I’ve been reminded that tonight is the one-year anniversary of Pleasure Salon, the sex-positive meetup I co-started in Chicago; a reporter from Columbia College Chicago called me (all the way in Africa!) to chat about it. And over the last few months, I’ve received a number of inquiries about how people can start their own Pleasure Salons in their own cities. Which means it’s time for a blog FAQ!

I obviously haven’t been to Pleasure Salon in quite some time. It sounds like it’s still going strong, at least from what people tell me, but I don’t really know. Still, I remember the process of starting it pretty well ….

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PLEASURE SALON: THE FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS!

(Readers may also be interested in the FAQ I wrote about Sex+++, my sex-positive film series, which gives advice about how to start your own!)

On the very night that I first announced my sex-positive film series, Serpent Libertine of the Sex Workers Outreach Project got in touch. Serpent is really passionate and outspoken; it was delightful to talk with her about how we could collaborate. One idea that we began tossing around was, in her words, a low-key “bar night”. She fondly remembered sex-positive socials privately conducted by past community leaders; for my part, over the next few months I really got into the community discussions at my film series, and it always seemed a shame that we had to wrap them up within an hour or two.

On a trip to New York a couple of months later, one of my film contacts invited me out to Pleasure Salon NYC. Pleasure Salon was exactly like what I’d been picturing — and the name was pretty cool too — so I requested permission to use it and start a Pleasure Salon Chicago! (Note: I have edited the last sentence because it said that I requested permission to “license” the Pleasure Salon name, which confused some people. I did not need to get a license to use the name. I just asked Selina Fire for permission.)

The two big steps were:

1) Getting together a good group of hosts.
2) Finding a good venue.

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Hosts

We wanted to recruit sex-positive leaders who would encourage their followers to attend the Salon. Selina Fire from Pleasure Salon NYC advised, in fact, that we at first promote the Salon entirely through our co-hosts and let it grow organically via word-of-mouth — the fear being that otherwise it could get out of control, fast.

In the end, we did do most of our promoting via the community leaders telling their friends; but we also posted the Pleasure Salon announcement to listhosts (for example, I sent it around some BDSM community listhosts, and I also posted it to the Sex+++ listhost), created a Pleasure Salon Facebook page using the Sex+++ icon (you are invited to become a fan!), and promoted the event in various other public online venues (for example, my favoritest swinger couple, The Ultimates, put an announcement on Meetup.com). And just recently, Serpent emailed to let me know that Pleasure Salon has an exciting new website and blog.

I think this approach should work fine if your area already has a bunch of different sex communities or sexuality discussions, but if it doesn’t — if it’s hard to get a lot of sex-positive community leaders — then you should choose a few hosts based solely on how well they can conduct discussions or get a group to gel. Then I guess you can just promote in alternative communities, liberal spaces, or whatever: odd bookstores, hipster coffeeshops, your local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, your local Unitarian church, your local Gender Studies university department — all good examples! You might consider having discussion topics, too, though this is something we never bothered with at Pleasure Salon Chicago.

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Venue

Pleasure Salon NYC takes place in a really cool speakeasy-style space, with a nice little reception podium in front of a long corridor that widens out into a big room with booths and a bar. The hosts, including Selina Fire, chill out in front to receive new people, hand out nametags to everyone, and help confused new people figure out what’s up. Every night they pass around a jar for donations, and then use those donations to buy snacks and stuff (I think people pay for their own drinks at the bar). I don’t actually know the details of how they arranged this, so maybe Selina can leave a comment explaining.

In Chicago, our primary concern was that the venue be central — Chicago is pretty spread out, and we wanted the place easily reached by folks on the South Side, the North Side, whatever. We also didn’t want the organizers to end up responsible for details like snacks (we did intend to have nametags, but we kinda forgot …), so we wanted a venue that served food. And drinks too; some people have told me that they don’t attend Pleasure Salon because alcohol is served, but certainly when I was around it never got crazy or anything. (The time slot being 6 PM-10 PM helps with that, I think.)

Also important: the venue should have at least one night per month that’s quiet. That way they’ll be really glad to have you around, and — while a few non-Pleasure Salon people will probably show up (unless you can manage a setup like Pleasure Salon NYC) — it’ll still make a good safe space for pro-sex talk. And on that note, the venue should know what Pleasure Salon is and be cool with it. This is really key: don’t hide the subject matter from the venue. That could cause a world of trouble later. Chances are high that the venue really won’t care that you want a group of people to come around and chat about sex once a month as long as they know what to expect (that, for example, an attendee might accidentally leave her copy of Flogging For Beginners behind at the end of the night).

In Chicago, Villains Bar & Grill was great because it was super-quiet on Tuesday evenings from 6-10; it’s in the South Loop, right in the middle of the city; and they were already hosting a swinger meetup once a month, so they didn’t bat an eye when we told them what Pleasure Salon is all about.

It’s a good idea to have one or two backup venues in mind at all times, though. You never know when an awesome venue will suddenly start getting busier, or change management, or close its doors, or whatever — best to be prepared to move on, rather than panicking or (even worse!) having to shut down your Pleasure Salon!

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That’s it!

On the night of Pleasure Salon, be sure that your hosts are ready and willing to stick around for the whole span of the event so that they can greet new people, introduce them around and help them integrate into the group, oversee the vibe, and (of course) get in some time relaxing with their friends.

When people come in the venue door and stand around awkwardly, they’re probably looking for you.

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What’s next for Pleasure Salon?

The reporter who called me today asked an interesting question — So this is the one-year anniversary. What’s next? Obviously I no longer consider myself to have much power over Pleasure Salon, being as I live in Africa and all, and I won’t be back in Chicago for a while. But I do have opinions that I will, as always, happily share.

I’m a pro-sex activist — I obviously think it’s important to destigmatize sexuality in as many ways as possible. Pleasure Salon does a bit of that, I think. But I’ve also said before that I think it would be cool if the sex-positive community had more of a group consciousness; if BDSMers and sex workers and polyamorists and swingers and LGBTQ and, well, all of us pro-sex people saw ourselves as being on the same side. If Pleasure Salon fosters that kind of community attitude, I think that’d be awesome. If Pleasure Salon creates a kind of grassroots political will, I think that’d be cool too. I know that Pleasure Salon NYC has done very limited sponsorship-type stuff — for instance, I do believe they’re a sponsor of CineKink, the Really Alternative Film Festival. I would hope that Pleasure Salon could be the kind of place that doesn’t just sponsor events but politically supports sex-positive change, et cetera.

But (as I emphasized on the phone with the reporter today) I also think that if Pleasure Salon becomes political at the cost of being friendly and approachable, then the cost is too high. Because the biggest strength of Pleasure Salon, to my mind, is the fact that it not only networks and connects different sex-related community members but creates a safe space for hesitant new folks to come learn more. It works best as a low-key conversational space that’s open to everyone, where people who wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a sex club or a BDSM workshop — or even a sex toy store — can just show up and chat (or listen) about sexuality.

For the same reason, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Pleasure Salon to start offering sex-related demos or sex parties — at least not as part of Pleasure Salon itself. If people promote, say, upcoming bondage demonstrations at Pleasure Salon then that sounds good to me; even if there’s a string of Pleasure-Salon-sponsored bondage demonstrations, that’d be awesome (though Chicago already has a fair number of BDSM events); but I think that if people conduct bondage demonstrations there, that stands a good chance of wrecking the approachable-to-newbies vibe.

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Read the comments!

I’ve asked Serpent, Selina, and the rest of the Pleasure Salon crew to leave comments here if they think of anything I didn’t cover — and if you’ve started a similar sex-positive meetup group in your area, please feel free to leave a comment as well! Even if you don’t have any advice to give, I’d love to hear about your group and how it’s going — or any questions you may have. If you’d prefer to ask questions via email, I’m always available at [ clarisse dot thorn at gmail dot com ].