Super Subcultures

The Real People of Brooklyn’s Sex-Positive Group House

Yes, there are orgies and orgasm workshops. But even more fascinating is how 14 strangers turned this brownstone into the most supportive co-living arrangement in NYC.

The Real People of Brooklyn’s Sex-Positive Group House

It’s a Friday evening in April, and around a dozen New Yorkers are mingling at an underground event space in Brooklyn’s trendy Bushwick neighborhood. Helping themselves to chips, donut holes and nonalcoholic drinks, they make small talk. An air of anticipation fills the room. Something is about to happen here, but there’s little to clarify just what – aside from the six mattresses with lavender sheets on the floor.

“Make a friend,” says the organizer, Kenneth Play, as more guests trickle in. It’s a diverse bunch – twenties, thirties, forties; white, Asian, black – with couples outnumbering singles two to one. They are here to learn about tools and techniques for inducing female ejaculation, known colloquially as “squirting.” It’s a monthly live-action sex ed experience called a “Sex Hacking PlayLab.”

When the crowd swells to forty or so and its din hits cocktail party level, Play tells everyone to take a seat. A few couples get cozily entwined on the mattresses. Sitting on a stool next to a large screen, Play is barefoot, wearing a white button-down shirt left half undone. He launches into a TED Talk-style presentation with his usual line: “Hi, I’m Kenneth Play and I have an average size penis.”

Kenneth Play, giving his TED Talk-style presentation at his PlayLab.

He goes on to share how he got into this, learning from the “sex geeks” – an eclectic mix of sex educators including kink masters, tantra and rope-play experts and his own mentor, Reid Mihalko, who runs sex geek summer camp. Play explains the need to boost “cliteracy” – “There’s a huge orgasm gap, so I focus on pleasuring women” – and his experiential-based approach to instruction.

The Squirting PlayLab fits squarely into the mission of this unique place. Upstairs is the home of a sex positive intentional community. Fourteen people live together in this spacious rehabbed brownstone; all embrace the openness to sexuality that lies at the heart of this lifestyle. They call it Hacienda Villa.

Kenneth Play and Lila Donnolo (and Tiny, the teddy bear).

On my first visit to the “Villa” back in March, I met with the owner and cofounder, Andrew Sparksfire, a real estate developer who bought the building a few years ago. The fourteen “Villans,” as the sex-positive residents call themselves, are open to the expression of sexuality in all its forms, whether polyamory, kink, or sex parties, with an emphasis on consent, safety and education. Sparksfire, who is 44, conceived of Hacienda Villa as a dwelling for like-minded people. “But what I’m trying to do now,” he says with his British accent, leaning back on a lime-green sofa in the backyard facing a fire pit, “is build a broader sex positive platform and movement.”

The way forward is to show the public that this lifestyle is healthy and to chip away at society’s knee-jerk disapproval of alternative approaches to sexuality. The idea is to serve the public good by “creating a culture that we build through education,” he says. Events like the PlayLabs are among a continuous stream of programming that includes film screenings, author talks, panel discussions on alternative relationship structures, and themed sex parties, thrown four times a year.

“Our goal is to normalize sex positivity, so people have the option to express themselves freely without shame,” he says. “We really do want to change the world, and the more we can make sex positivity mainstream, the better. The message we want to send out is that this isn’t something to hide.”

His own journey here began nine years ago as any journey of this era might: with a Google search. Sparksfire had just gotten out of a three-year monogamous relationship and was ready to try something very different.

“I’d already been married, and I knew that if I went down that path with another person who wasn’t the right match for me, it wasn’t going to work,” Sparksfire says. He didn’t enjoy the feeling of being “owned” by someone and wanted to try out non-monogamous relationships. But he didn’t know where to start. “I was boring,” he says of himself at the time, adding that he didn’t have many friends.

So he Googled “sex blog,” and the first hit was a guy who recounted sex parties nearby in Brooklyn. “I thought, ‘this can’t possibly be true,’” Sparksfire says. “It was a revelation to me.” He started attending them, and when they needed a place to host, he suggested his own home, which he had just renovated with a large entertainment space, and then his life started to change. He came into his own as his social circle vastly expanded. The sex geeks turned out in droves for parties that included group sex, high-tech sex toys like a Sybian, some flogging, some “rope play.”

Once he went down that rabbit hole, Sparksfire kept discovering new things. He even met Beth, the woman who would become his second wife, at one of these parties. While she did not wish to be interviewed for this piece, he says she is very much on board with their non-monogamous lifestyle and takes pride in what they are doing. The two live together in that brownstone, which some call “the Hacienda OG.”

Enter now through June 27

Win $3,000 and a lot more!

Sparksfire, who was working for a hedge fund at the time, soon bought another brownstone five blocks away. He reached out to Leon Feingold, a broker who is well known in the polyamorous community, telling him, “maybe you can make a community out of this” – one that would import the culture of the sex parties. Not long after, all the rooms were rented out.

Andrew Sparkfire.

The residents range from a PhD data scientist to a virtual reality programmer to a yoga teacher, Lila Donnolo, who has been there since the start. She also handles PR and community outreach and recently launched a podcast about sex positive culture. Donnolo, who is 34, tall and slender with red hair, says the Villa is the type of home she’d been seeking for a long time. “Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been looking for community,” she says, adding that her somewhat fractured family had much to do with this quest, “and every activity I’ve done, I’ve looked around and said, ‘is it here? Can I get that family feeling here?’” She got a little taste of it with communities she was part of through tango, Acroyoga and theater, and also checked out a few intentional communities: the Hostel in the Forest, in Georgia, and Tryon Life Community Farm, in Portland. “But I didn’t think it was possible in New York,” she says.

Then she met Feingold, who was renting out the rooms. She needed a place to live, but thought she wouldn’t qualify since she is monogamous – one of three now residing at the Villa – but he explained that, as long as she was O.K. with the sex positive lifestyle, that would be fine. “I told him, ‘no problem, because I was raised to be sex positive,’ but I just didn’t know the term,” she says.

She took one of the smaller rooms (rents range from $750 to $1,750) and made a cozy space with a loft bed and lots of cute effects, like little toy Army soldiers in yoga poses. She mentions with a tone of impatience the Villa’s sensationalized portrayal in the media, with headlines like the New York Post’s: “Brooklyn love shack gets makeover as swinger haven.” “Yes, we do have orgies here,” she says, “but for ninety percent of the time we’re doing laundry, cooking, talking about our lives – what any housemates would do.”

“The difference,” she goes on, is that “there is no taboo, so we are able to talk about everything, which is one of the great benefits for me of living here. I also really like to walk around naked.” (Alerts are issued through a house Slack channel when residents’ parents or children are present.) What some media accounts have missed about Hacienda Villa is that it’s primarily a community of like-minded people living together in a mostly ordinary domestic scenario.

Donnolo has availed herself to the communal hot tub, as well as the educational opportunities that come along in a steady stream. “I take a lot of the workshops and have learned so much,” she says, “about my own sexuality, mechanics, toys. I get to go downstairs and have the best sex education available.”

Another plus is that she and her housemates take care of each other. She introduces me to Elena, one of six Villans on her floor – each of which functions as an independent apartment. Elena (who, like several others interviewed for this piece, did not wish to have her last name published) recalls that when she got her wisdom teeth taken out, several roommates were there for her. “The thing about living in a community like this rather than with a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment is that it feels like we have created a chosen family,” Elena says. “People work together here – we create events together and projects. We share this mission.”

A 29-year-old comic who is monogamous, gender fluid and dating a guy, Elena says her intro to the scene first came when she was invited to DJ a party at Hacienda OG in 2013. She had DJed some sex parties prior to that, but says the self-expression, diversity and openness she witnessed at Hacienda was like nothing she had ever seen. There was a dance floor with ten shirtless gay men dancing their hearts out to disco, BDSM going on downstairs, people having sex out in the open, while others soaked in the hot tub – all while everybody was dressed up in costumes. She ran into people she had seen in different, overlapping communities: kink, burner, tantra, polyamorous, swinger, even stand-up comedy. “They were all in the same room and it really just kind of blew my mind,” she says. “It was a very open-minded space, and I felt like I could have any conversation with anyone.”

When Sparksfire told her he was seeking people for a new community, she signed up. Living here makes it easier for her to experiment and get to know herself, she says: “As I explore my sexuality and my gender, I try things out to see what’s right for me as opposed to what’s been assigned to me or what I’ve always been.”

A 36-year-old massage therapist who is tall and muscular, wearing a T-shirt with an Om symbol on it, John lives on the second floor and recently taught his own class – Massage for Lovers – in the Hacienda Studio downstairs. “I do things in the intimate but not quite sexual realm,” says John, who is non-monogamous and also one of the creative directors of sex parties held at Hacienda Villa.

After moving in last year, he began making immersive theater experiences on his floor, like “Slut Court,” in which party guests get punished – with pain or pleasure, their choice – for the “slutty” things they’ve done in their life, revealed on a slut registration card they fill out when they arrive. (In the gender-equal sex positive world, the term “slut,” which is sex negative, has been proudly reclaimed sans gender – “We’re all sluts,” explains Sparksfire.) They had cops, a DA, an interrogator, a judge who issued the punishments, and even a “sexecutioner,” played by John himself, who put one of his partners in stocks and had sex with her for a public “sexecution.”

“The whole idea is to offer people a variety of different experiences,” he says, and that they surely do. The event is so meticulously engineered that Hacienda offers a sex party etiquette workshop several days prior, taught by Effy Blue, a relationship coach who specializes in couples who want to explore ethical non-monogamy.

Blue, who formerly worked in advertising, is 36, English, and a girlfriend of Sparksfire.

Sitting on a sofa in the kitchen/living room area on the first floor, which boasts hardwood floors, high ceilings, marble countertops, sensual art adorning the brick walls, and a humongous teddy bear named “Tiny,” she explains that the workshop is designed to help newbies prepare for what they can’t foresee. (Among roughly 150 guests, one third are consistently first timers, who, she says, are “doe-eyed and are like, ‘wow, I’m at a sex party.’”) She recalls her first time – four years ago, at the Hacienda OG, where she now resides with Sparksfire and his wife, albeit in a separate apartment – and how unprepared she felt. So she decided to teach the newcomers what she would have wanted to know going in. (There’s also a stripped-down version of the workshop offered right before each party.)

A monthly house meeting in early April.

One of the most common questions she gets is, what do you wear to a sex party? Answer: “whatever you feel sexy and comfortable in.” She also addresses an even more basic question: why go to a sex party? Well, for starters, she says, they are fun; they are body positive; and you can meet like-minded people who are “sex positive and consent oriented.” And there are explicit rules that make it safe, like: don’t touch anyone without consent. (The list of rules is posted at the party and sent in advance by email.) She clarifies that a sex party is not an orgy, but a “community party,” where you can meet new people, get acquainted, catch up and bond, and amid all of that, having some variety of sexual experience is an option for those who desire it.

“People who are avid readers may choose to socialize in book clubs,” she says. “Our community is sex positive, and we choose to socialize around sex.” The parties typically sell out in a matter of minutes; newcomers need a referral.

“What we do here is take sex out of isolation and shame out of sex,” she continues.

“I think that’s a very good motto,” concurs Sparksfire, who’s seated next to her.

“You take it out of isolation,” she goes on, “by embracing it and exploring it and encouraging people in their exploration… One of the things I often say is, ‘once you’ve had an orgasm in front of your friends, it’s very hard to keep up an appearance.’”

Not everyone in the community is as gung-ho about opening things up and publicly sharing this part of themselves. I asked if I could attend the party last month, whose theme was “The Future,” but when it was put to a group vote the majority of party organizers ruled against having a journalist there. This highlights the tension between the effort to open up to a wider audience – as championed by Sparksfire, whose aim is to go mainstream – and the need for Hacienda to protect people’s privacy and the values of the community. The negotiation to strike the right balance is ongoing.

When I arrive for the Friday night Squirting PlayLab, Play is racing around making last-minute preparations, wearing a tight black T-shirt with the words “Sex Geek.”

“Did you bring someone?” he asks, meaning a woman who I could do the workshop with, his tenth on this topic. I tell him I’ll just observe, and he looks a bit disappointed, saying that without a partner I can’t stick around for “Lab Time,” a practice session at the end in which the couples get coached like a yoga class, just as he used to coach his clients when he was a fitness trainer for fifteen years. Play, a Hacienda Villa cofounder and its house manager, is 35, born in Hong Kong, and came to the US as a child. He mentions a few of his other PlayLab topics: anal play, kink, toys and an intensive workshop that “has all the good stuff in one shot.” Since his specialty is pleasuring women – to make up for that orgasm gap – he gets other experts for classes geared toward men, like a forthcoming one on an obscure sex hack called “male injaculation.”

“Something was really missing from sex ed,” he says, so with his goal to make it “as accessible as porn,” he developed this hands-on approach because of his firm belief that “people learn best while at play.” It’s pay-what-you-can, but Play charges one thousand dollars for private sessions. He estimates there are about a hundred progressive sex educators worldwide, only about 25 of whom, like him, do it full-time and earn a living from it.

Play introduces his co-teacher, Lola, whom he calls “an Olympian when it comes to squirting.” (Later, she tells me about her first performance at a cabaret theater on the Lower East Side called The Box in which she dances to the theme from the film “Flashdance,” while filling up a bucket she squirts into for an act she calls “Splash Dance.”)

Play tells us squirting has been a topic of interest since ancient times – from China to the Greeks to the Victorians. “It’s been talked about, observed and studied,” he says, but there’s still mystery around it, like: Do women have an orgasm when they squirt? (His data set says about 25 percent do.) He touches on the roles of the clitoris and G-spot, how to locate the G-spot, and how to employ friction, pressure and speed when pleasuring.

“A woman can squirt when the G-spot is stimulated, when the clit is stimulated, or both,” he says, “and some women can shoot you like a water gun. It’s really about discovering what’s pleasurable for you and what works for you.”

To boost “cliteracy,” Play highlights the clitoris’ location and design by holding up a 3-D model of a vagina about the size of a beret. He pulls out the handily detachable clitoris and holds it up, showing the amazed audience these tendrils coming out of it that extend further inside than anybody knew.

For the live demo, all gather around a massage table in the middle of the room. Lola slides off her black dress and lies down on her back, naked in all her voluptuousness as Play strips down to his underwear, looking buff. He puts a pee pad under her and begins gently caressing her with his fingers, working his way down to her genitals, which he cups with one hand while his other rests on her chest, a “grounding technique.” Then he dons a black rubber glove, and pulls out the vagina model, which serves as a 3-D map, resting it on her stomach for a side-by-side illustration of the anatomy.

He puts a nice dollop of lube on his gloved hand and gets to work. After some gentle rubbing, he inserts his finger and raises her left leg, holding it up with his left arm firmly on the table. He explains his positioning and finger movements as he stimulates Lola’s G-spot digitally while rubbing her clitoris with his palm. Then he kicks it into high gear, going all out, and she squirts a lot as everyone packs around the table, some craning their necks, watching closely. For the finale, he and Lola pull out all the stops, with her manning a Hitachi Magic Wand and Play working on the G-spot with a metal cylindrical toy. The drenched pee pad he holds up leaves no doubt about what has taken place.

Kenneth Play holds up a detachable clitoris during the live demo segment of the Squirting PlayLab.

“That concludes our demo,” Play says in his characteristically nonchalant tone. His matter-of-factness about this intimate stuff makes it all seem almost…ordinary, which I suspect is the point. At that, the lights are dimmed, the singles leave – myself included – and about a dozen couples settle down on the mattresses. Over the next hour, they practice what they’ve learned and get feedback.

One of the couples here, Stephanie and Peter, have been married for a decade and are polyamorous. This is their first PlayLab. “I learned some new things,” says Stephanie, a filmmaker currently at work on a narrative about a polyamorous woman, “especially about my own anatomy.” She was struck by the breaking news of how large the clitoris is. She found the techniques helpful, and though she didn’t squirt, cited a tip offered by Play about how to frame the evening’s goal: to focus on pleasuring rather than squirting.

Peter, a comedian and actor, is just as at ease discussing these matters. He has always been curious about female ejaculation, and recalls an incident long ago when he had the chance to ask Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famous sex therapist, about it.

“She said she didn’t believe it was real. I’ve always understood the gist of it, but working with a master such as this person,” he says, gesturing toward Play, “I feel like I’m walking out of here with skills that I can use in the marketplace.”

Tony, a 41-year-old music production teacher who lives in the nearby Bed-Stuy neighborhood, is here with his girlfriend, Kanako. Dressed in a striped, plush, fur overcoat, he explains that their relationship is non-monogamous but not polyamorous, by which he means they don’t date other people but have sexual experiences with others, often at parties, and describes himself as “a bit of an exhibitionist.”

Tony says today’s class was fruitful for him too: “I had no idea about the anatomy of the clitoris and the way it goes so much further in” – a big takeaway for many attendees. He adds, “I would love for more people to be comfortable about coming to a thing like this.”