Last month, I went to a darkroom for the first time. I was by myself and I was nervous, but I really wanted to experience it. As soon as I went in, I was so turned on! I fooled around with a few guys here and there, and then I found a guy I really wanted to fuck. It felt like the right guy for me. I’m very pro-safe sex, so I asked him if he had a condom, but I got no response. I asked again, but again, no response. It made me anxious. He was dry-humping me and I really couldn’t wait to fuck him. So, I tried asking about STDs but then I was shushed by multiple guys around me. I didn’t know what to do anymore. I got so nervous, and I didn’t feel comfortable anymore, so I basically ran out of there. How can I handle this the next time without crossing my boundaries? I really loved the experience, but I’m worried about how to have safe sex if apparently talking is not really a thing you do in a darkroom.
Doing It With The Lights Off
There’s a certain kind of thrill that comes from participating in a darkroom in general: 1) For those who want a truly anonymous experience, it can be exactly that; 2) Pretty much everyone is in there to have sex so the spontaneity and possible group interaction (or even just the anticipation of it) can be exciting; 3) Removing or diminishing the visual aspect of interaction or sex can also allow us to focus on our other senses; 4) It’s a way of having public/exhibitionist play in an obscured (and thus perhaps, socially/emotionally safer) way. Similar to how wearing a harness is like not being shirtless or naked, while in essence being shirtless or naked, darkroom play is like not having sex in public, while in essence still being out there.
Darkroom ‘etiquette’ does, however, seem to revolve around the fantasy theme of ‘wordless’ sex. But even before COVID-19 and monkeypox, there was (and still is) an inherent risk to darkroom play that everyone, newbie or veteran, needs to consider for themselves.
Since you can’t necessarily make eye contact or read non-verbal signals (depending on how truly dark it is), communication in a darkroom can come down to staying or leaving. And this roughly translates to ‘yes’ (staying) and ‘no’ (leaving). If you like what is happening or what you are doing, then stay. If you don’t like what is happening or what you are doing, then remove yourself from the company you’re in and walk away. If you’re feeling unsure, it’s better to walk away, because there’s no gradient to the ‘yes’ that is interpreted from staying. You can always find your way back if you get more comfortable or if the situation changes. If you’re already involved with someone in the darkroom and someone tries to join in and is unwelcome, a gentle push or redirect away is a recognizable signal. Darkroom play is usually not for folks who have trouble asserting these signals. Remember, not everyone in the darkroom is a good player. Preparing to play in a darkroom and being a good player has everything to do with knowing yourself. I have asked myself (and I still do) the following questions:
What are your boundaries for play?
Everyone has boundaries. Some people have more, some have less. Some have boundaries that might seem unusual. In any kind of play (whether in a darkroom or not), understanding your boundaries helps you decide on whether the risk that a boundary could be violated is higher or lower. Knowing yourself and what kinds of risks you’re open to taking (anal sex in any role is not a default agreement) helps you make the decision to stay or to go. Groping is a thing that you can be pretty sure will happen. Randomly feeling a mouth on your genitals can be a thing. Random people trying to join in can be thing. If these kinds of things make you uncomfortable, have a plan, and always be okay with leaving. Leaving doesn’t have to be forever, or even the rest of the night. You can always go back in. But leaving gives you a chance to collect your thoughts/feelings and decide either way.
What are your boundaries for safer sex?
In an anonymous environment like a darkroom, people often feel asking too many questions is a mood killer. Assessing sexual risk takes at least five questions and asking more than one question can seem either burdensome (i.e., you’re afraid the guy will leave), or disturbance-making (i.e., you’re afraid other people will ask you to leave). In the moment, a question like, “Are you clean?” – which is a problematic question in the first place regardless of where you ask it – is unlikely to give you a truly honest answer because almost everyone is thinking with their genitals. If using condoms is important to you, then bring condoms in with you. If you need lube, bring lube in with you, or go pre-lubed if your goal is to be in the receptive role (that’s what lube injectors are for). If you’re not on PrEP (Pre-Exposure
Prophylaxis for HIV prevention), consider going on PrEP. Consider the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine, and all of the other ones if you are eligible (monkeypox, COVID-19, and meningitis, to name a few). Consider post-sex antibiotics and talk to your doctor about it. If they don’t know about it, ask them to read the article I have put down below. Get STI screenings regularly (every three to four months if you’re sexually active, sometimes more if you have many partners).
You can’t control what other people are doing in a darkroom, but you can control what you do to lower your risks. In a darkroom where even a single sentence gets you shushed, you should act as though no one is STI-free and decide what risks you are willing to take. You don’t need to talk to put a condom on yourself or someone else. And if you want to use a condom and they don’t, then you have the option of walking away.
How badly do you want your scene/encounter to start and finish in a darkroom?
Not every darkroom encounter needs to start in a darkroom. There’s fantasy and then there’s the logistics of fantasy that we learn to accept. If you need an encounter to be truly anonymous from start to finish, then the way you communicate your boundaries comes down to the staying ‘yes’ or the leaving ‘no’. If you mostly want the other benefits of darkroom play and don’t necessarily need anonymity, you might consider entering the darkroom with someone you’ve met outside of the darkroom with whom you’ve already chatted and discussed at least major boundaries and safer sex. You can choose, in the moment, inside the darkroom, to pretend it’s anonymous. Most darkrooms will have areas that are more well-lit than others. If all the guys you want to interact with are already inside the darkroom, or at least, there’s no one outside you’d like to go in with, hang out around the lighted spots (sometimes this is the exit sign). That is the place where eye contact is easier, and where a brief quiet conversation is usually more forgivable since most people leave the lighted areas to play in the darker areas.
Darkrooms are not libraries. There are sounds – usually, the kind people make when they’re enjoying play. Having a full-on conversation or even being overly vocal in your enjoyment can be frowned upon, but seldom is someone going to approach you and tell you, “You’re doing it wrong.” It’s totally okay to speak quietly and/or briefly if you like something and you want more, or if you would prefer something to change allowing you to enjoy it more, including suggesting that you go find a darker corner to start playing. Darkrooms are shared spaces; anyone who thinks they have a monopoly on how the space is used or how it should sound within reason, can kindly sit on their thumbs and rotate. Some darkrooms have rules. Check these before you enter.
At the end of the day, you should disengage and walk away from any activity or person where you feel uncomfortable. And if a person you’ve walked away from follows you and you’re still interested in them, then walk somewhere where you can talk – including out of the darkroom. And if you’ve walked away from someone unwelcome who keeps following you, then I give you my blessing to use your voice clearly to express that.
Darkrooms can be a great place to explore different parts of your sexuality. And you should come away from the experience feeling like it made your day better, not worse. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. And while this might be an unpopular opinion, if you haven’t had much experience in one and you’re worried about risks, consider doing it sober, or very close to sober so you know your judgement isn’t impaired by much more than your genitals.
For more information about post-sex antibiotics, read this article: