Play Parties

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August 1996

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Why is it that nearly everyone in the SM scene goes to "play parties?" These parties seem to be a staple of SM, or at least of the SM community, but since I always thought sex was about intimacy and private sharing, it's difficult for me to understand why anyone would even want to go to a voyeuristic/exhibitionistic public sexual gathering.

<A> I don't attend as many play parties as I once did, but from where I sit it seems not so much that nearly everyone in the SM scene goes to play parties as that a relatively small number of people attend the majority of play parties in any of several coteries, and that a somewhat larger but still small number of other people go to just a few of all the available parties.

The larger, more public, and, usually, most advertised of the community's SM play parties seem to me to serve a pleasant social function: people get together to chat, gossip, and nibble, and some people play as well. The same things happen at the smaller, more private gatherings, but more, more intimate, and/or more sophisticated play also seems to take place there since these parties ordinarily are hosted by friends for friends.

But while people in the organized SM community go to most of these affairs, it seems to me that not nearly everyone in the scene does. By "community" I mean the interacting collection of clubs, groups, events, suppliers, and participants who promote a social and educational universe that gives formal SM a home on the planet; by "scene" I mean everyone who plays or participates in the deliberate exchange of erotic energy or power in any way. Many people came to Janus, the Outcasts, or some other part of the community, learned what they could, perhaps participated actively for awhile, and disappeared; others never became part of the community. But plenty of players, I know, spend Saturday night quite happily at home with their Masters, Mistresses, slaves, partners, or mates, or go out to the opera, have dinner with

friends, or in other ways live out their lives outside the SM community, and never darken the door of a party dungeon.

When I came out into SM play parties used to serve educational, as well as social, functions. Socially, there were very few SM or SM-friendly events taking place in those days: apart from Janus and Outcast meetings, the annual Mr. Drummer contest and the leather bars, most of which were exclusively for men, play parties were the most important venues where leatherfolk could congregate. Educationally, it was very valuable for a novice to be able to watch a genuine whip-mistress exercise her musical skill, playing intricate rhythms on her vocalizing instrument through a three-hour set, or to stand by as a true bondage master turned another human being into a gorgeously immobile package while the bottom descended into the depths of surrender. And because experienced players had a chance to see and to play with each other at the parties as they might not otherwise ever do, a novice could not only learn about safety at the same time he became versed in community protocol, he could also meet the people who had literally founded the community, whose experiences both good and bad gave us a history, a mythos, and a lore, and whose personalities still echo in our belief systems, our teachings, and our literature.

One thing I learned at these parties was the value of group scenes in eliciting group energy, which may not be about sex even when the most apparent activities are sexual. Two other things I learned were that many people confuse sex with intimacy, and that intimacy, like sex, need not be limited to two people. In this sense I re-learned at the play parties what I had earlier learned in another phase of my life. When I was a classical musician I generally preferred playing chamber music – trios, quartets, and the like – to all other forms, though I also had some wonderful times playing in both small chamber orchestras limited to 15 or 20 pieces, and in large symphony orchestras with 100 or more players. These group experiences in no way diminished my pleasure in playing duets and even solos, as my experiences with Bach and Beethoven did not diminish my pleasure in the pop music of my day.

Over time the SM community grew, broke apart, had its own diaspora, and became multiple communities. We could debate endlessly about whether this was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, but it can certainly be an Educational Thing in any event. One thing it can teach us is that, while it's often difficult for us to understand why someone else enjoys what feels alien or even anathema to us, the pleasure they take in their enjoyments need not diminish the pleasure we take in ours. Indeed, should we ever find ourselves at the same party in the future, whether the party is founded on play or anything else, our differences give us plenty to talk about, plenty to learn about, and plenty to teach.

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