We obsess over the design of our computers, apps, and smart-home devices. The technology titans who create them are eager to feed our obsession for sleek experiences, and we reward them with demigod-like societal status and a steady flow of profits.
Yet these same titans let their design standards go limp when it comes to their very own sex parties.
There are dangerous power dynamics at play at sex parties being thrown by tech-industry leaders. The Vanity Fair piece “Oh My God, This Is So F—ed Up”: Inside Silicon Valley’s Dark Side” describes sexually charged parties hosted by influential Silicon Valley insiders that blur the lines of informed consent, as well as the distinction between personal and professional life. The article has been making the rounds, provoking responses to both support and deny the scenes it describes:
From reports of those who have attended these parties, guests and hosts include powerful first-round investors, well-known entrepreneurs, and top executives. Some of them are the titans of the Valley, household names. The female guests have different qualifications. If you are attractive, willing, and (usually) young, you needn’t worry about your résumé or bank account … “You know when it’s that kind of party,” one male tech investor told me. “At normal tech parties, there are hardly any women. At these kinds of party, there are tons of them.”
Emily Chang’s feature exposes an exploitation of power that disproportionately impacts women in an industry already suffering from excessive sexism. The people who Chang interviews report feeling the need to attend such events in the hopes of advancing their career, only to be caught off guard by coercive advances and sloppy drug use. But while the parties may be well-designed power plays, they are not well-designed sex parties. And I should know, because I study them.
I have some experience with risky and illicit events. After several years running a creative practice with transgression as a core tenant (most often manifesting as trespassing), I went on to explore the design of transformative social experiences by comparing sex parties, funerals, and wilderness trips. The skill in designing these experiences comes from subjecting yourself to primal risks and creating the conditions for the group to navigate them. Whether it’s a high-end swinger’s night or your grandfather’s wake, the process is tricky, invigorating, and deeply humanizing.
The stakes in the bedroom are high—the stakes at a sex party are even higher. A well-designed sex party offers an opportunity to reckon with what you actually want sexually and how to communicate that to others. Attending a well-designed sex party can be a game changer for arriving to your own sexual maturity, but attending a bad one can set you up for coercion—and waking up the next morning with gut-wrenching regrets about what you went through, if not worse. If well-designed, a sex party should be all about confronting the social risk of rejection or disappointment in the hopes of connecting with what will really do it for you—and the people you get it on with.
The sex parties described by Chang create a disproportionate distortion of social risk among participants. If all participants do not need to risk rejection equally, and those least empowered to leverage their personal boundaries are those most likely to suffer consequences outside the party, you have a recipe for coercion and abuse. Two strangers meeting for the first time who mutually decide to roll around with each other for an hour is a very different situation to a male VC propositioning a female startup owner who may one day need to ask his firm for funding. In my experience, active participation at a well-run sex party is never required, and polite voyeurism is a-okay, provided the people you’re watching are playing out in the open and you are not invading their personal space. Stories from the Silicon Valley parties circulating the internet do not appear to set up this kinds of flexible, non-coercive options for engaging.
An important box to check before stepping into an experience is to agree on terms of engagement. This could be through a prep email to everyone who has RSVPed or a ground-rules orientation at the door that attendees need to deliberately opt in to. (For example, the NYC Safer Spaces website has a Bill of Rights and a Code of Conduct.) Many well-managed sex parties will have proctors who you can go to for support if you feel unsafe for any reason, or guardians roaming the rooms handing out condoms and reminding people that “consent is sexy!”
Tech-industry leaders who put on these badly designed sex parties are depicted by Chang as feeling entitled to sex. They have social and financial power that they could barely dream of as lonely teenagers, but just because they have gained in other places in life doesn’t mean they get to skip the work of developing social graces and interpersonal skills. But a well-designed sex party could help with challenges, not exacerbate them.
Such parties would ask these guys to navigate their own desires in a context where the rules of engagement help them learn how to listen to and respect the desires of those around them. Ideally, they would be surrounded by helpful examples of people navigating personal boundaries. If their own behavior was ever out of line, they would be corrected in a way that was far more respectful and supportive than the social ridicule they might have experienced as teenagers.
But could you ever create this environment when such egregious power constructs are at play? I can’t say I’ve ever been to a party like those held by Silicon Valley titans. If I did end up at one, I would probably seek out the tamer corners or exit the premise entirely. Women who decide to attend could maintain their boundaries by asking anyone who approaches them earnest questions about how things work and what they get out of it, putting them on a pedestal intellectually while discretely fending them off physically. The Silicon Valley hosts creating these events would do well to also discourage drug use, clearly demarcate sexual play spaces from socializing areas, and hire charming staff to act as support for confused and overwhelmed attendees.
Sex parties themselves shouldn’t be demonized when they’re correctly conducted—but why would we tolerate bad sex-party design from the folks we look to for great design in technology?