Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Among the Bourgeois Decadents

The Marquis de Sade as a contemporary Prius driving, soy latte-drinking Californian

When I first read this account in The Atlantic about the highly ritualized group-sex scene in San Francisco and elsewhere, I was disgusted. It’s written not really as anthropology or sociology, but as advocacy. When a publication as respected as The Atlantic runs articles that not long ago you’d have to go to a pornographic magazine to read, it’s a sign of cultural decline.

On second thought, though, they struck me as perfectly ridiculous. Leave it to Americans to bourgeoisify the most transgressive sexual behavior. Read on:

Group sex parties run the gamut and are available for all types of people. The New York scene, which just last month opened a Kinky Salon, joining their list of hosted parties in Copenhagen, Austin, Berlin, Portland, New Orleans, and London, has its fair share of parties across the board. There are the parties just for single heterosexual couples, like Bowery Bliss, a weekly swingers party in lower Manhattan, for which “The term couple refers to a Male and Female. Two men are NOT considered a couple.” At others, like Submit in Brooklyn, a party for “women and trans folk” interested in all types of BDSM play, “There’s a shower, a boot black station, slings, a cross, bondage set-ups, beds, peep holes, and more.” One Leg Up requires their guests to leave together if they arrive together, and Chemistry, another Brooklyn scene, asks a series of questions to pre-screen their guests like, “What is your favorite non-sexual hobby?” or “What role does sexuality play in your life?” School of Sex’s Behind Closed Doors party requires an application and has four cardinal rules:

  • Ladies make the rules
  • No means no
  • Men cannot approach women
  • Members only

In constructing a separate world around non-monogamous sex, these parties are building small behind-the-scenes exits to dominant cultural expectations. The rules define the new sexual paradigm that guests willingly enter.


 At Kinky Salon, guests abide by the PAL (“Pervy Activity Liaison”) system, meaning another adult must accompany them to help hold them accountable for their behavior. This means all guests are couples, triads, or chaperoned singles.

“We believe that it is a fundamentally radical political act to deprivatize sex,” write authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy in their famous book, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures.“Group sex offers the opportunity to challenge ourselves,” they write, “to move our sexuality out into the open, banners flying, with lots of support in getting past the fears and bashfulness and lots of friendly people to applaud your ecstasies.”


The group sex party, at least Whittaker’s iteration, is a space where the dominant dynamics—monogamy, heterosexuality, gender norms, etc.—can be sidestepped. Everyone is game and everyone is equal.

“Our hope is that everyone who attends a kinky salon experiences a shift in their consciousness,” the Kinky Salon website reads.

The author, a “sex educator,” chirps that these sex parties can offer “a healing space around collective issues of sexuality.” Yeah, whatever. Hard to believe that people believe this nonsense. If the Marquis de Sade came back as a contemporary Californian, he would drive a Prius to the dungeon, and swing by the Starbucks drive-thru to pick up a decaf soy latte on the way, then after being spatchcocked six ways to Sunday, tweet about what a safe and empowering experience it all was.

UPDATE: Devinicus comments:

Reread David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise (2000), chapter 5. It’s all in there.

over the past few years the educated class has domesticated lust by enshrouding it in high-mindedness. The Bobos have taken sex, which for centuries has been thought to be arousing or sinful or possibly dangerous, and they have made it socially constructive. … Today’s Marquis de Sades don’t seem to want to create an immoral underground society. They’re not trying to subvert normalcy. They’re trying to join it. They want to win mainstream acceptance and so gain a respectable place in the middle-class world.

Brooks has an interesting point here. The educated class has not abandoned strict codes of conduct. They have simply abandoned a Christian (Brooks says “Victorian”) code and replaced it with a new one he calls a “utilitarian view of pleasure”.

The layers of therapeutic foolishness piled atop these groups’ activities is evidence enough of their deeply class-conformist code. They would be “radical” if the American elite was animated in any way by Christianity. Yet we all know it is not, and thus these groups are not. All they doing is scandalizing the rubes.

Wow. Radical.