The words are scrawled across the entire page of the guest book of Skirt Club, a members-only, “high glamour” “underground community for girls who like to play with girls.” The YES is underlined three times. Other scribbled testimonials read, “You changed my life!” “I discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know was there!” “Best time of my life!” and “I will never be the same!” XOXOs and hearts abound.
There’s a lot of love for Skirt Club, a roving, semi-secret, women’s only sex party that takes place several times a year in Berlin, London, New York City, LA, and San Francisco. It is no surprise that the event has generated significant interest in the media—after all, sex sells. But what’s less expected is that most of the attendees who come for an evening of unabashed sapphism—club founder Genevieve LeJeune says the group is 5,000 members strong—identify as straight. Some 60% of participants categorize themselves as between a “0” and a “2” on the famed Kinsey scale (part of an application they are required to fill out for the vetting process), meaning they see themselves as anywhere from “exclusively heterosexual” to “predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual.” Many are in long-term relationships with men, or married.
How can this be? And what, if anything, can the popularity of Skirt Club tell us about female sexuality, and our culture’s relationship to it, today?
* * * * *
I managed to wrangle myself an invitation to a Skirt Club party in New York City as part of my research for a book on female sexuality across cultures and in different species. After nearly a year of digging into my topic—in a remote rainforest in Costa Rica to get a glimpse of a female spider monkey’s clitoris (so large it resembles a penis); at a retirement community in a southwestern state to interview a participant in the original Kinsey Study; in my own office viewing hours of porn online in the categories most often searched by women; and at various New York City meet ups for the polyamorous community —I was desensitized to sex. I frankly doubted I would find anything surprising about Skirt Club, whose motto is “Female empowerment, from the bedroom to the boardroom.” I was wrong.
A few days before the party, I received an email with the address of the secret venue. It was all very hush hush—I was asked not to mention “Skirt Club” and to merely say I was there for “C.’s party.” LeJeune and two Skirt hostesses attired in lingerie and kimonos greeted me at the door of a massive downtown NYC duplex. After niceties (“Love your outfit!” was a common greeting between women over the course of the evening), I was ferried back to the party and bar. There, dozens of women, ranging in age from 25 or so to about 50, milled around exchanging pleasantries and friendly smiles and sipping champagne as might befit a bridal shower or ladies’ lunch. The difference was that revelers were dressed in bras and panties and teeny tiny dresses, and our barefoot hostess seemed remarkably comfortable in nothing but a black thong, temporary tattoos of butterflies on her exposed bottom, and a leather and metal holster top that displayed her nipples. Soon, a special guest was giving us tips on Shibari—Japanese bondage—using a willing and comely blonde subject in a red velvet dress. “If you are going to use the rope on someone’s neck, be sure to either go high, or go low. Never across the Adam’s apple area,” the expert instructed. At this point in the proceedings, I thought of myself as part of a slightly surreal Tupperware party. The wild outfits did very little to offset the sense that we were a group of women participating in the tradition of politely watching a demonstration of a household accouterment (albeit a kinky one) in someone’s living room.
Until the body shots. The lights went even lower, the music got even louder. One woman after another lay on her back on a white leather sofa, giggling as her legs were sprinkled with salt. A lime was stuffed into her mouth. Shot glasses of tequila rested near her face, and the game was on. “Victims” were licked, literally from head to toe (well, toe to head); then the disinhibited partygoers headed for the large hot tub on the terrace, an impromptu make out session in a cozy den, and the bedrooms. By 11 pm, a group of six naked women were on a bed upstairs, having sex in every imaginable way. In a downstairs bedroom, the same thing was going on, but with eight women. Like stockings, inhibitions were shed. “I’ve been married for almost twenty years and I just had sex with another woman who’s married. This party helped me find myself,” a remarkably fit and entirely naked woman enthusiastically informed me, a political scientist, and a fashion designer as we watched the goings-on from what we deemed a safe distance. As she pulled her thong and spike-heeled boots back on and a woman receiving oral sex on the bed behind her climaxed noisily, I did not doubt what she had said.
* * * *
Skirt Club has been derided from all sides. Critics have called it exclusionary—looks-ist, expensive, a habitus for newbie femmes. It is frequently dismissed as soft core, male-fantasy inflected, “Victoria’s Secret Lesbianism,” a somehow suspect compromise formation for women who are merely toying with same sex sex rather than really committing to it (a Rolling Stone article called it “a sex party where straight women are gay for a night’). Attendees are exclusively cisgender women. There is, perhaps, plenty to criticize.
And yet, arguably, there is much, much more to admire.
Skirt Club, in effect since its inaugural party in London in 2013, remains exactly what it claims to be—a dedicated space for women coupled with men, or whose main sexual involvements are with men, to have sex with women. With no men around. LeJeune told me that Skirt Club was born in part because she had tired, in her own life, of “procuring” women for an ex-boyfriend, of allowing her own bisexuality to be “leveraged” for his pleasure. And she was sick of sex parties where men and male desires were the main catalyst. Men at these affairs would grab her arm or swat her bottom, presuming that because she was there, she was game. “But I had paid for my ticket. I wanted to be treated as a person with my own desires. I wanted a place for female-centered pleasure, without the involvement or interference of men,” is how she put it bluntly when we spoke.
LeJeune’s business is also a personal passion. But it exists and thrives because there is a very real demand for it. Not long ago, sex researcher Dr. Lisa Diamond, who coined the term “female sexual fluidity,” spoke at a New York Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center workshop the day before a Skirt Club party. In a room filled to capacity, Diamond discussed the term “homopossibility,” and the underlying idea that while we may be born gay or straight, our environment plays a role in what we do and what we “become,” sexually speaking. And that this suggests, in turn, that our sexualities can sometimes morph. Indeed, Diamond discovered, over the course of a decade long longitudinal study of 100 women, that the fairer sex is also more changeable or “fluid,” with desires that are as contingent as much on circumstances, possibilities, and context as they are on the gender of the other. Stages of life and different social groups may make women more likely to consider being with another woman. More than men, Diamond’s work suggests, women require us to rethink our deepest assumptions about same sex desires being fixed, and sexual identity necessarily being forever.
Viewed through the lens of Diamond’s work, criticisms of Skirt Club suggest questions about our sexual selves in 2017. Why do we so often, as a culture, stand in judgment of female sexuality and its expression? Why do we police its “authenticity” and question its legitimacy when it crosses boundaries and defies definition or categorization? And how is it that, in what might be considered the third or fourth wave of feminism, exploring what may actually be a basic component of female sexuality is a privilege and not a right, not to mention a profoundly unsettling-to-many act, rather than simply a desire? Even as women continue to close the education and pay gaps, and express their autonomy by having lives and children outside of marriage, female desire remains legislated, mediated, and in many ways controlled. Could parties like Skirt Club suggest the beginning to the end of all of that?