Most work on Elephant in the Hot Tub: Kink in Context is solely my work. This document is the product of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s (NCSF) Educational Outreach Committee chaired by Susan Wright, and consisting of Tess Zachry of APEX, Matt Connolly, Western Region Polyamory Advocate and myself as Professionals Advocate.
The social distancing behaviors (we are using the media friendly term here even though the behaviors public health offidcidals are recommending actually constitute physical distancing, not social isolation) recommended by public health authorities pose a severe challenge to those who crave the physical intimacy of sex, including many non-sexual behaviors in BDSM and kink settings. Many BDSM, poly and swinging social clubs have stopped meeting and many events have been cancelled in compliance with state quarantine provisions and the best medical advice. There are some indications that social discourse in many such groups is way down, and this raises the topic of what social clubs might do to help their members and the public cope with the disruptions imposed by social distancing and illness. NCSF created this resource to provide support for clubs and assemble some suggestions about best practices culled from NCSF Coalition Partners, psychological theory, and the new rules of social and sexual engagement with strangers.
First, the basics. Protection from COVID-19 means having sex with fewer partners and only with those who you know are healthy and managing their risks well. Because the COVID-19 virus has a 14-day incubation and hardly anyone has been tested, it is very difficult to know who is a carrier but not yet symptomatic. While obviously ill people can be avoided by simply moving away from them, being intimate with a non-symptomatic carrier creates a high risk of transmission. Yet neither you nor they will know who is ill. This makes it risky to meet and recommends that people stay 6 feet or more from one another, and it is no wonder that many clubs have cancelled all events and stopped meeting face-to-face as a result.
Psychological resilience theory identifies a number of components of resilient behavior. To quote the American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience. These are the coping strategies of resilience.
Prioritize Relationships – It is easy to see how kink and non-monogamy social groups do that, and when they stop meeting, it can interfere with members’ opportunity to do that.
Join a Group – disbanding a group or putting it on hiatus can definitely be an obstacle to joining.
Take Care of Your Body – Sex is a part of that care. While some sexual needs can be met effectively solo, some cannot.
Practice Mindfulness – While social clubs are not one meditation opportunity after another, people can have aggravated mindfulness needs in anxiety provoking circumstances like a national pandemic. Likewise, being with trusted friends can be calming even if no meditation breaks out!
Avoid Negative Outlets – Not everyone uses social clubs in a positive manner, but clubs often provide protective space and educational content that do help people meet kinky and adventurous needs more safely.
Help Others – While social clubs are hardly the only venue for this, they are often relatively safe places for people to disclose their sexuality and get help that is riskier to try to get other places.
Be Proactive – The social distancing and economic consequences of this pandemic are a big threat to many people’s established patterns of proactivity. Conversely, helping your group survive the pandemic can be a very constructive outlet.
Move Toward Your Goals – This takes a great deal of flexibility in uncertain and scary times like these. For people whose goals were framed in the context of a group’s activities, changes in how it works can be an obstacle
Look for Opportunities for Self-Discovery – Often social groups play a key role in supporting their members self-discovery. Conversely, dramatic changes can teach members things about themselves that the status quo tends to conceal, if they can stay open to new learning.
Keep Things in Perspective – we do a lot of this in the context of relationships, so disruption in those relationships can threaten our ability to use them this way.
Accept Change – it is much harder to accept dramatic, unforeseen and imposed changes than it is to embrace planned, gradual and autonomously selected changes. A pandemic like COVID-19 is far more of the former type than the latter.
Maintain a Hopeful Outlook – This is easiest when the future is clear and predictable, and when one is not experiencing other losses. Needless to say, job loss, illness and death are not conducive to a hopeful outlook.
Learn from Your Past – It is generally beyond the scope of most social groups’ missions to be responsible for people’s past histories. But it is possible to be more supportive of people if you recognize the group’s importance in their histories and act to support those functions that you can sustain even in trying times like these.
This ends the APA’s list. It is obvious from that list that the COVID-19 threatens many people’s sources of resilience. In addition to decreases in social contact, a collapse in economic activity, and ill-health caused by the pandemic, people can be expected to have coping troubles, and that certainly includes kink, CNM and swinging club members. Here are few other things to keep in mind about resilience:
Diversity of Experience — It is important to realize that, although your group may have many roles in your member’s lives and that it will not be the same for all members nor will it possible to solve all challenges, recognizing some of these things can help you prioritize how to respond.
Resilience can be limited — It is also important to respond within your group’s resources. Many groups have a social support fund for members who face sudden medical and economic crises. It is important not to overspend these so that you can accommodate emergencies that arise in the future. Likewise, it is important not to overspend your time energy and emotion in times when you are feeling needy or limited. And this will be true of your leadership and rank and file members, too.
Seek Help – It is important to know what other groups are doing and what kink friendly and knowledgeable resources are available in your communities. It can be very helpful to know the kink and poly-aware practitioners in your community, have suicide prevention andother helpline numbers handy. We have not provided these here because most of them are local and specific to your group. https://www.kapprofessionals.org/
Use negotiation– It turns out, RACK is a good guideline for lots of matters beyond kink scenes. In RACK, partners disclose their concerns, desires, risk factors and limits and agree to operate within a contract that complies with these requirements. Consent, negotiation, action, and evaluation work well in decisions about what to do even when there is no social emergency and no play, not just is kink action. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk-aware_consensual_kink
Keep it Simple – Because the pandemic is highly stressful and uncertain, expect to have to execute the changes you are having to make now under even more adverse conditions later. Design for sustainability. It is easier to start simple and add more later than to have to scale back your plans, especially when your potential members are already facing lots of loss and disruption already.
We know specific things about the kink population that it is useful to keep in mind when you are deciding how you wish to change your group:
NCSF’s own consent surveys have shown 70% of out kink social group members are not out to someone important in their daily lives. Who they are not out to varies a lot, but this means that your group may be a crucial part of some members’ support systems, and sensitivity to how people are limited in how they are out is important to people in changing the group meetings. For example, this will influence how you can and cannot change your electronic contacts policy, when people can come to events, and how they wish to be contacted. Be respectful of people’s diverse needs for privacy and even secrecy.
Although kink folk have not been found to be less mentally healthy than conventional people, they do suffer from mental health problems like everyone else, and some more so due to stigma around variant sexuality. Due to stigma, kinksters have higher levels of past suicide attempts and serious plans than do the non-kinky comparison groups. Heterosexuals have the lowest risk followed by gays/lesbians, and transgendered/gender fluid folk have the highest past suicide risk. This was discovered by the Kink Health Study by Waldura, Arora, Randall, Farala and Sprott in the Journal of Sexual Medicine (2016) 13(12) pp. 1918-1929. It is highly likely that further intersectionalities including race, ethnicities and disability stack further. So social support is likely to be even more critical for these folks in stressful times. Supportive contact need not be sexual in order for people to retain a sense of acceptance and community if you can find a way by to keep folks in touch with one another.
Kinky and non-monogamous people like what they like and privilege their subjective sense of pleasure. This means that forced changes like social distancing are not going to appeal to everyone, and that not everyone who likes the current group arrangements is going to stay with you through these changes. Although you will return to meeting face-to-face after social distancing subsides, not everyone is going to manage those transitions.
Everyoneis going to be grieving the social and economic changes imposed by this pandemic, regardless of whether they get sick or lose someone important to them. This will act as sand in the cogs of much social machinery, and create the need for grief work in your group even though your original purpose was arranging sexy fun and hot social contacts.
All of these considerations frame finding ways to support your members in ways other than meeting for play. While some people will not want to meet if no sex is involved, group members have many needs that can be met. Furthermore, group members are used to getting social, educational and social needs met in the group above and beyond the sex. That creates opportunities for your social groups to discover these and try to meet them in other ways that are consistent with good public health.
If you found any of the above information a sound basis to go forward, how do you go about deciding what to do next?
- Do an assessment of your current situation. Answer questions about what resources your group members need, what resources are they likely to be able to bring to the club now that meeting purposes have changed, what else is being done in the community to support people, and who will be able to execute the planned changes you want to implement to support them. This might involve making a few phone calls, starting an on-line thread, or holding video conferencing planning meetings depending on your resources and community norms.
- Reevaluate your electronic communication and privacy policies. This has a privacy dimension, a logistical dimension, and a technical dimension. Your group may not ordinarily allow video, so arranging group Skype, Zoom, Discord or Google hangouts meetings requires getting group members’ consent to use such venues with the security risks they entail. Then presenters need to master the logistics of being able to mount such meetings, and finally, the membership needs support getting up to speed with the technology that will permit participation. Not everyone has the resources or the access to electronics to allow them to participate.
- Find the people who want to do the hard work setting this up and will follow through with it, and make sure they have the resources to support the effort.
- Make sure those resources are within the club’s limits and can be maintained if they succeed and members come to rely on them. It is crucial to maintain momentum.
Here are some examples of what some of NCSF’s Coalition Partner groups are doing:
1. Move meetings to an online platform. I have been able to host support and educational meetings, virtual happy hours and an erotic reading online. I’m also stressing that while online meetings may in the future become part of the group’s overall program, it will not replace F2F meetings in the new normal.
2. Understand that your online attendance will be different then your in-person attendance. People who don’t make it F2F events will suddenly appear and others who enjoy the F2F will disappear. Attendance will most likely be lower but the people who attend will enjoy and appreciate it. Strive for quality vs. quantity and the long term. Allow for a learning curve in the beginning and understand that as people are figuring out how to hunker down, attending an online meeting may slide in priority. Your role is to create a space that will be available when they are ready.
3. Be ready to discover that the same people who are always willing host an event in person may not want to do the same via an online format or may not have the ready technology to make this happen. For example, hosting online karaoke is possible (How to have an online Karaoke Party!) but requires a bit of an extra effort and mindset that this person may not feel comfortable creating.
4. Know that a one-hour online meeting will be equal to a two-hour in person event.
5. If possible, use an external webcam and/or mic with a tripod. It allows you to do things like create wide shots of virtual bars or static shots of fire pits.
6. When hosting an educational meeting online, allow for a check in of needs and emotional support but don’t let a discussion of the pandemic take precedence. Avoid making informal social meetings a forum *solely* for dark pandemic discussion as well. Come prepared with questions like “What is the funniest thing that has happened to you since you have been working from home?” or share funny songs.
7. Look for ways to make connections with other Groups. There is no reason why I can’t host a virtual Happy Hour in Phoenix and invite people from Florida. This is a great opportunity to expand your world view.
8. Use your group’s other social media platforms to share informational and humorous articles and videos. Post regularly. Example include:
9. Be aware that a certain percentage of your group will still be uncomfortable with online meetings and will 100% prefer to meet in person. Keeping in mind any local health directives, and working within physical distancing guidelines, you may decide it is acceptable to have small group discussions. If you are fortunate to have an outdoor location, it is suggested you hold such a meeting there. Have people bring their own food and beverage and make available sanitizer supplies. Grieve the loss of intimacy and connection that social distancing entails. Lots of funny memes are circulating about deciding how to preserve some of the clubs usefulness to members and the community even after, however Love in the Time of Corona is the party introverts have been waiting all their lives. But these enforced changes are scary, stressful, and involve sacrifice, even for introverts. Having the kids home all day means no private time for your sexual relief. Partners are unavailable who you could count on before. The electronics you like to use for sex need may now need to be shared. And all those stirred up emotions can have a deadening effect on your, or your partner’s sex, social, or kink drive. Acknowledging feelings of loss is important in managing them.
Not all sex activity needs to be given up:
Examples include group masturbation in which everyone stays six feet apart and doesn’t exchange fluids. Fetish play scenarios involving total encasement. Phone sex, erotica exchange, readings, porn use, and teledildonics are all examples, and you group can run educational sessions and events around the many kinds of kinky activity that are possible within social distancing guidelines.
Being psychologically flexible is an advantage, but takes a lot of energy. If your risk tolerance means you must change your way of being pleasured, this takes real emotional labor. Give yourself and your group members as much time and leeway as you can to make difficult changes. Be tolerant with yourself and your group when you or they can’t do everything you ask of each other right away.
Clean yourself, your toys, your clothing, your electronics and your space much as you would wash your hands. If you have studied how long the virus can survive on various materials, wait to use them again until after a period in which the virus would naturally have expired.
Tolerance of delayed gratification, ambiguity, your anxiety and the anxiety of others are all important lubricants that smooth the dramatic changes social distancing requires. Others are going to handle this differently than you do that you cannot anticipate or control. Be sure to manage your distance from these things if they become to frustrating.
Give yourself and your group permission to try to preserve as much pleasure, touch, sensuality and fun as you can. That is what this post is all about, and one of the rich sources of meaning that makes necessary sacrifices bearable.
Elephant in the Hot Tub: Kink in Context has a longer post on kink resilience here. https://elephantinthehottub.com/2019/01/resilience
Sex is an important part of life. Despite the fact that sex can be over-regulated and heavily socially stigmatized, many of the principles that make your general life more effective and satisfying apply to sex.
Finally, nothing we have said on here is anywhere near the last word in hope to manage your group during social distancing. Please leave strategies and programs your group has tried that you think will help others respond to this threat to our communities. We are all stronger together! Please leave these insights and examples in the comment section, below.
© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, NCSF, Tess Zachary, Susan Wright and Matt Connolly Ann Arbor MI, April 2020.