Last Saturday night, I spent three hours in a video conferencing session with 45 strangers, watching a man in a sailor hat enthusiastically eating ass. In another corner, a bearded man in a tastefully minimalist studio apartment ties up a slim dark-haired woman with Shibari rope, her breasts bulging between the knots; in another, a brunette woman in a cream-colored bustier enthusiastically fellates her partner, who is wearing what appear to be Batman pajama pants.
The event was a Couples’ PlayDate held by NSFW, an organization that describes itself as a private club offering “sex and cannabis positive experiences.” All of the couples are young (or youngish), attractive, and seem exceptionally well-versed in their knowledge of proper lighting and camera angles, which NSFW founder Daniel Saynt attributes to the newfound explosion in popularity of the teleconferencing app Zoom: “I feel like a lot of people know their angles or lighting now,” he says. “Thanks to Zoom, we’re gonna have a generation of people who know how to look really good on camera.”
NSFW is far from the only sex party forced to close its doors, which have had to pivot to digital in the era of social distancing. There was an orgy hosted by the London-based sex club Killing Kittens, and the trend has also made its way into the world of porn, with director Alexandre Sartre producing a four-way lesbian orgy shot entirely over video conference. Though NSFW uses a different platform to host its parties (which Saynt declined to name for fear of being booted off), many of these events are being held on the platform of choice for millennials in the COVID-19 era: Zoom. And far from just offering a form of physiological release, some of them are serving a near-therapeutic purpose in an era marked by panic and anxiety.
“It’s kinda like trying to take people on a guided meditation,” says Oscar Buzz (a pseudonym), who, for the past few years has hosted a queer underground sex party in Brooklyn, but now hosts near-nightly Zoom sex parties, mostly for gay and trans men. “You’re all in a group and you’re all doing an activity. And you’re just trying to encourage people and encourage them to get into their bodies and enter this fantasy space. You’re trying to create a space where people can feel like they’re free.”
At first glance, it seems like moving a sex party to a digital platform would be an inherently losing proposition, for somewhat obvious reasons. Technical glitches such as halting visuals and lagging sound can create a less-than-optimal user experience (“This jumpy video reminds me of when I was 10 and watching the Playboy channel trying to get sight of a fucking nipple,” a guy with a cleft chin during the PlayDate put it), plus such events fail to offer the multi-sensory experience an actual sex party provides. (“What’s missing from a virtual sex party that an actual sex party provides?” I asked my friend, a longtime NSFW attendee who virtually accompanied me to the Couples’ Playdate. “Fucking people,” she succinctly responded.)
But for those who are single and quarantined in isolation, or coupled and simply bored and horny, virtual sex parties on Zoom and other platforms have filled the void of a day marked by fear — of losing your job, of you or a loved one getting sick — or simply boredom. “Most of the day is spent laying in my bed with a heating pad watching opera,” says Buzz, who struggles with depression and anxiety. But the Zoom jerk-off parties (which is essentially what they are, per Buzz, minus the occasional couple or solo ass play or two) “are a way to connect with the community, make sure they’re OK, and make sure they feel good about themselves.” He sees it as a public service, to the degree that unlike other sex parties, he doesn’t even charge admission.
Formerly known primarily as a business video-conferencing platform, Zoom has exploded in popularity in the age of COVID-19; in three months, its daily user base has jumped from 10 million to 200 million. It’s used for everything from remote college classes to high school musical productions to, now, play parties. Buzz says his initially started as a check-in, with members of the community sharing details of their lives in quarantine and panicking over their perceived COVID symptoms. But over time, “basically what’s happened is, it sort of became the mutual appreciation jerk-off society,” he says, with approximately 20 to 30 men drifting in and out of his parties per night.
Not every sex-party proprietor is a fan of using Zoom for this purpose. NSFW, for instance, eschews it in favor of a more “curated” experience; instead of featuring a vast array of black windows interspersed with disembodied turgid genitals, attendees vie for one of four “seats” to show off for the rest of the audience. “I wanted there to be an appreciation of people showing off on camera,” says Saynt. “With so many windows it jades you to the experience.”
Others still are wary of using Zoom due to its privacy issues, which become all the more pressing for attendees of a virtual sex party who may closely guard their anonymity. The platform has played host to Zoombombers, or trolls who hijack public links to harass people or post racist and anti-Semitic language. Such breaches are a source of concern for Larisa Fuchs, the founder of House of Scorpio, a sex-positive event production company, as is the threat of people recording content or screen grabbing it without attendees’ consent.
“When we host events in person there are certain safety steps we make our guests go through to make sure everyone’s privacy is protected. We just can’t guarantee the same thing online,” Fuchs says. “I don’t think I could take that risk with my guests.” For this reason, House of Scorpio hosts sex-positive events on Zoom, such as Sex Bingo and an erotic book club, but has yet to move play parties over to the platform.
Buzz says that some of the attendees of his parties have expressed this concern, accusing other members who may be keeping their faces out of frame or leaving their windows dark of tacitly recording others without their knowledge: “That’s become a point of contention. People are like ‘We don’t know who these people are, are they recording?’” he says. He says he’s seen no evidence of this happening, and has tried to curb the possibility by turning on a feature that alerts attendees when they’re being recorded, but of course, there’s no guarantee that someone can’t just whip out their phone to record someone else whipping it out, a reality of which virtual orgy attendees are fully aware. “You do have to kind of trust the community and hope people are putting it out there,” says Evelyn (a pseudonym), a 37-year-old nonprofit professional, who attended the NSFW couples’ night.
There’s also the fact that, like many social platforms, Zoom doesn’t exactly want to be publicly known as the platform people are using to watch others masturbate — even if that is exactly what some people are using it for. “Zoom‘s user policies explicitly prohibit any obscene, indecent, illegal, or violent activity or content on the platform,” a spokesperson for the platform said. “We encourage users to report suspected violations of our policies, and we use a mix of tools, including machine learning, to proactively identify accounts that may be in violation.” Execs at the platform did not respond to follow-up questions about what, exactly, these machine-learning tools are, or how exactly they would know if people were using the platform to watch each other masturbate en masse.
The Zoom spokesperson did note, however, that it is intended as a business tool, and that it would take a “number of actions” against people found to use it for “any activity that is harmful, obscene, or indecent, particularly as would be understood in the context of business usage,” including “displays of nudity, violence, pornography, [and] sexually explicit material.”
Buzz calls bullshit on this, saying that exhibitionists have long been using the platform for this purpose: “I think this is another instance of a business that wants to pretend it doesn’t do these things, but of course it does,” he says. (In this vein, one of the themed nights for his Zoom sex parties was a “business suit” night in which attendees pretended they were having an actual Zoom meeting until Buzz asked everyone to take off their pants — a nod to Zoom’s “we’re a corporate tool” messaging.) Still, he asked we not publish the name of his party for fear of attracting Zoombombers or inciting a company crackdown — even though, given Zoom is currently under investigation for its data and security practices, 20 to 30 men jerking off within the confines of their own quarantined homes would hardly seem a priority.
Even sex-party organizers that have opted not to use Zoom have experienced their own challenges due to the stigma associated with the sex industry. NSFW, for instance, did not want to reveal the name of the platform on which it currently hosts its sex parties, as it has already been kicked off of the video-conferencing platform GetVokl. “They kicked us off and said we were pornography. I was like, ‘Well, it’s not like we’re selling it, it’s a live chat,’” says Saynt. “But I think that’s gonna be a difficulty with a lot of platforms. It’s the same difficulty we have with Instagram and Facebook and Google that don’t allow us to advertise and post content based on what we do.”
For this reason, NSFW is developing an independent platform it can build out and license to other party organizers — a long-term business plan that would allow them to hold similar digital events long after the lockdown is lifted in hot spots like New York. “We’re at least six months away before we can host events for up to 50 people,” Saynt suggests, “and there’s going to be nowhere near mass testing for a while … there are going to be many difficulties in figuring out how to host events.”
Saynt is gambling on the fact that virtual sex parties are here to stay, simply because for a long time they’ll be the only option for kinksters in isolation; and he is also banking on the fact that people are willing to put a lot on the line — like their privacy, for instance — in order to forge some semblance of connection and intimacy with strangers. But if the attendees of virtual orgies are to be trusted, he may be right. Quarantine and isolation have changed many unforeseen aspects of our lives, but one unforeseen effect is that it has forced some of us to expose parts of ourselves that we could have never previously imagined. “I never thought I’d be doing this kind of stuff in such a public way, where I don’t know who’s watching,” Buzz admits. “But it’s kind of like ‘Brave new world — this is what everyone is doing.’”
“I was just talking with a friend, saying that it seems like everyone is a cam girl now,” says attendee Evelyn. “We are all becoming a bit more exhibitionist just because we have to in order to make that connection.”