At a two-story artists' warehouse in North Oakland, a woman in a mesh, skin-tight dress and matching bunny ears greeted me and other guests at the door with a smile and a question: "Are you a dog, cat, or bird?"
This wasn't a trick question or a charades prompt, but a code employed by the sexy-but-not-explicitly-sexual party called 2nd Base. Using the animal-identification code as a guide, 2nd Base attendees can better and more easily gauge where other guests fall on the consent scale. For instance, if someone identifies as a dog, that means, according to the rules on the group's Facebook page, "This person does not need to be asked before you initiate contact. They won't be offended by being touched or approached with respect. They may say 'No thank you' if they aren't feeling it, or they may pant in delight. Give it a shot." A cat wants "things on their own terms. Ask before initiating any physical contact please or you might get some claws!" And a bird "does not want to be approached by you. Be friendly and inviting and wait for them to approach you when they are ready."
Consent is the name of the game at 2nd Base, a makeout party in which kissing, cuddling, and above-the-waist touching are okay, but pants stay on. The parties have been going on every month or so for the past year, and were started by Ruby Rogers, a sex educator and hedonism facilitator. In addition to the cat-dog-bird example, rules about consent are posted throughout the warehouse, and are also presented verbally by Rogers during a brief talk introducing the event early on in the night.
Rogers, who also runs a semi-regular "Hedonism Retreat," in which participants experiment with different kinds of pleasure and playfulness (and, occasionally smash things), said in an interview that the animal-identification system was a great way to "subversively explore that everyone has different boundaries. What your boundary is, is not what their boundary is — and that's okay, you can still play with people who aren't like you. Varied comfort zones are actually really great, not a hindrance." David Pullman, organizer of the House of Yum Cuddle Club, stated in an email that he invented the animal-identification system as a way "to give people a sense of safety/control over how they would be approached (or not) by others."
After guests get a quick rundown of the party, they enter an adult playground, complete with ambient music, mattresses, and pillows on nearly every surface, an aerial silk sling, and a BYOB bar with mixers for sharing. During my recent visit, a breast massage workshop was also underway upstairs, as well as a gleeful rope bondage scene, and enough making out to feel as though I had been transported back to high school.
For all its trappings of sexiness, 2nd Base is a party that involves no actual sex, and it's part of a growing trend of East Bay events and communities that are seeking to redefine how we view and experience sex and intimacy. Together, they represent a conscious move toward creating connections, bonding, and touch that doesn't involve genitals, fluid exchange, or awkward propositions, and they have taken off in a big way.
"I really like to have a feeling of reckless abandon, especially in a group play space," Rogers said. "I realize, for me, the fundamental, basic thing is knowing everyone in that space is practicing good consent and that I'm safe. Then I don't have to constantly negotiate every interaction I have, because my human rights are being respected. It's totally selfish. I'm just making a fun space for me to play in."
At parties such as 2nd Base, the script that guides our typical encounters with intimacy and sex is being replaced. In the new script, hosts ask guests to reimagine their thresholds and limitations and to not follow the usual cultural rules that dictate how men and women should behave with each other. Participants have to make up new rituals, exploring their own desires and boundaries at the same time. In taking sex off the table for a moment, a new kind of liberation can materialize.
"For some people, it's 'training wheels' — a way of experiencing intimacy with strangers without going for the big guns of genital sex, with the intention of moving toward genital sex later," wrote Janet Hardy, sex educator and co-author of The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures, in an email. "For more, though, it's a way of getting back to values around touch — so many of us are skin-starved! — affection, physical nurturance, heart connection. The sexual revolution of my youth, and the sex-positive feminism movement of my midlife, have given us a lot of information and support for sex, but it feels almost like, as a culture, we went from holding hands to penetrative intercourse without really exploring all the stuff in between: the kissing, the nibbling, the cuddling, the skin-on-skin."
Carol Queen, a Good Vibrations staff sexologist, founder of the Center for Sex & Culture, and author of Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, stated in an email that "intimate connection is valuable to people and not everyone gets it in a partner. For people without a partner or for those who don't want to have that sort of relationship, such a party might be a terrific option. It helps people feel part of an intimate community without having be a sexualized one — not everyone wants that."