Skirt Club was created to give women a place to comfortably explore their sexuality – but what happens when a queer party plays into hetero norms?
Skirt Club was created to give women a place to comfortably explore their sexuality – but what happens when a queer party plays into hetero norms?
The invitation to Skirt Club, a women-only, bisexual and bi-curious sex party, tells you one thing, loud and clear: This may be a girls-only orgy, but it's not lesbianism as you know it. This is Katy Perry singing "I kissed a girl and I liked it." This is an Agent Provocateur window display. This is the kind of awkward, lighthearted, lesbianism many women either had – or wished they'd had – in college. It's "lesbianism" that lesbians will recognize, but have a hard time endorsing without some irony. It's lesbianism as a side piece. It's lesbianism: our little secret, for women whose bi-curiosity has become too overwhelming to ignore.
I received the invitation to Skirt Club's San Francisco launch party on a cold Saturday in January. I'd never heard of Skirt Club, or a bisexual women's-only sex party, though I'd certainly been to a number of "play parties," where people across the gender spectrum did everything from cuddling to coitus. Skirt Club Founder Genevieve LeJeune had been to such parties, too, and was inspired to create a sex party where women, in particular, could focus on their sexuality "away from the prying eyes of men."
The result, at least according to the video on their website, was somewhere between Eyes Wide Shut and a Victoria's Secret commercial. Hot, feminine women in four-inch heels with artfully mussed hair strut like models, dance alone in feather boas and masks, gyrate desirously and mount each other for suspenseful kisses. Glitter-rimmed mouths oh soundlessly, long legs circled with garter belts stretch into the frame, taut bellies emerge from black panties and breasts are suspended in BDSM-reminiscent bras. In the background, behind a table with a bottle of champagne, the curtains are conspicuously drawn.
"When your man is not enough, seek adventure outside – where men are not invited," the video urged.
I asked my girlfriend Courtney, whose shaved head makes her much more obviously queer than me, if she'd be interested in going.
"Would they even let me in?" she asked.
Skirt Club is open to all women, but "very few" Skirt Club members are lesbians according to founder Genevieve LeJeune, who identifies as predominantly heterosexual, though definitely interested in sleeping with women – a two on the Kinsey Scale, if you will. LeJeune says that based on information that women give Skirt Club when they sign up, most partygoers have the same sexual inclinations as her, or are more heterosexual.
LeJeune, who speaks four languages and is a certified yoga and pilates instructor, created Skirt Club in London in 2013 after taking a sharp left turn from her corporate career. She worked as a journalist and producer at Bloomberg TV in London, and in international markets as a branding consultant. She asked that her privacy be respected – LeJeune is not her real name, though she posts photos of herself at Skirt Club events, and out with her husband on her Instagram page.
"It's taken me a lot of courage to… put my face on the front of the company that says, 'Being bi is OK,'" she says.
Skirt Club doesn't screen out lesbians, but it does screen. Before attending a party, women must join its network by uploading a full-length photo, disclosing their profession and offering proof they're between the ages of 21 and 49.
LeJeune says the company accepts "the high majority" of applicants, while remaining "focused on building a femme membership of career driven women." But she wouldn't give more details about why some women weren't allowed in.
Tickets to the launch party and other "Mini Skirt" parties, like the one being thrown to celebrate their San Francisco launch, set the stage for kissing and fondling, but don't encourage actual sex. They cost $60. Full sex parties, hosted in private homes, cost up to $180 – which naturally weeds out women in less lucrative jobs, or those unable to volunteer in exchange for a free ticket. The ticket price is significantly higher than other sex parties in the Bay Area, which are typically between $10 and $65 – though are significantly lower than the thousands charged for male-friendly hedonistic masquerades.
But what LeJeune is offering is more than just a velvet-draped orgy – it's a chance for women to explore the blurry line of sexuality. "Leave your man at home, relay stories on return," reads their website, an invitation for otherwise straight women to indulge in their fantasy, even if they aren't quite sure what that fantasy is. LeJeune sees herself inhabiting the huge gray area between straight and gay. "I started this club for people like me," LeJeune tells Rolling Stone. "I'm not looking for a relationship with a woman, I'm looking for something less tangible."
LeJeune says that when she was looking to experiment with her sexuality, she couldn't find a space where she felt comfortable. She didn't want to go to lesbian parties because she worried women there might be looking for a relationship, while she was not. She concedes that she may have been wrong, but she felt too intimidated to find out. So, she started her own event.
"I'm not a gay woman ," she says. "I've come from the only place I know, which is my own. I'm targeting the bi-curious woman who has a boyfriend and wants to try this for the first time."
Hayley Quinn, a London-based dating coach who's spoken at multiple Skirt Club events, says it isn't your typical sex party – lesbian or otherwise. "There's always an educational element and some form of performance, cocktails and chocolate tasting," she says. "The event isn't just about sex. The theater of it helps women relax their inhibitions."
In some cases, Quinn says, women saw Skirt Club events more like a networking opportunity than a sex party. At the last London party she attended, a number of women wanted to network.
"I got a lot of young women in their 20s asking me how they could run a blog," she says. "What I really noticed about Skirt Club at the beginning was that rather than just being hedonistic, it was a great social opportunity to meet liberal, like-minded women. And it's typical to how women express sexuality. It's not just nudity and sex."
So at 7:30 on a Thursday night, Courtney and I arrive for the party at a club in the South of Market neighborhood. It's cold and drizzling, the kind of weather that's more encouraging of Netflix and chill than sexual adventures. A male bouncer lets us past the door into a bar area warmed by tungsten glow and furnished with afghan rugs, ample seating on red velvet-covered chairs and inexplicable, charming typewriters. Women mill about the room.
One of the half-dozen Skirt Club volunteers – a tall woman in her 20s wearing a black lingerie top, tight black pants and heels – greets us, champagne flute in hand. Smiling and ebullient, she shows us where set down our coats and starts to introduce herself, before remembering that she's supposed to be using a stage name.
"I keep forgetting that my name tonight is Layla," she says. "We all choose our names. I got mine from that Eric Clapton song."
LeJeune refers to the volunteers as "hostesses" and they play the part in exchange for free entry, helping to break the ice and encouraging attendees to participate in the night's flirtatious games.
"They're not employees and I don't want them to act like employees," LeJeune says.
Eying Layla's drink, I head to the bar for my own glass and strike up a conversation with a striking Polish DJ named Ivana. Her face is feminine, with lined eyes and red lips, but her plaid shirt – an obviously different choice for anyone who looked at the Pinterest board of suggested outfits – signals that she's at least a little queer.
She's bisexual, she tells me, but for the past few years, she's only dated women, mostly of the Latin American variety. When she said she'd come to the launch, her friend, a bartender at the club, told her to bring her girl friends if she wanted. "Most of my queer friends who date women wouldn't want to come here," she says with a laugh, "unless they're the type who are into straight girls."
Indeed, along with the women who identify as bisexual, there seemed to be a fair number of women who say they hadn't had any girl-and-girl experiences and identified as straight, but were nonetheless game – not surprising, really, given how likely women are to be attracted to both sexes.
Soon, a pinup-style, bejeweled burlesque dancer with wavy pink hair and opulent breasts begins to shake and strip to the music. Burlesque shows are a rarity at most sex parties in the Bay Area, but a staple at Skirt Club events. Homegrown "play parties" are fairly low-key here, and with more diversity of women. Instead of the mostly skinny, femme, cis-gender women at Skirt Club, local parties tend to have women of all sizes from all parts of the gender, race and sexuality spectrum. It's easy to see why Skirt Club, with its palatial seating, soft lighting and femmy vibe, could be an easier sell to women who don't want to go too far outside of the hetero-norms they're used to.
LeJeune insists that creating an ambiance of comfort and luxury is essential when courting bi-curious women – and the reason why tickets cost what they do. Her vision for Skirt Club came out of what she felt was sorely lacking in other sex parties.
"I was disappointed with the lack of luxury [at other parties]," she says. "It seemed to me the night had been designed by a man, and one sighting of a plastic mattress would confirm that. I wanted the ambiance to help me get into the mood."
She's right, of course. Skirt Club is undeniably pretty – maybe too pretty, and expensive, and heteronormative to attract or accept everyone who might like it.
The burlesque dancer takes labored breaths between stanzas, eyes going big from the sweeping movements. Nervous giggles and claps emerge at intervals from the crowd. It's unclear whether this show is for the women, or for the stories they will tell their boyfriends after.
After the burlesque, local queer sex educator Allison Moon gives an introductory lesson on hair pulling, spanking, and a kind of heavy petting technique called "the pussy hug," where you cup a woman's vagina with your hand. Afterwards, a few girls give the hair pull a try, their blowdried locks swaying over their shoulder as they jerk in feigned resistance.
I ask Moon what she thinks of the party. The Skirt Club events, she says, are providing femme, bi curious women their own space to experiment. "It's a safe place to explore without it having to 'mean' anything about their identity," she says. "I don't think the parties are gay, per se. Just as I don't think fooling around with someone of the same sex is necessarily gay. The words we have to describe sexuality are too frail to contain the dynamism of the human experience."
Quinn, the British dating coach, agrees. "I'm a strong believer that just because you take an action doesn't mean you become a particular thing," she says. "Sometimes women won't do things because they don't want to take on a label or get categorized, and I say women should experiment without being afraid."
After Moon's talk, the gaggle of Skirt Club hostesses start passing out cards. "Let's play a game!" they squeal. Each card, sealed in a tiny black envelope, delivers an order: "Buy a drink for the woman in the room who you find most attractive," mine says. "Kiss the neck of the woman in the room who you find most attractive," comes in my girlfriend's envelope. Drinks are a minimum of $10, and kissing someone on the neck without preamble feels a bit presumptuous, so I head off to see how other women are taking direction.
I approach a pretty, shy girl at the bar named Mona. She tells me that she grew up in a religious, sheltered household. She's only ever dated men, and never really identified as bisexual, even though, she admits, she probably is. "I guess no one ever asked me," she says. Then she looks at her card and asks if she can give me a spanking.
"Sure," I say, and lean over the bar.
Soon, the Skirt Club hostesses corral everyone into circles for games of Spin the Bottle. They gather women into circles, then sit down and twirl a sparkling wine bottle to see who it will land on. In some cases, the kisses are passionate. In others they're awkward, adolescent, and punctuated by oopses and sorries as women teeter over an inconveniently placed table to lock lips with strangers. Some grab the back of their partner's head, caress the locks of hair that frame their face, or hold on to their shoulders, for fear they'll teeter in their heels.
One of the hostesses, a tall woman with long brown hair and big eyes, spins a bottle that points to me and I move in. By not hesitating, I'm hoping to prove that this isn't my first time kissing a woman. But instead of the smooth, debonaire move I'm hoping for, we clack teeth as I lose my balance leaning over the table. Turns but the game is the same as it was in sixth grade: more transactional and theatrical and than erotic.
One kiss was enough for me, so I back away from the table. Surveying the room and watching women kiss and laugh, I'm momentarily struck by how nice everyone at the party is. It's posh, but there's no sign of middle-school cattiness, despite the middle-school games. The party's accoutrements are beautifully, unapologetically, tooth-achingly feminine. But this is also San Francisco, with its tradition of nonconformity. And some of the people at this party look very different from Skirt Club's lingerie-commercial-style video. It's not just that they don't look like made-up Hollywood extras. With their plaid shirts, flat shoes and button-ups, they appear to be making a statement that they don't want or need to. It's just not them.
"I feel like I'm 13 again," says Breanna, a partygoer who skipped work that day to buy lingerie for the event. She's tall in high heels, with shoulder-length blond hair, wearing makeup, a lace bustier and boy shorts that end just below her buttocks.
"I don't even know what is happening. But I like it," she says. Later though, Breanna says that she couldn't quite wrap her head around the event.
"It felt like it does when girls make out with each other at clubs to garner attention from surrounding men, except there were no men to show off for," she says. "So what are these women here for? Do they actually want to find a woman to go home with or is it just the excitement of possibility?"
Her girlfriend Jess, who is more androgynously dressed in jeans, a button-up shirt and vest, tells me that she feels out of place – but not as much as she expected. Everyone's pretty hot and friendly. Courtney agrees. She'd expected to feel unwelcome, but doesn't. In some ways, she tells me, Skirt Club feels more comfortable than queer parties she's been to.
No one says the word "lesbian" all night, with the exception of one girl who asks me, "Are we not supposed to say the 'L-word' here?"
By 10:30, the party is winding down. Before I leave, a woman named Sonja tells me the story of her first same-sex experience with a female friend. They both identified as straight at the time, so the first time they made out with each each other, they figured, "This isn't gay." Then they had sex. "But we said, 'We're not gay!' And we kept doing it and saying, 'We're still not gay!' Then one day we realized – we were totally gay," she says.
As the party ends and two girls in stripped-down outfits and dismantling bras make out on a loveseat nearby, Moon, the sex educator, tells me that she initially went back and forth about Skirt Club, and whether she liked it or not, though she's decided that she does.
"The issue is always that in creating safe spaces, we have to necessarily exclude others," Moon says. "I think having femme-centric playspaces is fantastic, but the gender spectrum within queer women's communities is broad. So it's likely that there are people who would benefit from such a party but might be put off by the parameters."
But Moon says that the women at Skirt Club were just as enthusiastic as women at the more queer parties she's been to. When she was a guest speaker at one of Skirt Club's full-fledged sex parties in New York and finished her talk on female pleasure, she expected the attendees to proceed with caution.
"I've hosted a lot of women's sex parties, and many of them require significant warm-up time to get the girls feeling comfortable and ready to play," she says. "Not so with Skirt Club. These women dove right in. And yes, it was really hot."
LeJeune, who stays at the party until the ends, seems to have high hopes for the venture.
"I want women to have independence, to be survivors, to be smart, to win – I want to see women do better in life," she says, adding that she's seen women be transformed by the confidence they gain at Skirt Club parties. "I've heard women say so much about going to their Monday morning meetings after a party with confidence, where they don't give a flying fuck anymore, where they're owning their decisions and going forward."
And, LeJeune says, she wants to normalize sexual fluidity.
"I started Skirt Club because I felt alone and I wanted to meet other people like me," she said.
The first time she kissed a woman, one of her friends asked her if she was a lesbian.
"'No, No!'" she said emphatically. "'This is just who I am'"
But LeJeune says that not everyone is there to indulge the occasional fantasy – some women have experienced trajectory changes in their lovelife after attending Skirt Club parties.
"I've known a few women who have never dated women but dive into a full relationship (after) meeting someone at Skirt Club," she says. "It's rare but it has happened." Once again, she repeats her rejection of a label. "Just because you might have had sex with a girl, it doesn't mean you're gay."
And yet, maybe LeJeune and the rest of the Skirt Club members – who go to great lengths to pay for tickets and shave their legs and brave the city streets and put aside their own inhibitions and shelf their fear of being labelled "gay" for a taste of something that looks pretty gay – don't define themselves as such because "gay" sounds like a monolith, a finite, a box with no wiggle room. Maybe it's because they're all – we're all – at least a little gay.
"I think we're at a fascinating time in sexual community where everything is queer and therefore nothing is queer," Moon says. "Parties like Skirt Club redraw boundaries that have blurred in many sexual communities, and I can imagine that might upset some people. But I do think it's healthy and good to create spaces centering on different identities."
By the time we get outside, the rain has stopped. We exit the women's space and rejoin the city. Outside of the warm, plush interior, with its landscape of feminine curves and perfumes, the hard concrete, clanking nighttime delivery trucks and sleeping homeless are a reminder that the real world is a less than forgiving place – a place where someone might well be afraid to kiss a stranger or explore their sexuality in front of others. Courtney and I walk down the street holding hands, knowing that it makes us visible, knowing that it's something we couldn't do openly in parts of the country and the world without bracing ourselves for the repercussions, from catcalls to jail. We go home together, to the cramped, sometimes messy space we share, because we're in love. And as I turn the key to go into our room I think, "OK, this is gay."