It's Back!

The Return of Public Sex

Five gay men sharing a Lower Manhattan duplex penthouse are throwing a party. Downstairs, guests mingle at an impromptu bar. James, a 23-year-old banker just out of school, came to make new friends. Kyle, 21, squeals "Girlfriend!" at every acquaintance. The DJ plays a mix that includes '80s new wave and hip-hop. A typical Friday-night get-together—except that everyone has paid $20 to strip down to his underwear, and the upstairs bedrooms have been converted into orgy rooms. The groove is casual and friendly, twentysomethings moving from group grope to gossip. Some people even pull business cards out of unlikely places and promise, "I'll call you on Monday," to seal a deal. Welcome to the real Sex and the City. In a dimly lit midtown hotel suite, 18 guys are humping and sucking; two men fuck in a bathroom,

the better to admire themselves in the mirror. On a funky tugboat moored near Chelsea Piers, a DJ spins in the hull while men cruise in and out of cabins and the old engine room. In a Chelsea high-rise turned sex oasis, the master bedroom is outfitted with a sling hanging from the ceiling. After years of AIDS anxiety and government repression, gay public sex is bigger and better than ever.

Not for everyone, of course. No one knows how many gay men are involved in the current scene. "I don't have any percentages," says Matthew Tye, managing director of program services at Gay Men's Health Crisis. "We have no data," says a spokesperson from the Mayor's Office of AIDS Policy. For that matter, no one knows for certain how many gay men live in New York City, since the census still doesn't count homosexuals as such. But numbers have never told the whole story when it comes to public sex. "Even if you didn't go to a bathhouse in the pre-AIDS era, it had an impact on your life," says sex radical Eric Rofes. "These are institutions that symbolize the way we organize our identity."

Gays have been getting off in public for at least as long as rest rooms have been tea rooms, parks and piers have been meat racks, and bathhouses have been . . . bathhouses. The AIDS crisis sounded a retreat from this rolling orgy, but you can't keep a good dick down. Forget the Ramble, though: Public sex has moved to private parties. The Internet, which was supposed to usher in an era of virtual sex, has instead made hooking up easier than ever—and it's also enabled any kink to find its own kind. The new party scene reflects this appetite for idiosyncratic sex. The getting-off pages of HX and Next list fetes for foot fetishists, business-suit sluts, water-sports enthusiasts drawn to "in-shape college guys," and military-minded men of color. All these fetishes can be fulfilled for a (usually $20) entrance fee.

Private parties are exempt from bias laws, which has allowed gay men to pursue ever more precise types. Paulomania Bronx FunHouse targets papis and the patos who chase them, most in their twenties. Nubian Muscle—an offshoot of the old Blatino parties in Bed-Stuy and Harlem's Aphrodiziac—lives up to its name with parties limited to young, in-shape black and Latino men. The reluctant poster boy for Chelsea attitude is a heavyset middle-aged black man named Carter. In order to become one of Carter's New York Prime, candidates nervously bare the full monte to a panel of three men who inspect the goods more rigorously than judges in an Olympic skating competition. (Some promoters interview prospective guests online.) Carter himself vehemently denies the charge that his group epitomizes the gay impulse to exclude the old, the ugly, or the too hairy: "There are groups for bears, or hairy men, or skinny men. This is for guys who want to meet their own kind."

Of course, not all orgiasts require uniformity. At his CUMshot parties, Augustin imposes few physical restrictions. "I can't stand when people call and ask, Are the guys hot?" he complains. "I'm not looking for escorts. If you have attitude, what's the point? I want guys to have fun, not show off."

Fun isn't something you associate with Rudolph Giuliani, but he deserves some backhanded credit for this horn of plenty. By closing down nightclubs, shuttering backroom spaces and porno theaters, and policing long-established cruising grounds, Rudy drove public sex underground. Now it's blossoming again. And as the parties proliferate, other pre-AIDS institutions are making a comeback. A West Side bar has opened a backroom on Friday nights. A Sunday-night party, complete with third-floor play area and hot tub, briefly flourished in West Chelsea.

The West Side Club is the newest addition to the handful of bathhouses that managed to survive Giuliani time. But many younger guys find these places icy, menacing, and full of overly aggressive older men. "If you say hi to someone, they immediately think it's for sex," says Cherry Boi, a 20-year-old who uses chat rooms to get the word out about the parties he throws. "Guys coming to my party want to be social. They're moving freely, going from talking to sex. Some are even networking."

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