Last week, I’m having drinks with a friend from university I reconnected with after a 30th birthday party. We’re at a hotel in East London. At one point, a woman I presume must be a former model (her legs are the height of, well, my entire body) walks in to style an event wearing a sheer, thonged body-stocking over the outside of her leather trousers. She is followed by a gaggle of pleathered-up, pierced and inked assistants with varying shaped hats. I can see the woman’s nipples. They’re delightful. Still, I don’t think I quite fit in here. There’s cool and then there’s cool, you know? And I, unfortunately, will never be cool. I’m wearing a jumper I had when I was 7, and have now fashioned as a crop-top. Different strokes.
Let’s call the friend I’m with Felicity. It suits the crisp cut of her shirt and her perpetually sunny demeanour.
“This is actually where John and I had our first date,” she tells me, amidst the industrial ‘mood lighting’ and the tap-tapping of people pretending to work around us whilst they sip ethically sourced lattes topped with foam figures sculpted by a moustached man with tattoo of his mother’s maiden name on his forearm and a poodle in a baby sling on his back whispering his horoscope to him as he styles his creations. He’s now her fiancé. John I mean, not the moustachioed foam philanderer.
Felicity has always had the business acumen of Sheryl Sandberg and the wardrobe of Robin Wright in House of Cards. She was the only girl I knew at university who decided to spend her student loan on a regular manicure, rather than on snakebites and bottles of cheap, acrid wine.
Although she is infused with business lingo (I don’t understand) to the same extent that I am with the demonology of Buffy, I’m happy to learn that she has kept steadfast and true to her entrepreneurial beat in the way that not many actually have, nearly ten years on. I’m sure it helps that her entrepreneurial beat bumps with money, but I also imagine that one day, not too far from now, she will well and truly rule the tech world.
The warm tickle of her voice, however, and the crinkles in her eyes when she smiles, is what I remember most about her.
After the obligatory precis of our past few years – the work woes, the gossip, the engagements, the deaths – our conversation quickly turns to loves, to heartbreak and then (more importantly) to sex clubs. This is one of the reasons we have met up. Funny how birthday parties and a cocktail can loosen us all up. I lean forward across the booth. My attention is firmly pricked (no pun intended).
Killing Kittens is a name I’ve heard before. It’s cyber-slang from 2002: ’every time you masturbate…God kills a kitten.’ I remember when I heard it I couldn’t get the image of Meg Ryan, but dressed as Tinkerbell, out of my head, screaming, “I believe, I believe, I BELIEVE” before her little fairy wand shoots fairy dust, all over her turkey sandwich. Or rather, fake fairy dust.
It’s also a members-only sex club, founded by Emma Sayle, that hosts female-oriented parties in London, Manchester and Los Angeles. It is unapologetically about “the pursuit of female pleasure”: men can’t approach women at parties unless they know them, everyone wears a mask (like in Eyes Wide Shut), and single men aren’t allowed. The rooms are candlelit, it’s black tie and there’s often a champagne and oyster reception. It’s live porn for the liberal elite. Rather glamorous?
Aside from the more sordid anecdotes (actually more hilarious than sordid), the tips she gained from watching varying couples lose themselves amidst the candlelight (intriguing), what strikes me most, is Felicity’s eloquence as to the spiritual and quasi-philosophical benefits of the experience. I know, I know.
One of the most interesting conversations she had that night (and yes, most of the night was actually just spent in conversation with other couples; the conversations being often sexual in nature, sure) was with a couple who had travelled from Paris. As they sat sipping their bubbles, the woman explained how she had recently given birth and was navigating a new relationship with her body. She was there to help her readjust to the change; to recapture something she’d felt she’d lost; to build a different type of confidence and to rebuild the self-worth she felt had disappeared amidst the feedings and the lack of sleep and the crying. And sure, Felicity and her ended up kissing. It was a sex party after all.
When faced with the prospect of ‘till death do us part’ Felicity was clear on her idea of connubial bliss: “I just don’t want a boring life, you know? It’s too short. It’s the 21st century. I want spice, I want a life where, okay, to sort of quote When Harry Met Sally, you want to be able to fuck on the kitchen counter and the kitchen floor, even when you have kids. I don’t mind if my kids catch me fucking. Okay well maybe I will mind that, but you get my drift.”
So is it a gateway to non-monogamy? “I don’t know. I don’t think it was about exploring non-monogamy per se, it was about exploring an open dialogue.” With non-monogamy, you’re arguably entering into risky territory if you don’t set ground rules and encourage communication. But if you do? Well, the result could be a more honest, fulfilling relationship. Trust is key.
“I know he loves my body, he loves me too and, well of course, that’s great, but I know he desires me. And I’m confident in that. We went knowing that we’re crazy for each other and as a baseline I think that’s important.”
So, can ‘non-monogamy’, in its varying forms, teach us something on a deeper level that monogamy can’t? Are we still faking a truth aching to be universally acknowledged? In 2014, dating website Elite Single conducted a survey of 445 of its members in an attempt to predict the key trends for future relationships in the 21st Century. The survey suggested that we are on track to become far more individualistic, looking for ‘experience’ marriages rather than staying in a couple for survival. It’s something that is increasingly gaining traction in the media, and something which the comedian Rosie Wilby explores in her latest book, Is Monogamy Dead?
Perhaps these kittens are onto something.
How many of us are painstakingly open about what we really want? So much other shit seems to get in the way of honesty. Even if you are a simply a voyeur, a bystander preferring to watch others get off then get it on yourself, sometimes it just helps to take yourself outside of your daily environment. Journey into a place where anything goes, where no judgments are made, and where people are given permission to let themselves run wild. Bachhus and Aphrodite on heat on a velvet chaise lounge, all the while knowing that there are no phones, no wayward laptops filming, no sodding blue ticks and no STIs (one would hope).
Fantasies are, for many, difficult to articulate, especially if you don’t feel secure in a partnership, don’t know if you’re about to be ghosted, iced or simmered, or if you have old hangups from a previous one. What’s more, it’s basically acknowledged by now that female sexual arousal is more complex than that of our male counterparts.
Generally, guys are just happy to see body parts (sure, we understand, we are rather wonderful and jiggly), whereas female sexuality is a more glitch-ridden, gladiatorial battle between the body and the mind, as Naomi Woolf explored in Vagina, with particular stress on the interconnection between the mental landscape and the automatic nervous system (ANS) in female sexual response.
We want high romance, someone to say, “you pierce my soul” (anyone?) and yet we routinely lose our shit for men who ignore us. We want a cuddle, but we also randomly have fantasies of a far more aggressive nature (admit it). We identify as ‘straight’, but we’re more turned on by lesbian porn. It’s no wonder Freud was confused. Bless.
What I become aware of, as our discussion meanders around release, escape and self-annihilation in its varying forms, is that it’s only in the past year that I have had the most open, truly honest conversations about sex with my girlfriends. They’re not ones I’d have with everyone, sure, but I’m intrigued as to why it’s taken us this long.
Is it fear? Is it privacy? Is it no one’s goddamn business? We all admit we masturbate (I want to say ‘obviously’ but I do remember a hen-do where one woman refused to admit to it. So, there are still some out there, and you just do you ladies, that’s fine), but I’ve only had one conversation with someone as to differing techniques, and even then there was a certain level of surprise involved as to the difference that sometimes, oftentimes, is what shuts down these conversations, especially in younger women and in less developed friendships. How many of us spouted complete bullshit about our orgasms when we were in our early 20s?
Can we thank Emma Watson and OMGYES in part for this? Who knows. Is it a backlash against the ubiquity of mainstream porn? The championing of femporn? Is it the sacrosanct of the intimate? Or are we all just secret prudes?
Are we still faking it?
And this is not just reserved for my female friends. I remember getting a message from a male friend this year, a photo of his comically shocked face, with the attached text, “just found out how many times my co-workers wank a day. Where do they find the time? Am I abnormal?!”
There is no ‘normal’.
I’ve discovered that I have friends who come during penetrative sex with everyone, easy as pie; friends who barely ever or have never come and think there’s something inherently ‘wrong’ with them (there’s not); those who only ever come when the heating is on; when they imagine they’re skydiving; when they imagine they’re Cleopatra riding the Sphinx into town (my heroine), and ones who can only come when they’re falling for someone: who are in love, even if they don’t want to admit it. But then, sometimes it’s the hardest to be honest with oneself.
I can’t help but think of Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat, a play ostensibly about vaginismus, but which was also a meditation on difference and the pressure to be what is considered normal in a highly sexualised culture. It’s about the importance of enjoying life on one’s own terms, of embracing the quirks that make us all human.
I hope that young(er) women are having much more open and honest conversations much earlier on. It’s not an invasion of privacy to do so; it’s education, a fem love soup. There is enough bodily shame we hurl upon ourselves – I would like to say ‘in our younger years’, but we all know this isn’t exactly the case. Let’s not add sex, fantasies and what makes us climax to the mix.
So perhaps that’s why sex parties are so great. Sure, you’ve gotta be kinda “ridiculously good lookin’” to get in, but once you’re there, you’re reminded that anything goes in the throes.
There’s a quote from Alain de Botton’s book How to Think More About Sex that seems fitting,
“Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. […] Perhaps we should accept that sex is inherently rather odd instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.”
The more we get to the heart of what turns us on, the clearer it is that sexual arousal isn’t logical, or something to be compared; a prize to be won. And why not come to that realisation in a room full of masked, perfumed hunnies, whilst you watch someone screaming “OMG YES” on a Persian rug as a well-groomed couple from Paris watch on from behind a chiffon gauze. Now, maybe that’s cool.