get around increasingly prudish social media rules. Despite that, it isn’t a particularly lucrative endeavor.

“While running these events is not fiscally rewarding, there is great satisfaction in knowing that we're an event where many people get to discover themselves,” said Baron Battersea, one of the co-founders of the Aviary, a monthly BDSM event held at the William Way LGBT Community Center in the Gayborhood. 

“A dear friend recently let me know that he and his fiance met at Aviary in person for the first time,” he said. “Every time I hear that someone has found a community, a friend or something about themselves, it reminds me of why it's worth doing.”

The Aviary’s origin is a similar tale of not finding what was desired in the existing kink scene. 

It was 2011. Baron Battersea and one of his collaborators, Goddess Thain, challenged themselves to be the change they wished to see. “The few accessible parties were in very loud, poorly lit, alcohol-fueled spaces,” he said, which raised concerns about being able to see well and hear safe words. Baron Battersea noted that they “tried to do something a bit different than what was out there. Over time, it seems to have worked out.”

What did the Aviary organizers do differently? According to Battersea, there are two big themes: “come as you are” and “feel free to learn and try new things.” Attendees may show up wearing street clothes, high-end fetish wear or “almost nothing at all. The goal is to be comfortable no matter who you are or what your kink is.” He adds that the Aviary was the first to designate a space at the party specifically for newbies.

“We also have a variety of housetops who are willing to not only play with people but also teach their skills and pass them on.” These tops can teach people about playing with rope, fire, electricity, corporal punishment and more. Education is also a component of the Pleasurecation events that Kati Kill hosts each month at the Pleasure

Garden in Southwest Philly. She’s been working in the sex industry for over 15 years, four and a half years ago was inspired to throw her own kinky party.  

“I thought that a BDSM/kink/play/dance party with a sex-positive educational class would be a fun, interesting way to meet like-minded people and bring them together,” she said.

Attendees can check out interactive workshops on topics including electro-stimulation, rope bondage, impact play, consensual non-monogamy and more. 

Full disclosure: This author has taught classes at Pleasurecation

What really sets Pleasurecation apart might be its sheer size. “The nightclub is large, which is great for accommodating all the members that come,” said Kati Kill, who estimated that 350 to 500 people attend her events on an average night. The Pleasure Garden is warehouse-like, with a big dance floor, space for vendors, open and partially obscured play areas, multiple bars, stages and a number of private rooms.

After the workshop lets out, the classroom converts to a dungeon.

Pleasurecation most closely fits pop culture depictions of BDSM parties, with its dark nightclub lighting and EDM radiating through its cavernous twists. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Philly Music Hall (PMH) in Tacony might be the most different from the imaginations of movies and TV. Its look could be described as a kinky grandma’s house, with a St Andrew’s cross stationed next to floral wallpaper.

“PMH is different because it is not a once a month party. It is a community center which seeks to provide alt-sex and queer communities a safer and sober space to socialize and meet other people,” said PMH co-founder Deborah Rose. 

The giant building that is home to PMH has a storied history since its construction in 1885. It housed lectures by PT Barnum and Susan B. Anthony, long before it was a sex-positive community center with movie and game nights, potluck dinners, Nerf battles and blood drives. It also provides low-cost and accessible kink and alt-sex education to the wider communities of Philadelphia. Most of its educational opportunities are open to non-members, according to Rose, who has been involved in the kink scene for over 10 years and was a co-organizer at the start of Aviary. 

She reiterates that the lack of physically safe or sober spaces for playing prompted the creation of PMH.

“Most of the safest spaces were gatekept and not available to the newest members of our communities who needed them the most,” she said. “The idea of the Hall grew out of a need to provide a different kind of alt-sex community space to Philadelphia.”

Initially, there was some pushback when the Hall opened in the quiet residential neighborhood, as folks nearby initially feared an influx of sex work or drug use that never materialized. Over time, and thanks to a lot of community outreach, PMH has settled into peace with the neighborhood.

“We struggle to create legal and correctly zoned community spaces due to the sex-negative nature of many East Coast cities. Thanks, Puritans!” said Rose, adding, “Kinksters still face discrimination when outed. People lose their jobs, professionals can lose their licenses. One of the ways we see it commonly play out is in custody battles.”

Advertising this kind of community has also gotten worse recently, she says, thanks to increasing online censorship in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, a pair of bills passed in 2018 that purported to target sex trafficking. Social media sites like Facebook have become notoriously prudish about nudity and sexuality.

“Many of our online gathering places have been clamped down on and closed off to us. Tumblr won't allow us to discuss kink/BDSM in general,” she said. “PayPal won't process payments to organizers or events, sometimes even stealing the money and never returning it to the events.”

While sex-positive spaces face increasing censorship on social media, the internet, in general, has allowed for the word to be spread much easier than in previous decades, especially for sexual minorities.

Sex parties have likely always been shrouded in some degree of discretion, especially those who serve LGBT clientele, yet today a tourist doesn’t need to risk chatting up strangers to find a place frequented by men looking for encounters with other men. The Adonis Theater and Club Philly (an adult cinema and bathhouse, respectively), can now be found as easily as a Yelp search. Philly Jacks boasts a detailed website where they describe their Center City “Penis Pleasure Parties for men 18 and over.”

What about women looking for other women? Or for queer people who are looking for a sexy experience that’s a little more social and less about getting down to the point?

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Kinks range from club to club giving those interested a great opportunity to explore every and all sexual desire and fantasy. | Image: Unsplash
 

“Glittergasm, our original event, was created to center trans women and cis women...It's intended to be a low-risk space where physical touch and exploration is allowed, but not required, in a safe, non-judgmental environment,” said sex educator Rachael Rose, who runs Glittergasm parties with co-creator and fellow sex educator Rebecca Hiles in a private suburban residence. 

Rainbowgasm, their other event, is “open to the whole LGBTQ+ community or anyone who's questioning/curious — we don't police genders or orientations and let our attendees decide if our events feel like a good fit for them.

“I think a lot of people imagine sex/play parties as a seedy event where you have to be sexual. While most aren't like that, our events really are the total opposite of that,” added Rachael Rose, who said her introduction to play parties was at very comfortable, casual events thrown in hotel rooms during sex education conferences.

Integrating their experience as professional sex educators, the Glittergasm organizers focused on making their parties as navigable for newbies as possible. Not only does the event start with a welcoming circle where rules and expectations are outlined, but signs are posted that reiterate those rules, and rooms are designated for different levels of play so attendees can choose their own adventure.

“We have a G-rated space where there's food, board games, etc., and no sex is allowed, a PG-13 space where we host makeout games (with adjusted rules for consent) like

truth or dare, spin the bottle and 7 minutes in heaven, and then we have separate spaces for sex, full nudity and kink activities,” said Rachael Rose, who adds that there is a lot of emphasis on being comfortable with both saying and hearing “no.”

Managing consent is one of the many complex issues that play party organizers must navigate, and not all the parties agree on how to handle it. Nearly all have had consent violations and each has a different approach. Aviary has an “external Consent and Safety team” while PMH has an “extensive reporting system” addressed by the staff.

While Pleasurecation’s organizer Kati Kill said, “All of our security staff is well trained in the protocol of dealing with inappropriate behavior and understand the rules of consent,” the party has been called out by other party organizers for failing to address consent issues, not barring accused offenders and failing to adopt greater security measures.

“I have to say that I would highly not recommend any event at the Pleasure Garden Club/Pleasurecation, simply because of all the consent violations that I've heard of or have worked with people on trying to remedy,” said Mistress Zeneca, adding, “I used to teach there, but now I don't because of that issue.”

Deborah Rose and Rebecca Hiles have made similar statements on social media about Pleasurecation. Kati Kill, organizer of Pleasurecation, vociferously disagrees with their assessments and says the other organizers have not attended her events in years and have “spoken negatively of me since day one...They have had a vendetta against me since my event is doing so well.”  

She adds that the party has a strict no cell phone policy to guard party-goer privacy. Meanwhile, Saints and Sinners as a venue has reportedly had issues with surreptitious filming and lack of adequate security. But these issues are not really unique to kink or play spaces.

“What I want to do, I can’t just do anywhere,” said a local female kinkster speaking on condition of anonymity. The Philly-area party-goer says she tries out a lot of the different kinky venues and acknowledges none of them are perfect. “What am I going to do? Not go out? Fights break out at regular bars. It’s dangerous to be there too.”

Her advice for party-goers is to just take basic precautions. “Go with someone you know, stay relatively sober, keep your eyes open.” She also recommends taking classes on kink before attending parties and attending munches, which are meetups where people gather and talk about kink but don’t engage in play.  “A lot of new people don’t know that’s an option until I mention it,” she said.

For those who are interested in trying out the play party scene, it’s wise to start by identifying what is desired from an event and what you and your partners are comfortable with happening there.

“Just remember that you don't have to try everything on your first night,” Baron Battersea said. “Feel free to sample and take your time.”

“There's nothing you "have to" do at a play party,” added Rachel Rose. “You're more likely to have a good time if you don't set expectations for how you think the night will go or what you'll feel up for doing — just come to have a good time and be social, and anything else will be a bonus.”

TWITTER: @TIMAREE_LEIGH

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One would think that sex positive clubs are centered only in the city, but clubs reside as far as Northeast Philly, the most recent being the redesigned Tacony Music Hall. | Image: Unsplash

PLAY ALL DAY 

Philadelphia Weekly has assembled this quick guide to the play parties throughout the City of [insert pleasure kink here]:

Aviary

  • When and where: William Way Center, second Saturday of each month 
  • Who’s it for: People aged 18 and up interested in BDSM, kink and fetish 
  • Cost and info: $25 theaviaryphilly.com/ 

Cherry Noir 

  • When and where: Saints & Sinners, varied dates
  • Who’s it for: People interested in BDSM, kink and fetish
  • Cost and info: Couples $40, Triads $60, Single Ladies $15, Single Men $40. elegantlykinky.com

Glittergasm

  • When and where: Private residence, monthly
  • Who’s it for: women, women aligned individuals and gender marginalized folks
  • Cost and info: Donations accepted. glittergasmevents.com

Philly Jacks

  • When and where: Ranging from 6-7 parties a month along the 700 block of Chestnut St.
  • Who’s it for: Men aged 18 and up. 
  • Cost and info: $15 suggested donation. philadelphiajacks.com 

Philly Music Hall

  • Where: Philly Music Hall, Tacony
  • Who’s it for: Members only, aged 18 and up. 
  • Cost and info: $50 monthly and reduced rates on special events. phillymusichall.com/ 

Pleasurecation

  • When and where: Pleasure Garden, first Friday of each month. 
  • Who’s it for: People aged 21 and with identification, Kissing Couples (MF, MM, FF) 
  • Cost and info: $40 couples, $20 Single Females; $80 Single Males. pleasurecationparty.com    
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