Pick-up Play and Feeling Special

Recently, someone wrote me about navigating pick-up play, and navigating whether the kink community could offer what they are looking for. That when we have what is called “pick-up play,” it can feel meaningless for some people if that person they played with barely remembers them afterwards. Pick-up play is where two (or more) people who are not in relationship with one another agree, often once already at an event or party. That person may be someone they just met, or someone they have talked with or even flirted with, or even a friend who they have never played with.

Human Vending MachineFor me it echoed my experience of what I call the “vending machine” effect. Someone wants to put in their dollar and get a snack, de-humanizing the experience of their play partner. Or, as another friend calls it, the “Rack em’ and smack em” effect. This can hurt for many people, and over the years I’ve decided its rarely for me, especially when it comes to tying people up.

When people ask me if they could do rope with me, I now have a response after years of tumbling over my own experiences of feeling used. I ask whether they want to do rope, do something with me, or specifically do rope with me. If they say the last one, I ask why, and see if the reason they are looking for is a good fit for where I am feeling, and then weigh out my own feelings of whether this internally can or will feel like a fair energetic exchange (FEE). As Del Tashlin explain, when they told me about FEE, its about feeling like everyone wins, or at least feels like they came out even in an interaction. If someone says they want to do rope in general, I may introduce them to a person who I know likes playing in a “vending machine” way. If they say they want to do something with me, I propose a conversation over a beverage or food, or something else that comes to mind.

There are some communities for whom the connection is the point. I think of the SMART Energy group in Cleveland, or Seattle Sacred Kink and Sexuality. There are sub-sections of some groups that can be teased out, with events like Dark Odyssey, Twisted Tryst, Turtle Hills Beltane, and Primal Ordeal coming to mind. But that notion of “will you remember me” does permeate many people, who treat the kink community as a mirror to large parts of the swinger world. This is a way to scratch an itch.

When things exist for just those moments, I think of them as being similar to a deep conversation with a stranger on a train. Sharing hearts, histories, truths that even those close may never know. Perhaps that connection may even offer me a chance to say what I have left unsaid because if they reject me, nothing has been lost. Their “other”-ness offers an opportunity to open, examine myself with them, and in doing so learn me. I’m not investing in them. They are not investing in me. But we are holding space for one another to have our own experiences, and offering a momentary piece of love or safety or understanding or whatnot between us.

Does the kink community often feel this way? Are there large parts that do this type of disconnected or only momentarily connected play? Yes. I personally like the long-game, even with folks who I will not date, when it comes to play at kink events. The folks I say hello to one event, then the next one talk with for a while, maybe flirt. Then flirt or talk more time three, see each other at a distance time for, time five say we were sad not to connect, time six finally play. I’ve had some “long game” people be 10, 15 years in the making.

This summer, I finally got to connect with a long-game friend. Since we met 15 years ago or so, we have flirted, or had passing conversations. Some day we should play we even said at various times, but it never happened. Finally, this spring we finally set a date for an event we were both planning on being at… if they made it. The flirt, the unconfirmed, the tease. Once at the event, they brought it up, and out came the schedules! Both of us had work we were doing at the event, and we found a few hours open. I’d hiked the property already that weekend, and proposed it if their body felt up to 3/4 of a mile each way.

Labyrinth on a HillWe talked as we walked. About life, memories, people we knew and had known. The forest opened up and the labyrinth, overlooking mountains in the distance, greeted us. I stripped down to a jock strap and boots, and their single tail danced across my flesh as the sun shone down. Stripes anchored us in the moment, and by the end, we were sweating, happy, laughing as we walked back. Another step into friendship, neither lifelong commitment or anonymity.

If you are looking for the space the person who wrote described as  “between forever and glory hole,” I recommend watching people. If the person who turns you on seems to be offering rides, or walking away afterwards with just a handshake, they may not be a good fit for you. If the party trends towards that behavior, it may not be a good fit for you. Consider talking to people – if their spanking of someone turned you on, use it as a conversation starter. What about spanking is hot for them? Get to dive into their head, and offer your own stories in turn. Offer your humanity, so you become more than an ass to spank. If they don’t have time for that, they may not be a good fit for you.

There is no right way to connect, but learning that for you, you need something between the two ends of the spectrum if you want to have pick-up-play at an event, you’re on a step towards your success. Should you need to change your expectations of the kink community as a whole, or what you can get out of it? It depends on what you see around you… and ask about. Talk to another submissive or bottom and find out what they do in your area, or about tops that made them feel special. First-person recommendations can help too.


We each need to find our own desires when it comes to pick-up play. Some people can never do it. Some people warn that they fall in love with the folks they play with, as a warning that it could turn into something else if they go there. Some want to never talk to the person again, and only do pick-up play when on the road. Some require a friendship first, or afterwards. Some like to smile afterwards, but never assume it will happen again. Some want to leave the door open to come up again, maybe next event, to maybe become occasional play partners, but not romantic partners. Some want to ask you out on a date afterwards, to see if chemistry can become romance. And some want none of the above.

Finding your own way may take time, or may be reading that a description is you. I recommend being compassionate with yourself as you go, and being compassionate for those who you do pick-up play with. Some people’s after-care may be a cuddly blanket and water after a scene, and others may want to have it be a connection of some sort (even if a passing smile), for the rest of your life. Breathe deep, and who knows, maybe an open heart and some self-knowledge may lead to that perfect scene at your next party.


Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.

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