Secret Garden Party: Are you ready for a sex-positive festival?

·6-min read
Off with a bang: Secret Garden Party returns for the first time since 2016  (Andrew Whitton)
Off with a bang: Secret Garden Party returns for the first time since 2016 (Andrew Whitton)

We know hedonism is back — in so much as no one wants to work and everyone’s started smoking again — but group-sex-at-a-festival levels of debauchery? Turns out that yes, we have been that starved of turpitude. Tomorrow, Secret Garden Party is set to return for a 20th-anniversary outing after a five-year hiatus. And with the inclusion of outfits such as the east London queer rave, Crossbreed and international party organisers He.She.They (both of whom are taking over parts of the festival), it has even earned a spot at the forefront of the sex positivity revolution that’s been transforming British club culture in the post-pandemic era.

“We were never sex negative, to be fair,” says Freddie Fellowes, the 44-year-old Old Etonian who founded Secret Garden Party “by accident” in 2002 on a plot of his parents’ land in Cambridgeshire. “People can expect a good classic Garden Party, with all the old fun and games, the hidden stuff, all the freedoms and liberties we’ve always afforded them. We want them to have as much fun as possible.” And true to the naked mud wrestling spirit it was founded in (naked mud wrestling being a signature SGP activity), for its first year back, fun means orgies (well, the theme is ‘All You Need Is Love’).

Cult London club night Crossbreed (who will take over an area with space for 700 festival-goers to dance, drink, hang out and, yes, have sex if they fancy it) has, in particular, earned itself a reputation for full-on, hardcore hedonism since it was founded in 2019 by DJ Alex Warren (aka Kiwi). Warren has always contended that Crossbreed is more rave than sex party, though the sex is a key element — and arguably the thing that has made it such a refreshing addition to London’s nightlife offering (its Sunday residency at Colour Factory in Hackney Wick is generally a sellout).

Feel the free love: Secret Garden Party founder Freddie Fellowes says he wants attendees to “have as much fun as possible” (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Feel the free love: Secret Garden Party founder Freddie Fellowes says he wants attendees to “have as much fun as possible” (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“Our area of the festival,” explains Warren, “has a wellness sanctuary, a playroom [a breakout area for sex], a nightclub; we’ve got our own bar and garden, our own toilet and shower facilities and we may even have a sauna — which we’re working on at the moment.” The collaboration came about after, Fellowes explains, “someone else we worked with said, ‘You’ve got to get in touch with these guys. They do the coolest parties in England at the moment,’ which was a pretty strong recommendation.” When Fellowes initially approached with the idea of a Crossbreed stage at the festival, though, Warren dismissed it out of hand. The problem, it turns out, was one of logistics rather than any difference in ethos.

Alex Warren is the founder of Crossbreed (Alex Warren)
Alex Warren is the founder of Crossbreed (Alex Warren)

Basically, hosting a sex rave means having staff who are trained in how to deal with naked revellers, who might be experimenting for the first time. Beyond the obvious rules — be respectful of others, don’t be weird — which staff are trained to look out for and enforce, it’s a situation that can make even the hardiest of hedonists feel vulnerable. Warren has worked with his team of armband wearers (you can spot a Crossbreed staff member by their light-up armbands) on everything from body language and respecting personal space to knowing how to deal with breaches of consent. “Any problems we’ve encountered in the past have been because of security staff who weren’t trained by us,” says Warren. In the end, it was agreed that the only way it could work is if the Crossbreed takeover was wholehearted. So once festivalgoers enter that area, they will be fully immersed within the world of Crossbreed. “Obviously, though, this is all quite new — a first for us, and for the festival — so we’re going to see how it goes.”

Indeed, having well-trained support staff doesn’t necessarily ensure smooth sailing (or, er, swinging). “At our parties in London people tend to arrive sober and take a calm, slow approach to engaging with the space — I think that might be quite hard to foster at a festival,” says Warren. Crossbreed is also a dedicated queer space; “Secret Garden Party is going to be awash with straight people — but we are keen to make this a safe space for queer individuals.” This means festivalgoers will need to bypass security, who are taking a proactive queer-first approach to who they let in. There’s also the issue of dress code. Crossbreed attendees are expected to ‘serve a look’ — “if you can get on a bus and not have everyone turn their head in shock, then you’re not going to get in,” explains Warren. They plan to enforce this at the festival too. This basically means kink and fetish wear — latex, mesh, lace and chains — although, as Warren points out, “it doesn’t mean someone has to spend loads of money on a fetish outfit, they just need to have made an effort.” Warren recommends festivalgoers visit the Crossbreed website.

Julian is one of Crossbreed’s specially trained ‘armband wearers’ (Crossbreed / Evening Standard)
Julian is one of Crossbreed’s specially trained ‘armband wearers’ (Crossbreed / Evening Standard)

Taking over another site of the festival — and on a different part of the sex positivity spectrum — is He.She.They, the night co-founded by Steven Braines and Sophia Kearney in 2018. Over the past four years they’ve been pioneering the kind of inclusive, arts-focused, queer-friendly (“everyone-friendly,” corrects Braines), dancefloor experiences which have made them one of the hottest tickets on the international party circuit (after SGP, for instance, they’re curating three events at the 5000-capacity Ibiza clubbing mecca, Amnesia). At Secret Garden Party they’ll be looking after a 1500-capacity area.

‘Anything goes’: Sophia Kearney and Steven Braines will curate The Naughty Corner at Secret Garden Party (Handout)
‘Anything goes’: Sophia Kearney and Steven Braines will curate The Naughty Corner at Secret Garden Party (Handout)

Expect drag performances, plus size exotic dancers and a crowd who aren’t afraid of fetishwear. “One of our tag lines is ‘experimentation is encouraged’,” says Kearney. Their area will be called The Naughty Corner. How naughty could it get? “We’re very ‘anything goes’,” laughs Braines. “If you want to come in a little harness and get naughty, that’s all good — as long as everything’s consensual.” Braines and Kearney point out that they don’t have an actual playroom, though — in fact, Braines himself isn’t sure about group sex in a festival environment. “After three days at a festival I wouldn’t be in any fit state.” Perhaps he’s got a point — three days sleeping in a field might take the shine off the idea of free love.

Get freaky: expect plenty of fetishwear on display this year (Sam Eye Am)
Get freaky: expect plenty of fetishwear on display this year (Sam Eye Am)

This year is perhaps going to be something of a rehabilitation for Secret Garden Party. At the time of its last outing in 2017, lots of people had written it off as a festival for poshos (as one friend puts it “at Secret Garden Party, if you said your last name was Hunter people assumed you were a wellie heiress”). This year’s 20,000 tickets sold out in record time (though a limited number are available on ticket swap sites). DJ and broadcaster Georgie Rogers says it was never really about the music: “It’s more about the experiences you have along the way.” These included comedy shows, secret sets and now safe spaces for sex.

Unlike many other festivals, they’re not underwritten by a big brand, which is perhaps what has let them play with the rules of propriety. Fellowes says this year might be a one-off — “though if it goes well, we’ll come back.”

A regular sex-friendly festival on the summer circuit? See you in the orgy.

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