Bloggers Mean Business

There was a moment after New York’s 2009 Fall Fashion Week when fashion bloggers had officially, as the press likes to call it, “arrived.” They had blogged their way to the front row of Bryant Park’s most exclusive runway shows; they were the new army of digital Anna Wintours. They wrote in Internet slang and posted photos of themselves mixing vintage with Valentino. They were so quirky! And also, influential! Or so news outlets gushed. Stiff, walled-off fashion editors, once secure in their self-preserved ivory towers, were trembling in fear of a coup.

Fast forward two years and fashion’s digerati have shown they actually have no interest in Wintour’s job. They’d rather sit across the table from her, as the faces of the companies whose ads keep publications like VogueHarper’s Bazaar, and W in the black. Bloggers don’t want to be editors, because they’ve built something much more valuable: brands.

For the past four years, Midwesterner Jessica Quirk’s blog, What I Wore, has featured photos of her wearing outfits she’s styled. She details the origin of each item, lending an implicit endorsement to the brands she’s sporting. It’s not journalism; it’s talking about oneself. Which is to say, it’s branding oneself.

The explosion of this type of blog and the influence of the women behind them are due, in part, to readers of magazine glossies wanting to see relatable ladies in “real world” clothes. Independent Fashion Bloggers, an online community, has more than 30,000 members; Technorati lists 8,117 fashion blogs in its directory. Sites like What I Wore garner 20,000 unique visitors per month, according to Web traffic measurement site Compete; around half of those readers return daily.

Now fashion bloggers are leveraging their followers to become marketing machines for brands other than their own (in other words, to earn money), augmenting those companies’ advertising and PR strategies. They’re taking on numerous roles including guest bloggers, models, designers, and endorsers. They’re maintaining credibility with fans—they hope—by choosing partnerships discerningly, while discussing deliverables, audience composition, ROI, and conversions with their sponsors. The opportunity to convert their readership into customers for brands is huge—apparel and accessories was the second-largest category for e-commerce spending in 2010, beating out even consumer electronics with $20.5 billion in sales, according to comScore. “People are doing their best to find an audience like mine, a 25- to 34-year-old woman who spends X dollars shopping online,” says Quirk, who blogs as a brand ambassador for Timex on its website and on What I Wore, and has blogged for Ann Taylor LOFT on its site while posting photos of herself in LOFT clothes on her own. A former designer, she also designed a bracelet for charity that will sell in LOFT stores this fall.

These brands could hire a celebrity spokesperson. Instead they’ve hired a celebrity spokesperson who has her own distribution channel. Coach probably started it. In 2009, its marketing execs noticed that bloggers, not magazine editors, were driving social conversations online. To put it in corporate terms, “they adeptly used the aspirational and visual nature of blogging to share a unique and authentic perspective,” David Duplantis, evp of global Web, digital media, and customer engagement at Coach, told Adweek. Last year, the company recruited four bloggers to custom design, for pay, limited-edition Coach bags. Karla Deras, Kelly Framel, Emily Schuman, and Krystal Simpson worked with Coach to create purses named after their blogs, which they promoted on those blogs, and on their Twitter and Facebook accounts. (They quickly sold out.) Coach is expanding its design collaboration concept to a larger group of global bloggers, Duplantis says. It also features bloggers as models in digital and in-store ad campaigns and has a monthly Guest Blogger. For last week’s Fashion’s Night Out, blogger partners, including Framel (The Glamourai), hosted an in-store party featuring clothing displays they styled around Coach bags.

The blogger-brand marriage reaches the highest of high fashion: Susie Lau of Style Bubble has worked with Valentino and Furla for events and editorial features. Rebecca Minkoff even hired Daniel Saynt, founder of blog network Fashion Indie, as its CMO earlier this year.

It cuts across the spectrum to mass market brands, too. Blogger/designer Keiko Lynn Groves hosts Facebook chats for CVS Beauty Club. Framel and Schuman modeled in ads for Forever 21. Gabrielle Gregg of Gabifresh collaborates with The Limited on designs and promotions for a plus-size brand, eloquii, launching in October.

Juicy Couture even turned to bloggers to reverse an unsavory image when it found itself boxed into a tracksuit ghetto of sorts. Through blogger outreach like events featuring after-hours shopping with DJing by India Jewel-Jackson of Glam.com, it massaged its image. “Many of my peers have a new respect for them . . . and they did it without forcing themselves on anyone,” Framel says.

Gap takes a similarly low-pressure approach, seeking to generate feedback with impressions as a secondary (and yet often successful) consideration. “It’s a constant two-way dialogue,” says Gap’s Olivia Doyne, director of partnerships, brand engagement and PR. In August, the company offered to outfit speakers at a conference run by blog network BlogHer; nearly all opted to don a Gap-provided outfit on stage. The brand received almost 2 million online impressions related to the conference without a single piece of paid media or advertising.

Several previously cold-faced fashion houses have even developed their own down-to-earth blogger voices, including Oscar de la Renta’s OscarPRGirl and Donna Karan New York’s Twitter account (@DKNY), an insider-y peek at the brand and its author’s “life as a PR girl.” Personal? Check. Relatable? Check. Aspirational? Check. Branded? You bet.

But elaborate deals involving giveaway contests, blog content, design collaborations, photo shoots, and appearances are difficult for fashion brands to pull off. PR reps are still learning to treat bloggers as more than an easy PR hit, says Jennine Jacob, founder of IFB, who blogs at The Coveted. Too often, a brand hosts parties and distributes free samples, expecting a fawning blog post, she says. It’s a turnoff. “My student loans don’t accept free products from a brand and neither does my landlord,” Jacobs says. And the quid pro quo agreements are not just tacky, they’re illegal.

Ann Inc. learned that when a January invite for a schmoozy party to preview LOFT’s spring collection promised gift cards to attendees, but only after they blogged about the event. The result: an FTC investigation, since it happened shortly after the agency had adopted rules requiring bloggers to disclose when they’ve received payment or goods related to coverage. (The investigation concluded with no fines to Ann Inc.) Standard practice now is to note an item is “c/o” or care of the brand.  

Other complications: As blogging talents grow in influence, so do their fees—some bloggers command $5,000 for a one-day appearance. And as fees for design collaborations can range from $5,000 to $30,000, according to Macala Wright, former account manager of GCI Group and publisher of Fashionablymarketing.me, convincing brands to shell out has been an uphill battle.

Compensation is also muddled by the fact that fashion bloggers occupy an in-between area in endorsement contracts. They are technically the talent, like any celebrity. But unlike a celebrity, bloggers offer a package—Facebook fans, blog visitors, Twitter followers—and need to engage free of wording restrictions and exclusivity clauses. Brands, accustomed to working with advertorial teams, struggle to give up control. “[Brands] have to know that nobody is jeopardizing anyone’s image,” says Karen Robinovitz, co-founder of fashion blogger agency digital brand architects. “A blogger knows what will resonate with her audience, even if it means never capitalizing her ‘i’s.”

Robinovitz started DBA with former Fleishman-Hillard vp Kendra Bracken-Ferguson after watching bloggers undervalue themselves in deal negotiations. She represents more than 50 fashion bloggers. “We don’t believe every moment has to be paid for,” Robinovitz says, “but once the brands realize what they’re paying for is above and beyond basic editorial coverage, they start to understand.” Driving the point home: Bryanboy, one of fashion’s most famous bloggers who earns six figures a year from appearances and ads on his blog, recently signed with CAA.

(Not everyone agrees that bloggers need agents. Wright has written that bloggers need lawyers, not agents. Others say agencies prey on bloggers.)

But perhaps the most important question for a marketer is: How do brands measure the success of blogger collaborations? The ROI metrics aren’t easy to articulate and there are no best practices. Juicy Couture looks at everything, such as share of voice, sentiment, awareness, referrals, resonations, support response, clicks, fans, retweets, views, etc., says Michelle Ryan, its vp of digital and social media. DBA is developing an algorithm for a brand perception metric that links traffic from its bloggers to purchasing data.

The issue found its way into the news last week when reps from Ann Taylor, Kate Spade, and PR firm Starworks publicly trashed Tumblr’s attempt to sell them expensive blogger-driven marketing partnerships related to Fashion Week, when the platform doesn’t provide basic analytics to its dedicated brand users. But blog-brand partnerships are still relatively low risk, which is why more brands are trying the campaigns on for size. “The beauty of doing something online is that it’s much more forgivable than spending $1 million producing a TV commercial,” Wright says. And with fashion bloggers’ uniquely deep engagement and influence, “the return on that money is much higher than giving Kim Kardashian 10 grand for one tweet.”

Social Media in the Beauty Landscape

Talk about a meteoric rise. Two years ago, Katy DeGroot quit her job as an executive team leader at Target. Today, she’s recognized practically every time she steps into one of the retailer’s stores.

“Usually, the first thing people say is, ‘Oh my God, you’re so small’,” chuckles DeGroot, a 5-foot-3 tomboy version of Mariah Carey in her “Butterfly” phase who is better known by her social media handle LustreLux, “but it’s never really awkward. It’s like seeing one of your friends.”

DeGroot started LustreLux as a Web site with no grand ambitions to become a social media sensation. “I just wanted to create something that mixed my sarcasm and humor into writing and doing a few pictures,” she says. “It was very Millennial of me to not want to listen to anybody and do whatever I wanted to do.”

The appeal of her approach soon became apparent. Two months after LustreLux started posting on Instagram and YouTube, DeGroot was picking up 10,000 subscribers a day. She crossed 500,000 subscribers in eight months and has now amassed more than 2.6 million followers. She’s partnered with brands including Make Up For Ever, Benefit, NARS and Philips to promote products, signed up as a stylist for Ipsy and recently settled in Los Angeles to pursue a full-time career as a social media makeup buff.

DeGroot’s swift ascent from nobody to somebody parallels rapid changes in the beauty landscape caused by social media. “Social media is shaping consumer behavior,” says Shelley Haus, vice president of brand marketing at Ulta Beauty “Scrolling through Instagram, the pictures and videos bring things to life in a way that’s superabsorbable. [Consumers] go to Instagram for beauty inspiration and to learn how to wear this or do that. They relate in a really visual way, and they are getting a sense of urgency.”

The sea change is creating a new generation of consumers, a swelling group of young women who devour beauty content, determinedly search for details about products they covet, itch to try new brands and crave great scores. Increasingly, brands are responding by unleashing newness at warp speed, solidifying relationships with social media stars, ambushing trends and quickening the pace of their marketing efforts. With social media inflaming desire for products, it’s a kill-or-be-killed environment in the beauty business, and the kills can be immediate and very, very big.

To wit: Kylie Jenner’s Lip Kit, $29, sold out in minutes when it launched online. Becca’s Champagne Pop highlighter, cocreated with YouTube personality Jaclyn Hill, generated an estimated $20 million in sales during the second half of 2015 and was the biggest single-day seller in sephora.com’s history. Tarte’s Amazonian Clay Matte Palette doubled its sales expectations after the brand partnered with 12 influencers during the year, and the Too Faced Stardust palette, designed with Instagram influencer Vegas Nay, propelled the brand into being one of the strongest performers at Ulta.

Mary Beth Laughton, senior vice president of digital at Sephora, says Instagram can stoke unprecedented demand. “There is so much more content available to help clients over that decision-making threshold,” she says. “The rise of visual social media has powered not only the ability for a client to explore more, but also make more informed decisions by seeing more images of product on faces and how to use products.”

Survey results bear out the impact of Instagram on sales. In its 2015 study of the U.S. cosmetics industry, TABS Analytics found Instagram is very important in the purchasing decisions of 31 percent of Millennials who are heavy buyers of cosmetics, an 11 percent increase from 2014. “Instagram is becoming much more important to the women who are the drivers in the category,” says Kurt Jetta, ceo and founder of TABS, noting African-Americans and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to say Instagram is important in their decisions. Heavy buyers are 30 percent of the shoppers in the beauty category, but account for 60 percent of sales.

The power of social media to move the merch has given rise to a new breed of brands that live primarily online, such as ColourPop, Sigma Beauty, Dose of Colors and BH Cosmetics, all of which have greater Instagram followings than established brands including Revlon, Cover Girl and Wet ‘n’ Wild. And it has propelled existing brands who have mastered the medium—such as Anastasia Beverly Hills, Tarte and Too Faced—into exponential sales increases.

Wende Zomnir, founding partner and chief creative officer at Urban Decay, says the new breed of brands are effectively mining a distribution channel their larger rivals haven’t mastered—much as the first wave of Indie brands did during the Nineties when Sephora opened in the U.S. “It reminds me of when we started, and [bigger brands] would not go into Sephora. So, Sephora was our venue, and it created a new way of doing business,” she says. “I love watching all of these brands on Instagram. We can completely learn from them. Looking back at department store brands that eventually went to Sephora, you would be mistaken not to.”

Thus far, social media’s impact has been seen primarily with makeup, but as marketers look to apply their insights to other categories, the lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—are being applied across the board. Thus far, the mix includes initiating affiliate programs, linking with social media influencers on limited-edition products (palettes anyone?), peddling vibrant and inexpensive hero items, and celebrating user-generated content.

Visually, Instagram has evolved relatively rapidly. Photo albums rather than billboards garner the highest engagement. A case study by Curalate shows that the brand Sigma Beauty posts four to five user images per day on Instagram to push 24,000 clicks per month to its online product pages. Leveraging a Curalate service titled Fanreel, those pages contain user images pulled from Instagram exhibiting looks fashioned with the brand’s products. Consumers who check out those images spend 12 minutes and 25 seconds on Sigma Beauty’s site, compared to three minutes and 12 seconds when they don’t.

“Consumer behavior is driven by showing the product as it is being used in real life, not necessarily on a white background,” says Matthew Langie, chief marketing officer of Curalate.

Ricky’s NYC president Richard Parrott believes professional hair care will be the next category to take off on Instagram. “That’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “They have the content, but they are not using it so much on social media. They are using it in the professional world.”

On the skin-care front, Haus says, “[Instagram] has lent itself to products that are sexier and, obviously, color is sexy, sexy, sexy, but as people are getting more into skin care, even Millennials, a little bit of the sexy is being put into skin care.”

Masks, which can be displayed in a highly visual manner, are a case in point, with links to how-tos on the immediate horizon as well. Estée Lauder has high hopes for its metallic Advanced Night Repair PowerFoil Mask on social. “It is great to experiment on Instagram with a really visual skin-care product to gauge engagement versus [engagement from] an image of a serum or a cream,” says Geri Schachner, senior vice president of global communications at Estée Lauder.

For its part, later this year, Juice Beauty will launch a mask with a colored formula that contrasts with skin tones to make a skin-care statement on Instagram. To circumvent the issues skin-care posits, brands have honed in on featuring packaging—ingredients such as apples or roses, or symbols marketing like beakers or egg timers.

Because newness is a key driver on Instagram, companies are evolving their launch strategies accordingly. Some brands like Winky Lux introduce new products every three weeks to a month; others, like Urban Decay, introduce iterations of existing bestsellers, such as its Naked Smoky Palette. Taking a cue from Beyoncé’s surprise album, brands are also launching products on unexpected dates like Winky Lux’s product timed with the first snowfall in New York or ColourPop’s to celebrate a collaborator’s birthday.

New trends don’t occur as often as new products, but, when they do, they spur crazes on social media that savvy brands are cashing in on. “The brands that are going to win can capitalize quickly on a certain trend, whether it is through optimized content, a quick-thinking influencer mailing or repurposing products in their line to fit that trend,” says Julia Sloan, vice president of global communications and fashion relations at Nars.

Tarte, for example, jumped on the baking trend with its existing Smooth Operator Clay Finishing Powder and Maracuja Creaseless Concealer, which resulted in a 48 percent bump in concealer sales. When Benefit’s marketing department saw strobing emerge, they packaged together four legacy products in Strobe Your Ego kits and sent them to influencers. The brand’s Watt’s Up Cream-to-Powder Highlighter, included in the package, sold out on sephora.com. “To have a product that’s been around for four years sell out was massive,” says Claudia Allwood, U.S. digital marketing director for Benefit. “That was a lesson. We have to have our finger on the pulse of what’s coming next.”

Both retailers and brands are working harder to get the earliest possible reads on trends. At a gathering of YouTubers, three attendees had colored eyebrows. A month later, Winky Lux released Rainbow Brow Palette, a consistent bestseller that allows users to colorfully brighten their brows.

Ulta scours influencer content daily to detect looks or products that are being repeated and generating their own vocabulary. “Once people attach a name and a how-to to it, that’s when it starts being a trend. We know there’s a groundswell when there is user-generated content around it,” says Haus. Ulta is also working with manufacturers to shorten the nine to 12 months it takes to go from product idea to execution. “We are continually thinking about how Instagram and other social channels have created an immediacy and how do we keep up with that,” says Haus.

Social media is like bam, bam, bam,” says DeGroot. “If you’re not doing it tomorrow, you’re late.”

As user-generated content explodes, brands are ceding control of the flow of information. For the launch of its spring collection, Tarte opted for social media influencers to unveil the products before doing so itself. That strategy netted 20 million Instagram impressions prior to the collection being available for sale, leading to a growth rate of 80 percent for Tarte on Instagram and a 38 percent boost in engagement on the brand’s Instagram account.

Marketers are also improving on identifying the right influencers rather than the most prominent ones. “A brand might have a location in Boston they really want to pay attention to, and they find an influencer who has an audience there,” says Daniel Saynt, founder and ceo of influencer casting and creative agency Socialyte. “They are looking for a demo and audience to hit.”

Long-term deals with DeGroot and other influencers—six-month to two-year contracts—are escalating and the compensation can be eye-popping. Fashion blogger Kristina Bazan, who has 2.2 million Instagram followers, set a new bar by nabbing a reported seven-figure contract with L’Oréal in October. “For the proven influencers, brands are going to try to create long-term relationships,” says Kenn Henman, ceo and founder of uFluencer Group. “Instead of a one-off palette they will create a collection around an influencer. For the smaller influencers, they are going to still be one-offs.”

Going forward, brands hope Instagram and other social media platforms will make images shoppable. Instagram inched toward commerciality last year with the launch of new ad formats but advancements haven’t yet made social media a formidable vehicle for direct sales. During the most recent holiday season, the analytics firm Custora found that social media channels were responsible for a mere 1.8 percent of online sales. “Social media works more [to push] in-store purchasing because it is almost entirely the people who are really into the category that are on social in high numbers,” says Jetta of TABS.

The other challenge is staying ahead of the game. Much as Instagram exploded over the last 24 months, other platforms are gaining speed exponentially, particularly Snapchat and Periscope. Bullish on Periscope, Tarte chief marketing officer Candace Craig Bulishak says it’s ideal for education and live product demonstrations like painting swatches on skin. “People aren’t looking for that highly edited content any more,” she says. “They want to see relatable, raw content. It’s a departure from the highly edited videos and polished photographs we created in the past. Because of this idea of conversational marketing, it makes sense that the future of social is all about live-streaming and connecting with consumers in real time.”

Snapchat captures spontaneity, says Allwood, underscoring Instagram content is becoming curated and intentional. “Snapchat is for those silly moment-to-moment experiences that are fun to share, but aren’t worth crafting a clever caption, filter and requiring an elevated creative effort,” she says, noting unboxing has moved to Snapchat.

DeGroot, who had 1.3 million followers on Instagram as of press time, is spending more and more time on Snapchat. “It’s basically like texting your viewers,” she says. “I’ll ask them about products and what kind of video they’d like to see next. It makes it a lot easier to connect with them. People see who you really are on Snapchat because it’s so unedited.”

How to Attend a Sex Party Without Being an Asshole

Swinging has practically gone mainstream in recent years, as polyamorous relationships have become more visible then ever, millennials continue to put off marriage, and hook-up culture persists.

Entrepreneur Daniel Saynt saw an opportunity in the burgeoning sex-positive culture and created a members-only club for "legal adventures in sex, drugs, and mischief" called NSFW in 2015. Based in New York City, NSFW has 500 members and a five-story clubhouse in Williamsburg where it hosts a number of events and workshops, including a weekly sex party.

While Saynt said most sex parties still cater to "older crowds" of rich men, NSFW is kind of the Soho House of sex clubs, counting young, hot "influencers and creators" among its members. They pay $69 a month (naturally) to mingle in a sexy atmosphere and "play" with like-minded people.

"It's designed to be a place where there is no judgment and you have the freedom to express yourself sexually," Saynt said. "More and more millennials are thinking this way, and the idea of exchanging love more freely is becoming a bigger conversation."

Jacqui Rabkin, marketing director at Brooklyn-based club and event venue House of Yes, also said she's seen an increased interest in sex parties from the mainstream. The venue hosts a monthly, regularly sold-out "sensual theatre" party, which encourages "physically and emotionally intimate acts" among guests. While actual sex acts aren't allowed, guests are free to mingle with one another and "play."

"The party at House of Yes is a good introductory party for people interested in the scene," she said. "Things get sexy, but nothing is full on. So you can get a taste of the vibe and feel of a sex party in a low pressure situation."

With more sex parties like these popping up in major metropolitan areas, and websites like FetLife and other dating platforms making it easier for people anywhere in the world to organize their own meetups, more and more people are getting into the scene. And as newbies jump on the free-love bandwagon, Rabkin notes it's important they get the rules right on the way in. Here are some ways to have the most pleasurable sex party experience, whether it's your first or 50th.

Ask Before Touching

The most important rule for anybody attending a play-focused event is to ask for consent before touching anyone. Sex parties aren't like hitting the club, where strangers can just walk up and dance on one another without permission (in fact, you shouldn't be doing that either). To even join NSFW, members have to attend a class on enthusiastic consent called "How to Ask for Sex," which Saynt says focuses on switching the mentality from "no means no," to "yes means yes."

"There is a preeminent culture of how people act at clubs around the world where they think they can just come up to a girl and touch her," Saynt said. "When it comes to play parties, the stakes are so much more heightened. We have to educate people that they need to verbalize everything."

These questions don't have to be clinical, or unnatural, he stressed—a robotic "Are you OK with my hand on your leg?" isn't sexy or necessary. Instead, he encourages attendees to be flirty and clear, turning their negotiations of consent into foreplay.

"Ask, 'Do you like it when I ___?' when you want to introduce something new," their guide reads. "Throw in some dirty words, and it's hard to imagine that your partner's 'Yes!' won't be full throated and absolutely enthusiastic."

The vast majority of House of Yes parties aren't sexual: It hosts a regular funk night, daytime "deep house yoga" events, and circus-themed soirees—but sex positivity and creating a safe space for queer and non-white patrons is at the center of all of its work. The bottom of every event page and ticket confirmation carries a list of rules for creating a welcoming environment. "We are obsessed with CONSENT," it reads. "Always ASK before touching anyone in our House."

At both NSFW and House of Yes parties, monitors patrol the room to keep an eye out for grabby hands and to make sure everyone is feeling safe. Rabkin said another important component of enthusiastic consent is that it is an ongoing process and can be revoked at any time—just because your newfound partner is OK with being tied up doesn't mean she's ready for a whipping. And even if she says she is, she's free to decide at any moment she is not anymore. When your partners feel safe, the environment will be more fun—and sexier—for everyone.

Don't Be a Creeper

If you're attending a play party you should, well, actually play. "Other guests aren't there to put a show on for you, so don't just prey around active participants or interrupt their flow if they're in the motion of their ocean," Saynt said.

Rabkin said a costume requirement at House of Yes plays a big role in keeping out would-be voyeurs. "In general, people are better behaved at a party where everyone is wearing costumes," she said. "It just puts everyone on the same page and helps with the event atmosphere. If you've put in the effort to participate, you're less likely to show up as a spectator."

If you're too nervous to jump into sexy activities right away, most parties will have a common area to chat with other party goers. Whatever you do, don't stand around and stare like a weirdo while others get it on.

Bring a Friend

Avoiding the awkwardness of a first party is easier with a pal (or a sex partner) by your side. It's also safer. Many sexy parties require the buddy system, encouraging participants to sign up in groups of two or more. This ensures that you have a contact if you feel uncomfortable and someone to keep an eye on you and make sure you're safe.

Keep Up Basic Hygiene

The same rules that apply to a first date apply to a sex party: Take a shower, brush your teeth, floss, put on some deodorant. Basically, do everything else you would normally before going out to potentially snuggle up with a stranger (or a few).

Put Your Phone Away

This should be obvious, but most people don't want photos of themselves engaged in sex acts plastered all over the internet without their consent. Many parties have a strict no-phone policy, but even if they do not, your phone should stay in your pocket throughout the night. Photos should only be taken if the subjects, and everyone in the foreground and background, consent.

Be Positive and Keep an Open Mind

One of the more important aspects of affirmative consent is being OK with when somebody says no. "Accept that being at a play party doesn't mean everyone wants to play with you," Saynt said. "Acting like an ass nugget every time someone declines you will definitely get around and will most likely get you uninvited from future events."

Because of this, it's important to put yourself out there at these parties. The more frequently you ask, the more frequently your advances will be rejected (and accepted!), and it will become less painful to hear "no."

"People should be doing this anyway," Rabkin said. "It's good to practice in your regular life, and makes the whole process of getting consent in a sexy situation easier."

That's not the only lesson people can take from sex parties and apply to life, Rabkin said. The open-mindedness and respect she's found in the community has made it hard for her to return to "normal" clubs.

"It's amazing there are communities that are creating safe spaces for people to express themselves to the fullest extent," she said. "Whether that means expressing a certain sexual orientation or identity, or having sex with a lot of people, I think that's amazing. It's healthy and awesome and how the world should be."

Here's Why Consent In Gay Spaces Is Important

We all want to be loved and desired. But getting consent first from partners is an area many of us are still failing at understanding.

He was passed out on the floor. It was an afters to a weekly gay party for which Shoshana Fisher worked the door. Just coming back from the restroom, Fisher saw her friend passed out on the floor with a group of men trying to take his pants off.

“One of the guys I was with -- I was the only girl there, it was all dudes -- was doing [Ketamine], and he passed out on the floor. I went over to make sure he was fine and everyone said, ‘He’s fine. He’s just sleeping, let him sleep.’”

But Fisher says when she came back to check on her friend, the situation became concerning: “I came back a few minutes later and there were guys trying to take his pants off, while he was passed out in the middle of the floor, during the party.” Fisher pulled the men off of her friend, yelled at them, and took her friend to her home.

This isn’t the first time Fisher has intervened on issues of consent or sexual assault. Recently, Fisher made news for helping a female patron of a bar she worked at arrest and press charges against a man who had sexually assaulted her. But working at gay establishments can prove to be a bit trickier to identify and handle situations of consent than at straight ones.

“Consent is not something I thought about men giving before becoming friends with so many gay men. Society makes us all think that men all want sex no matter what, and that they’re such sexual beings that they always say yes to sex,” Fisher said. “Almost every single one of my gay friends has a story where they have not consented in some kind of sexual act. And almost every single one of them have a hard time admitting, or understanding, that they didn’t consent.”

Many men who are interested in men do not understand what consent is or that it is needed for sexual engagement. 

“Consent can be verbal or nonverbal and is the practice of knowing and confirming that your sexual partner is into what you've got planned,” said Daniel Saynt, a bisexual man and founder of NSFW, a Brooklyn-based private club and digital agency for the adventurous, connecting like-minded millennials with vice-category brands in sexual wellness and cannabis.  NSFW provides members legal adventures in sex, drugs, and mischief while hosting a digital agency for brands and "sinfluencers." Saynt gives workshops on consent prior to NSFW’s playdates. “Nonverbal consent focuses on signals which suggest your partner is down to clown. It's implied versus verbalized and can be a gray zone of uncertainty if you're approaching someone who isn't already a trusted partner,” Saynt defined consent as something that can be given, and taken away, at any point during sexual activity.

“Verbal or enthusiastic consent is the practice getting confirmation before engaging in any sexual activity,” Saynt said. “It's respect for boundaries and the desire to ensure you're not doing anything that makes your partner uncomfortable or that they fully want to enjoy and engage in.”

While conducting interviews for this piece, I spoke to almost two dozen gay and bisexual men who have had their consent violated. The men expressed instances in which they lost bodily autonomy at gay bars and nightclubs, as well as at LGBTQ social gatherings. These men shared times other men have grabbed their genitalia over and under their clothing without consent. A violation of consent is sexual assault.

Sean was unable to give consent when a guy took him home. After dancing at a bar, and having too much to drink, he found himself the next morning in a stranger's bed.

“He’s not someone I would typically go home with so it was odd waking up to him the next morning. I don’t remember talking to him at the bar or going home with him. I don’t remember having sex with him, but it was clear we did. I left the next morning as quickly as I could without speaking to him,” Sean said.

According to the CDC, 26 percent of gay men, and 37 percent of bisexual men will experience rape, physical assault, or other types of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Another 40 percent of gay men, and 47 percent of bisexual men will experience other types of sexual violence other than rape.  

Casey is one of 26 percent of gay men who have been raped.

“When I get home, I unlocked my door, and all of a sudden a man rushed behind me, put me in a submission hold, and pushed me into my apartment. He pushed me onto my bed, forcing my face into the pillow. He continued to do his business and when he was done, he left. I never saw his face,” Casey recounted his experience sharing his rape has shaped his view around consent.

Being grabbed unsolicitedly can be triggering for men who have been sexually assaulted. “A lot of times, even in LGBTQ spaces where I’m supposed to feel safe being gay, I don’t feel safe because I feel like a piece of meat and people can just touch me whenever they want and that’s not OK,” Casey said.

So what does consent look like? It can look really sexy. “Let’s say I saw a guy at a circuit party or underwear party. I wouldn't just go up to that guy and grab his cock, expecting him to be down. I'd dance with him a bit, or offer to grab him a drink. I'd talk to him and whisper things like ‘I really want to play with that fat monster in that jock. Would you like that?’,” Saynt offered this example on enthusiastic consent in gay spaces. “It's confirming that interest verbally, acquiring consent, and then proceeding to ask for other things, [such as] ‘Come with me to the corner. I want to taste you.’ Consent looks like getting what you want sexually by expressing it and waiting for some enthusiastic agreement if your partner is into it.”

Editor's note: Last name’s were removed for all individuals who spoke about their experiences of sexual assault for their own safety and privacy.