He sees himself as a facilitator, though, not an influencer. “Sometimes the members do come to me for personal advice,” Ryan tells me later by email. “When that happens, my support is acutely focused on listening intently and helping them to identify the questions that will guide them towards an answer that feels right to them.”
He has good intentions, but I’m afraid this community could devolve into something unhealthy. The way he acts reminds me of advice I once heard about taking LSD: Once you get back from your acid trip, you need to integrate back into society, no matter what enlightened knowledge you’ve attained. You’ve seen the way the world should be, but you shouldn’t expect the world to change for you. Ryan expects the world to change for him and Pure House members.
My weekend at Pure House could have ended there, but there was one more event that night that I had been looking forward to: the Collective Sex storytelling potluck.
My partner and I show up after 7 p.m. to The Kitchen. The den downstairs is completely full of people sitting on every available surface. Jane announces that this is a safe space and demonstrates the preferred communication system: snapping instead of clapping, rubbing and thumping our chests, and humming if we like what we hear. As the women (and one man) get up to share their stories of dating, sex, mental illness, and polyamory, the room is filled with humming and thumping. A camera is set up to record all the stories, which will go online. In-between stories, we are urged to give the people around us consensual massages.
Most stories are powerful, brave, and touching. One woman describes how Joni Mitchell’s Blue became the soundtrack for her deep depression, and how she eventually pulled herself out of it. Another says what she would tell her five-year-old self, covered in flour because she wanted to be white, about beauty and strength. But one woman’s story leaves me disturbed and worried for her. Without going into too much detail, it's incoherent, full of the type of behavior that you normally see from people in the throes of a manic episode. At the end, I'm waiting for her to acknowledge the fact that her behavior in the story is out of the ordinary, but she doesn't. She just ends the story to tepid snaps. It is so un-self-aware, like a real-life version of those exploitative “It Happened to Me” essays. The snaps for her are tepid. Afterward, I talk to Zach and he tells me she told the same story at the last salon. “That one gets me a little weirded also,” he says. “Hey, it's all about acceptance, right?” I wonder why nobody has offered her feedback, and who told her that her story should be shared with 40 strangers. Maybe because we’re not allowed to be judgmental, and therefore, helpful critique is not allowed either.
The time has come for Jane’s story, which Ryan has been teasing as something very big and personal. Ryan gets up to make an announcement. “This is a sacred space,” he says. “Please do not get up and leave during someone’s story. It’s disrespectful.” At that moment, a man decides to leave, and knocks over some glasses, causing a racket. Everyone laughs good-naturedly as he fumbles up the stairs in embarrassment. But when I turn back to Ryan, I find him staring fixedly at the man’s retreating feet, jaw clenched. “I’m serious,” he says. “This is a sacred space, and I am requesting that you respect it while you are here.” The room goes quiet.
Jane tells the story of her abortion, and I am left both weeping and scratching my head as I try to understand some of her alternative vocabulary. What does it mean that your child must be made of stardust?
At the end of the storytelling, everyone is split into groups of four to talk about what they had heard. Madi, a pretty, bright-eyed 23-year-old, is in my group. She just moved from Nashville after breaking up with her partner, and though she isn’t living in Pure House, she considers it her real home and talks about the community it provides with the fervor of a recent convert. She’s been attending Collective Sex sessions. “I’m not ready to tell a story yet,” she says. “But I am in awe of these women.”
Maybe it’s best that I didn’t get involved in a place like Pure House right after college. It feels like the current of this community can push you far out into a dangerous sea of vague, sparkly vocabulary and non-judgment verging on enabling. The friends I’ve made in the six years I’ve lived in NYC range from self-described bougie girls who work in marketing to queer creatives, but they all love and support me and my choices. I also know they could call, and have called, me on my bullshit, and that grounding has kept me kind, happy, and high-functioning.
Then, it occurs to me: Maybe I’m making my friends uncomfortable. They’re just trying to live their lives, make rent, and fall in love, and I’m over here like, “My open relationship is great! I walked around topless at Burning Man! Warehouse parties are awesome! LSD is therapeutic!” Maybe they’re nodding and smiling, and then making a mental note to avoid me lest I drag them into a 'shroom-fueled techno orgy. If that is true, then I need to reexamine my life.
We are supposed to share our feelings with the group. If I were to share my true feelings, I would say, “What the fuck happened in that girl's story?!” Or, “I would really, really like to leave now.” Instead, I am thinking about how to translate my thoughts into the language of spirituality and sex-positivity when three people turn to me expectantly.
“I am sitting in my discomfort,” I carefully say. And they seem to be satisfied with that answer.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included additional identifying details of one of the stories told at Collective Sex. These have been omitted, and certain names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.