I Went to a Sex Party on Zoom

“Please mute.”

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This diary frankly describes a sex party.

About 15 minutes into my first sex party on Zoom, the dicks came out of the pants. There were more than a dozen of them. Once in a while, someone would offer a compliment, whimper, or flick open a bottle of lube, prompting Zoom to showcase them as the featured speaker. By the half-hour mark, all conversation had ceased, save frequent requests from the host to “please mute” when there was disruptive background noise. Some things don’t change.

To back up slightly: When I got an email on Saturday from a queer New York City sex party, I almost didn’t open it. The weekend before, as New Yorkers were beginning to self-isolate en masse, some sex party organizers had minimized the crisis. But this party in particular—and there are several such groups in the city, meeting monthly or more in semi-secret “dungeons”—has always been my favorite.

The host, whom I’ll call Peter, has a genius for prosocial hedonism. His parties are inclusive and consent-minded (and very fun), and he had proactively, eloquently cancelled this month’s installment. In its place, he wrote on Saturday, we could join him for an hour on Zoom. The first gathering took place that night, and another was announced for Sunday.

I Zoomed Sunday afternoon with four friends, one of whom was coming directly from a Zen temple meeting on Zoom. (Zoom, if you’re unfamiliar, has become the favored video-conferencing service of the quarantine, for whatever reason.) As the hour of group Zoom sex approached, I hid some dirty dishes and showered, but I didn’t brush my teeth or purify any other orifices. I did put on a jockstrap under my sweatpants.

I have outgrown most of my shyness in queer sex spaces, but I don’t think anyone ever leaves it behind fully. As I waited at my work-from-home desk “for the host to start the meeting,” I flushed as red as the time I cluelessly stumbled into a hardcore leather bar in Berlin, nearly a decade ago, with my hapless older sister in tow.

Though I know my angles on FaceTime, Snapchat, and Skype, I’ve never cammed, and I keep my face out of most of my nudes. I wasn’t sure if I’d breach that policy tonight. To make matters worse, I indelibly associate Zoom with newsroom pitch meetings—a far more terrifying and naked experience than any orgy I’ve ever attended.

I entered the meeting with my video off. Peter, who is serious but not intimidating, came onscreen and made smalltalk. There was no pressure to show your face or anything else, he explained in soothing tones: “I just want to make sure everyone feels like they have an outlet.” The previous night, a “three-hour jerk-off party” had been full of talking. Some participants had been dealing with symptoms of the coronavirus.

The first guy on Sunday to turn on his video appeared in complete darkness with dramatic opera music blasting. He was calling in from Buenos Aires, had never attended one of the parties in New York, did not know how he got on the mailing list, and, once he turned on a light, was handsome. The opera faded out, some lurkers turned their cameras on, and the conversation took on the friendly, nervous rhythm of an age-diverse gay book club. I turned my camera on.

The stroking began soon after, our various rhythms and timbres overlapping like a minimalist composition. I switched for a while to the app’s gallery view, a grid of dicks, slack jaws, bellies, and butts, mine included. Peter would restate the guidelines whenever a newcomer joined. By minute 40, “Hi, we’re all here jacking off, please turn your sound off” had become “Welcome to the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” (Sex noises were permitted.) Someone logged on, shouted “What the hell is going on?,” and broke down in laughter.

Toward the end, a threesome dialed in and showed us some “spit-roasting.” Peter asked us to let him know if we were going to come, so he could focus the view; a few people did. When the hour was up, we all said good night.

Have these past few days been the quietest period in history for casual sex in New York City? That’s how it ought to be. But for those of us who count the demimonde among our social support systems and as one of the core civic amenities of urban life, the temporary loss of nightclubs and sex parties has added to the strain. Some of these institutions will survive; others will go the way of the pornos, the piers, and the raunchy bars of which literally one remains.

For now, the last redoubt is virtual. I’m grateful for the party. Like all my other videoconferences and stretched-out phone calls this week—playing games with friends, cooking with my parents, lighting the Shabbat candles with my grandmother—there was a sweetness to it, real sustenance, mixed with the painful awareness of uncertainty and separation.

For more on Zoom sex parties, check out the April episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast.