- Derek Carlisle
It's an early Saturday evening somewhere along the Wasatch Front. On a quiet street inside an undisclosed house, a group of Mormon men are about to get naked and have sex with one another.
Well, not everyone here is a church member, but it's not hard to pick them out as they remove their temple garments and make small talk about their families and goings-on in their ward. The men are all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities—it's probably one of the most diverse gatherings of people in Utah.
After stripping down and storing their clothes, men drift off to the back room play areas, where there are leather slings, king-size beds, a spanking bench, massage tables and several hidden enclaves for more private moments. On a kitchen table are assorted munchies and drinks. Gay porn flashes on TV screens. Strangers seduce strangers with a touch or glance. Some instantly lock lips or other body parts. Condoms and lube are plentiful, always within an arm's reach, as are paper towels for post-coital mop-up.
Some men, though—maybe most of them—aren't here for sex. Some come just to watch, or be held, or, for the men who are secretly gay, to experience senses of intimacy they don't get from their wives back home.
Chat with the men who own the house—we can't divulge their names either, lest their day job bosses get weirded out and terminate them—and they'll tell you that people need these kinds of play spaces to explore their sexuality, something that's hard to do in a state like Utah.
"We wanted to have a place where not just LDS men, but any man, can go, whether they're out or in, and be intimate with one another," one homeowner tells me. "In one sense, with the LGBTQ suicide rate the way it is, we provide a needed service." Research indicates LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of their straight peers. And suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year olds.
This is far from the only sex party in the state. There are regularly scheduled ones each month, like The Menagerie, which is for men and women, and the men-only Blackboots. There are more social and information-based clubs like the Rocky Mountain Pet Alliance, a group for "human pets" and pup players. There's Utah TNG (The Next Generation), a kink org for people age 18-35. And the Rocky Mountain Rebellion, an annual conference for BDSM lovers held in a downtown Salt Lake hotel every summer.
Details on most of these are a click away at beehivekink.com, where a quick scroll reveals a side of Utah that would make Brigham Young's eyes bug out.
Many of these parties and groups have only sprouted in the last few years, a sign that Utah's long history of sexual repression is loosening up, or at least rising up from the underground. It's not terribly difficult to find your own sex/fetish/kink tribe, even after Craigslist took down its adult-content listings last year.
A Missionary's Position
"There's a lot of ignorance about sex because the Utah culture tells us that sex is to be solely for procreation, not what your soul or gut is telling you," says Dr. Laurie Bennett-Cook, a clinical sexologist who co-founded Sex Positive Utah in 2016, which has more than 300 members on meetup.com. The group hosts private events that explore all angles of human sexuality, including polyamory and kink.
"The only way to counteract that ignorance is with education," Bennett-Cook says. "And once people get into a group, when they take that first step to their authenticity and they're accepted, it's really hard to ever go back into the closet about it."
That's a good way to describe Finch, a 36-year-old man who founded a similarly-named group, Utah Sex Positive Education, in 2017. Until recently, he also sponsored kink classes at Salt Lake City club Area 51 each month and helps run The Menagerie.
Finch also doesn't want his full name used. But he has no problem opening up about how getting rid of shame helped save his life.
"I was as Mormon as Mormon could be, did a mission, all of it," Finch says. Until around 2012, when the stress of living an inauthentic life got to be too much.
"I nearly killed myself. I was born into the faith and supposed to be ridiculously, blissfully happy, but I wasn't, so something was obviously wrong with me. I realized I'm either going to be Mormon and dead or not be Mormon and be alive."
After a period of self-discovery, which included divorce, Finch found a whole new world when he stumbled upon fetlife.com, a popular kink social network.
"I came to realize I'm not monogamous, I'm polyamorous," he says. "I started going out to events and it snowballed. The more I was around other people with the same interests, the more safe, happier and fulfilled I felt. Through kink, I found my community, the way other people find that in the church. I identify now as a fucked-up pervert in all the wonderful, best ways possible."
Finch's main goal for Utah Sex Positive Education, he says, is to help others combat the same sense of shame he wrestled with when he was an active church member.
"I'm such a missionary at heart that I'm now on a mission for BDSM," Finch says, dropping the common catch-all acronym for bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. "I'm now about spreading the gospel of kink, sex positivity, consent and shame-free living."
Area 51 still hosts the monthly Fetish Ball—going strong after 16 years—and features demonstrations of how rope bondage, melted wax and electric stimulation can be used in sex play. "It's a Costco of kink," as Finch puts it.
He says it draws people who were raised one way, decided they weren't that person anymore, and are now trying to find out who they are.
In The Menagerie space, where Finch also lives, there are bondage tables and other sex-play equipment throughout the home and garage, including a medical room for doctor/patient fantasy scenes. They hold two parties a month, and are getting increasingly popular as word of mouth spreads, he says.
"People are getting sick of the culture that exists here," Finch says. "But it's changing. It used to be that if you got sick of Utah enough, you'd just move out of the state. But there are a lot of people who don't want to leave. I want to stay here and change the culture, because if I don't do it, who else will?"
Clearing a Path
Path is another Utah sex-positive group that helps its members explore their kinky side, and the oldest in Salt Lake City, with roots dating back to 1998. Meetings are held in a private home and can have as many as 75 people, according to Amadio Saveur, the group's program organizer.
"Usually, we have an introduction and talk about who we are and what we're about, then go over some basic rules of etiquette," Saveur says. Discussion topics can range from spanking techniques to the best ways of incorporating food into your sex play. Sometimes there are classes on gender theory with featured guest speakers.
"Anything that impacts the sex-positive community, we'll teach," Saveur says.
Saveur has witnessed a significant increase in Path membership these last few years, which he credits the Fifty Shades of Grey books and movies for broadening people's minds about what sex can be. The wider visibility of transgender issues in the news and in entertainment also has drawn people interested in exploring that side of their lives.
For Saveur, Path is nothing less than a community service—about helping people find the path on their own personal journey.
"It's definitely a rebellion to explore different sexual practices, but more so in Utah," Saveur says. "We see youths coming out of college and LDS church members who are ending their first marriages. They all want their own sexual ID. They're hungry for information and want to be exposed to different things. Sometimes our meetings can be very emotional when people start talking about their lives and are able to get this huge weight off their chest. They realize they're not alone."
- Niki Chan
Sunny Carroll, pictured, is a 73-year-old veteran BDSM practitioner who's seen a lot of scene history. A Path instructor—and, like many interviewed for this story, raised LDS—Carroll says the classes can be therapeutic, but it's not therapy.
"It's a great relief to find other people as kinky as you are," she says. "There are a lot of new people who feel very alone and wonder if they're entirely sane, so they get a sense of relief, even a sense of coming home when they're here for the first time."
Safety and consent are the two most important things taught at Path, Carroll says. Things like places on the body that shouldn't be hit with a spanking paddle and safe ways to use fire.
"We had a class a few months ago that was about the difference between what we do and abuse. BDSM is consensual and abuse obviously is not," Carroll says.
These new sex-positive groups are not only attracting curious people who want to explore their sexuality, they're also helping to make a healthier Utah, according to Lynn Beltran, epidemiology supervisor of the STD and HIV prevention program at the Salt Lake County Health Department.
"People feel more open to disclosing that their relationships don't fit into a certain box. Even terms like polyamory have become more mainstream," Beltran says. "The concept of sex positivity is to be more open to diverse sexual practices. These groups are talking about these things and giving accurate sex information, and that's important in a state that's struggling with high STD rates. That's partly due to the lack of sex education in schools where the only thing students are told is based on abstinence."
- Rich Kane
- Michael Sanders
"Abstinence-only is pretty ineffective, but it makes everyone feel good," Michael Sanders, founder of the Blackboots fetish gatherings and education programs that stress consent, HIV and STD prevention and safe play.
"The predominant culture here is very much one of non-sex positivity, even in marriage," Sanders, who also organized last year's inaugural Utah Leather Pride festival, says. "But sex is a natural part of being a human being. Everyone should be having sex. If not, they get cranky."
Sanders moved to Utah from New York City 12 years ago, and soon noticed a pattern of behavior among men who had married women and had children, only to realize that they were gay all along.
"They were raised Mormon, did the mission, got married, had kids. And didn't want to rock the boat," he says. "They felt the need to stick it out for the sake of the marriage, the church, the family." The familiar story, Sanders notes, comes with its own set of casualties. "A break happens in their late-30s, early-40s, when they finally decide to live a more authentic self and leave the wife and kids. And that creates whole other issues I'm not a fan of. It's unfair to the women to make them feel like they're developing a lifelong connection and commitment as a family when the man's intent is just to wait until the kids are old enough so they can split. I have a lot of trouble with that."
Spreading the Love
"There's a prevalent point of view here that sex should not be fun, it should be shamed, a man should enjoy it but a woman shouldn't," J. Wilford Neville, who leads the 2,300-member strong Utah Polyamory Society, says. Neville lives with two romantic partners—one domestic partner and a girlfriend, plus two metamours, or a partner's partner, along with two teenagers.
"So my girlfriend T is married to G and in a relationship with C," Neville explains, "but my domestic partner K is also in a relationship with G."
That arrangement might not work for everyone, but Neville says it certainly works for them.
"The more parental figures kids have—and the science is consistent on this—they turn out to be better-functioning adults," Neville says. (While City Weekly could not corroborate this statement, data does exist on children who grow up with two parents displaying increased well-being indicators.) "We've always been told that monogamy is the ideal relationship model, but with divorce rates, that isn't really true," he continues. "Figuring out to have relationships at all is a difficult thing. But the key, as always, is consent and communication. I hadn't even heard the term sex positivity until two or three years ago, but it's good to see these changes happening."
Utah's largest and most ambitious sex parties by far are the frequent bashes thrown by Risqué Soirée, founded in 2004 by Xavier Lang. The Soirée boasts some 5,000 men and women swingers who range from 22 into their late-70s—Lang says about 90 percent are also ex-Mormons like him—who travel from other states to attend events like their annual Erotic Ball and other theme parties, always held in secret members-only locations. One particularly memorable Halloween party went off atop the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Salt Lake City, with an estimated crowd of 1,000.
To ensure the safety of party guests, Lang requires that all members take a 90-minute sex-positive essentials class focusing on consent and boundaries before every event. It's taught by a professional sexual wellness coach, part of Lang's emphasis on fun but always-safe play.
"After our very first party in 2004, people were telling us thanks, that they had never felt more like themselves in their lives," Lang says. "And being a conduit for that, that's such an awesome feeling. People tell me they feel very free and safe at our events, and that's the whole reason I started this. If you want to come to our party wearing a bunny suit with a strap-on, you can do that."
Lang also subscribes to the theory that where there are people with extreme conservative views, the kinkier the population is.
"Everything that's in Vegas, all the wild parties, that's here in Utah—it's just underground. You have to search for it. People here are finally coming out of their shells and saying this is OK. Utah is changing. It's not the little conservative state it used to be."
- Derek Carlisle