As I stepped into a Bushwick martial arts studio and walked down a tunnel laden with flowers made from egg cartons, I was approached by a stranger and asked, “How would you like to be greeted?”
I was confused. One of the evening’s performers pointed to sheets of paper taped to the tunnel’s wall, where beneath drawings for each of the five senses there were a few options: secret song, gentle breath on the back of your neck, incense.
I was slightly overwhelmed. After years of attending parties in New York, I was used to the usual routine: go into the venue, give them your name, show an ID, get a wristband, and disappear without ever making a moment of eye contact. Iron Lotus’s inaugural Body (un)Bound event, on July 11, set that on its head, right from the beginning.
Barely even thinking about it, I picked a hug and secret song. They asked who I would like to get them from, and I looked at each of the three beautiful humans standing before me. “Do I have to choose?” I asked. They laughed, said of course not, and wrapped me in a hug, all three of them, while one leaned in close and sang a song in a language I couldn’t recognize. I found myself closing my eyes, falling into the experience and feeling less weird about it as the performer sang.
Some of the other party attendees — mostly members of Brooklyn’s healer, burner, and kink communities — came through the door and the moment passed. I was ushered to the check-in table.
Because the planners wanted guests to be present in their bodies, no alcohol was served at the event (they also made it clear that they wouldn’t be policing those who chose to bring it in themselves). Instead, with each ticket came a free serving of cacao. I sipped on my triple-espresso-sized serving of soupy bitter chunky chocolate and then swallowed it like a shot, followed by two cups of water.
When I spoke with Iron Lotus co-founder Sara Ashley after the event, she ascribed the welcoming atmosphere partly to the drink: “Cacao is very specifically heart opening,” she said. “It gets people lovey and into their bodies and affectionate… Our event wasn’t specifically sober, but it made it pretty difficult to get intoxicated and I think that immediately forces people into a place of vulnerability.”
At the middle of the space was the dance floor and performance stage, with big windows looking into it. A smaller room, also with windows, served as the space for workshops like moon yoga, “Shamanic Tools for Relationships,” and a body gallery that invited people to get naked and talk about body image. The whole space was designed down to its gender-neutral bathrooms, where signs with unicorn drawings reading “magical creature” had been taped over the usual “men” or “women.”
Just beyond the bathrooms and around the corner was the play area, where semi-private beds had been set up behind black curtains that hung over the windows to the dance floor, discouraging voyeurs. If someone wanted to have sex at the party, they could. The option was there but it wasn’t in your face. According to Ashley, this is something the collective had discussed thoroughly.
“A lot of us have been to a number of sex or fetish parties or sexy fetish parties and those had great things and we loved being in an environment of sexual openness,” she said. “But it can be overwhelming if the focus of the event is people having sex right in front of you.”
All of the collective’s decisions about the party were made with consensus decision making, meaning that there was never a majority vote, that Kat Sto, Ashley and Jeremy Friedman (the three collective members who coordinated the party) didn’t make decisions on their own. Every choice was talked through until the fourteen came to a choice that all agreed upon completely.
I was at the party for maybe an hour before I was drawn to the cuddle puddle. It was made out of one of those tents they use at farmers markets: thin, tall metal legs with a white vinyl top designed so rain can roll off. The tent was incased in fabric, the floor space inside cushioned with interlocking foam tiles, blankets, and pillows.
There never seemed to be enough room in there for everyone who wanted to go in, but I got lucky at one point and spotted an open space, crawled in and lay down, found myself wishing there were more parties where you could check out for 15 minutes and take a nap. I might have stayed in the puddle indefinitely if it weren’t for the dude who thought it would be okay to come in and just lay on top of me. Some touching was, of course, to be expected in such a place, but I was almost literally pushed out of the thing. Faced with the choice of getting sassy or leaving, I offered him a smile, gently got up, and walked out. Maybe it was the cacao.
I found Andromeda of Earth in the corner next to the tent, where she’d set up her interactive art installation. The paper-mache lanterns she’d been making at the collective’s craft party a few days before had blossomed into glowing paper lotuses. A few people sat in a circle around an assortment of semi-translucent petal-shaped paper, Sharpies, and clipboards decorated with scenes meant to inspire and dismiss any feelings of being in school.
Andromeda told me later that the idea was for her corner to be a space away from the dancing, where people could sit and reflect and talk. Whoever came to her was asked to draw or write on a lotus petal whatever they would like to embody on this earth. By the end of the night she had a drawing of a vagina, a penis, and hermaphroditic genitalia. She got answers as simple as a number 13 to as complex as “a bioluminescent sea sponge filtering out all the harm.” Her favorite so far is the one that reads “every mistake ever made.”
The lanterns are now in Andromeda’s apartment and serve as artifacts for a party that all seem to think was too short lived. Friedman told me that one of the moments that stuck out to him from the party was at 8:30 a.m., when a handful of attendees who had volunteered to help clean up asked if they could go back to the space to keep helping and he had to tell them to go home.
Friedman and Ashley both spoke of wanting to do a weekend-long event if possible, and in the background is the echo of an eventual community space, which could possibly serve as an entry point for those who aren’t already in the collective’s reach of friends and acquaintances.
Each of the party coordinators spoke about a certain amount of curation when it came to inviting people to the event. First they reached out to friends, then friends of friends through Facebook event invites. Friedman described this as a “gradual opening of the doors,” while Ashley explained, “We definitely specifically curated the people we invited and that’s not to be closed off to other people, but you want to create a safe place and you can’t really be a judge of character of people you don’t know or people your friends can’t vouch for.”
Therein lies the paradox of events like this; organizers are intent upon creating a space where people feel safe regardless of who they are or what sort of sexual acts they choose to explore, but to promote such an event to the general public may attract individuals who, although well-intentioned, may not be versed in the language of sex positivity, inclusion, or consent. Those who are hungry for a space like this but not already friends with someone from the collective or a part of the Burning Man or Healing or Conscious Kink communities may never even hear about it.
But Iron Lotus seems to be conscious of this. This could be just the first step in something that grows larger.
“I think it’s a lot to expect or ask people, ‘And now let’s just live this way,’ in a world that doesn’t support people who want to be intimate and vulnerable and their feelings connected,” Ashley said. “The world can actually be scary for those kinds of people. I know because I’m one of them.”
She described Body (un)Bound as a taste of something that can become more common, so that “people get this idea and it spreads and it’s not just an underground thing to be vulnerable, be sexually open, be experimental, be in your body. It’s just a thing that becomes standard. And I think we’re really lucky to live in New York because besides San Francisco, really, to me it’s the most ideal place to grow something like this.”