I arrive at the Greek island of Corfu’s infamous party hostel “The Pink Palace” — an entirely pink compound where riding ATVs and kayaks by day turn to “Are you on birth control?” by night. The desk clerk tells me that it’s too early to check in, but I’m welcome to drop my luggage and head down to their private beach.
“A private beach at a budget hostel?” I think to myself. “It’s too good to be true… I’m for sure getting bed bugs.”
I take my welcome drink (it’s 8 AM), and start for the beach, passing a poolside Jacuzzi, private nightclub, and twenty-four-hour bar on the way. The first thing I notice when my toes hit the sand, naturally, is a group of twenty-something dudes laying out, shirtless, blasting candy pop on their portable speaker. It’s an auspicious start.
I pick a chair close enough that they’ll notice me, but not too close that they’ll know I want them to notice me. One individual — perhaps the douchiest dude I’ve seen since Jersey Shore’s “The Situation” — begins chatting me up and I cannot contain my excitement for how much I hate him. His name is Luke and he’s from Maine. He’s sporting an American flag swimsuit that is just short enough it’s neither European nor okay, and white sunglasses resting on top of his baseball hat to complete the look (of my actual nightmare).
If it seems like I’m being overly judgmental, it’s because I am, but Luke will also go on to brag about how last night at the hostel’s gender swap party, he had sex with two “gold star lesbians.” Still, I’m alone and trying to have a good time, make friends, and keep an open mind, so even though Luke will definitely lose a bodybuilding competition one day, I decide to keep up the interaction. Besides, he seems relatively harmless. (This might be a good time to mention that I definitely made out with Luke).
A twenty-year-old girl with stringy hair and smudged mascara plops herself down on Luke’s lap. Her name is Kristine and she works at the hostel. “Works” is a loose term; Kristine is staying for a month for free in exchange for being a hot girl. Her job is to help organize the parties, pass out free shots of ouzo, and “keep it lit.” Kristine and I make small talk, and while I can’t tell if she and Luke are a “thing for now,” I get no sense she’s territorial. In fact, she’s sweet, charismatic, and overtly flirting with me. She asks if I want to get ready with her for the night’s Toga Party. I jump at the chance, thankful to have someone to hang out with.
“Great!” she chirps, kissing me directly on the mouth and scurrying off into the ocean, like a caricature of a free spirit in a poorly written rom-com.
Luke clocks my surprised expression, and cuts off my thoughts mid-sentence: “You do know what this place turns into at night, don’t you?”
“Uh, the sunken place?” I reply, cautiously.
He laughs. “You’ll see.”
Cut to: I’m wearing a rented pink sheet Kristine has tied into a complicated knot over my shoulder. She assures me wearing undergarments are “not necessary,” but I settle on some bikini bottoms. I walk into the hostel’s on-site nightclub, the Palladium — a giant hall with strobe lights, fog, and major B.O.
What I am looking at can best be described as an international frat party meets the Rajneeshpuram. Twenty-something travelers are completely wasted, bumping and grinding like it’s a seventh-grade Bat Mitzvah, and smashing plates on their heads to electro European hits. In one corner, I see what appears to be actual live sex, and in the other, a sloppy couple doing some hand stuff under their formerly wearable sheets.
Luke seems happy: he’s against the bar making out with Kristine’s shoulder. She looks despondent. A guy I met earlier at the hostel’s “booze cruise” motions for me. His name is Noah, a cute Israeli-Canadian who keeps promising that he “respects me.”
Noah approaches, shots of ouzo in hand, and asks if I want to go for a late-night swim. I was a super unfortunate-looking child who literally dreamed of a hot Jewish boy picking me out of a sea of cute girls, so… “Yes, Noah, I would love to go for a late-night swim. Say ‘Shalom’ again.”
We head over to the pool area where I notice a couple getting wild in the jacuzzi, and another girl fingering herself while two men watch. Everywhere I look it seems someone’s got a boner, dealing with a boner, or trying to find somewhere to place their boner. It’s like the first season of Game of Thrones.
Now, look. I’m not wow’d by horny twenty-somethings getting drunk and rubbing on each other while abroad for the summer. This is nothing new and nothing to write home about. What I am struck by is my alarmingly conflicted response to it. I like to think of myself as a sex-positive, ultra-liberal feminist who is one-hundred percent comfortable with safe, consensual, open sexuality. (Ugh, what does that even mean anymore? Like, hooray for me, I shared an article written by a LGBTQ+ sex worker on my Facebook feed with the caption “THIS.”? I retweeted something in defense of the porn profession because I thought the headline seemed “woke,” but didn’t actually read the article? I’m distantly friends with a stripper, so now I deserve a trophy for being an ally?)
Point being, it’s easy to call yourself “progressive” and “sex-positive” when it’s all in theory, when you don’t have to directly come face-to-tits with someone’s D-cups in a public setting. This is the question plaguing me throughout my time at the Pink Palace: “If I claim to be so open and cool with sexuality, why am I so fucking uncomfortable?”
While revelers revel. I feel as though I’m having some Twitter flame war inside my own head. On the one hand, I’m thinking, “Ew, what are you doing? That’s so desperate.” And on the other, “Oh that looks so fun, can I join?” It’s… confusing.
Over the course of my stay, the Pink Palace, oddly enough, becomes a physical representation of the beliefs, movements, and ideologies we, as a society, are currently grappling with. If you’re worried this sounds like the thesis statement of a shitty term paper I’ve got twenty minutes to turn in, bear with me: In having to experience first-hand what a sexually open community might be like, I felt that I could more clearly see why some might resist this type of lifestyle. For one, it’s not black or white, and we hate the gray area. Because the gray area takes work: it means challenging yourself to be conscious, thoughtful, and aware of boundaries and limitations at all times. That’s harder when everyone is drunk and mostly undressed than it is on Twitter.
It means examining your own beliefs and coming to terms with where those come from, even if it means denying what you were always taught was right and wrong from those you love most. It means not placing value on someone’s worth by the activities they choose to participate in, even if you would never in a million years partake yourself. It means being okay with someone living a different lifestyle than you, and not taking it as a personal affront when those paths diverge. But that takes sooooo much self-awareness and work, right? Who wants to do that?
It’s now 3 AM and I’m sitting with Noah in the jacuzzi. His fingers are stroking my legs and he’s giving me the “please have sex with me” eyes, and yes, I totally admit I’m loving the attention. Not in a “my self-worth comes from the male-gaze” way, but in the commonplace delight of having someone you’re attracted to find you attractive, as well. Sometimes it’s all kinda simple and straightforward and not loaded with complexity.
Kristine and Luke come stumbling out of the Palladium, giggling, and jump into the jacuzzi with us. We hear moans and groans coming from a room to our right, and it’s clear I am the only one who even notices this. Everyone else ignores it like it’s merely the sounds of birds chirping. I have to say something.
“This isn’t… weird for you guys? Like, how is this not weird for you guys.”
“What’s weird?” Luke asks. “They’re having fun. As long as everyone’s having fun and feeling good, who cares?”
We get into a long discussion about sex, sexuality, public sex, promiscuity, what’s weird, what’s fine. It’s a surprisingly insightful talk. My new friends acknowledge the dangers of a situation like this, considering our culture’s current discussion on consent and assault. But they also point out that exploring your sexuality freely and openly is something that is forward-thinking, and truly progressive.
I look over and notice a girl sitting alone on a lounge chair, quietly reading a book. Nobody is bothering her and she looks totally content. That’s the level of fucks I’d like to give: quietly reading The Alchemist while some Swedish lawyer is getting eaten out next to you by a guy with a neck tattoo. I don’t see any guys hounding her, or any girls making her feel boring for not participating. She’s just doing her thing, and it’s all good.
That’s when I realize: I’m the only one making this weird. I’m the one looking for a problem where maybe, in this particular case, there isn’t one. Instead of fighting it, why not just enjoy the fact that I am surrounded by people who are embodying the very ideals I claim to support? Even though I myself might not want to gorge on sex with strangers, it doesn’t have to be weird, or wrong, or bad, if Kristine does, right? There’s nuance for you: Supporting our cultural moment and the sexuality of consenting adults at a Grecian party hostel.
And that, I finally decide, just might be real progress.