The Myth of Key Parties
Can we finally put the notion of key parties to rest?
“Key parties” have long been associated with “swingers,” or couples who have recreational sex with other couples. At key parties, like the one depicted in the film The Ice Storm (1997), swinging couples supposedly gather together and drop their car keys into a bowl. Then, each woman pulls a set of car keys out of a bowl to find out which man she’ll be leaving with for the night.
But swingers know that the idea is ridiculous.
Not because swingers don’t like parties! Swingers are famous for throwing fabulous theme parties. When my partner and I were in the lifestyle, we went to “white” parties, neon parties, “glitter and glow” body paint parties, “Greek Gods and Goddesses” and superhero parties. We donned costumes for Halloween, New Year’s Eve, the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and many regular Saturday nights.
But even though I attended hundreds of erotic events, from private parties to huge conventions in Las Vegas, I have never been to a key party or even been invited to a key party. When I interviewed lifestyle couples, I never found anyone who had personally attended a key party or said they wanted to, whether in the 1960s or in the decades that followed. I haven’t found reliable scholarly accounts of key parties, though they are sporadically mentioned in the literature.
Such a lack of evidence screams “urban legend” to me, like lots of other supposedly scandalous but unverified sexual practices from “rainbow parties” to the “soggy biscuit game.” Of course, I wouldn’t claim there’s never been a key party in the history of humankind. People have probably tried pretty much everything when it comes to sexuality. When I was writing Plays Well in Groups, my 2013 book on group sex, people told me about lifestyle events with themes of “key party” or “lock and key” (where participants draw a key that fits a lock assigned to another guest) but the new couples did not even necessarily hook up, much less leave the premises together. A Pakistani businessman told me about underground “key parties” in Pakistan where participants used hotel room keys — no one would actually go back to their own homes or drive their own cars. But once again, I could not find anyone who had participated or any verified accounts.
The truth is that key parties have never been widespread among swingers for one very important reason: Swingers want to choose their sex partners.
Urban legends are circulated because they strike a chord with the people consuming the stories. Stories about key parties are told because people are uneasy (and uninformed) about swinging. These stories betray people’s ambivalence toward randomness or absence of choice in sexual partners. One of the myths that lifestylers routinely confront is that they are expected to have sex with anyone who walks through the door of a swingers’ club or party. But the truth is that sex is negotiated between all of the individuals involved, every time. Lifestylers also repeatedly confront myths that women are forced to participate by their partners. But although there may be situations that are unfair to one spouse or another, lifestyle couples place a great deal of importance on women’s ability to say “yes” or “no” to sexual activity.
The contemporary lifestyle isn’t about “free love” or “wife-swapping.”
You’re not likely to find many — if any — lifestyle women who are happy to draw car keys from a bowl at a party to find out who they are having sex with that evening. Instead, you’re more likely to find a couple arguing in the bathroom about which couple they should invite back to their hotel room and whether doing so would be “taking one for the team.” Sure, sometimes someone does take one for the team. But it had better not be too often, or too obvious to the other couples. Full, enthusiastic consent is the gold standard of modern swinging.
For those couples who do eroticize random, or even anonymous, sex, there are other ways to get it — Craigslist, mobile apps, sex clubs with dark rooms, hookups from bars and nightclubs.
The logistics of a key party just don’t fit the desires of most contemporary American lifestyle couples for agreement between spouses and for consent to each encounter. The logistics of a key party don’t even fit with modern domestic realities. Drinking and driving isn’t condoned. Sure, maybe a key party could be organized even if everyone used Uber. But most lifestyle couples do not split up and leave the premises with their recreational sex partners. They might like to stay in the same room and watch each other. They might want to have sex with each other to reconnect after anything that happens with other people. And spending the entire night with someone else, and getting your spouse back after breakfast? (That would be an interesting thing to explain to a babysitter!) That might happen occasionally, for some couples. But good luck trying to organize a party where that is the expectation! Family life goes on, and the next day brings soccer practice, singing lessons, gardening, and grocery shopping.
Key parties are part of our folklore, like stories about waking up in an ice-filled bathtub after an illegal kidney removal or the babysitter receiving threatening phone calls from inside the house. For people who are uneasy even thinking about non-monogamy, stories about key parties confirm their worst fears and include a warning — watch out or you’re going to end up in situations where you lose control over your body and who you have sex with — and that warning promotes mainstream cultural values.
For swingers, key parties just don’t sound like much fun.
Note: This blog post was inspired by a recent article that mentions my discussion of key parties as an urban legend in Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex (http://www.sfweekly.com/culture/did-key-parties-ever-really-happen/). As visions of key parties continue to haunt the popular imagination, I thought it might be good to provide a bit of analysis on why the idea persists.