On a Sunday afternoon at 2pm, I rang one of the three new buzzers outside a four-story townhouse in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood. I had booked an interview with libertine fashion/tech entrepreneur Daniel Saynt to ask him—amidst swirling controversy and rumors—whether he still thought he could disrupt New York’s secret sex-party scene.
Five minutes later, I tried another buzzer, and another minute later, the door swung open. Saynt, bleary-eyed, peered out at me with confusion. A beat passed before he recognized me and swung the door open wide, revealing himself to be in a t-shirt and underwear.
“Do you want me to come back?” I asked.
“Yes, sorry, can you?” he responded, apologizing profusely. I wandered off to kill time, and when I came back a half hour later, he let me in—fully clothed—and led me on a tour of his recently renovated townhouse, which will soon be filled with sin. We strolled underneath a red glass chandelier in the foyer, past black-and-white photographs of nude women in nature, up the stairs to two more floors and six bedrooms, each with its own keyless entry lock, and then back downstairs to the living room and kitchen, which held a full professional DJ set-up. We spoke bathed in the red glow of a neon sign declaring his venture’s name: “NSFW.”
That morning the townhouse was empty, but come Saturday night, it will be filled with 90 curious New Yorkers, wearing suits, cocktail dresses, animal-themed masks, and scant underwear, while DJs play sultry house music. A dominatrix will be giving rope and bondage lessons, erotic films will play on the walls, and upstairs—if all goes to plan—the guests will take advantage of those six bedrooms.
But Saynt isn’t just another rich guy throwing an orgy in his mansion: He’s an entrepreneur who wants to disrupt the nascent sex-positivity movement, and ride it to wealth and fame. In May, his previous effort to throw a cutting-edge sex party succumbed to friction and hostility from the community he was trying to join. Would his most recent attempt blow up, or blow it?
The state of sex parties
Sexually risqué events and acts are becoming more attractive to everyday Americans than ever before. Acceptance of the idea of polygamy is on the rise, and polyamorous and open relationships are becoming more visible. Sex-themed events, like Dan Savage’s HUMP! Film Festival, which gives likeminded strangers the opportunity to watch diverse porn together in public, now tour the US and regularly sell out.
Definitive statistics on the rise of sex parties are hard to come by, mainly because most operate underground, thrown in personal homes or privately rented hotels. But Ben Fuller, the founder of Modern Lifestyles, a ticketing and event-management service for swinger parties, says his company’s revenue has grown 81% over the last 24 months.
“In the last few years it’s been exploding,” Fuller says. “The bigger parties are getting bigger. Mailing lists are growing. More people are finding out about it online.” Modern Lifestyles serves close to 100 swinger parties, with 218,000 tickets sold since its launch in 2011.
There are more than 20 regularly operating sex parties in New York City alone, and they come in all flavors. There are 1970s-style swinger parties where couples come with the intent of swapping their significant others. There are kink and fetish parties in clubs where the emphasis is more on the sweet pain of foreplay than the act of fornication. And there are parties where wealthy men pay for attractive young women to attend, in what is basically thinly veiled prostitution.
But there is now a new kind of sex party finding its footing, born out of kink parties but with the edges smoothed and its purpose refined by the ideals of a new generation. These “play parties” are founded on the shared notion of sex positivity, which is the belief that as long as the acts are consensual and safe, all forms of sex and expressions of sexuality are valid.
Closely tied to the polyamorous and Burning Man (“burner”) community, this tight cohort of New York-based parties are quick to distance themselves from swinger shindigs, which they see as too transactional and self promotional, replete with cheesy posters and online advertisements. Unlike kink parties—which are often held in sleazy basements in the no-man’s-land of midtown Manhattan—they’re more attractive to non-BDSM couples and held in hotel penthouses, Brooklyn townhouses, and event spaces that usually host concerts and weddings. And unlike the parties catering to rich men, tickets are on the affordable side—around $100—and the women are there to have fun, not gold dig.
While a couple of these sex-positive parties have a slight internet presence, most function as close-knit communities whose jealously guarded guest lists have been painstakingly built over years by word of mouth. The only way to find out about these events is to deeply embed yourself into the burner and electronic-music scene—and demonstrate that you can behave respectfully despite being surrounded by naked bodies.
“People like the community aspect of it, because it lends itself to a much safer and intimate environment,” says Kaitlyn* (name changed for privacy), who used to be on the leadership team of a sex-positive party we’ll call Elite Embrace, and also serves as a liaison between two others. “They’re trusted people—you have to vouch for somebody to gain entry, and you can’t just find it and show up. You don’t find that at the other parties.”
As depraved as a sex party may sound to the less adventurous, these new parties hew to their own moral code. Women and men pay the same ticket price to prevent a power imbalance. Affirmative consent—where one must ask permission and get a verbal OK before touching, kissing, or physically engaging in any way—is drummed into attendees before they enter. Recording devices are banned. Experienced guardians are on hand with identifying markers to help out attendees who may feel unsafe. Consent violators and guests who are intoxicated are kicked out and sometimes blacklisted.
All the rules at these sex parties are geared toward making all attendees—but especially women—feel safe enough to explore their sexual desires, whether that’s group sex or simply wandering around wearing lingerie. In these spaces, they can play (or not) without fear of violence, abuse, or shame. All of these facets make these parties a sexual utopia for progressive millennials.
So, of course, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to monetize it.
Sinners and Saynt
Saynt, 33, is fit and strapping with a trim beard and dark curly hair, cropped close on the sides. He is an intensely public person, sharing updates on Facebook about his progress (and setbacks) in detoxing and relationships, such as the breakup this summer of his boyfriend and girlfriend triad.
Saynt, whose birth name is Daniel Santiago, was born in the Bronx to poor Puerto Rican parents, and worked hard to escape his neighborhood. He was a straight-A student, but when neighborhood gangs started trying to recruit him, his mom decided to homeschool him. He skipped 8th grade and eventually secured a full ride to college, majoring in an e-Business program, and also took classes in human sexuality.
After graduating, he started exploring the New York sex scene, walking around the East Village looking for posters for sex events. He took classes on the female orgasm at the sex-toy shop Babeland, engaged the services of a dominatrix, and attended his first sex party. He was briefly a club promoter before founding his snarky fashion blog, FashionIndie.com, which he wrote under the pen name Daniel Saynt.
In 2005 he got into a very public skirmish with a restaurant owner who canceled a fashion show Saynt was putting on in his space. Saynt took allegations that the restaurant owner had called the black and Latina models “ghetto trash” to the press, won an appearance on the Tyra Banks Show, and then sued the restaurant owner. The $10,000 settlement provided funding to build FashionIndie.com into a juggernaut over the next five years, with 4.5 million unique visitors a month and plenty of cat fights. (He started a particularly nasty one in 2009 by saying of a Vogue fashion writer: ”You’re a blimp… Double breasted suits are for thin people, not people with double breasts.” He then doubled-down and fat-shamed another fashion blogger who critiqued him.)
Saynt says he’s matured since then. But by presenting himself as a lout, he gained popularity. “We had tons of press and our traffic skyrocketed,” he says. “We had more readers than many fashion magazines at the time did and were able to sell the company because of how much volume we had.”
He sold FashionIndie.com in 2010 for $250,000 and went to work as the CMO of a fashion label for two years. In that time, Saynt says the new owners of FashionIndie.com weren’t able to achieve Saynt’s traffic, and offered to sell it back to him for the low price of $50,000. He took the deal.
2013 was a big year for Saynt. He co-founded Socialyte, an online-influencer casting agency that connects large brands to digital stars for ad campaigns and sponsorships. He had been in a monogamous marriage for seven years, but realized he couldn’t deny his attraction to men anymore and got amicably divorced in order to pursue a polyamorous, bisexual lifestyle. (His ex is still his business partner at Socialyte, and they are on good terms.) He then jumped back into the sex-party scene, attending upscale parties for wealthy men, like Heaven’s Circle.
In 2014, Saynt was shopping around for funding for Socialyte. Hearing that one of the owners of Nylon was ready to sell because of impending jail time for money laundering, he worked with a group of investors who bought and merged Nylon, FashionIndie.com, and Socialyte, keeping Saynt on as chief innovation officer. It was a messy, acrimonious deal—the founders of Nylon sued after they were forced out—but Saynt got his funding and has since built Socialyte into an agency with $12 million in revenue in 2016. (FashionIndie is dark right now—he says he’s preparing for a relaunch.)
Saynt’s sexual identity and career were blossoming, but he wasn’t too psyched about the new polyamorous parties he had started attending. His usual social haunts were glittering Manhattan fashion soirées, so he was unimpressed with the production values of these DIY sex-positive parties. With his experience in promoting, digital marketing, and influencer relationships, Saynt thought he could do better.
Budgeting for hedonism
“It’s hard work to throw parties. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” swing-party entrepreneur Fuller says.
Most sex-positive parties only have one stream of revenue: ticket sales. Those price tags must cover everything: the venue rental, which in New York can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, plus décor, mattresses and mattress covers, liquor and mixers for an all-night open bar, the sound system and DJ setup, supplies like condoms, gloves, and hand sanitizer, and all the other fun additional sundries needed to pull off a sex party, such as massage tables and sex swings.
The venues alone cause more than enough headaches. Hotel managers can be skittish, won’t properly secure the area from crashers, or will try to force the organizers to use the hotel’s DJs or food-and-beverage service. “Venue issues are always huge,” Kaitlyn says. One party we’ll call the Interactive Kink party has been searching for a new venue since the spring, another moves from venue to venue in Brooklyn (but attendees complain that the decorated warehouses are cold and uninviting), and Elite Embrace sent out an email in the spring saying it would take a hiatus while renovations happened to the penthouse it favored. However, a party we’ll call Performance House gets around this by outright owning a townhouse in Brooklyn—which obviously takes a serious investment that not many organizers can afford.
To cut down on expenses and build a sense of community, all the work of setting up, staffing the bar, circulating snacks, and cleaning up afterward is done by volunteers, who work for a few hours in exchange for free entry. So in a party of 250—which is on the larger side—only around 150 might have paid for tickets in the end. For 150 people at $100, that comes out to $15,000. With expenses in excess of $10,000, that doesn’t leave much room for a profit. But for most organizers, that’s not the point. “Our parties are about relationship and connection,” says Pierre,* the founder of Elite Embrace. “Of course there is still sexing going on, but we’re not trying to get things from each other; we’re trying to build something together that’s magical.”
If you’re searching for alternate revenue streams, there’s not much to choose from. Making money off booze, nightlife’s most lucrative revenue stream, is out of the question. Serving alcohol at a sex party falls in a legal gray zone: You need a liquor license to sell or serve alcohol to strangers, and anyway, the New York State Liquor Authority forbids the sale or serving of alcohol at a sex or swinger party. Some parties get around this by having attendees BYOBeverage, treating the party like an event among friends with “contributions” instead of ticket sales, having a monthly membership fee to prove it’s a private event, or selling tickets at the party that can then be exchanged for drinks. But if the authorities decided to raid a party operating in the gray, the organizer might wind up in a protracted (and public) legal battle.
Most organizers simply want to throw a great party, include as many of their friends as possible—and hopefully break even. “It’s very hard to make money throwing a fetish party,” says Liza*, an organizer of the Interactive Kink party. “I don’t think people get into it to make it a business.”
Despite having attended many sex parties, Saynt had never volunteered at one to learn best practices for keeping things sexy and safe, or had a sit down with the organizers to get the economic lay of the land. Instead, he applied his business experience to working out an alternate model himself.
After a year of “workshopping” small events at his downtown Manhattan loft, in January of 2016, Saynt officially launched his stylishly subversive lifestyle brand, NSFW. He wanted the business to be the entry point for curious millennials to the world of sex positivity.
To apply to be a member of NSFW, you submit your Facebook and Instagram for consideration. “We try to get a good idea of whether they’re attractive,” Saynt says. “Where they work, who they’re connected to, how many friends they have, what type of activities and things they do normally.” He is particularly opposed to members being older. “I don’t know if I want to have sex around my dad,” he says.
These initial NSFW trials were small, from three to 30 friends. There have been lessons about how to cheat at poker, a class on how to safely use illicit drugs, erotic sketching, rope and bondage lessons from a dominatrix, and movie nights called “Netflix and Chill,” where cuddling (and more) is encouraged. The parties usually turn into petite orgies, with small groups of friends disappearing into adjacent rooms.
Originally, these events were free to members who paid $6.66 a month for access to the NSFW website and its event information, member profiles, and sex- and drug-focused articles lifted from mainstream outlets such as Elle, The Independent, and Gizmodo. He had plans to produce NSFW merch to sell exclusively to members, such as a replica of the cocaine necklace from Cruel Intentions. Saynt aimed to build membership up to 10,000 people in the New-York area alone—which would produce a revenue of $66,000 a month, and just shy of $800k a year—and then open more chapters in other cities. NSFW wasn’t intended to just sate the sexual desires of a small community—it was built to scale.
While the organizers of the existing sex-positive parties in New York need to break even on every event, Saynt is treating NSFW like a startup, plowing money into it now with the hopes that his efforts will pay off in the future. “We won’t make money for at least two years before this starts making sense. And even if it never makes money, it’s still something I want to do,” he says. “I’m fortunate enough to have something else to make some money that pays me well.”
These smaller events went well, but the feedback from his guests was that they wanted something bigger. So Saynt decided to try and give them what they wanted.
Want to make a PlayDate?
In April, the gif-saturated public web page for PlayDate, NSFW’s first big event, hit the internet. Scheduled for May 14, 2016, the animal-themed party was going to be held in a $31 million multistory townhouse in the West Village. Along with general admission tickets for $150, it had private rooms that could be rented out for groups of friends for up to $7,000. Saynt decided to pay all the staff, and he secured a liquor sponsor, a lingerie sponsor, and an indie erotic-film sponsor, Imperial Pictures, whose models were going to attend the party.
Although the sponsors for the initial PlayDate were just providing product and experiences, not cash, the party was intended as a test run with the hopes that a successful event could be leveraged to bring in cash sponsors later for either PlayDate or other NSFW events. (For the first time around, Saynt predicted he would lose $8,000.) The strategy was all Socialyte: get young, attractive influencers in the door with the promise of an unforgettable party, then later sell access to that community to brands.
“We’re building up this community of deviants and focusing on influential and exciting-type people. Then we can then use that membership to present to brands who are interested in the sex, drugs, or crime space,” he says. And there are a lot of potential partner brands: condom companies, porn sites, kink- and fetish-accessory brands, the marijuana industry, and even the gun industry, Saynt lists.
“There is a really large opportunity for disruption,” he says. “I realized that there is a very large market and a large marketing budget that has gone underrepresented… With my knowledge in building brands for the last 12 years, I’m confident that NSFW will not only be a strong brand, but that I can also work with brands that are trying to market to more open-minded, adventurous people.”
He had 270 tickets to sell. Saynt pushed the party out through his social networks, the NSFW membership base, and with ads on dating apps such as Grindr, Thrinder (a threesome app now called Feeld), Tinder, and Happn. He announced it on NSFW’s Instagram, whose followers liked the announcement nearly 4,000 times and left 300 suspiciously repeating, bot-like comments (“Excellent!” “Hilarious!” “Best picture ever!”).
Saynt also reached out for press, and he got it: Maxim declared it “New York City’s Most Elite Sex Club,” and Urban Daddy called it “the city’s best current opportunity for sexual enlightenment.” He even claims the New York Times was interested in stopping by before the party got started for a tour. But one fear was that with so much press surrounding the party, attendees’ identities could be exposed. “The type of people who go to these parties—teachers, attorneys, professionals, all kinds—are working professionals with careers where, if it got out they were attending a party like this, they could lose their jobs,” Kaitlyn says.
“The Predator Room”
The sex-positive community, however, was not receptive. Facebook groups erupted in chatter about the completely tone-deaf landing page. Any mention of consent was buried below a description that promised an “elite” and “exclusive” event for “attractive” and “affluent” attendees—one of the rooms for sale was even called the “Predator Room.”
“One of my friends texted and asked if I knew about this PlayDate party,” says Eliza* an organizer of the Interactive Kink party. “When I saw the page, I was immediately terrified. I thought somebody is going to get hurt. It sounded like someone trying to sell a kinky party to wealthy men. Often when you cater to rich men who have a lot of privilege, it carries over into entitlement, which carries into inappropriate touching and not accepting social cues.”
Saynt changed the name of the Predator Room to the “Lion’s Den,” rewrote the landing page, changed the descriptor “affluent” to “influential,” and added in a prominent consent policy. Casual members of the community were mollified, but when the organizers of the other sex-positive parties reached out to him to offer advice on keeping his party safe, Saynt bristled, viewing it as meddling.
“I started a dialogue with Daniel [Saynt], and one of his responses was, ‘I’m not used to someone asking so many questions about my businesses,’” Eliza says. “Saying that took me aback, because I wasn’t trying to speak about business—I was trying to speak about safety.”
“We didn’t want to shape his party at all,” Kaitlyn adds. “We just wanted to make sure it fell in line with best practices.”
Saynt also made the crucial misstep of asking Elite Embrace to “promote” PlayDate to its guest list—he was essentially asking them to sell out the trust of their members and endorse a new and unknown party.
“The only contact I’ve ever had from Daniel about his party was whether I would sell him my guest list in exchange for a 25% cut of the revenue. I didn’t know what the fuck to say. I ignored [his email],” Pierre says. “He completely did not understand what the principle is in creating a safe party. Our guest list is about protecting the community, the people, and their privacy. We’re not out there promoting.”
The week before PlayDate was set to happen, the organizers of New York’s other sex parties were emailing their lists and posting on Facebook, warning the community that the party was unsafe and that press would be there. “Considering they are the sex-positive community, they are very negative,” Saynt says. “We’re just trying to do something different.”
But the other organizers’ pleas had little effect. After dropping the count down to 175 people so the party wouldn’t be too crowded, Saynt was close to selling out the event. He claimed that 60% of the tickets were sold to women (which he saw as an endorsement of the safety of the party), and there were 500 people on the waitlist for NSFW membership.
As PlayDate approached, it became clear that only about a third of the people who would be attending were experienced sex-positive partiers, and the rest would be newbies—inexperienced burners, people attracted through dating apps, and swingers from outside the sex-positive community. “There definitely is a part of the membership who are familiar with the play scene in New York and go to other events,” Saynt says. “But for the most part, when people join, they’re like, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to something, but I’ve never been to anything like this.’ So it’s really newbies who don’t go to Burning Man but who have a desire to be a little bit more open.”
Sex-positivity organizers continued to bristle: “People who just want to go to a hot-sexy-cool-thing because sex parties are all the rage now but have no experience don’t know how to ask for consent or how to say no,” Eliza says. “I don’t think you can just pull a community out of the air.”
Saynt ended up announcing he would bring on guardians (who other organizers said were inexperienced), tape door locks down so no one could lock themselves in a room and have their way with someone, and hire guards and an off-duty officer.
But no matter how many safeguards you put in place, one aggressive guest can ruin the vibe for everyone—or worse. Elite Embrace has built up a blacklist over the years of about 30 people who have been deemed predatory by the leadership team. “I know a high number of dangerous people who were going to attend [PlayDate],” Pierre says.
Saynt had heard about the list, but when he asked Elite Embrace for it, he was told it didn’t exist. “You get access when you have a system in place for handling people who are not allowed at parties,” Pierre reasoned. “If you don’t show competence in building safety and consent and love into a party, you don’t deserve any help on some level.”
“I obviously don’t want to have [the blacklisted] people at my event,” Saynt retorts. “If you do truly care about the safety of this community, let me know who these people are.”
Emotions were running high, and the relationship between Saynt and the existing party organizers was getting more and more fraught. There was a sense within the community that PlayDate was speeding like a luxury sports car toward disaster: The other organizers had tried to apply the brakes at the beginning, but having been brushed off, now they felt they had no choice but to back off and watch it crash, waiting to say “I told you so.” Would a newbie get drugged or sexually assaulted by a blacklisted predator? Or would the party just flop, with 150 hot people standing nervously around, waiting for someone else to initiate?
The party organizers who opposed PlayDate had repeatedly said that their first concern was safety. But the move to refuse Saynt the blacklist seemed to indicate that the sex-positive community was simply offended. Offended that he hadn’t consulted anyone before splashing his party across the internet. Offended that he was marketing it as a sex-positive party while blatantly catering to the rich, attractive, and young. Offended that he was commodifying what many viewed as their last sacred space.
“Why is he actively pursuing press?” Pierre says. “Because he wants his brand and name out there. Not because he has a beautiful story about sexuality.”
The positive in sex positivity
Saynt’s business Socialyte is about taking something that used to be authentic—off- cuff social media posts—and polishing it until it is the shiniest, most aspirational version of its former self. Would that really be a bad thing for sex positivity, a movement that suffers from a reputation of being for cuckholded men and ugly feminists?
If NSFW can lead a generation of repressed millennials to take their guilty porn addiction offline, understand their sexuality, and embrace the concept of consent, that’s undoubtedly a good thing—much of the danger and sorrow surrounding sex stems from it being kept in the shadows.
But it’s also a razor-thin line to walk. That’s because one of the biggest draws of these sex-positive parties is the feeling of being in on a delicious secret—that there is a glamorous side to them that their coworkers, family, and Facebook friends will never know about. If NSFW cracks open this scene to scrutiny from the wider world via a public and scalable business model (and slaps branding on it) it might lose the edge that first attracted its clandestine players. It begs the question: Are there even 10,000 young, hot, and rich people in New York who can be trusted to act respectfully at a sexy party?
The day of the party finally arrived. But at around 1pm, ticket holders received some bad news: PlayDate was cancelled.
Emails had gone out with a cryptic explanation that NSFW had discovered it couldn’t guarantee the safety of its attendees. It would need to postpone.
Saynt won’t say exactly what happened to make him back out of the original venue at the last minute. But to make sure it didn’t happen again, he decided to follow Performance House’s suit and buy his own sin-filled private home—the one that I toured. Saynt lives on the lower level, the upper levels are available to rent on Airbnb. PlayDate aside, it’s already serving as NSFW’s clubhouse, and recently hosted a rope and bondage session with NSFW’s favorite dominatrix.
A happy ending?
Now, seven months after the original PlayDate was cancelled, it’s finally back on—tomorrow night. The webpage promises four stories of sexy entertainment and classes, including multiple play rooms and beds, deep-house DJs, non-play areas for mingling, “sexual cinema” on the first floor, a gallery of erotic art, premixed cocktails by a liquor sponsor, champagne and “decadent desserts,” plus a Moroccan-style dungeon and a surround-sound system. (And it also has some required reading on “enthusiastic consent.”)
After all the brouhaha in the spring, however, this iteration feels much more subdued. The event tickets, which start at $100, are behind the password-protected site for members only. There are no rooms for sale, no press, and no negative chatter in the sex-positive Facebook groups.
Saynt says he doesn’t need to promote the party: There are only 90 spots available, and with NSFW membership now at 375, he doesn’t need to court more. His business model has also changed: He has ditched the monthly subscription fee, and instead of several small parties a week, there will be only one large ticketed event per month. Some of those events might be organized trips to festivals such as Coachella and Burning Man.
As of this morning, PlayDate has sold out. (Saynt still hasn’t received the blacklist, so it’s anyone’s guess whether anyone on it is attending this weekend.) Overall, the party is much smaller, more relaxed, and more manageable than the huge undertaking Saynt had planned for the spring. It will also probably be full of people who have already met each other at other NSFW events, having attended workshops on rope bondage, asking for sex, and erotic sketching together.
So perhaps, after everything, Saynt’s first serious NSFW venture could turn out to be a successful cocktail party with a bit (or a lot of) of sex on the side. Not exactly the most exciting event to an experienced sex partier, but to a newbie? Incredible.
There’s no doubt that many in the sex-positive scene would still like to see Saynt fail. But railing against Saynt’s particular brand of flashy sex positivity is futile. That’s because he has proven over and over again that he can power through drama and criticism all the way to the bank.
That’s not to say Saynt is cynically using sex-positive language to achieve his ends—he really does believe in sex’s transformative power, and wants to share that with the world. The bigger question is whether by disrupting and monetizing the scene, he’ll ruin it for everyone else.
As I left the townhouse last Sunday, the thought I mulled over most was how, for such a smart guy, Saynt seemed completely incapable of humble subtlety. When I got home, his latest post on Facebook only proved my point: “Just finished an interview on disrupting the sex industry. Such an interesting life I lead. #sexpositivity”