When you picture a make-out party, you might envision a dimly lit basement filled with brace-faced preteens, exploring the wonders of frenching for the first time. But I recently had the pleasure of attending an 18-and-older, sex-positive, body-positive, racially inclusive make-out party, the purpose of which was only partially to swap saliva. Really, our hosts wanted us to explore a more serious topic: sexual consent.
Instead of taking place in the home of one of the cool kids, the party was held in the Democracy Center, a building that serves as the headquarters for seven different nonprofits in the center of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite the fact that I was attending the party as an observer and reporter, just showing up made me feel vulnerable and jittery. I found myself folding my arms over my sweater.
The event was being hosted by Nicole Mazzeo, the 25-year-old founder and director of Pleasure Pie, a small, Boston-based organization dedicated to boosting sex positivity through creative events. Its purpose was one part Spin the Bottle, one part consciousness-raising. At a cultural moment when everyone from parents to sex ed teachers to universities are struggling with the best way to address sexual consent, could make-out parties be the way to go?
When I walked in, around two dozen guests representing a range of ages, races, shapes, and gender and sexual orientations had arranged themselves on folding chairs, armchairs, and couches lining the walls of a cozy living room inside the center. Some checked their phones, some chatted with the people next to them. Mazzeo had strategically placed bowls of mints and oranges and pitchers of water around the room to calm anxious stomachs, freshen breath, and moisten parched mouths.
Before the event began, Mazzeo, a friendly and petite brunette in a tight black dress, told me about the struggles she faced with sexuality growing up. From age 13 to 19 she was a Christian fundamentalist who believed that any form of sexual expression was a sin. This included kissing, masturbating, and dressing or dancing in a way that could be perceived as sexual.
“When I left religion and tried to explore the sexual aspect of who I was,” she said, “it was incredibly hard for me to enjoy [it] because I had spent so long vilifying it. Then I read an article in Bitch Magazine that mentioned sex positivity and it was exactly what I needed,” she continued. “Since then I've been on a journey to reclaim my sexuality and overcome the discomfort that sexuality can bring up for me.”
While this was her first time hosting a make-out party, Mazzeo had hosted similar meetups in the past through Pleasure Pie—including Smut Night, where she performed an adaptation of the feminist zine Choose Your Own Consensual Adventure onstage; a Body Positive Undies Party (what it sounds like); Good to the Last Swap (a body-positive clothing swap for folks of all sizes, shapes, and genders); a Make Your Own Sex Positive Zine night; and a spoken word evening called Sticky Stories: Sexual Confessions & Awkward Adventures.
Tonight would mark a new, more hands-on approach to teaching sex positivity and consent.
Once everyone was settled in, Mazzeo cleared her throat and began with some ground rules: No one is required to kiss anyone, trust your gut, and everything is confidential. (I had full consent to quote and discuss the people in this piece.) Next, the group embarked on a thoughtful discussion of power dynamics in sex and relationships, echoing many of the principles laid out by Consent Is Sexy—a popular sexual rights awareness campaign that focuses on respect, consent, open discussion, sexual health, gender equality, and working to counter sexual assault, relationship abuse, and homophobia on campuses around the country.
The group discussed privilege—and how it applies to gender, class, race, and attractiveness—and how it feels to be rejected, accepted, and misunderstood. We mused over whether or not non-verbal consent is possible, and brainstormed practical and firm ways to say no or yes, or to stop once you’ve started.
During a break in the conversation, I asked the man sitting next to me, a 37-year-old web developer in khakis and a striped collared shirt, why he’d come to the event. He told me, bluntly, “the opportunity to kiss attractive people.” While his motivation sounded a bit opportunistic at first, he explained that he’s been working on his fear of initiating physical contact with women he’s interested in, because he doesn’t “want to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” adding, “I tend to be cautious and then nothing happens.” He wanted to practice ways of instigating a kiss while making sure he wasn’t pressuring anyone. This, in fact, perfectly aligned with Mazzeo’s main goal for the party, which, she told me, was “to help people practice communicating about sexual interactions in a consensual way.”
During the discussion, the event’s co-organizer, Sarah Goshman, 33, in a sweater and jeans, took notes on a white board. Goshman, who uses ze/zir pronouns, was uniquely interested in joining up with Mazzeo because of ze’s own complicated sexual past. “Between growing up fat, being told over and over again that my body was not and could never be sexual, and having a family that engaged alternately in silence around sexuality and in slut-shaming of various kinds, I desperately needed sex positivity,” ze said.
As the conversation wound down, Mazzeo and Goshman ushered in the next phase of the evening—it was time to put our teachings into practice.
This round would consist of a game, in which the guests milled around the room to a playlist of consent-friendly hip hop, and when the music stopped, they asked for consent from another party-goer—for a hug, a handshake, a kiss on the cheek. Participants were encouraged to say yes or no honestly, based on what they really wanted, and to notice what feelings arose, particularly when declining an invitation. People mingled, some with hands in pockets, some dancing, some attempting to make eye contact with another person. When the music stopped, and after a short negotiation, they hugged, fist bumped, locked eyes—or shook their heads and moved on.
After a short debrief of the activity came the evening’s entrée: unstructured make-out time.
Mazzeo and Goshman asked everyone to take a seat and again laid down some guidelines: They encouraged everyone to say “no” to at least one thing, and limited the making out to one room. They also asked participants not to remove any clothing or touch each other’s genitals, and made themselves available to anyone who wanted to talk or ask questions. Lights were dimmed, mints were dipped into, and slowly, people rose from their chairs.
After a smiley conversation, a tan man in his twenties began kissing a blond woman around the same age very slowly in a leather armchair. He gingerly tucked her hair behind her ear while she rubbed the nape of his neck. They kissed with a beautiful mixture of passion and tenderness that seemed like the seeds of love. I was surprised that when they stopped, and after a moment of eye gazing, they parted ways.
Two men—one in a red button-down and dress pants, one in jeans and a t-shirt—made out on a couch, hands against each other’s chests. Afterward they laughed and asked, “What’s your name?” Two mid-thirties couples in non-monogamous relationships swapped partners, then swapped back. A man in his fifties made out with a woman in her twenties—there was over-the-shirt groping, neck-kissing, ear nibbles, and giggles.
The web developer I’d talked to earlier in the evening had been leaning against the wall, watching other couples with what I took to be a combination of shyness and envy. He caught my eye and made his way over to where I sat in a folding chair by the door. He said, “I’ve had an easier time asking people for sex at parties. This is definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.” A petite 28-year-old student in a short floral dress sitting nearby, responded, “Yeah, I’ve never been to a make out party before either.” When I asked her why she’d come, she answered, “As a woman of color it’s difficult to navigate casual sex because I don’t want to be exotified. I don’t want to make out with racists. And I don’t want to engage with people who are homophobic because I’m also queer,” she continued. “I wanted to come here to talk about power dynamics.”
A 23-year-old actor made out with several people, and wore a wide grin. He seemed to glow. When I asked him how he landed at the party, he told me, “My girlfriend found it on Facebook. She was like, ‘I’m disappointed I can’t go to this, you should totally go.’ We’ve been dating for four years, and have lived together three years. A month ago we decided to do the poly thing.”
Eventually, Mazzeo had to shut off the music and turn on the lights to prod guests to disentangle and start clearing out of the space.
A 50-year-old healthcare worker was helping to fold chairs. He told me that he’d attended other Pleasure Pie events and appreciated the body-positive approach to sexuality. “Sex in our culture tends to be mercenary—[the media and advertisers use] people with perfect, sexy bodies to make us buy things.” At a recent underwear party, he told me, he was photographed in a booth where he jumped around to find unflattering angles. “I wanted to be comfortable seeing and sharing that. We shouldn’t shame anyone for their body type—I put the best one on Facebook, belly button, surgical scars and all.”
Goshman believes that the best part of sex-positive spaces like the ones Pleasure Pie creates is the normalization of a wide variety of appearances and identities, as well as a “culture of talking about things rather than shying away from those conversations."
As people trickled out, Goshman said, “For me, creating this event was more about breaking the stigma around having conversations about sex and consent. So much of sexual shame, for me, is rooted in silence, and I think a lot of people feel that way. I love what Nicole does with Pleasure Pie because she gets people talking about things that aren't often discussed, like our sexuality and desires.”
Mazzeo agreed, describing her inspiration for hosting the event. It occurred while traveling last year through Atlanta, home to sex positive organization Velvet Lips, which was throwing a make-out party as a fundraiser for a sexuality conference. “I was curious to see what a make out party would be like, so my [non-monogamous] partner and I went,” she told me. “I had fun, and I liked that it was bringing adult sex ed out of an intellectual framework and into an experiential approach.” She wanted Pleasure Pie to offer Boston folks a similar experience to teach consent and sexual communication “intellectually, and then actually try it out in a sexual situation, at the event. Sometimes we talk about these things, and then when we're in a sexual situation it is hard to apply the concepts.”
Whether folks made out or not, everyone I spoke with seemed to be leaving with an increased awareness of gender and identity politics, and the crucial importance of getting and giving explicit consent before engaging in sexual activity. Hopefully, people also left feeling a little more confident with their skills in initiating and accepting or declining a sexual invitation.
As Goshman put it, poignantly, “It's not just this fun side thing we do so we can make out with people. It's about how we think about ourselves, how we think about our bodies, how we think about pleasure, and how we navigate our relationships. It’s about changing the world.”
Gila Lyons' work has appeared in Salon, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement.