On an unassuming Saturday night in June, I stepped into a pandemic sex adventures scene inspired by Eyes Wide Shut: masquerade masks, attendees in various states of dress, and flowing alcohol poured by a half-naked bartender.
This was a pandemic sex adventures party hosted by Snctm, an "exclusive" members-only sex club. While the night was a mix of cocktail-hour chatter and X-rated debauchery, energy buzzed throughout. Women in lingerie and men in tuxes told me how excited they were that "Snctm was back," but not just the club itself. Nightlife was back, as was sex with various partners and strangers and anyone in between thanks to COVID vaccines and loosened public health restrictions.
The mood at Snctm is a microcosm for how many people are feeling in this not-quite-mid-not-quite-post-pandemic era we're in. As I let Google Maps guide me from the subway to Snctm's penthouse in lower Manhattan, it was impossible not to pick up on partiers' and daters' elation to go out and experience hot vax summer. Nuzzling couples dotted train cars and outdoor restaurants, and those on the move held hands as they hustled — no doubt eager to reach their destination.
At the same time, however, memories of our pandemic experiences can be just as visceral as our desire to move past them. We can't forget over a year of wearing medical masks, of wondering whom in our circles was COVID conscious. Moving into our "new normal," people are both more sexually experimental and more cautious.
Dr. Joe Kort, a sexual relationship therapist, said that he and the therapists that work for him were busier than ever during the pandemic. Even as vaccinations rose and restrictions loosened, singles were excited to "get back out there" — but that it was short-lived. Kort, who has a Ph.D in clinical sexology, said that some now have FOGO, or fear of going out (not dissimilar to the Hinge-coined FODA, or fear of dating again).
The pent-up energy Kort heard about from clients is often paired with a newfound priority to be more careful. In his experience, gay male couples typically had this sense of caution in the face of HIV/AIDS. Now, he sees mixed-gender couples having that same level of forethought when it comes to both STIs and COVID.
This aligns with the research, too. "Vaccinated people are actually planning to approach sex more cautiously than those who are unvaccinated," reported Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire. Lehmiller, who has a Ph.D in social psychology, and Kinsey partnered with sex toy shop Lovehoney for the Summer of Love survey, where they analyzed Americans' sex lives and attitudes now that COVID vaccines are widely available.
Of the 2,000 adults surveyed between May and June 2021, 43 percent are fully vaccinated. Of those, 40 percent say they're taking less risks sexually than they had before the pandemic. Further, 46 percent of those vaccinated say they're more likely to communicate with partners about same-sex practices in the future.
"Those who have gotten the vaccine may have more concern for their health overall, which may extend to taking more safety precautions both in and out of the bedroom," Lehmiller continued.
"The question of being vaccinated will always be there," said Kort, even if the risk of getting COVID has diminished.
In addition to an increase in caution, Lovehoney and Kinsey's data also reflects a rise in kink and exploration. Just over half of respondents said their sexual interests shifted during the pandemic, and 73 percent of those people said they're kinkier now. Twenty percent noted that they're more interested in attending a sex party or visiting a sex club now than pre-pandemic.
As both Kort and Lehmiller explained, it's difficult to be aroused during times of high stress and anxiety. One way that people can cope with this, according to Lehmiller, is trying new and immersive sexual activities that allow you to focus on the moment; sex parties can fit that bill.
Since its return with a May 2021 masquerade, Snctm has seen a spike in memberships and applications according to their managing director, who asked their name not be included for privacy reasons. Their May and June parties sold out, and the managing director said interest grows with each subsequent event.
Snctm required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for their May masquerade, according to their managing director, keeping with New York's guidelines at the time. The precaution allowed the club to exceed limits of 250 people indoors, but both the May and June parties were capped at 99 people (probably to keep with their "world's most exclusive members-only club" descriptor). By the time the June masquerade occurred, city officials had lifted all restrictions.
New York-based sex and cannabis club New Society for Wellness, or NSFW, also saw membership jump. Daniel Saynt, self-described chief conspirator of NSFW, said the club's membership doubled during the pandemic to over 6,000. Some days, NSFW receives 50 to 100 applications for new members.
Saynt attributed at least some of this growth to the club's virtual parties over the pandemic, where non-New Yorkers had a chance to experience what NSFW had to offer (albeit, through a screen).
Now that many people are vaccinated, NSFW is poised to expand even further: Saynt's goal is to build 50 clubhouses in major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia in addition to New York in the next few years.
"If we build it they will come," Saynt told Mashable. "The demand is there."
Saynt said there's a certain feeling at recent NSFW parties where people are grateful to be through the worst of the pandemic (at least in New York, where 70 percent of adults have received at least one vaccine, but that's not the case elsewhere in the USA or around the world), and people are happy that they can go out again. He's seen a stronger drive to go to events, sex-related or not.
"I don't think that energy was there pre-COVID," said Saynt. "We took advantage of what we had and we didn't really think about it as anything special until it was taken away. People are coming to these events with a different sense of appreciation."
This is akin to what Snctm members told me at their June masquerade. One woman I spoke to said she had been to five previous pandemic sex adventures — including the one in May, and others pre-COVID — and none of them had the electricity of that one.
"We have been told that it [the June party] was the best event some members have ever been to," said Snctm's managing director.
Saynt believes the sex party scene is larger now. There are more pandemic sex adventures popping up, he said, especially for the queer community. With the rest of the summer, Halloween, and New Years coming up, Saynt thinks the demand for these events will remain high throughout 2021.
Snctm, meanwhile, is increasing their party cadence. Prior to COVID, they held events monthly alternating between New York and Los Angeles. Since May, they've been hosting monthly pandemic sex adventures in New York City. The managing director anticipates the return of bi-monthly Los Angeles parties by August.
This influx of people wanting to sexually explore coincides with an interest in alternative relationships. Non-monogamy has been on the rise since before the pandemic, and there's reason to believe the practice will only trend upward. For instance, Feeld (a sexual exploration app for both singles and couples) saw a 400 percent increase among women and a 500 percent increase among men with words describing ethical non-monogamy (ENM) or polyamory in their profiles from 2020 to 2021, the app's communication manager Lyubov Sachkova told Mashable.
Saynt agrees that more people will begin practicing non-monogamy, especially millennials and Gen Z. He referred to the near future as the "buckle-up years," as he believes non-monogamy and the type of sexual exploration that goes on at NSFW will become more mainstream.
While this is an exciting time, Kort urges people to remember the good that came out of the dating culture shift during the pandemic, such as slowing things down and taking time to get to know potential partners.
For now, however, with the pandemic still fresh in our minds, it seems that many are are indeed branching into pandemic sex adventures while remembering to be mindful.
By the end of the Snctm masquerade I attended, the only people out on the street below the penthouse were attendees. Among the chatter, partiers expressed gratitude that they could indulge in such activities again — and gratitude for how safe they felt.