Op-Ed: Designing Sex, Death, And Survival In The Twenty-First Century

Ida C. Benedetto shares her thoughts.


Courtesy the author.

How we gathered together used to be common knowledge. The immaterial architecture of our societies was built on this collective understanding. Yet today, in an age of hyper-connectivity, the middle ground between accessibility and isolation (and where we can gather in intimate contexts around critical life moments) is increasingly being lost. 

Since 2015, I have been going on adventures with sex party purveyors, avant-garde morticians, and seasoned wilderness guides to discover what makes an intimate social experience transformative across the board. These experience designers are adept at reconnecting people with aspects of the world and themselves that they are most estranged from. In these extreme environments, I discovered some shared commonalities that unified these gatherings as life-changing experiences.


Courtesy the author.

Before all this, I created intimate trespass adventures in and around New York City, which varied from one-night escapades at abandoned regional resorts, a photo safari in a defunct sugar refinery, a concert with no audience at an abandoned observation deck, and, perhaps most famously, a speakeasy in a dry water tower accessible only by invitation from a friend. I did this through a design practice I co-founded called Sextantworks

Eventually, we were inundated by requests from onlookers who wanted in. Theyโ€™d send eager emails asking how to be added to the list, as if pitching themselves to us would gain them admission to some secret society. Each request broke my heart a little. We publicized our exploits in the hopes of inspiring others to make their own daring rituals of transgression and transformation. But instead, people looked to us to do it for them. 

I began to suspect we took for granted whatever it was we were doing right. Our guests consistently went farther and felt deeper than we could have anticipated, emerging awestruck and grateful. Maybe our experiences weren't as natural to replicate as I thought.

Inspired by these insights, I set out to distill what makes an intimate social gathering transformative by looking to gatherings that get at the heart of what it means to be human. Then, I wrote a series of design steps and a supporting vocabulary so that other could apply the lessons I learned. This design reference is an attempt to draw from the deepest roots of culture while honoring the new reality that a faster, more fluid future creates for us.

We have all been to a gathering, a ritual, or an adventure that felt unrewarding or downright upsetting to be a part of. And then there experiences that we are absolutely over the moon for, experiences that remind us of who we are and what makes us feel alive. Those experiences feel like magic, but it shouldn't take a spell to make them happen. I invite you to explore Patterns of Transformation: Designing Sex, Death, and Survival in the 21st Century to find out how.


Editor: Adriana Herrera-Perhamus