Inside an unmarked warehouse in downtown San Francisco, a woman greets guests with a riding crop. She is not there to beat them, but to initiate them with a set of firm and binding rules. A chart posted on the wall reads:

  • State your boundaries.
  • Play safely and consensually.
  • Have sensible safe sex practices.
  • Respect our space and each other.
  • Don’t linger unaccompanied in play spaces.
  • Don’t cruise aggressively.
  • Don’t get too intoxicated.
  • Don’t take photographs.
  • Don’t use your cellphone.
  • Don’t gossip about what goes on here.

Using the riding crop as a pointer, she lays out the basics for guests entering Mission Control’s Kinky Salon, a monthly San Francisco sex party that dates back to 2003. “Kinky Salon is a global movement that promotes sexual liberation by hosting community gatherings where sex is integrated into the social fabric of the events,” reads the Kinky Salon manual, a guidebook to on how to safely construct a sexual play world where no one gets hurt. That means a strict set of boundaries.

The rules are the portal at Kinky Salon. After guests pass this point of initiation, they enter the warehouse—a two-story adult playground. Upstairs are performances, a DJ, and arts activities like portraiture and body painting. There are low-slung couches, people dancing, and a BYOB bar with a bartender who doles out your own liquor. It’s just a really good party. The play space where the actual group sex scene takes place is downstairs, tucked away in a corner.

There are rules about consent, about how to solicit sex, how to negotiate for something different, how to say no. There are rules about protection, about fluid exchange, about staring, about drunkenness. The rules that dictate the boundaries of this seemingly boundariless space are the same rules that people often break in mainstream society: You have to ask before you touch. You can’t get extremely drunk. You have to honor when someone says “no.”

Rules and group sex have gone hand in hand for decades. The more risqué the sexual party, the tighter the guidelines, particularly in the BDSM world where partygoers consent to physical pain. “The space, people’s bodies are sacred,” Kinky Salon co-founder Polly Whittaker, aka Polly Superstar, recalls from her many years in the BDSM and fetish scene. “You do not talk while someone is having a scene, you don’t laugh, you don’t stare … They’ve created this incredibly strict structure because what they’re doing there is working through some really heavy shit and they need safety for that.”

“Kinky Salon is only one step away from the super strict rules of BDSM and there’s a reason for that,” Whittaker goes on, “which is that I think that women, particularly women in our culture, are not trained to state their boundaries.” The usual script that guides the more typical sexual encounter is replaced by a new one. In setting limits, edges, and rules of play, the possibilities for safely exploring new sexual horizons and thresholds become tangible.

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.

Almost all of these parties feel the need to remind their guests that “No means No.” Consent, in this other world, is everything. There are parties for for S&M enthusiasts, cuddle parties, drag parties—all kinds of parties that offer a space for the open expression of sexuality in a new context each with their own set of rules. Kinky Salon itself is all-inclusive, special insofar as it offers a space for straight, gay, bi, in-between, or over-the-top people to gather in a safe, culture-centric space. Similar to clubs like Chemistry, which features a DJ and a dance floor, sex is not the only thing on the table—rather, it is the thing that defines the scene. Whereas some sex parties are just for getting laid, at Kinky Salon, sex isn’t a necessity. Some are there for the sex, which Whittaker calls “sport fucking,” while others are there to escape cultural norms and define a new, more liberating sexual universe that encompasses the full spectrum of their needs.

“Kinky Salon is different because it’s volunteer-run, it’s a community first and foremost, and you know you’re joining in as part of something,” explains Whittaker, author of the recent memoir, Polly Superstar: Sex Culture Revolutionary. “It’s not anonymous. And you’re not necessarily going to get laid. You can go and just have fun and hang out. You don’t have to have sex. In fact …most of them are coming for the community.” 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.”

Guests to Kinky Salon’s San Francisco parties are encouraged to dress in costume and express themselves however they see fit—some with clothes, some without. Sex is not on the table in the “community space”—it is in the “play room” where consenting couples, triads, and more engage in group sex together.

“I totally support Mission Control and Polly’s work there,” says Easton, co-author of The Ethical Slut and a psychotherapist and marriage counselor dedicated to feminist, polyamorous, BDSM, spiritual, gender-diverse, and LGBTQ individuals and communities in San Francisco. “[She’s created] a sex-positive environment that is safe for men, women, and people of the whole pansexual community to explore sexualities in a really friendly and community-oriented well-run ethical environment.”

Sex parties and the rules that navigate their jurisdiction didn’t just spring up from thin air—they evolved to meet cultural needs for a shifting sexual world.

Terry Gould, author of The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, writes about the origin of what she calls “a lifestyle.” “According to two doctors of sexology named Joan and Dwight Dixon, who have been in the lifestyle since the sixties and writing on sexuality in journals for two decades, the original spouse sharers were none other than World War II fighter pilots,” she explains. “It was the pilots and their wives who invented the term ‘key club,’ which was unknown in the 40s, became widely known in the 50s and 60s, and then was forgotten until the 1997 film about suburban swingers, The Ice Storm.”

Christopher Ryan, who wrote (with Cacilda Jetha) the popular Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships also traces the origin of our modern iteration of group sex parties to Air Force bases during World War II.

“As it turns out, the first ‘key parties’ weren’t about sexual pleasure so much as a response to the existential issues triggered by facing the highest death rates of any branch of the U.S. military during the war,” Ryan told me in an interview. “These guys had a one in three chance of dying during one of their missions in the Pacific. They got together and had sex parties, not as a way of getting more sex … but as a way of deepening the bonds that held their deeply interdependent community together. The tacit understanding was that the men who survived would look after the widows of those who didn’t.”

Whittaker thinks the origin of group sex practices can also be traced all the way back to pre-historic times. Citing Sex at Dawn and Timothy Taylor’s Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture, she believes that sex was once a group activity for “cavemen,” and sexuality became private with the advent of agricultural society and property divides. “The most significant step towards the misogyny that we have in our culture now is the fact that because the patriarchal line is where the property is passed down, for a man to guarantee that his son is really his son, he has to control his wife’s sexuality,” Whittaker tells me. “It’s the only way. For a woman it’s easy, you know that baby is yours, but for a guy and if the guy is wanting to pass on his property, it’s not so easy.”

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. And to achieve this, the party has the history of San Francisco’s sexual revolution on its heels.

“San Francisco, of course, hosted the Beats and the Summer of Love, not to mention a significant part of the gay pride revolution,” explains sexologist Dr. Carol Queen of Good Vibrations, she herself a leader of the sex-positive feminism movement. “It also helped foster a certain kind of BDSM/kink community, and it is the home of the Sexual Freedom League [1960s], San Francisco Sex Information, The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, sex worker’s right’s organization COYOTE [Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics] and Good Vibrations [1970s], the Folsom Street Fair, On Our Backs magazine, the sex-positive response to the AIDS crisis, the SF Jacks and Jack-and-Jill-Off Parties, and sex-positive feminism [1980s], the sexzine revolution, Queen of Heaven parties and National Masturbation Month [1990s], The Center for Sex & Culture [2000s], and much more—and in fact the term sex-positive itself. This is the community in which Polly launched Kinky Salon, and not surprisingly, people got it right away and flocked to her events.”

Whittaker also traces the revolution back to birth control in the 1960’s when, she tells me, “women had more freedom to be sexual without getting pregnant and without relying on men for contraception,” and to the sexual fallout of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s. “Everybody died,” she says. “It would be a scene like a Kinky Salon where everyone dies. I can’t even imagine [having] this sense of liberation and freedom and changing culture and it’s amazing, and then to have this horrible illness hit. So, the AIDS crisis definitely had a serious blow on sexual revolution, and people kind of said that it was over.” But, she says, out of the trauma of AIDS came a new type of party, one where safe sex practices were paramount and shameless play was a must, including the burgeoning BDSM scene that paved Whittaker’s way to Kinky Salon.

And this is where the rules come in. These parties, when executed with care and sensitivity, can break social norms and offer what seems to be a healing space around collective issues of sexuality. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy or fun. “People have different experiences. And I think it’s really complicated, particularly our histories around sexual trauma,” Whittaker explains. “Especially women, when the statistics show how crazy the levels of abuse are. So I think creating a space where sexuality isn’t a shameful thing, where it’s not something that is being imposed on you is a very liberating thing for women.”

The rules are a different kind of social code, one that exists within the framework of these parties, allowing sex to be both adventurous and safe in a sub-cultural world where anything goes—anything, that is, except confusing the meaning of “no.”