At the behest of its elected despot, Rudy Giuliani, New York City is
experiencing a serious sexual cleansing. From sex shops and porn theaters
to strip clubs and adult bookstores, red-light
venues are closing daily, creating a sex-free Big Apple. I figure it's only
a matter of time before this
trend sweeps westward, so when my friend Jonathan said he was going
to a sex club, I felt it was my civic duty to tag along.
"Really?" he said incredulously, then shrugged his shoulders. "Well, great. But you can't go upstairs, where I'm going. Women aren't allowed."
That was fine, I assured him. Although the upstairs did sound rather intriguing -- with its little tents and mattresses and clean sheets just like a giant Boy Scout sleepover -- I had little interest in scoping out a gay sex scene. Downstairs was the straight sex club, which he informed me, rather apocryphally, was the "only legal straight sex club in California." Naturally, I should attend.
We met outside on a recent cold, foggy Saturday night. It was midnight, and already I was starting to feel sleepy. "How long are you going to stay?" I asked, following him inside a narrow foyer decorated with little fluorescent stars and planets. "Are you sure I don't pay anything?"
"Not a red cent," he said. He pointed to the sign, which said that it was free for women and transgender, 20 bucks for men and half that if they came with a woman. "How come women don't have to pay?" I asked.
"Oh, you'll see," he said cheerfully. "I'm going upstairs. I'll meet you in the snack bar in oh, an hour? Have fun." And with that, he floated off into the night.
Great, I thought. Now that I was here, on my own, I wondered what in the hell I'd been thinking. I felt like Nancy Drew, stumbling into some dark alleyway -- "The Case of the Missing Jism." I read some of the posted rules: No Fucking Without a Condom. No Drugs. No Propositioning for Drugs or Sex. This all sounded reasonable, and the man at the counter in a tight leather vest smiled at me encouragingly. I tried to arrange my face in what I hoped would read "open-minded," and ventured downstairs in the black lights to the basement.
It was a huge room, with many false walls that came up to eye-level, topped with industrial cyclone fence. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see the various pods and rooms throughout the space -- all equipped with some sort of rack or chair or bench or what looked to be a leather swing set. Techno music crashed through the cavernous area; strobes and black lights and spotlights flooded different sections. There seemed to be some medico-dental-gynecological theme, with several dentist's chairs bolted down and tile on one side of the long wall.
Jonathan had told me there was a heavy S/M presence, so I wasn't surprised to see that all the little pods were taken up by couples in leather enacting "scenes," -- one gently flogging another with multi-tailed whips or riding crops. In the center of the room a blindfolded woman in a leather thong and bra was being patiently slapped on the butt by a Jesus look-alike in leather chaps. An enormously obese woman in a leather G-string was patting her partner's small mushroom penis with a riding crop. Another naked man, lying stomach down on a mattress, was screaming "yellow, Mistress!" with great drama and pathos as Mistress (a hugely fat man in a G-string and pierced nipples) tapped the back of his thighs. Then both of them would giggle, and Mistress would start again.
The room was teeming with people: spectators, that is. Dressed in baseball caps, jeans and T-shirts, they would stare at the floggee with a blank-eyed expression before moving to the next exhibit, as if they were on a field trip to the Met. Some stood with their arms crossed, some were wearing variations on the S/M theme -- a token Goth here, a poser punk there -- but one thing they all had in common was that they were all men.
I threaded my way through the crowd. For 20 minutes, I stood at the doorway of a little room to watch a woman in a latex teddy being tied up, with a series of intricate knots, by a shirtless blond man in black jeans. He was so focused, so intent on getting the exact amount of tension and balance to each side of the knot that I was fascinated.
But mostly, what I felt was slightly uncomfortable, and not a little defiant. After all, why weren't there more women on their own here? In addition to the sea of spectators, there was a very strong security presence: official-looking rovers with flashlights that scanned the crowd. Obviously, nothing untoward was going to happen -- there would be no leaping out of dark corners, no sex being forced on an unwilling partner. I looked down at my clothes: a long-sleeved peacock blue sweater with neon stripes across the chest, black jeans and dark green suede shoes, men's style. Hardly come hither.
While I stood watching the knot show, a crowd began forming toward the center of the room. It was getting later, and a few women were now wandering around -- mostly terrified, preppy-looking girls hanging on for dear life to the arm of their frat-boy boyfriends. I pushed my way through the sea of men to see what all the fuss was about. A naked Asian woman, lying horizontally on what looked to be a version of a medieval stretching rack, with wrists tied and legs spread-eagled, was being eaten out by a guy with a Paul Bunyan-like beard. Shirtless and somewhat fat, stomach hanging over his blue jeans, the man looked as deliberate and nonchalant as a grazing cow. I watched for a minute, got bored and went back to the knot work. On the way, my butt was fondled, but with some hesitation, as if the fondler wasn't quite sure where he stood on the matter.
Back by the wheelchair that was barring the entrance to the room (what is with this medico-dental theme, I wondered) I observed the knot work again. The knotmaker had started at her shoulders and had now reached her knees, so she looked for all the world like a nice, trussed Thanksgiving turkey, albeit a blindfolded one. It was a small area, this little spectator's gangway, and a tall man with glasses on the left of me was crunching something. I glanced in his direction.
He held out a metal box. "Would you like an Altoid?"
I regarded the little white mints, all nestled cozily in their white paper as if they were tucked in for the night. "No, thank you," I said.
"Would you like to take a walk with me?" the man asked politely.
"No, thank you," I said, equally polite. That transaction settled, we turned back to the knot scene.
After an hour, I wandered back upstairs to the lounge. I felt a little dizzy, and had a familiar sugar craving, as if I'd just been running. There was no alcohol for sale, but an amazing array of candy. I was deliberating on the licorice whips when Jonathan came up and said brightly, "So!"
He looked refreshed and happy, as if he'd just awoken from a nap.
"Were you waiting for me?" he asked. "I'll have a diet lemon Snapple, please," he told a mohawked Japanese person of indeterminate gender.
"A ruby red grapefruit Juice Squeeze," I told him/her. "And a Twix." I turned back to Jonathan. "Actually, no, I wasn't waiting. It was interesting. But I can go now."
He looked at me closely. "See now why you didn't have to pay? You're a rare commodity."
"Yes," I said, "I was. And it did make me feel a little uncomfortable, I admit. But then I got used to it."
"Kind of like seeing a porn film, huh?" He cracked open his Snapple and drank half of it immediately.
"Yeah. The shock, the titillation and, ultimately, the tedium." But there was something else that was different, and I suddenly realized what it was. "The strangest thing was, I didn't feel I could make any eye contact the entire night. You know how you go to a bar, and maybe you see someone that you're attracted to? You'll flirt with them, look at them, it's a game. Here, you look at someone, and it's not like you're fishing for a bit of conversation."
"You're fishing to get fucked," Jonathan said.
"Yup," I said. "Not that I saw any so-called normal fucking going on, anyway." Jonathan took a sip of my Juice Squeeze and I
continued. "Mostly what I thought was that it's really refreshing, that these places exist at all."
We sat down on one of the foam sofas, and a couple happily moved over, making room. She was a scrawny woman in fishnets and a leather skirt and he was red-haired and fat, wearing a black latex body suit.
We all smiled at each other and I felt a sudden swell of civic pride.