Cruising for Inclusion

Queer sex spaces are being challenged to be more radically inclusive of gender, ability, and trauma. But can they be all things to all people?

Sexual play objects are spread across a bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LightFieldStudios/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Some names in this story have been changed.

Jay couldn’t wait to attend the Naked Unicorn Party, the BYOB play party capping off Butchfest, a 2013 Dallas festival celebrating “lesbians and queers who identify as tomboys, butches, studs, bois, transmen genderqueers, two-spirits, and all other identities masculine of center.” He had attended a few other queer sex events before, but as a 42-year-old trans man with a limp, his trans identity and physical disability made it difficult for him to sexually engage others.

Others often assume Jay’s disability puts him in chronic pain, but it doesn’t. And as someone who identifies as “70 percent femme/female-attracted and 30 percent butch/masculine-attracted,” he doesn’t feel welcome in queer sex spaces. At one sex party, the host pointed to him as proof of the event’s inclusivity. As a result, he often feels physically and sexually awkward at these events and usually ends up watching as a voyeur.

Luckily, the Naked Unicorn Party turned out to be different.

“I got to see a cis man I respect interact well with a trans man,” Jay explains. “As trans men, it is hard to be comfortable nude with our female-appearing bodies. When I saw someone who was not medically transitioned—just as I am not—able to enjoy the interaction they wanted from a nontrans male partner, I began to realize that maybe not all hope was lost.”

Sex spaces and events like the Naked Unicorn Party remain an important part of queer life, serving as places where people can buck America’s conservative, sex-phobic culture while exploring their sexual desires in mostly anonymous trysts. But many bathhouses, online cruising sites, and private sex parties cater almost entirely to cisgender and able-bodied men, often proving inhospitable to disabled and genderqueer people as well as survivors of sexual assault. Fortunately, some queer sex spaces and events are beginning to embrace these marginalized queer bodies, welcoming and centering their desires in new ways that could radically change how they’re treated in nonsexual spaces too. But the work of inclusion isn’t easy.

“Most spaces where people do private sex parties are not handicap-accessible,” says Terran Lane, a part-time organizer of private queer sex parties in a major U.S. city. For the past two years, Lane has thrown a monthly party that draws mostly queer men and smaller spinoff parties for niche audiences and fetishes, like a dirty game night and a spanking party. These parties’ locations aren’t very accessible for disabled people. Lane says this is because they were built long ago with no consideration for disabled access, plus it’s hard to find accessible, low-key places where men can gather for sex without upsetting neighbors or attracting police.

“It’s been a big issue for me,” Lane says, “and I know there are a lot of (disabled and trans) people who can’t come to the parties. Them not being able to be there means that nobody cis gets to see them, nobody who’s not disabled gets to see them, and they don’t get to be considered in sexual ways.”

Lane has actively sought spaces that are disabled-accessible, but it’s been difficult. He organizes his events alone, and various city policies restrict building new sex spaces or retrofitting pre-existing ones. In a private Facebook group, he tries to maintain transparency about his parties’ limitations, regularly engaging in contentious and productive conversations with disabled and genderqueer attendees about how he can continually improve his events. Lane offers refunds to anyone who has a bad time at his parties, but refunds don’t compensate disabled and trans people for lost time, travel costs, or the preparations they must make in order to attend parties without risking their personal safety.

Some of the trans people that do attend his events have told Lane that they don’t feel particularly welcome: They say they’ve heard insulting comments or felt ignored by the largely cis crowd. Considering the overwhelming societal discrimination trans people face, Lane understands how deeply personal such rejection can feel, but he also considers sexual attraction as a deeply complicated feeling that isn’t always based on identity alone.

Sex-event attendees might be reluctant to mix with a disabled or genderqueer person for many reasons, according to Lane. They might worry about not enjoying it, fear they’ll accidentally injure or offend someone, or just not see themselves as possibly being attracted to someone unlike themselves. “A lot of people like to say they’re queer, but they don’t really have any intention of expanding their horizons,” Lane says. “Of course not everybody is going to be a match for everybody else, but if you’re not allowing yourself to be with someone who might be different from you in a way you hadn’t anticipated, then you probably shouldn’t call yourself queer.”

Lane sees his events as good opportunities for people to play, break down barriers, and explore their sexuality in healthy ways. So, taking the feedback of his trans attendees into account, he created a spinoff party for trans guys and their admirers, open to all gender presentations. While the party runs the risk of segregating or fetishizing trans people, Lane hopes it’ll encourage more trans men to attend his main events and open more cis men up to exploring their desires with trans guys.

Alcohol, poppers, and weed are commonly ingested at Lane’s parties, adding to the intoxicating sexual atmosphere while also raising the risk of nonconsensual physical contact. To avoid any instances of sexual assault, Lane emphasizes strong consent language in his parties’ promotional materials. He posts numerous signs in large print emphasizing the need for verbal consent before touching and has observers monitoring people’s behavior, interceding if anyone reports a problem. But still, he can’t control everyone’s actions, especially if they’re used to nonverbal cruising.

“The culture of gay cruising is about unspoken looks, gestures,” Lane says. “For a lot of gay men of a certain age, groping and unwanted grabs are part and parcel to how gay men have cruised in spaces, and I feel like how you respond to that or how you view that—especially in the age of #MeToo and conversations around consent—depends on what you like.”

Daniel Saynt, the founder and organizer of NSFW, also uses monitors to ensure safety at his sex parties.* His group offers “safe, judgement-free adventures in sex and cannabis for a carefully curated group of young creatives in New York City.” Saynt’s observers are called “nymphs.” Clad in all-white leather gear, they oversee the check-ins, sobriety levels, and departures of his events’ attendees. They also intercede if anyone acts like a creeper, NSFW’s word for those who make others feel uncomfortable.

NSFW handles consent and safety differently than Lane: All NSFW attendees must apply to become members. Applicants submit links to all their social media accounts so that Saynt and his 10-member application board can select people whose lifestyles, ambitions, and outlooks gel best with the sexually progressive community they’re trying to cultivate. The notoriously exclusive application process can take several months. Ultimately, the board only accepts 20 percent of all applicants.

The application lets people choose from a variety of sexual orientations, like straight, heteroflexible, mostly gay, and asexual, and three gender options: male, female, or nonbinary or non–gender specific.

Of their 1,300 members, NSFW has about 35 nonbinary members, a number that mirrors the roughly 3 percent of young people who identify as gender-fluid. Saynt says that other male- and female-identified members also present as gender-fluid, but he also hopes more genderqueer members will join, furthering NSFW’s reputation as a safe, welcoming space where cis and nonbinary people can explore their sexual fantasies together.

New members must also agree to a sexual code of conduct and attend NOOBS, a nonsexual discussion where newcomers learn about enthusiastic consent—that only “yes means yes”—what to expect at NSFW sex events, and how to navigate nonmonogamy with accompanying partners. Only then can members attend NSFW’s weekly themed events, where admission ranges from $39 to $100.

Saynt believes that NSFW’s long, exclusive application process and unique, educational play events—such as ones dedicated to shibari rope bondage, tantric sex, sexual witchcraft, and healing from sexual assault—encourage members to behave, lest they embarrass themselves amongst their peers or get banned from a one-of-a-kind community resource. As a result, he says, attendees respect each other’s consent and self-police for creepers.

If someone reports a creeper, NSFW automatically sides with the reporter, contacting them for additional details before notifying the accused person of the proceedings. The resulting penalty depends entirely on the infraction and what the reporter wants to happen. Creepers may be asked to reattend the enthusiastic-consent course, have their memberships suspended for one to three months, or get permanently banned from all events.

NSFW sends out “Creeper Reports” to all members, reporting the infraction and the penalty and identifying the members involved using anonymous ID numbers. This way, members can see that the organization takes infractions seriously. The group also maintains a blacklist of people known for being creepy at other sex events so that they’re never allowed to join.

Since beginning the class on enthusiastic consent, Saynt says NSFW’s parties have had no reported creeper incidents.

Saynt is himself a survivor of sexual assault in gay spaces and says of his events, “For people who are victims of sexual assault, and people who experience it in a more traumatic way that impacts them, changes them, and creates triggers for them, it’s a good environment to exist in because you can be sexual, you can still watch people be sexual, and you can have experiences in those without having to have that fear that ‘I’m gonna be attacked.’ ”

Sophie Saint Thomas is one queer-identified bisexual woman who found healing in NSFW’s play parties after experiencing multiple sexual assaults. While therapy helped Thomas process the initial trauma of the assaults, NSFW’s knowledgeable nymphs and mandatory consent trainings helped put her at ease among sexual strangers, eventually empowering her to feel like a “powerful sex goddess once again.”

NSFW’s basement play space in the West Village has disabled elevator access and nymphs willing to help disabled people engage sexually. But their play space has only ever hosted one visibly disabled attendee; it wasn’t necessarily created with disabled bodies in mind.

In this way, it differs from Sanctuary LAX, Los Angeles’ largest dungeon, which was built specifically to accommodate trans and disabled people.

Founded in 2011 by the current owner, Mistress Cyan—a trans woman who is legally blind and yet still stunningly accurate with a whip—Sanctuary LAX hosts private dominatrix sessions, community panels, workshops, and private play parties where sex sometimes occurs within a context of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism).

The dungeon itself has wide doors and entrances that can accommodate mobility devices. It lacks stairs and has level floors and disabled-accessible bathrooms. Its staff and visiting dominatrixes—some of whom also have physical disabilities—capably assist disabled patrons with their mobility needs.

“In my journey, I experienced a feeling that I was tolerated rather than accepted where I went,” Mistress Cyan says. As a result, she sought to create an LGBTQ-inclusive community space that hosts events like polyamory support groups, all-female kink gatherings, the CumUnion monthly male sex party, and panels on sexual violence and trans issues.

But even with its inclusivity, Sanctuary LAX still contends with the challenges of genderqueer exclusion and sexual consent. Of its roster of 35 professional dominators skilled in the BDSM arts, only two are trans. Cyan would like to hire more trans doms, but she says Sanctuary’s cis clients largely view trans people as a niche fetish and request them less often. If she hired more trans doms, they wouldn’t get enough clients to make it worthwhile.

Sanctuary stations dungeon monitors throughout its venue. If someone encounters a person who has sexually assaulted them in the past, a monitor will ban them immediately if they had a police report filed against them. Otherwise, they’ll tell the alleged assaulter that they’re aware of serious allegations against them and should behave or leave. If they cause trouble, they’re banned for 90 days. A second violation gets them banned for life.

Cyan says some people see Sanctuary’s policies as too tolerant to prevent sexual predators. But, in light of a few cases where people maliciously made false claims of sexual assault, she believes everyone should have a chance to engage the space while being monitored for bad behavior.

Even with the efforts of folks like Cyan, advocates agree that queer sex spaces can do even more to engage disabled people and survivors of sexual assault.

Andrew Gurza, a queer disability-awareness consultant, has used a wheelchair for most of his life, having been born with cerebral palsy. “In gay spaces,” Gurza says, “I’m not talked to. I’m not noticed. I’m not flirted with. I’m not given any kind of room to be myself. Those spaces don’t feel very friendly because they’re not emotionally accessible.”

Gurza would like sex spaces to install disabled-accessible features, like wheelchair ramps, elevators, level floors, strobe-free play areas (to avoid triggering seizures), and ceiling and track lifts to help disabled people get in and out of their mobility devices. To offset their cost, he’d like community fundraisers dedicated to disabled accessibility, similar to ones held for HIV, Pride, and other political causes.

But Gurza says disabled-accessible features can still treat disabled people as afterthoughts instead of centering their desires in sex spaces. So he’d also love to see sex spaces—both online and in real life—featuring disabled people in their marketing: showing people in disability devices, speaking openly about invisible disabilities, or announcing their presence in the club on certain nights.

Though these images could be construed as a form of fetishization, Gurza thinks it’s still important to distribute such images online via hookup apps and disabled LGBTQ social media groups to help normalize disabled people as inherently sexual beings. Pointing out that the U.S. Census estimates nearly 1 in 5 Americans as disabled, he adds, “I think [gay men] need to realize that they’ll encounter disability in one way or another at some point in their lives. Disability is gonna be part of their lives, whether it be through aging, disease, an action, or walking into the club and bumping into the sexiest disabled guy they’ve ever seen.”

The gay-nightlife and sex-party scenes have traditionally provided one of the few safe spaces where LGBTQ folks can feel safe and surrounded by community, according to Dr. Baker-Braxton, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in LGBTQ survivors of sexual and domestic trauma who currently serves as the program manager of In.Power, the nation’s first holistic LGBTQ-specific sexual assault response program, at Howard Brown Health, an LGBTQ health and social services center in Chicago. “We also know that these are also spaces where sexual harm can be caused,” she says. “[Thus, they] have an opportunity and a responsibility to the community.”

Ideally, in Baker-Braxton’s view, sexual spaces should offer survivors of sexual assault—when they are ready to re-engage sexually—a safe, comfortable place to practice empathy, self-compassion, patience, and pleasure (either solo or with others) where they remain in control. Of course, not all LGBTQ sex spaces are going to be equipped to offer the sexual atmosphere or holistic care that queer survivors need for healing. (Lane says aggressive consent and sexual assault messaging may well kill the cruise-y vibe at some bathhouses and backroom bars, for example.) But all can try.

The same goes for accessibility. Lane, for instance, says he’d like to throw a party specifically for disabled queers, but to do it properly, he says he’d need six months to plan with a disability-sex advocate, wrangle all the gear, train volunteers, and give lots of advance notice so disabled attendees can prepare for the event. Considering that he organizes his parties independently and doesn’t make a lot of money from them, it’s a lot to ask of a lone party promoter. But if he, Saynt, and other such cultural activists don’t attempt to create radically inclusive sex spaces, its seems unlikely that bigger bathhouses, bars, or sex events ever will.

While undoubtedly imperfect, events like those offered by Lane, Saynt, and Mistress Cyan at least open people’s minds to the possibilities of greater queer sexual inclusion, changing people’s conceptions about who’s welcome and left out of queer sex spaces. By raising these issues publicly and in private conversations with the communities most marginalized from such sexual spaces, the organizers of radically inclusive parties and venues encourage others to create inclusive spaces of their own.

That inclusivity is more important now than ever, especially with a president whose mockery of disabled people, dehumanizing of trans lives, and shrugging off of sexual assault has pushed these communities even further to the margins. We should champion spaces and organizers that attempt to invite these marginalized groups in and look to their efforts as a foundation for how inclusion might work elsewhere as well.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.

Correction, Oct. 24, 2018: This piece originally misnamed the founder and organizer of NSFW. His name is Daniel Saynt, not Adam Saynt.