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Attending a Play Party

20 October 1997

By Kirrily ("Skud") Robert.

Copyright © 1997 Kirrily Robert; not to be reproduced in any medium without permission.

Over the last few years, I have met a number of people who have expressed an interest in attending play parties but have lacked the information they need to be confident and comfortable showing up.

Here are a few thoughts I've had on the topic, drawn from my moderate experience of BDSM parties and clubs, both pansexual and otherwise. Don't take them as law - not all things will work for all people, and much of what I say here may not apply to you, nor to the party you plan to attend. However, I hope that there will be at least one useful piece of information here for just about everyone.

Finding the parties

Your first challenge will probably be to find a play party in your area. If you don't know of any parties in your area, there are several ways to find out if they're happening and get yourself on the invitation list.

The first way is to peruse the appropriate publications for advertisements. Depending on your inclination, the "appropriate publications" may be Brother Sister (gay and lesbian newspaper), ACM (Australian Couples Monthly, a swingers magazine), or any of a number of less well-known ones. You may also see advertisements posted on AusBDSM or other Internet fora.

If there are no advertisements for play parties or clubs, you may have to take a more roundabout route. You will almost certainly be able to find advertisements for leather pride groups, leather bars, professional dominants, fetish clothing shops, or other related services. Contact these people and ask them politely whether they know of any SM play parties in your area. Be aware that the answer you get will be tinged by the type of people you ask, so if you ring (for instance) a gay male leather bar you're unlikely to find a party that will suit you if you're straight! When you talk to them, be straightforward about what you're looking for. They've heard it all, and would probably rather deal with someone who just asks "Hi, I was wondering if you have any contact details for people who run SM playparties" than someone how hems and haws for fifteen minutes before coming to the point. You don't have to give your real name either, if you don't want.

In my experience, play parties tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Nightclubs or special nightclub-like events at which play may occur
  • Pansexual parties at which play may occur
  • Pansexual parties at which play is the main focus
  • Single-sex or special interest parties at which play is the main focus

While many parties are held at nightclub-like venues, I don't include them in the first category unless there is loud dance music and a majority of non-players. Examples of nightclubs would be Hellfire, the Sleaze dance party held by the Sydney Mardi Gras people, and the annual Melbourne and Sydney Leather Pride parties. Typically, these are open to all comers as long as they're more or less appropriately dressed. Entry ranges from about $10 (Hellfire) through to $50ish (Sleaze). These events are where most people get their first exposure to semi-public SM play. Usually there are people milling around in varying levels of fetish gear (or, at Hellfire, often jeans and flannies - Hellfire is a bit prone to yobbo sightseers in Melbourne at least), and some "demonstration" or "audience participation" scenes occurring. Most commonly, these involve people tied to a rack and being flogged by the House Mistresses or Masters for the entertainment of the punters. Some of these events also have small spaces available for "private" use. This most usually takes the form of a maze or an area of interconnected cubicles partitioned by curtains or other temporary walls. These are almost never equipped for real SM play.

The second category of party, where play may occur but is not necessarily the primary focus, is what usually happens when BDSM enthusiasts get together for a birthday party, housewarming party, Christmas, or similar. Any play which occurs at them is usually low-key, casual, and often rather silly. For example, someone may discover that the barbeque tongs make an amusing toy and decide to use them on a friend while the rest of the attendees watch and call out encouragement or laugh. These parties are often a very worthwhile way to meet people with whom you may later attend a more serious play party.

The last two categories of play parties, where play is the main focus, are the ones that require the most nerve to attend and the most preparation and knowledge if you want to make a success of it. Threshold in Sydney and Dominion in Melbourne typify the pansexual ones. There are also a number of less well known or less regular ones. The special interest ones include men-only or women-only parties, and also parties catering towards the swingers scene, particular fetish interests, or particular relationship styles such as heterosexual female-dominant couples. While having slightly different interests and entry requirements, the things you need to know to attend them are very similar.

For legal or quasi-legal reasons, many party organisers will require a meeting with potential attendees before the party. This means that they get to know everyone, and can run it as a "private party". The advantages of this are that you can get up to more at a private party than you can at a public one. For instance, I believe that you are not meant to allow sex on premises or any body fluids if it is a public venue and you don't have an appropriate license. In reality, most "public" parties turn a blind eye to sex on premises as long as it happens in a dark corner, and occasionally allow piercings, cuttings, or other play that may include body fluids if the people involved are trusted long-term attendees.

Anyway, the point is that the hosts may want to meet you first. Often this will simply take the form of coffee in a neutral place and a brief chat. The host will usually fill you in on how the party is run and what you can expect, and will answer any questions you might have. In return, the host will probably ask you about your BDSM interests, level of experience, sexual preference, etc. This is usually so that they can tailor the demographic mix of the party to suit their own preferences. For instance, some parties aim for a gender balance, while others like to have a solid core of experienced players while not being outnumbered by complete novices. Being as open and truthful as possible will benefit both the party and yourself - if you let the hosts know that you're looking for something in particular, they may be able to help introduce you to others that share your interests.

Showing Up

On the night of the party, you may find it useful to show up early - perhaps in the first hour or two of the advertised time - so that you have a chance to meet the hosts, get a guided tour of the space, change into something less comfortable, and find a good vantage point from which to view the action. Try to dress as specified on the invitation or advertisement. If you don't have leather or fetish gear, plain black is usually an acceptable substitute.

At the door, you may be required to pay an entry fee and/or sign a waiver stating that you are over the age of consent and will indemnify hosts for any personal injury. The legality and usefulness of these forms is dubious, but you should at least read them through and sign them if you wish to enter the party.

Most parties will provide a changing space if you do not want to arrive in your fetish gear. Bring a bag to keep your street clothes and other sundries in. Also, if your fetish gear does not have pockets you may find it useful to carry a "bum-bag" or similar to store your money, keys, condoms, or other small items.

What to take

Most play parties will not provide toys, or will provide only a bare minimum. You should bring your own, or arrange with the hosts to borrow theirs if you do not have any. What toys you bring will depend on where your interests lie, what you have, and how much you're prepared to lug around. I usually carry a toolbox full of goodies, with a couple of larger implements besides.

In addition to toys, there are a number of other bits and pieces I find useful to pack. Here's my non-toy list of things that I take to parties. Your list may vary.

  • Partial change of clothes (tshirt, underwear)
  • Safer sex materials - condoms, gloves, dams, lube
  • First aid stuff - band-aids, cotton buds, betadine, paracetamol
  • Several "trick towels" - small hand-towels that I get from a manchester remainder outlet which I use to clean up after anything messy and which can be thrown out afterwards
  • Nail clippers and file
  • Miscellaneous stuff - matches, a knife, a pen, some cards with my phone number
  • A bottle of water - usually one of those ones with the "sports" nozzle like Adams Ale
  • If I have room, a warm jumper or jacket. This is useful to put on someone after a scene if they're shivering, or even just for going out into the cold night air afterwards!

As you attend more parties, you will start to learn what works for you. I find it worthwhile to spend half an hour sorting through my stuff a few days before a party and making sure that nothing's running low, needs repair or replacement, or has been mysteriously lost at the last party.

Being sociable

The party will almost certainly have a "chill-out" space where people socialise and do things other than play. This is often the kitchen. When socialising at the party, remember everything your parents ever taught you about manners - say please and thank you, introduce yourself to people, treat everyone with respect. This means everyone, not just dominants. If you're feeling shy, ask the hosts to introduce you to a few people. If you still have trouble meeting people, offer to help wash the glasses or set up the equipment - people always react well to those who offer to help out. This applies in all situations - not just play parties.

A minority of people will carry their BDSM roles at all times. You can usually spot them because they will introduce themselves as "Master Suchandsuch" or "slave thingummy" or some equivalent. It is up to you how to react to these people. You are not required to take part in their play, nor does your own identification as a top or bottom necessarily mean that you need to treat people a certain way. If you feel comfortable calling these people by the titles they choose or adhering to some standard of behaviour, by all means do so, but if you don't want to and haven't negotiated and consented to be a part of their play, you don't have to. This doesn't mean that you can be outright rude to them, but you can respond to Master Suchandsuch's introduction by a simple "Hello Suchandsuch, I'm pleased to meet you."

Watching

At your first party you are likely to spend a considerable amount of time watching other people playing. Here are a few hints and tips:

  • Don't try to join in a scene unless you're invited
  • Don't hold noisy conversations in the play area while scenes are in progress
  • Don't stand too close or the backswing might hit you!
  • Do listen to the players and hosts wishes or instructions
  • Do pay attention to what is going on in the scene. You can learn a lot from watching experienced players
  • Do feel free to talk to the players afterwards about what they were doing. However, it's often a good idea to give them sometime to calm down first. Half an hour is usually a sufficient recovery time.

One last note: in my experience the most acceptable facial expression for watching a scene is polite interest with a touch of pleasure. This means that a smile is OK, but drooling or rubbing yourself is not. However, the only real rule is to watch the other people who are watching and model your behaviour on theirs.

Playing

If you are planning to play at a party you will need to understand some of the fundamental differences between public and private play spaces. Firstly, a public environment is most suited towards physical displays. Psychological/emotional play that works well in your own bedroom simply will not translate cleanly to this environment. The environment itself may adversely affect the scene, and the scene is unlikely to provide entertainment to the other attendees. And let's face it, that's why we go to parties. This is not to say that no psychological play will work in a party space, but rather that you are likely to have greater success with physical play.

The second thing to remember is that every party and just about every party guest has their own set of etiquette regarding approaching people for BDSM play. The only rules that are fairly consistent are:

  1. Be polite
  2. No means no

Nobody should mind if you approach a prospective play partner politely and are not overbearing or insistent if they refuse your proposition. However, the chances of a newcomer finding a play partner are fairly slim unless s/he already knows some of the people present. Don't be surprised if someone won't play with you - they probably want to get to know you and establish some level of trust first. This is why attending non-play parties, discussion groups, or other casual events is a Good Idea.

There are some things you can do to signal your availability and desire to play and even some of your specific interests. The Hanky Code is a long-standing method of indicating your interests. The most commonly understood colours are black, grey, red, yellow, and purple. As a cut down version, consider wearing your keys or a flogger or other implement on your left hip if you are a top or your right hip if you are a bottom.

Don't feel that you have to play with anyone who approaches you, either. A polite "No, thankyou" will deter most people, or you could say "I'm interested, but I don't feel comfortable about playing here until I settle in."

Most parties will expect Safe, Sane and Consensual play and may also require or recommend safer sex. These rules are for both your own immediate protection and for the protection of the BDSM community as a whole, so obey them! Most parties also have a "house safeword" which is either "Safeword", "Mercy" or occasionally "Red". If someone uses these words you should stop your play immediately and check that they are alright both physically and emotionally.

Lastly, if you are lucky enough to get to play at your first party, take it easy! You don't need to impress everyone with a totally over the top scene, and trying to do so will just increase your chances of causing someone harm. Start gently and do it well and you will gain a reputation as a safe and worthwhile player.

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