Interview with the (original) Vampire

jefferson currentWhen a caravan of us sex-party-going types were en route to a day at the beach last summer, my friend Ken started talking about who brought whom into the scene and how we all got to our first party. He referred to it as “who sired whom” (I love me a good vampire reference!) When we all told our individual stories, we saw that all roads led back to Jefferson—a friend of ours in the New York kink community who had started this particular string of parties some 10 years ago, before they moved to another friend’s lavish house in Bushwick.

He was the original vampire, who (figuratively or literally) bit the necks of other curious kinksters, exhibitionists and experience junkies that were interested in exploring their sexualities. Those newly anointed kindred of kink went on to beckon others into the scene, like my friend Andrew did when he invited me to one of his parties three years ago, after I had met him at Burning Man. The parties had moved to Andrew’s house from Jefferson’s at that point.

Jefferson, 49, often describes himself as having grown up a bisexual kid, suspicious of monogamy, who later gave up his sexual proclivities for the woman he loved. After 15 years of marriage and three children, his wife filed for divorce over a spat, at which point Jefferson returned to kink and began writing about it on One Life, Take Two, a sex blog, penned under the Jefferson pseudonym, that details his experience as a parent and pervert.

Between the blog, his bisexual tendencies, orgies, sex education classes, sexy story telling nights and various other BDSM-related endeavors, he might appear quite eclectic to the average person, but if you had met him some 10-15 years ago, you would’ve encountered a regular guy with a wife and three kids, who lived and worked in the suburbs, drove a Buick and led a fairly normal life. And unlike many other people on the BDSM scene, who are often proud to say that they threw their traditional lives away to pursue kink and sex exploration, Jefferson always admits that he didn’t want to get divorced and speaks of his marriage with a certain fondness… and… sadness, even. He was glad to have had the experience of a faithful husband and doting father, and is now on to the next act of his life.

His ex-wife later discovered his blog (it became popular quickly and was reviewed in a few mainstream publications at the time) and tried to sue him for sole custody of their children. But she lost the custody battle and, in frustration, outed Jefferson to his family (traditional folk from Birmingham, Alabama) They didn’t bat an eye. Jefferson once told this tale at one of his storytelling nights and said that when his parents found out, his father just said, “Well, I’m glad he’s having fun,” and his mother added, “I always knew Jefferson was a good writer.”

Although he has completely cut ties with his ex-wife, he still sees his kids often and is very involved in their lives. They are now 13, 16 and 19, and he has another 25-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

After getting divorced at the age of 39, he was intent on avoiding committed relationships, though he has spent the last five years seriously dating his girlfriend, Kay, who is 21 years his junior. They still see other people and the relationship occasionally gets strained by their attachments to other partners, but they’ve managed to pull through so far. Jefferson says that even though he didn’t plan on a committed relationship, this one just happened to work well day in and day out.

In the ten years after his divorce, Jefferson has become something of a vamp of all trades. In addition to his professional experience in curating museums (including the opening of the Museum of Sex in New York) and writing art criticism, he hosts story telling shows (à la NPR’s The Moth, but based on topics of sex, desire and romance), teaches sex classes and participates in a variety of kink/BDSM events around the country. He recently began taking his Bare and Spill shows on the road to other cities (Boston, D.C., etc.) and I now often jokingly call him “kinkster on wheels.” Not too shabby, following a particularly gruesome divorce and a drawn-out public custody battle.

One of his mottos is: “If the scene you want doesn’t exist, it’s incumbent upon you to create it.” And so he keeps creating and re-creating his world as he sees fit at any given time. He often talks about hosting orgies the way he talks about curating an art show: you can’t overcrowd the space, like you can’t overcrowd a museum wall; all the right elements have to be in place, and they have to jibe with one another – they have to somehow connect. I recently picked his brain about his various ventures over oysters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here are some tidbits from that conversation.

A: Tell me about the divorce…

Jefferson: We had been together for 15 years, we had a house in the suburbs, we had a Buick, we had three kids, we had a cat. I got an offer to write an article for The New York Times about an art show that was opening on the Persian Gulf. It necessitated going there in 2003, when coalition forces were invading Iraq. My wife told me I couldn’t do this. I said it was really good for my career and it would be the first time I was writing for The New York Times. But she told me in very strong terms that if I did this thing, we were finished. But “we were finished” was always her go-to place whenever we had a fight.

I wound up going and writing this article and I thought she’d get over it. But for the next 4-5 months, she didn’t speak to me at all. We were raising three small children and she was sleeping on the couch and refusing to talk to me. I moved out, at her family’s recommendation, thinking she’d cool off and we’d get back together. That’s when I started having these underwear parties at an art gallery. This led to my first orgy and I was thinking, this is going to end and we’re going to get back together, but then she served me with the divorce papers.

A: Why did she sue for custody of the kids?

Jefferson: I think she had “divorce fantasy.” In divorce fantasy, she takes me to court, tells the judge what an asshole her ex-husband is, and the judge is hammering the gavel and saying, “You, Sir, are an asshole! You are to be punished, you can’t be with the kids, you have to pay every expense ever,” and thus she is completely vindicated. But in truth, divorce doesn’t work this way.

I knew that if she found out about my sex life, which I was publicizing in my blog, she’d sue me for custody of the kids. So in March 2008, TimeOut New York wrote an article about my blog and she read it and figured out it was me and sued for custody. She spent a quarter of a million dollars trying to make this happen, and it didn’t. New York State is just not interested in my sex life.

A: What does your sex life have to do with custody of the kids?

Jefferson: Well, it’s shocking. If you can create a scandal around something, you can help turn the direction of that scandal your way. But scandals are very hard ships to navigate, they don’t always go the way you want, and just because you become public about something doesn’t mean that the publicity is going to work your way. It’s a gamble.

So over the course of the custody case, she told the children about my blog, about my sex life. And she would eventually tell my birth family, including my 86-year-old grandmother. I think she hoped that these people would hate me because I have an interesting sex life. I have orgies, therefore my eight-year-old daughter shouldn’t love me anymore. But the people who love you, love you. A mother tells her eight-year-old, “Dad has orgies.” What does the child think? She also thinks I’m the guy who makes banana pancakes on Sunday morning, so that guy, dad, is not a terrible person.

When she outed me to my family, she was expecting they’d say, “Oh you poor aggrieved person, you are so fortunate to be rid of that asshole, our son.” She outed me to everyone I was concerned about being outed to. So now everybody knows that I go to orgies and that I’m into BDSM and that I’m bisexual, and nobody cares.

A: How have you balanced your Jefferson persona and seeing your children?

Jefferson: I think creating a secret identity while you have joint custody kind of creates an understandable division in your life. That’s why my blog is called One Life, Take Two. In some respects, I’m entering into a new act in my life, but also I suddenly went from living one life to having two. So I decided that when I’d spend time with my kids, they wouldn’t meet anybody I was dating. As far as my kids were concerned, I was not seeing anybody. I was completely asexual, which was appropriate for their ages at the time. And when they were away, I could do whatever I wanted: I could have orgies; I could date people. That helped solidify the establishment of these two different identities of the same person.

An old photo by Aaron Cobbett (you see the vampire resemblance now, dontcha?)

An old photo by Aaron Cobbett (you see the vampire resemblance now, dontcha?)

A: When did you start having orgies?

Jefferson: I have a pre-history with it. I went to a fine arts high school and the family had a pool in the back yard. With the combination of those two things and beer, I was having group sex in high school. Friends would come over and we created these situations in which sex would happen in a group context back then. I did this through high school and into college, until I got married.

After we divorced, I started throwing underwear parties at an art gallery. It was in Greenpoint at a former pencil factory. I knew the owner very well and he wanted people to come socialize in the bar and see the art and do readings. I said to him that we could have a party where people would bring sketchpads and draw nude models and have a dance party afterwards. The rule was that if you stripped to your underwear, you got in for $5 and if you wanted to come clothed, it was $100. Of course, everyone did the former.

A lot of folks came and it was a really good time. The first night I did it, they had to kick us out by 2 a.m. As everybody was putting their clothes back on, I talked to this couple with whom I had been dancing. The woman said, “I wish we could go someplace and be naked again,” I said, “Well, we can go to my apartment.” So a lot of us went to my place and that became the first party I threw. The woman in that couple was the first woman I slept with after the end of my marriage and I wound up dating the two of them. They said, “If you want to keep doing this, we can keep doing this, we know a lot of people, we can start putting together a party.”

So that’s how it all began in August 2003. We started having this bi-friendly party. I had no interest in going to swingers clubs, I really didn’t like the attitude or the double standards they have about bisexuality. That women, no matter what their orientation, are expected to be bisexual and men, no matter what their orientation, aren’t allowed to be. They were very conservative places, plus you had to pay around $120 to get in. Rejecting that model, I started doing these parties instead on a bi-weekly basis on Tuesday nights.

Then I branched out. I went to an all-male orgy. It was at a studio apartment, so I offered my place as an alternative. We started doing that every month at my place. Then I met someone who was doing black and Latino couples parties. We talked and I began to host that party once a month, too. This, to me, was fantastic because I’m not black, I’m not Latin and I’m not in a couple, yet I’m helping to host a black/Latin couples party and it was hugely successful. I always had a good time because I didn’t have to do much to set it up and I got laid like crazy. If you want to get laid at a party, be distinctive. As the only white guy, all the women wanted to get with me.

A: What do you think makes for a good orgy?

Jefferson:  A good orgy should be an orgy you would want to go to. I can organize an orgy for somebody else and have it be something I don’t particularly want to go to. But it should be something you are enthusiastic about. At the same time, it has to have certain key elements that should be universal. It should be, like any party, well curated. You should have people there that you’ve thought about having in the same space that’d get along. You would do this with any cocktail party. You should make sure the space is safe, so everyone feels comfortable doing things there. And you should have certain rules in place: no cameras, everybody is vetted by the host, that way you know what you’re getting into. Maybe you’ll meet somebody you like, maybe you won’t, but you’ll feel comfortable taking your clothes off and rest assured that it’s not going to get back to your job. Make sure you have safe sex supplies everywhere. Figure out your party’s attitude toward substances: Do you have alcohol available? Do you have a tolerance for drugs or not? You want to have a firm attitude about gender ratios?

Is it a couples-only party? That’s one way to go. I personally have never wanted to throw couples-only parties because, for a great majority of the time I was organizing parties, I wasn’t in a couple and I wanted to have a party where single people could go and not feel like they needed to get a date. A couples-only party perpetuates certain inequities from swinger parties that I don’t like. Because it basically assumes that if you’re a single male, you have no worth and if you’re a single female, your gender is a valuable commodity. To me that’s maliciousness of the worst sort.

Like any party, it should strive to have a good comfortable vibe to make everything else possible.

A: What do you like about hosting, or attending, sex parties?

Jefferson: I like socializing with people in an environment where sex is possible. I don’t think I’ve ever picked up anyone in a bar or ever been picked up in a bar. I like going to a party where sex is sort of on the table and you can talk to anybody about anything. Sitting in a hot tub naked with somebody and talking about art when you might fuck within ten minutes is so much more satisfying than going to a bar where you might be talking about art, but you have to talk about sex to open the subject up. It’s far more comfortable for me. There is nothing hotter than somebody at a party saying, “Would you like to fuck or do you want another drink?” I love that.

A: Do you consider yourself to be polyamorous?

Jefferson: I’m not that interested in labels. I have been promiscuous, and slutty, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes with maintaining multiple relationships, but polyamory? There was no such thing.

When I was a teenager and having sex with my friends, the word polyamory didn’t even exist, so I didn’t identify as such. It was just that: I like my friends and I like having sex with my friends and that’s awesome.

For me as an adult, coming into that word is like signing on to a political party. There are so many people trying to define what it is and what it isn’t. When people sit around and talk about their contracts in polyamory, I don’t even know what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s like, what does your contract allow you to do? Who’s your primary? Who’s your secondary? The language doesn’t appeal to me at all. Contracts in my relationships? I did that once, I got married. That’s monogamy. I don’t recommend it for myself, though I hear it works well for other people. My primary? My secondary? You mean I’m supposed to take my relationships and grade them? No, thank you. I take all my relationships seriously, from the people I work with to the people I have coffee with to the person I’m in love with.

But as for the efficacy of labels, one really changed my life. When I was a teenager and first having sex with girls and boys, I hadn’t heard the word bisexual. I finally heard it when I was listening to Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World album. I was listening to it with a friend and I kind of smartly said, “You know David Bowie is gay,” and he said, “No he’s not, he’s bisexual.” And I replied, “What does that word even mean?” And he said, “Well, he has sex with both boys and girls.” And a light bulb went off in my head: “Oh my God, I’m not a freak, I’m like David Bowie!” That label was actually very helpful to me in determining my own sexuality. I knew I wasn’t gay because I had sex with women. But I knew I wasn’t purely straight either.

A: So what’s the structure of your relationship with your girlfriend?

Jefferson: My relationship with Kay has been really serious for a long time. One of the things that work best for me in this relationship is that I have an honesty fetish. The more honest I can be with somebody, the happier I am, and it’ll positively impact the whole relationship. If I have to be guarded, it’ll have the opposite effect. And in Kay, I found somebody I could be very honest with from the start. I met her through my blog. Her first party was with me. She knew all along what she was getting into and that just made me really comfortable. She’s read everything on my blog. It’s all right there. And that attracted her to me.

A: Do you have any rules between the two of you?

Jefferson: I will glibly say that if she’s having sex, I’d prefer to be there to see it. And she’d probably agree.

As we pursue it over the years, we’ve found that our natures aren’t exactly the same. I’m always open to meeting new people. People meet me through my blog and through storytelling and various other activities and I like going on dates.

Kay is far more likely to meet a man from our circles. She feels safe with that guy, because she gets to know him and he already knows who she is and that she does this kind of thing. He knows that she’s in a relationship with me. She will tend to date the same guy for as long as that lasts. So she’s more likely to have a rich relationship with a man other than me. She’s far less likely to slut it up the way I do.

A: Are you committed to your relationship with her?

Jefferson: I’m committed to all my relationships! Still, I think Kay and I have something great going on. I’m really happy with it. Mostly because we try to understand each other and to work out what it means to be in an open relationship. Primarily because in the day-to-day domesticity of life and love, we get along famously. A lot of people talk about polyamory and what your sexual contract is. For me, the bigger question is: What’s for dinner? That question is the bedrock of any relationship. It’s not about where your dick goes every day, it’s more about how well you take care of each other and what it is you want next. And, for me, that’s encapsulated in “What’s for dinner?” The day-to-day stuff of any relationship is meeting each of your daily needs. It doesn’t matter if you’re monogamous or polyamorous.

But we were just talking about labels. There was a time, not that long ago, where people grabbed onto the idea of swinging and that “lifestyle” as the best way to express an open relationship: people might be in a couple and have sexual relations with other people. That attitude worked for a while. Then there came a time when people said, “Well, I’m not a swinger, I’m polyamorous.” Now comes this time, where the smart set avow, “Ugh, swingers, I hate swingers! I’m poly!”

A: What do you think the difference is?

Jefferson: I think the difference is generational. In some respects, people look at what happened in the swinger generation and say, “I don’t think that’s what I am.” Or “I want to distance myself from that and get into this.” It’s as relevant as saying, “I don’t want to wear a polyester suit, I prefer plaid in Williamsburg.” It’s another fashion. Another way of expressing it. And these days, certainly polyamorous smart coexists with swinger tacky, but we’re all talking about the same thing, one way or another. We’re solving the same problem in different ways. So for one generation to identify itself against the other, it’s like punk rock saying they’re not Led Zeppelin. Most people outside these subcultures can scarcely detect a difference between them.

A: I think polyamory implies having multiple serious relationships, whereas the other labels imply having one serious relationship and just having sex with other people on the side…

Jefferson: How does polyamory wind up with a moral superiority of saying, because I have a serious relationship with three people and am fucking other people on the side, it’s somehow a better/smarter attitude than “I’m going to a swinger party with my spouse and we’re going to fool around with other people?” I don’t know if it’s all that different, really. Part of the problem I have with the culture of polyamory is its assumed moral superiority: this is how it’s done, you read this book, you approach it this way, you have a contract, you have a primary and a secondary and you’re on good moral ground and you’re healthy, as opposed to a perceived superficiality about traditional swinging. They are more similar than dissimilar.

In my view, the mistake in polyamory is that it tries so hard to model itself on monogamy, which doesn’t interest me very much, or seem a particularly radical position. I think monogamy is great for some people. I was able to do it for a very long time. It’s not my nature, but I can do it. I can also be in a polyamorous relationship where I have a primary and a secondary and a contract around everything, but what if I were free to do what’s natural for me and to be honest with my partners? Is there a word for that?

(Editor’s Note: We later joked that we should find the word/label for the next open relationship movement and then scoff at it because we hate labels).

A: Do you think you’ll get married again?

Jefferson: I haven’t closed the door on that. I think anything is possible. I’m not averse to marriage. I think it’s great when people do marry; I’m very supportive of it. I don’t feel the expectation that I should marry as I did when I was younger. It’s not like I need to get married to have other things happen or to have children. It’s an interesting thing, entering into all this in middle age. I have all those things behind me, or with me. I know now that if I did it again, it’d be because I wanted to. I can certainly see getting older and the idea of companion love being attractive. Having someone there that you always want to be with is, to me, the greatest attraction to another marriage.

A: Can you tell me about your background in museum curating?

Jefferson: In my professional life, I’ve been a museum curator since grad school. I majored in art history at Columbia University and, prior to that, I went to a fine arts high school and then went to an arts college for my BFA.

I came to do it the way I came to do a lot of things. I didn’t know what a museum curator was, so I didn’t know how to get to that thing, nor that I even wanted to be it. The first show I curated came about when I had an idea for a show that needed to be done and someone needed to do it. That someone proved to be me, so I learned to curate on the go. It’s like anything else – you learn it by doing it. If you figure out that something needs to be done and you’re the person to do it, you will figure out the details and you will find people who can help you.

A: When did you get into storytelling?

Jefferson: Three years ago. My friend Lori had been talking about The Moth, and she played a podcast on one of our dates. It was a really good story. She said, “I’m thinking about doing it, I’m thinking about telling a story at The Moth!” A bunch of us went. She got up, she told a story about a date with me. It was sexy and dirty and funny; she told it in five minutes and won that night. The audience loved her and The Moth picked up her story for the podcast. I thought, this is so easy, look what Lori just did! So I decided to try it.

I started going to The Moth and the first time I got up, I went too long (there is a five-minute time limit on stories). The second time I went up, I kind of bombed and failed to connect with the audience. And I thought: this is harder than it looks. Part of the issue was that I decided to do it as Jefferson and talking about a crazy thing that happened at an orgy didn’t really connect with an NPR crowd. A good story can’t just be some weird experience you had. A good storyteller can get you onto a battlefield or a surgery table and make you feel like you’re that soldier or surgeon. I had to get them to a place where they could identify with a guy who goes to orgies; someone who does things that they don’t normally do, and think, “I get what that’s like,” or “I understand where that story is going.”

A: How did you get into teaching sex classes?

Jefferson: I started going to Dark Odyssey events in 2005 and really enjoyed the culture and the atmosphere. Getting to meet people and share experiences was great. It’s kind of like doing storytelling. You put a bunch of people on stage and they share a bunch of experiences, and you go home and say to your partner, “Have you ever thought about this? Maybe we could try it out!”

At sex events, people teach skillsets, like how to do a rope suspension. You’re not going to know that unless somebody teaches you, but they also do relationship classes. It’s about bringing up various experiences to help other people. The kind of stuff we do at storytelling shows or at sex events is not water cooler conversation; it’s not anything people would hear about otherwise. By and large, we’re all out there trying to help ourselves. If reading a blog or hearing a story or taking a class helps you do it better, then that’s great. I want to be a part of that culture.

If you look at the world and say, no one is doing this thing I care about, then you should start doing it. If you look around and think, “Why aren’t people talking about this thing or doing that? I’ll do it, until someone else comes along and does it better.” That’s a great way to approach things. It makes everything else happen.

A: Do you prefer One Life, Take One or One Life, Take Two better?

Jefferson: My marriage wasn’t great, but I liked being a husband and I loved being a young father with three kids, pushing strollers around and going to the park. It was probably the best time of my life.

My first daughter was born when I was 24 and in college. My ex-wife and I began to have children on purpose when I was 29 and she was 30. So I spent my 30s changing diapers and thinking about elementary schools and really treasuring it. I still love the company of small children. There was a time in my life where I felt like all my best friends were 10-year-old girls because my youngest daughter had so many friends. I had the rare privilege of hanging out with them and hearing what they were talking about. There are so many worlds that open up to you when you’re a parent that wouldn’t otherwise.

For me, spending time with young children and babies was a constant in my life. I love them as adults, but I miss having them as kids. That said, I spent most of last Christmas with my oldest daughter, who is 25. Hanging out with her as an adult is awesome. We were going to bars together; we were listening to bands together; we were comparing notes about adult things. She’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met.

I like both lives. The longer you live, the more fortunate you are to have different epochs in your life. In the present, anything is possible. Right now it seems anything I dream, I can make it happen. Or fail to make it happen and try again. I like that.