Naked Ambition

When a friend in her 20’s learned that I had recently attended an upscale, invite-only orgy called “Caligula’s Ball” as part of my research for this story, she pressed me for details in an e-mail. I replied, “Saturday night. Large loft in Chelsea with high ceilings, comfy couches and a custom-made king-size canopy bed with black leather sheets. Couples only, about 3-dozen, professional, mostly 20’s, some early 30’s and hot …. Cameron Diaz look-alike, Naomi Campbell look-alike. Attire: lingerie and sheer chiffon. The men, mostly attractive. Some buffed and studly, others average, in which case, interesting. No stray men. Started awkward …. Over 5 hours turned hot hot Hot! First oral, then regular sex and lots of swapping too …. 3-somes, 7-somes, etc. … No guys with guys. Sometimes women with women but usually men involved. Price $150 a couple.”

“When is the next one?” she replied.

That confused me. My friend had recently announced that she was “In Love!” Surely if one was in love, one didn’t need or want to roll around with a roomful of naked strangers?

But over the course of the next month, I found that many young New Yorkers were plunging into a shopping mall of sex, in which it takes more than two to tango and a “the more, the merrier” attitude prevails. But unlike the past image of swingers as men in gold chains married to women with big hair, the new swingers were mostly indistinguishable from the young professionals you might find yourself next to on the Stairmaster or shopping for Sigerson Morrison shoes on Prince Street. And much of the initiative seems to be coming from the women. But these couples don’t call themselves swingers-they call it “play.” And they bring the buzz of ambition into the bedroom. As a young woman told me at a recent party, “I’ve got a list of fantasies to try before I hit 30, and I’m not wasting any time.”

At the Chelsea loft orgy, I wanted to find out who these people were, and why they were there.

Around 11 p.m. I met a couple who were sipping red wine and sitting on a mattress covered in faux fur. There was a sense that they were waiting for something. He was 28, with broad shoulders and sandy brown hair, wearing just blue Calvin Klein boxers. He had his arm around a petite, busty brunette, in her mid-20’s, who was wearing white La Perla. What did they hope would happen?

“I want to be turned into sandwich filling,” she said. “You know, I want to be in the middle with two guys.”

“I’m open to anything,” he said. “And I’d like to maybe find a girlfriend.”

The La Perla woman, who was apparently not his girlfriend, went to refill her wine. I asked him who she was.

“I saw this ad on Nerve.com which read, ‘I’m moving to another country to live with my boyfriend in a month and there are some adventures I want to have before I leave. One of them is to be with two guys.’ It was playful and witty and the picture was pretty cute! So I e-mailed my friend Mike and said, ‘Dude, check out this ad.’ The next evening, she and I met for a drink at Merchant’s Bar on 62nd. Mike was working late, so he met up with us later at my apartment.”

Was it strange to share a woman with your friend?

“If my only way to have sex with a particular woman is to have another guy there, then fine, no big deal. I mean, that’s what she wanted,” he said. “By the end of the night, we had switched for each position. Every position you can imagine. It was fun!”

I walked into the back bedroom of the loft. A couple was sitting on the mirrored canopy bed. They told me they had been dating for just over a year and hoped to find a willing couple with whom to have a “swap.” She was a photographer and looked like Daryl Hannah in Splash , with cascading blond curls and blue sequined lingerie. He was rather plain, and said he was a professional blackjack player. He was wearing black silk shorts with “Caesar’s Las Vegas” printed on the waist band.

“A few months ago, we almost had an encounter with a couple in Las Vegas,” he said. “The four of us had a lot of electricity, but then nothing really happened. It was disappointing. After that, we were very curious about what it would have been like.” He gave his girlfriend a look of adoration. But she had locked gazes with a husky fireman-type who stood on the other side of the bed, and so she missed it.

On a recent Wednesday night at 1:30 a.m., “The Imperial Orgy” at Webster Hall ($45 a person) was in full swing. Young women in short T-shirts and neoprene bustiers handed out free condom and lube samples and accepted cash only for items like pocket-rocket vibrators and designer nipple pasties.

A brunette in her late 20’s in a white off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and black prairie skirt led her date, who was wearing green Banana Republic shorts and a white button-down shirt, by the hand toward a “spanking” room. She said she was the director of a Soho gallery. He worked in a gallery uptown. Who would spank whom?

“Oh, I’m spanking Chris!” she said. They both giggled.

Inside one room, people-mostly in their 20’s-were clustered on sofas. Loud rock music commanded, “Shake your funky ass … Go! Go! Go!” In the back, one woman straddled another. The woman on top, a dark-skinned beauty with straight black hair, was thrusting her body against the other, a tall, thin blonde with red lips who wore an A-line skirt and heels. The blonde closed her eyes and leaned back into pillows. A crowd gathered and a camera flashed. When the song ended, the woman on top kissed her new friend tentatively on the mouth.

The crowd moved toward a young couple that were sitting next to each other on a sofa. She was a petite streaky blonde, her face covered by a Venetian exotic-bird mask. Her jeans were down around her black strappy sandals. Her boyfriend, in a T-shirt and jeans, was giving her a hand job through the outside of her white body suit. Cameras flashed. Encouraged, her boyfriend worked harder.

Back on the first sofa, the perspiring dark-haired beauty had dismounted and flung herself around a man sitting on her right, who turned out to be her boyfriend. He wore a blue collared shirt and dress pants. He said he was 28 and a research analyst on Wall Street. She was 26 and worked as a human-resources director for a small financial-communications firm.

“Let’s see if she wants to have a three-way!” said her boyfriend, indicating the blonde his girlfriend had just finished straddling.

“Sure!” she said. She was shining and a little out of breath. “But she can’t have sex with you. Only a blow job.”

“O.K.” he said, “No problem.”

Had she ever given anyone a lap dance before?

“No,” she said, beaming. “But I’ve always wanted to try it … and I want to have sex with a woman, too!”

In the light of day I met a 23-year-old fledgling film director who was sitting on a bench in front of Olive’s on Prince Street. She brushed a crumb from a cookie off her low-low-low-waist Urban Outfitter jeans. She had long blond hair and blue eyes.

“My last boyfriend and I started having threesomes five months into our relationship,” she said. “It wasn’t because we were bored. It’s kinda like a game. You have no idea if you can get her to go home with you. It’s about teamwork. We tried to do it 15 or 20 times and it happened like five.

“Once, on my boyfriend’s birthday, we couldn’t find a girl, so we called a hooker. We were at my place. We found the number in The Village Voice . The first person we had sent over was not very attractive, so we said no-but you have to tip them anyway. We had four people come over. The last one was cute, so she stayed. It was $400 for an hour. She was very mellow. She brought some pot and we all smoked it. Then she was like, ‘O.K., you can do whatever you want with me-just no anal.’ It was pretty hot. I don’t remember much, though. I was pretty drunk.

“I like girls. I would never have a girlfriend. But for physical and sexual purposes, it’s fun,” she said. “I mean, threesomes for me are like getting your back cracked if it needs it. And once it’s cracked, you don’t want to stick around and talk to the chiropractor. We had one girl try and sleep over once, and that was very awkward. I was like, ‘We can’t all sleep in this bed. This is my and his bed.’ I think she had a little plan. I think she had a thing for my boyfriend and was using me to hook up with him.”

She said she had started seeing a new guy three weeks ago and hasn’t brought up threesomes with him yet. But she’s getting ready to.

“If it turned him off, it would be a problem,” she said. “I do want to continue doing this, but I like this guy. I’d have to see if I continue to like him more, or find someone who is more compatible with my lifestyle.”

The danger of inviting a third partner into bed-that the newcomer may run off with one of the partners in the couple-is never far from the minds of the players.

“With threesomes, you’re always worrying that a single woman is going to steal your guy,” said Ana, a 30-year-old half-Brazilian, half-Italian art broker with long, wavy brown hair and brown eyes. On the day we spoke, she was wearing a sleeveless, tan DKNY camisole, a below-the-knee brown skirt and brown mules.

Ana said she liked “playing” with women. Her boyfriend, John, an engineer, likes to watch. So rather than chase single women in bars who might turn out to be man-stealers, they started looking for other young couples like them, using an e-mail group they found on Yahoo.com called “nyswingingcouples.”

Indeed, Web sites like Alt.Matchmaker.com, LavaLife.com or Nerve.com cater to supersexed couples and singles by providing search criteria like “Play” or “Swinging” or “Intimate Encounters.” Ana and John met some couples online, but most seemed to want to “full swap,” which means they wanted to swap partners and have intercourse. But John and Ana wanted “Girl Play” followed by “Same Room Play”-which means that the couples watch each other have sex, but no swapping. Then Ana had an idea. She started a social club called Rendezvous for couples like her and John. She threw the first Rendezvous party last July at Bliss Bar in midtown.

“We were so scared that we would be the only ones,” said Ana. “But then 12 couples showed up! Everyone was really nice and excited about it. People were very good-looking overall, and they were mostly lawyers, a couple of doctors, a kindergarten teacher, and a few were in finance. And they were like us; they don’t go to bars or swing clubs.”

The group has grown to 35 active couples that get together a few times each month at places like Drinkland, Fez and Prohibition. Sometimes someone will throw an after-party at their apartment. On a recent Saturday, a Rendezvous couple threw a “private party” in the man’s apartment near Central Park West. They invited 10 couples. At first it was like a normal cocktail party, with the guests drinking wine and eating sushi in the newly remodeled kitchen. Then they moved to two leather couches and settled onto pillows on the Oriental rug. Someone turned off the lights. Candlelight reflected off a large oak-framed mirror above the fireplace. It was 11:30 p.m. Ana was there with John.

“We were all just hanging out, and then two women started kissing and a third joined, and then it just turned into an orgy,” said Ana.

“It’s a normal party up to a certain point, and then all of a sudden, boom-it starts to snowball,” said the host. “By the end of the night, it turned into a-I don’t want to say an orgy, because that’s so … trite.”

The mood was a little less cozy on a recent Friday night at Checkmates, a swingers’ club on East 56th Street. A stunning 22-year-old with short curly hair tossed off her black silk robe and danced naked around a stripper’s pole for her boyfriend. She wore spiky black mules and moved her body like a stripper, smiling shyly. She said she worked in fashion public relations. Her boyfriend was 25 and said he’d just passed the New York bar exam.

“We’ve never been to a swingers’ club before,” she said, surveying the room.

Pink, gold and white balloons blanketed the low ceiling. A topless, leathery woman with a perm straddled a man in Old Navy shorts on a love seat. A small TV monitor looped porn in the corner and the smell of baked ziti wafted up from a buffet.

“If we knew of a better place, we’d go there,” she said.

What did she want to do?

“I want to kiss girls,” she said, “Cute girls, because I haven’t done it. And I want to have a threesome. And play with toys and have an orgy!” Her brown eyes sparkled.

What did her boyfriend want to do?

“I’m up for whatever!” he said.

Back to Caligula’s Ball, where the party’s hosts had orchestrated an “icebreaker” performance at 12:30 a.m. Two performers-“Caligula” and “Druscilla”-danced and caressed each other incestuously as the three dozen couples watched. The temperature rose. When the show ended, the guests complimented each other: nice bra, nice ass, beautiful breasts. Questions like “May I kiss?” became less verbal.

A lot happened quickly, and it was difficult to keep track. In the front room, the La Perla woman was getting her wish. The blackjack player and the blond photographer swapped with the fireman and his date. A tangled foursome harem of women reclined on a double love seat, kissing, touching and feeding each other green grapes. Seven people, males and females, tangled themselves on the king-size canopy bed. A solo twig-thin brunette pranced into the room sucking on a lollipop.

In my e-mail to my friend, I wrote, “All this promiscuity and pleasure; it’s fun! … The rush lasts for days. You’ll feel crazy, sexy, wild. You can do it again, or try something new. But it doesn’t really mean anything; like the twentysomethings said, It’s just sex!

“But back to that ‘In Love’ thing you spoke of. I wish you’d wait a day and feel it. Cuz all the crazy sex vibes can make you a little crazy, too. Maybe wait another day.”