The crafting table is messy by The Dirty Gentleman’s standards, but we’re almost done assembling monthly packages of naughty photos for members. The rest of the room has slipped into sexual play on the couches and in the side rooms while a few of us finish embossing envelopes. The young man across from me at the crafting table is faltering in his crafting duties as he receives a blowjob from a woman who has ducked under the table. The man looks me in the eyes, and I notice a tingling sensation though my shoulders and up my neck. Am I aroused by his gaze, the smell in the room, or the woman under the table? I can’t tell. There’s a lot going on.
Our host, known simply as Mr. Gentleman, approaches to check on our progress. “This is Lady Q,” he says to me, introducing a petite woman in her late 40s. “Now, Lady Q, you are to do whatever Miss Ida tells you. Why don’t you start by reading this handwriting manual aloud to her. Don’t stop until she tells you,” he says. What is happening? I wonder. How do I handle this interaction? Lady Q sits down next to me and begins to read aloud, though her poor eyesight quickly troubles the activity. “Should I run to my car,” she asks, “to fetch my eye glasses?” She looks at me submissively, awaiting instructions. Is this a coincidence, I silently ask myself, or has Mr. Gentleman correctly sized up my sexual predilections on my first visit to the monthly gatherings even before I’ve done anything overtly sexual? Lady Q is still looking at me, waiting for instructions. What do I do?
Sex parties are a deceptively accessible starting point for how to design transformative experiences. Creators of culture, from game designers to theater producers to movie directors, want to produce pleasure-inducing experiences where people are able to explore things they otherwise hold themselves back from. Few of these culture creators deal as directly with the raw material of human desire as the sex party purveyor. Unlike my other examples of funerals and wilderness trips, no extreme environment or tragic event is needed to make a sex party happen. You just need the right people in the right mood.
Being honest, with yourself and with those dear to you, about what gets you off can be challenging. First, there is the challenge of discovering exactly what it is you like and then, there is the challenge of communicating that to others. The stakes in the bedroom are high. The stakes at a sex party are even higher.
A sexual play party is not simply a party where sex happens. Many of the purveyors I talked to shy away from the term “party,” preferring “social,” “gathering,” or even “masquerade.” Some of the events don’t even suggest that the goal is to have sex, but rather to create a permissive atmosphere for sexual exploration. What ties this group of experiences together is the creation of a space for social connection in the context of diminished sexual taboo. Sex parties can be private invitation-only experiences where guests are personally vetted by a host, or they can be widely-publicized events accessed by buying a ticket. They can cater to a particular sexual orientation or kinky taste, or they can be generalized gatherings meant for those still discovering their preferences.
Welcome to: The Dirty Gentleman
The Dirty Gentleman (TDG) is both a membership organization and the character of the proprietor within the world of the organization. Mr. Gentleman, a courteous man in his late 30s of average height and average weight who works in business strategy during the day, is punctual to the minute. Any occasion with him is accompanied by a direct Google calendar invite. His email correspondence is timely and poised. Even before you meet Mr. Gentleman, you get the sense that there is a finely polished set of manners this man operates by, and you probably should too if you want to connect with him. His movements evoke those of an expertly puppeteered marionette, whose gestures are preconceived in full before being enacted, yet still smooth and endearing. He dresses sharply but not so sharply as to draw attention. He does not come off as eccentric in any fashion. He’s just meticulous, and his membership organization is all about attention to detail.
Sexy social gatherings are only the most recent manifestation of TDG, which began as photography project in 2009. “It happened that some of the shoots were fun and frolicsome and would go in interesting directions,” recalls Mr. Gentleman. Next came a membership-based parcel service that sends subscribers fastidiously assembled-packages, including original sexually suggestive photographs. The membership base is now invited to quarterly socials, and the team, as well as select members, come together on a monthly basis to assemble packages and engage in “naughty play” if the mood allows. Mr. Gentleman, in other personas, has been organizing events for over a decade. “I come from a firm belief that it’s very helpful at a social engagement to have a structure,” says Mr. Gentleman, “whether it’s a craft event or a game night or something that provides a framework rather than just randomly tossing people together.”
Indeed, the structure of the monthly gatherings is based on craft activities. Twenty or so people come together in a private apartment wearing cocktail attire. Each guest is handpicked to make an interesting social mix. While Mr. Gentleman knows everyone, it’s rare that any one guest will know more than half of the other guests. A worktable at the front of the apartment accommodates six or seven crafters. Everyone else is scattered on the two long couches beneath books and paintings with hors d’oeuvres in the middle. Drinks and snacks are self-served. The lighting is dim, and the music mellow and forgettable. Gatherings start sharply at 8pm with chatter, snacking, embossing, and letter-writing. As guests settle in and crafting duties subside, clothing is shed, though rarely past fancy undergarments. Some guests may disappear into a side room, while others engage in sexual play on the couches. The evening wraps up sometime between midnight and 2 AM.
The goal for guests at TDG is to master the etiquette so that you can connect with people first and foremost socially, and maybe then sexually. At the monthly gatherings, there’s also the expressed goal of assembling the parcels.
Death (and Mourning)
“It’s been a busy day. Let me make sure we’re ready for you.” Gema disappears through the side door of Green-wood cemetery’s reception hall toward the crematory’s retorts in back. “We never call them ovens,” she reminds us in her thick Brooklyn accent.
The three dozen people in attendance range in age from their late 50s to early 70s. Some of them are accompanied by younger relatives. They are here to make informed decisions about their own deaths. Funeral director and death doula Amy Cunningham just finished delivering what she described as a “fast track jog through cremation history,” covering Biblical references, Hindu customs, and theosophical eccentricities.
I go with the second group of visitors into the receiving area of the crematory. The marble room is set with five retorts behind stacked sets of double brass doors. For each retort, the upper set of doors open to the cremation chamber while the lower set of doors conceal the retort’s machinery. The lower doors are scuffed up from gurneys carrying coffins scraping against them repeatedly. When we enter, all the doors are shut. There is a dull roar in the room. I open one set of doors to see a heavy black panel covering the cremation chamber. Heat wafts out. Oh, that’s what the dull roar is, I think to myself. All the retorts are on. We can’t see them, we can’t smell them, but we can hear them. We are surrounded by burning bodies. What did Gema have to do to get the room ready for us?
Every death represents two simultaneous risks. The first is the loss of a loved individual, their absence producing a painful void that one must come to terms with. The second is a confrontation with one’s own mortality by witnessing the impermanence of someone who was once living and no longer is, making the reality of our impending demise undeniable. Emotional upset over the death of a loved one is unavoidable no matter how much preparation there is for the inevitable.
The modern funeral industry is getting shaken up in America. Funeral directors point to the Civil War as the starting point of modern funerary traditions. Managing the overwhelming number of dead on battlefields and in camps spawned embalming practices so cadavers could be returned to the families in some recognizable form. After 150 years of an increasingly commercialized funeral industry, the value of our culture of bereavement is being broadly questioned.
A funeral is commonly defined as a social gathering around the remains of the recently-deceased individual with the intention of paying final respects. The funeral may or may not involve putting the remains to rest, especially in instances of cremation. Putting a body in a final resting place is often a component of the funeral where burial or internment is involved.
Welcome to: A Witness Cremation
Amy Cunningham’s petite stature and warm, inquisitive demeanor make her easy to open up to. Her first profession was as a magazine writer. It wasn’t until her parents passed away when she was in her 50s that she made a sharp career change to become a funeral director. Decades of experience interviewing people and investigating nuanced social dynamics in her journalism career transfer seamlessly to the task of assisting grieving families as they decide what to do about their recently-deceased loved ones.
Despite her eager vibrancy in social settings, time seems to slow down around Amy. Her attentive care slips over those in her company like a calming shroud. Death doesn’t seem so scary around her. Amy enjoys reminding people that it was when the Buddha, as the unenlightened Siddhārtha, laid eyes on a corpse in the city streets beyond his palace that everything changed for him, and he began his journey toward enlightenment. Amy’s mindfulness extends beyond those in front of her to those already in their graves, as well as those she will soon usher along the same path. She is perpetually glued to her cell phone in the event that one of her clients in hospice passes away. When her eyes are not on the phone’s screen, the device hangs by her side or in her hand so that she may respond as soon as someone rings.
Amy is not a fan of cremation personally. She prefers green burials where the body is simply laid to rest in the ground. She offers cremation as an option to her clients because it’s so popular, and sometimes a cremation is the most practical option, as was the case with her client Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth’s father unexpectedly died from a heart attack in his hotel room on his final night visiting her in New York, events moved fast. “We decided to get him cremated in New York. We had to make those arrangements very quickly,” she recalls. At a direct witness cremation, the family goes to the crematory and watches as the coffin is put into the retort. But before that, Elizabeth and her mother went to Amy’s home to prepare in an intimate and creative way. “We all sat around decorating the casket. And Amy took pictures of us doing it.” Elizabeth describes the scene with crushing tenderness. The sanctuary for creative expression created respite from the logistical nightmare of suddenly coordinating a cremation for her father away from his home city.
Elizabeth says that their decision to decorate the casket and do a witness cremation came from suggestions Amy made. “There are lots of ways you can get the family to get active in the process,” Amy says. “You have to test them out because you don’t want to turn too much over to someone who really doesn’t want it. You have to figure out how far they want to go.”
According to Amy and other avant-garde funeral directors, the goal of a well-designed funeral is to help people engage their grief, as uncomfortable and upsetting as grief is. Social norms and pervasive taboos about death can prevent people from dealing with the reality of the loss. The funeral directors I have talked to aim to create circumstances that make it safe to grieve, rather than repress it only to struggle with the process down the road.
Survival (in the Wild)
The turquoise Sea of Cortez is full of whitecaps. As we walked our kayaks out of the shallow sandbars protecting the mangrove forest, all semblance of forward momentum halts when we see the conditions ahead of us. The plan was to cross back to mainland Baja this afternoon, passing by a sea lion colony on the way. A crossing won’t be possible in these winds. Our guides frantically find a place to beach the boats where we won’t be trapped by the receding tide. The day’s leadership team and our guides disappear up the beach with maps in hand while the rest of us mill about lamenting the fact that we won’t be chilling out with sea lion cubs anytime soon.
After about 10 minutes, the leaders return with a new plan. The closest sheltered beach, given the wind direction, is 12 kilometers up the west side of the island. Camping there means we are closer to a landing spot on the mainland, making it feasible to beat rising wind if we head out at first light in the morning. We need to paddle directly into the northerly wind to get to the campsite. I do the calculations in my head. Given the distance and the direction of the wind, we have at least three hours of paddling ahead of us. While I’m one of the fastest members of the group when it comes to gear management, I am weakest when it comes to physical strength. Even in calm conditions, my daily paddling stamina craps out between hour three and four on the water. We’ve already done two hours of paddling to round the southern tip of the island today. Now we’ll be heading straight into 20 knot winds for several more hours. Am I going to make it?
Most members of society are accustomed to living in human-centered environments where a high degree of control and predictability are a given. In a wilderness setting, our control is drastically reduced, so much so that basic acts of self-care and preservation require substantial effort.
The wilderness has become a removed place to fear, and seek adventure only because of the ways in which modern, organized society removes uncontrolled elements of nature from day-to-day life. Guided wilderness trips—where group cohesion and exploration of unfamiliar territory are core components—require participants to renegotiate their relationship with the natural world and their own sense of control and comfort back in civilization.
A guided wilderness trip is an outing, often over the course of a week or more, where access to modern amenities is limited to what the group brings with them. The group tests their survival skills against the natural context and learn to efficiently rely on each other to make sure the wild doesn’t get the best of them.
Welcome to: The National Outdoor Leadership School
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has been taking groups into the wild for over 50 years. Leslie Appling, a rambunctious woman in her mid-60s who describes herself as a “scofflaw,” started leading trips with NOLS in 1983. The even bronze of her tan probably dates from then, too. She listens closely as you speak, until she doesn’t because there’s some “neat” bug crawling on your shoulder that she’ll gleefully draw everyone’s attention to. Her laughter sounds like the spontaneous outburst of a preschooler or the seasoned chuckle of a sage, depending upon which way the wind carries it. It’s never just one or the other, always both. The skill with which she administers NOLS’ strict procedures fails to mask her distaste for control and regulations. Leslie likes to keep you on your toes because she’s always on hers. By Leslie’s standards, that’s the best way to embrace what the wild has to offer.
The NOLS experience focuses on leadership, creating leadership responsibilities that can be shared and rotated among the students during the trip. Dealing with the unfamiliar living conditions can be stressful not just because people are in nature, but because they have to rely on each other.
“For a lot of people, sustained group living is really challenging,” says Leslie. “It’s not really something we do in our life. Usually if there is someone we are living with every day, it’s someone we have chosen to live with. Either it’s our family or it’s our partner or it’s our friend. Whereas out here, like it or not, you’re living with up to 17 other people, none of your choosing, not all of whom you are going to click with.” Days tend to be long and full of chores like cooking, maintaining gear, and setting up camp. For NOLS, the wilderness trips aren’t just about getting in touch with nature.
A well-designed wilderness trip enables people to show up for each other in ways that they don’t in their day-to-day lives. Since people are relying on each other as they navigate their individual comfort and skill level, fostering group cohesion is the name of the game.
She Just Let Go
After sea kayaking together for a week in the absence of toilet paper, electricity, shelter, and outside communication, my NOLS team returned to La Paz to decommission our gear and rejoin civilization. I spent a day in town saying slow goodbyes to my travel companions as they peeled off one-by-one to return home. Early the next morning, I gathered my pack and went to the bus station to catch an airport shuttle. In the station’s parking lot, truly alone for the first time since I arrived and feeling like the adventure had now come to an end, I spontaneously burst into tears. I couldn’t quite tell why. I wasn’t overjoyed or devastated. I didn’t feel any obvious failure or success to reckon with. But something had changed. Something was washing out of me. I kept crying until we were loaded onto the shuttle and the embarrassment of weeping in close quarters with strangers made me pull myself back together.
I don’t know what I released, the indescribable thing I cried over as I left, but I feel better without it. Thanks to the experience, I just let go.
These seemingly distinct experiences—the sex party, the funeral, and the wilderness trip—actually have a lot in common. From those common patterns, we can discern tactics for creating life-changing experiences in equally challenging contexts, as well as those with lower stakes.