The End of Public Sex

Why isn't anyone fucking anymore?

The city's actions, however, tell a very different story. Manhattan's three best-known sex clubs—El Mirage, the Studio, and the Comfort Zone—have all been shuttered: El Mirage two years ago, the other two much more recently. The Wall Street Sauna was closed in 2004, leaving the city with two bathhouses, the East Side Club and the West Side Club. Bars like the Cock, the Eagle, the Slide, and Boysroom have been cited for various violations. Mr. Black, perhaps the most popular hangout for the city's younger gay set, was shut down last year for alleged drug dealing on the premises.

One of the last remaining owners of a Manhattan sex club tried to play ball with the city: He contracted with Positive Health Project, a local AIDS-information service known for its outreach, to give safe-sex demonstrations, lectures, and offer HIV testing. Condoms in bowls were everywhere, as were safer-sex messages. None of that satisfied city inspectors, who then raided the club for alleged building-code violations.

All of this leaves a few vocal gay men outraged—most of them older. Eric Rofes, the California academic who wrote extensively on the positive aspects of gay sex before his death in 2006, spoke passionately at the LGBT Center two years ago about the need for random interactions and meeting places in the age of the Internet. He decried the "disappearance or diminution of sex-site premises," such as gay bookstores (where men can have sex in semi-private stalls), and the "privatization of sexual cultures," such as the leather and S&M scenes—all dismissed as tired or played out by the next generation of gay men.

The site of Nardicio's party was emblematic of the fundamental changes that have taken place in the city: Much of Cruising, the infamous Hollywood version of rampant gay sex in the '70s, was filmed there. Portraying a man dying of AIDS in The Hours, actor Ed Harris threw himself out of one of its windows. This is where the Hellfire Club once hosted S&M parties for straights, gays, and everything in between; now, moneyed Europeans and Wall Street traders dine on raw meat of a very different kind.


To be sure, people are still having sex. But compared to the bad old days of 2002, it's a movable feast and ever more underground. A recent issue of HX, a local gay-party weekly, listed 24 private clubs, from the New York Bondage Club to Foot Friends (foot fetishists), Golden Showers of America (water sports—i.e., piss), Bear Hunt NYC (fans of the heavy-set and hirsute), and Thugs4Thugs (exclusively blacks and Latinos). And those are only the ones listed; other clubs, such as New York by Night, which meets monthly in a Hell's Kitchen apartment, and NYC Jock Party, in Brooklyn, limit themselves to e-mail lists and references.

Those who defend such parties point to isolation and fear as the prime causes of HIV infection. Shutting down places where people can have sex, they argue, is like shutting down bars because people get drunk. Prohibition proved that didn't work, and neither will pretending that all gay men will go to California to get hitched if they're denied group sex. Perry Halkitis, a professor of psychology at NYU, compares such attempts to the arcade game Whack-a-Mole: "You hit the mole, others pop up," he said at a public forum earlier this year.

Others, however, just stay down. On a nondescript side street in southern Hell's Kitchen a few weeks ago, a former sex club held an unusual "yard sale." Items like an industrial-strength sling, leather outfits, and sex toys were being sold by the owner (who asked that his name not be used). He says that he provided condoms and lube for his patrons but couldn't—and wouldn't—turn his staff into sex police. "If you go to a club and there are condoms supplied for free, isn't that better than going to someone's home where there are no condoms available?" he asks. "People take a handful when they leave. When we close down, these people will still be having sex with each other. They'll just have to look harder."

Among the scavengers at the yard sale was Daniel Nardicio, buying some theatrical lighting for possible upcoming parties. He's moving on, however: He's got an Internet radio show, a fast-growing East Village–oriented website (DList.com), and even plans for an apparel line—underwear imprinted with the wearer's phone number.

New York, he sighs, has fallen behind other world cities: "Everywhere is more sexually happening," he complains. "I love New York—I can't live anywhere else. The problem is, it's so unmotivated, so uptight right now."

Mike Peyton, a promoter active in the fetish scene, believes that there's still a desire for hot sex, whether in public, in private, or online. "We pioneered it; we rivaled everybody," he says. "It's not just sex—it's erotic expression. When the meatpacking district was in full swing, there were tranny hookers, clubs like the Mine Shaft, the trucks. It's sad to see that go. New York was once the bastion of freewheeling sex. Now it's lost."

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