Up to 20 percent of adults, according to some surveys, have had a threesome, but going to a full-blown sex party is something else entirely. To unpack the experience on a physical, emotional, and neurological level Men's Health asked sex psychotherapist Dr Ian Kerner; a veteran of the sex party scene; and a neuroscientist who studies sex about what the experience is like for both your mind and your body.
But why would someone want to go to a sex party? Basically, for the same reason why someone would lift weights: to see how far they can push the limitations of their own body.
"The experience itself is very surreal. It’s something you would basically see in a movie. For me, personally, it takes me to a place of no inhibitions," Julia, 25, an artist living in New York, told Men's Health in an email (Julia's name has been changed for her privacy).
Julia, who identifies as pansexual, goes to a sex or "play party" every 2-3 months. She said she feels a "heightened sense of pleasure, both physically and mentally" during the parties.
"The most attractive part is the visual experience. Watching and hearing other people is a pleasure on its own, whether you’re participating or not," Julia said. "It's like having live porn while you and your partner enjoy each other."
Dr. Debra Soh, a neuroscientist and sex researcher, said that while scientific studies on sex parties in particular are hard to come by, "for those who are interested in group sex, the novelty of the act and/or the fact that there are multiple partners make it more exciting than sex with one person," Soh told Men's Health in an email.
Soh said that previous sex studies have shown that a "reliable network" of brain regions start firing off during sex — the hypothalamus, thalamus, and amygdala, which regulate physical arousal and emotion, respectively, as well as the occipital areas, which deal with vision. At a sex party, Soh said, "This same network would be active when someone is having sex with multiple partners, but perhaps the activation would be stronger."
In other words, a sex party stimulates many of the same brain-parts as "normal" sex, but everything is pushed to the max. Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy, couples therapy, and other intimacy issues, said that people seek out sex parties for a variety of reasons, but pursuing that sexual peak is often among them.
Not everyone's peak is the same, of course: Kerner said many of his clients have found their niche in the scene, as specific parties often cater to a particular theme or kink — think BDSM, masquerades, swinging, and more.
Participating in group sex, Kerner said, can be a exhilirating and positive experience for individuals and couples, but having the right mindset is crucial.
"There’s often a lot of excitement and anticipation and buildup," that happens before an event, Kerner said. "There can be a real boost in self confidence and self esteem," when people feel "eroticized" and aroused. The novelty factor is big — like sexual role play, for example, a sex party can introduce familiar partners to an entire new world of desire and arousal.
On top of that, Julia said, there's the sheer stimulation of it all.
"To me, play parties provide a different experience than single/private sex because your senses are all being stimulated, and to an extreme," Julia said. "There is the physical pleasure but there is also the spiritual and emotional pleasure where you get to act out or watch your fantasies." Julia said the parties she had been to had an "unspoken communal vibe" going around where people felt like they wouldn't be judged, which "opens the door" to letting go of your inhibitions. At her first party, she let a body painter paint her upper body, and she walked around topless for the first part of the night, something she said she would never have had the courage to do in a different setting.
Soh, the neuroscientist, says that if people really get off at a sex party, it could keep them coming back, again and again. "During orgasm, there is an increase in activation in brain regions involved in reward and arousal, which has been thought to reinforce and encourage future sexual activity," Soh said. "There is also a corresponding deactivation (or, less activation) in the amygdala, which is a region associated with vigilance and fear."
"When I’m at a play party, the emotions going through my head are excitement, curiosity, bravery and raw primal intensity," Julia said. "The experience is almost like a drug trip where you become closer to the animal inside of you and just run on pure intuition without pre-meditating your actions. You’re don’t take a second to stop and think, Wait, is this weird, should I be doing this. You just do what you want without stopping yourself."
That doesn't mean that anything goes at a sex party, however. Earlier this year, Meagan Drillinger, a writer for Men's Health, described her first-hand experience at a sex club with her boyfriend. "Ladies make all the calls here," she wrote, "And 'no' most certainly means no, lest you find yourself banned from all future parties."
Kerner added that sex parties aren't necessarily all fun and games. His clients have had a wide range of experiences at sex parties — and some of them haven't been positive. Watching your partner get off with someone else can spur jealousy, especially if you don't feel like you're fully participating. The key, Kerner said, is communication, like making sure you and your partner set ground rules (like whether or not you should stay in the same room, how you should approach sex with other guests, etc.) beforehand.
With communication, openness, and a taste for adventure, sex parties can be the perfect way to liven up a long relationship, take a new one to the next level, or just discover a new side of yourself.
"I see people who are searching for themselves sexually, who go to a sex party and find that it's really not their thing, but then will go to a BDSM dungeon, or take a lesson in Shibari rope tying and find that it really is their thing, Kerner said. "So there are people who are sexually searching, and trying to figure our their core erotic themes."
Even if you don't go again, it sounds like a sex party is a pretty good place to start looking.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health