When the eggheads at the University of Chicago released their 750-page sex survey in October, with its finding that Americans are happy to do it with the same person in the same position for years and years, New Yorkers took one look at the newspaper and said, “I don’t think so.”
Sex in New York is about as much like sex in America as other things in New York are. It can be annoying, it can be unsatisfying, and, most importantly, sex in New York is only rarely about sex. Most of the time it’s about spectacle, Todd Oldham dresses, Knicks tickets, the Knick themselves, or the pure terror of Not Being Alone in New York.
And so, while this is a column about sex, we won’t be covering much actual sex. We will try to be educational.
It all started the way it always does: innocently enough. I was sitting in my apartment, having a sensible lunch of crackers and sardines, when I got a call from an acquaintance. A friend of his had just gone to Le Trapeze, a couples-only sex club, and was amazed. Blown away. There were people having sex right in front of him. Unlike S&M, where no actual sex occurs, this was the real, juicy tomato. The guy’s girlfriend was kind of freaked out. Although, when another naked woman brushed against her, she “sort of liked it,” according to him.
In fact, the guy was so into the place that he didn’t want The Observer to write about it because he was afraid that, like most decent places in New York, it would be ruined by publicity.
I started imagining all sorts of things. Beautiful young hardbody couples. Girls with long, wavy blond hair wearing wreaths made of grape leave. Boys with perfect white teeth wearing loincloths made of grape leaves. Me, wearing a super short over-one-shoulder, grape-leaf dress. We would walk in with our clothes on and walk out enlightened.
The club’s answering machine brought me back to reality with a thump.
“At Le Trapeze, there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet,” said a voice of indeterminate gender, which added that there was “a juice bar and a hot and cold buffet,” something I rarely associate with sex or nudity. In celebration of Thanksgiving, “Oriental Night” would be held on Nov. 19. That sounded interesting, except it turned out that Oriental Night meant Oriental food, not Oriental people.
I should have dropped the whole idea right then. I shouldn’t have listened to the scarily horny Sallie Tisdale, who in her yuppie-porn book, Talk Dirty to Me, enthuses about public, group sex: “This is a taboo in the truest sense of the word… [I]f sex clubs… do what they aim to do, then a falling away will happen. Yes, as is feared, a crumbling of boundaries… The center will not hold.” I should have asked myself: What’s fun about that?
But I had to see for myself. And so, on a recent Wednesday night, my calendar listed two events: 9 p.m., dinner for Karl Lagerfeld, Bowery Bar; 11:30 p.m., Le Trapeze sex club, East 27th Street.
Messy Women; Knee Socks
Everyone, it seems, likes to talk bout sex, and the Karl Lagerfeld dinner, packed with glam models and fashion editors, was no exception. In fact, it got our end of the table worked up into a near frenzy. One stunning young woman with dark curly hair and with the “seen-it-all” attitude that only 20-year-olds can pull off, claimed she liked to spend her time going to topless bars, but only “seedy ones like Billy’s Topless” because the girls were “real.” O.K., sweetie.
Then everyone agreed that small breasts were better than fake breasts, and a survey was taken: Who, among the men at the table, had actually been with a woman who had silicone implants? While no one admitted it, an artist in his mid-30’s didn’t deny it strong enough. “You’ve been there,” accused another man, a cherub-faced and very successful hotelier, “and the worst thing is, you liked it.”
“No, I didn’t,” the artist protested. “But I didn’t mind it.”
Luckily, the first course arrived, and everyone filled up their wineglasses.
Next round: Are messy women better in bed? The hotelier had a theory: “If you walk into a woman’s apartment and nothing’s out of place, you know she’s not going to want to stay in bed all day and order in Chinese food and eat it in bed. She’s going to make you get up and eat toast at the kitchen table.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this because I’m literally the messiest person in the world. And I probably have some old containers of General Tso’s Special Chicken lying under my bed at this moment. Unfortunately, all of it was eaten alone. So much for that theory.
Steaks were served. “The thing that really drives me crazy,” said the artist, “is when I see a woman wearing one of those tartan skirts and high knee socks. I can’t work all day.”
“No,” countered the hotelier, “the worst thing is when you sort of follow a woman down the street and she turns around and she is as beautiful as you thought she was going to be. It represents everything you’ll never have in your life.”
The artist leaned forward. “I once stopped working for five years because of a woman,” he said. Silence. No one could top that.
The chocolate mousse arrived and so did my date for Le Trapeze. Since Le Trapeze admits couples only, I asked my most recent ex-boyfriend, Sam, a lawyer at a downtown firm, to accompany me. Sam was a good choice, because, No. 1, he was the only man I could get to go with me; No. 2, he’d already had experience with this kind of thing: A million years ago, he had gone to Plato’s Retreat. A strange woman came up to him and pulled out the unmentionable. His girlfriend, whose idea it had been to go there, ran screaming from the club.
The talk turned to the inevitable: What kind of people go to a sex club? Although no one had been to a sex club, everyone at dinner firmly asserted that the club-goers would generally be “losers from New Jersey.” Someone pointed out that going to a sex club is not the kind of thing you can just do without a pretty good excuse, i.e., it’s part of your job. This talk wasn’t making me feel any better. I asked the waiter to bring me a shot of tequila. Sam and I stood up to go. A writer who covers popular culture gave us a last piece of advice. “It’s going to be pretty awful,” he warned, though he had never been to such a place himself. “Unless you take control. You’ve got to take control of the place. You’ve got to make it happen.”
Night of the Sex Zombie
Le Trapeze was located in a white stone building covered with graffiti. The entrance was discreet, with a rounded metal railing—a downmarket version of the entrance to the Royalton Hotel. A couple was coming out as we were going in, and when the woman saw us, she covered her face with the collar of her coat.
“Is it fun?” I asked.
She looked at me in horror and ran into a taxi.
Inside, a dark-haired young man, wearing a striped rugby shirt, was sitting in a small booth. He looked like he was about 18. He didn’t look up.
“Do we pay you?”
“It’s $85 a couple.”
“Do you take credit cards?”
“Can I have a receipt?”
While I was expecting steamy sex, the first thing we saw were steaming tables, i.e., the aforementioned hot-and-cold buffet. Nobody was eating, and there was a sign above the buffet table that said, “You must have your lower torso covered to eat.” Then we saw the manager, Bob, a burly, bearded man in a plaid shirt and jeans, who looked like he should have been managing a Pets “R” Us store in Vermont. Bob told us that the club had survived for 15 years because of its “discretion.” Also,” he said, “here, no means no.” He told us not to be worried about being voyeurs, that most people start off that way.
What did we see? Well, there was a big room with a huge air mattress, upon which a few blobby couples gamely went at it; there was a “sex chair” (unoccupied) that looked like a spider; there was a chubby woman in a robe sitting next to a Jacuzzi, smoking; there were couples with glazed eyes (“Night of the Living Sex Zombies,” I thought); and there were many men who appeared to be having trouble keeping up their end of the bargain. But mostly, there were those damn steaming buffet tables (containing what—mini hot dogs?), and, unfortunately, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
Le Trapeze was, as the French say, Le Rip-Off.
By 1 a.m., people were going home. A woman in a robe informed us that she was from Nassau County and said we should come back Saturday night. “Saturday night,” the woman said, “is a smorgasbord.” I didn’t ask if she was talking about the clientele—I was afraid she meant the buffet.
Talking Dirty at Mortimer’s
A couple of days later, I was at a lunch at Mortimer’s for the writer Karen Moline, who was celebrating the publication of her first novel, Lunch. Ms. Moline’s book contains a memorable sex scene that involves an Oscar statuette. The talk turned to the sex club.
“Didn’t you love it?” asked an English woman, a journalist. “I’d love to go to a place like that. Didn’t it turn you on, watching all those people having sex?”
“Nope,” I said, stuffing my mouth with a corn fritter topped with salmon eggs.
“You couldn’t really see anything,” I explained.
Yes, I told the journalist, we did take our clothes off, but we wore towels. No, we didn’t have sex. No, I didn’t get turned on, even when a tall, attractive, dark-haired woman in her mid-30’s entered the rumpus room.
The truth is, exhibitionism and voyeurism are not mainstream events. And neither, for that matter, is S&M, despite what you may have recently read elsewhere. The problem—in the clubs, anyway—always comes down to the people: They’re the actresses who can never find work, the lower-management men who will never get to the middle. People who, should they corner you in a bar, will keep you hostage with tales of ex-spouses and their digestive troubles. They’re the people who can’t negotiate the system. They’re on the fringes, sexually and in life. They’re not necessarily the people with whom you want to share your intimate fantasies.
Well, the people at Le Trapeze weren’t all pale, pudgy sex zombies: Before we left the club, Sam and I had run into the attractive tall woman and her date in the locker room. The man had a clean-cut, all-American face and was talkative: He was from Manhattan, he said, and had recently started his own business. He and the woman had been colleagues, he said. As the woman slipped into a yellow business suit, the man smiled and said, “She fulfilled her fantasy tonight.” The woman glared at him and stalked out of the locker room.
A few days later, Sam called and I screamed at him. Then he asked, hadn’t the whole thing had been my idea?
Then he asked, hadn’t I learned anything?
And I said yes, I had. I told him I had learned that when it comes to sex, there’s no place like home.
But then, you knew that, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Sam?
This article was originally published in a 1997 edition of The New York Observer.
Candace Bushnell began Sex and the City as a column in The New York Observer in 1994; it subsequently became a book and a series on HBO.