‘Someone was playing with nipples, someone was stimulating a clit, another person was riding the fuck machine,’ says Adriana*, a regular at One Night’s no-men-allowed sex parties. ‘It was beautiful to watch. I was busy getting railed by my friend’s 11-inch strap-on.’
With spanking benches and strip shows, bondage beds and Shibari artists who tie up guests using Japanese rope bondage, One Night has been on London’s kink scene since 2019. But because of pandemic restrictions, it wasn’t until last year that the party really started.
Taking place at Inanna Studio, an intimate private sex dungeon in north London, the events centre completely on the female experience: meaning cis women, trans women, and non-binary people who are exploring their femininity are all welcome. ‘I’ve always been interested in sex and fetish fashion, but it used to be from the perspective of the male gaze – even subconsciously,’ Adriana says. ‘One Night helped me realise that my sexuality is for nobody except me.’
Since the pandemic, London’s sex-positive party scene has come close to a climax. It’s more accessible, more visible and a hell of a lot more inclusive. ‘It seems many people discovered kink during the pandemic,’ says Miss Gold, a fetish photographer and One Night’s founder. ‘Gone are the days where you had to ask your local sex shop [how to get involved], or get lost down the wormhole of Fetlife.’ Yes: sex can now be a normal part of going out.
From Crossbreed’s queer fetish raves to The Fox Den’s 24-guest hedonistic dinner parties (complete with a four-course meal cooked by a private chef and after-dinner ‘play’ for dessert), the choice of sex-positive events in London is as mind-boggling as it is arousing. And with everything from popular underground DJs to luxury sex toys on offer, it’s the perfect set-up for a new generation to lube up and join the ride. ‘It used to be that people would come to explore the scene in their thirties and forties, but now we are seeing much younger people in their twenties,’ says Sinead, who’s been involved in the sex-positive community since 2015 and launched The Fox Den in June last year.
But being sex positive hasn’t always been this breezy. ‘Everyone used to worry about being seen arriving at the club,’ says Charlotte Hellicar, managing director of Torture Garden, an ‘extreme fetish fantasy’ party that launched in London in 1990. ‘Now, we have the opposite problem,’ she says. ‘We had to build a photo booth so there’s an area where people can take pictures for Instagram, because they want everyone to know that they’re coming.’
As well as hook suspensions, couples’ rooms and sex dungeons, Torture Garden incorporates performance art, installations and fashion shows into its parties – and tickets for its strict dress code events are selling out faster than ever before. ‘We try to create an immersive space for people to be their fantasy alter ego,’ says Hellicar. ‘Escapism is really important. I think going somewhere and not having to be the person that you are day in, day out, is a real privilege.’
Killing Kittens (KK) is another party that’s been here long enough to see the shift in the scene. With a reputation for attracting high-flying bankers and Agent Provocateur-clad models, Emma Sayle founded KK in 2005 to create a safe space for ‘women to explore their sexuality’. But Polly*, who’s been to two KK events in the last month, says the crowd has widened. ‘It’s not full of people who’ve stepped off a Victoria’s Secret runway,’ Polly says. ‘I’ve seen men and women of all shapes and sizes, and people who keep their clothes on the whole time, because they’re just there for the atmosphere.’
Even if there’s a spit roast happening in one corner and someone getting spanked in another, sexual activity is by no means obligatory. ‘I think people are surprised that they don't have to get naked,’ says Sayle. ‘And that actually, it’s not a bunch of sex-crazed weirdos – these are really cool people.’
As with all the parties in this article, safety, respect and consent are key. ‘I feel more comfortable walking around undressed at Killing Kittens parties than I do fully clothed anywhere else,’ says Polly. Female-identifying, trans and non-binary people can become KK members to gain entry to the events, and any cis-gendered men who come along must be invited by a current member. Still, there’s an exclusive feeling to the parties: members are chosen through a manual selection process, and guests must sign a double NDA and adhere to the ‘cocktail dresses and sexy lingerie’ dress code before entering.
Over in Hackney Wick, where Londoners queue up in droves to get into Crossbreed’s sex-positive raves on a Sunday afternoon, the outfits you’ll spot tell a slightly different story. You’ll see leather harnesses, studded dog collars, and monster masks galore: Crossbreed’s dress code is, basically, anything outrageous. Now a household name for London’s club kids, Crossbreed was set up in 2019 by resident DJ Kiwi who wanted to create a middle ground between the capital’s fetish, queer and dance music scenes. And in 2022, it’s clear that the queer community is where sex-positive nightlife has found its real renaissance: other LGBTQ+-centered nights like Adonis and Klub Verboten are also blurring kink with techno-tinged hedonism, and London is lapping it up.
‘You’ll see sex, you’ll see dancing, you’ll see all sorts going on,’ says Kiwi. Ticket prices are kept relatively low (Crossbreed also offers a pay-it-forward mutual aid scheme for people who can’t afford tickets) and the word ‘membership’ is nonexistent. The night’s success has led it to take up a weekly Sunday residency at Colour Factory, which it recently transformed into a purpose-made ‘utopian nightclub’. As well as a newly built playroom and toilets, there’s a bar and security team recruited exclusively by Crossbreed ‘to make sure everyone has the knowledge and skill sets to deal with our unique crowd’.
Kiwi explains that it’s a space designed for ‘more marginalised queer people’: for trans people, people of colour and those who have traditionally struggled to access spaces to explore their sexuality and gender identity. Crucially, Crossbreed is trying hard to keep it that way. ‘Our door staff are vibe-checkers and they positively discriminate,’ Kiwi says. ‘If you are a cis white man coming to the door, we’re probably going to ask you a bunch of questions to establish why you’re coming into the space. We’re quite conscious of not letting the space get overrun by people it’s not designed for.’
It’s pretty normal to see London club nights hike up ticket costs or enforce strict policies to protect marginalised communities. Only weeks ago Pxssy Palace caused a ruckus for charging straight, cis men six times the door price to get in. Still, Crossbreed’s politics have not stopped it from growing at a rapid rate – it’s even finding it’s feet on the commercial festival circuit at the revived 2022 Secret Garden Party.
‘Guests can expect everything they'd expect at any of our other parties,’ Kiwi says, explaining that the team will be building a club with a dancefloor, playroom, garden, bar and wellness sanctuary in the festival. ‘We’ll be controlling it entirely – there won’t be any festival staff in the space whatsoever.’
Secret Garden Party isn’t the only event this year that’s building a dungeon in a field. Flesh Queer Festival, a newcomer on the festival scene, is launching near London in May as the UK’s ‘first queer electronic music camping festival’. There you’ll find an inclusive play area surrounded by trees and nature, complete with glowing furniture and free CBD. ‘We want everyone to have a magical experience in the play tent, whether it’s their first time exploring this world or not,’ says Sam, Flesh’s founder. ‘Trained members of our team will be there to offer support – we want people that have never been to a sex-positive event to not feel intimidated and those that are familiar with these spaces to explore a new approach.’
Similar to the way that Crossbreed runs its own workshops and training sessions, Flesh will be hosting a programme of talks exploring issues like sex positivity, active consent and unconscious bias. It’s proof that education and no-dickhead-energy is very much a priority for these communities: that respect and accountability can co-exist with lust and pleasure.
But it still doesn’t mean that the sex-positive scene exists without struggle. On March 15, Klub Verboten shared a statement on their Instagram. Tower Hamlets council had contacted a venue that they use, E1, threatening legal action if they continued hosting Verboten events.
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council said to Time Out:
‘The venue is in a residential area and has a premises licence which allows for alcohol and entertainment. It does not have a sexual entertainment licence or a licence that would allow for nudity or partial nudity. We understand Klub Verboten is hosted by this venue and therefore what events take place in its premises has to be decided by the venue in line with its licence.’
Crossbreed also wrote in a statement to their mailing list that they ‘received an email from Tower Hamlets putting pressure on us, quoting the same archaic laws and attempting to shut us down’.
Regarding Crossbreed, a spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council said:
‘We have not shut down this event, but, as with any licenced premises, we do expect the venue owner to operate within their licence.’
The two parties are using hashtags #savekinkspaces and #savequeerspaces to rally a campaign and fight for their survival – and planned nights have been going forward in protest. Even though sex-positive events are more visible than ever, it’s going to take time for society to accept them as the important spaces they are for many Londoners. If people in this city want to dress how they want, love how they want, and fuck how they want, it’s going to take a whole lot of shouting.
*Some names have been changed.
Meet the people trying to make London nightlife safer in 2022.