The End of Public Sex
On the night before Memorial Day last month, several hundred men were packed into the top floor of a building in the meatpacking district. A DJ spun in a corner while bartenders frantically poured vodka into paper cups. A few of the men—most of them older—had checked their clothes, but the younger ones were keeping theirs on. In a few darkened corners, there were a few guys giving blowjobs and some ass play; overall, however, the scene could have passed for a typical holiday weekend at any East Village gay bar.
What was most notable about this party wasn't that a few people were—somewhat desultorily—playing around. Rather, it's how many didn't seem to evince the slightest interest in a hookup of any kind. Despite the heat (no fans, let alone air conditioning), the naked go-go boys and the alcohol people seemed content to make chitchat. And whatever little sex was going on, most seemed oblivious to it.
In 2002, I wrote the Voice's cover story for the Pride issue on "The Return of Public Sex." I chronicled the explosion in sex venues, from clubs to private parties to backroom bars: "After years of AIDS anxiety and government repression, gay public sex is bigger and better than ever," I wrote.
What a difference six years make.
The city has shut down all but two bathhouses and every known sex club in Manhattan, as well as citing bars, clubs, and private parties where inspectors find any men-on-men action. The few entrepreneurs still out there complain about apathy and different priorities among younger gay men.
Daniel Nardicio, the promoter who put on the Memorial Day–eve event, sees himself as a veteran of the battle to bring sleaze to the masses. He's perhaps best known for TigerBeat—underwear parties held at the Slide on the Bowery, where everyone had to check his (or, occasionally, her) clothes. The city shut down TigerBeat in 2004 by orders from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, citing complaints about sexual activity.
Since then, Nardicio has been a nomad, exploring various venues. He's had bathing-suit parties at a Turkish sauna on Wall Street; organized a road trip to Atlantic City; and tried out a Chinatown photo studio, other Lower East Side bars, and, most recently, the meatpacking-district loft space. His themes always brush the far end of good taste: For Memorial Day, he gave out Fleet Enemas. So he doesn't blame the authorities for the lack of sexual license as much as a fundamental change in the attitudes of gay men themselves.
"These things are ending because people don't want them anymore," he says. "People are spoiled, petulant, uninteresting. I've been throwing outrageous parties again and again for years, but the only time I was busted was at the Slide."
Like everyone else these days, Nardicio blames the Internet for the lack of public engagement. Even so, he adds: "If people wanted dirty, raunchy parties in New York, it would happen. But people don't want it."
If there's a generational shift between post-Stonewall gay men and their younger counterparts, it's that the latter are more interested in fashionista kiss-kiss cocktail soirees like Hiro at the Maritime Hotel and Beige at B Bar: "People are so obsessed about how they look," Nardicio complains. "Everyone wants to pretend they're an A&F model."
For some, this new attitude may mark a healthy and normal progression—from the generation that had to fight for its right to party to a new breed fighting for the right to marry and serve openly in the military. Today, it's easier than ever to come out, and people are doing it in high school or even before. Coming out so early in life, they don't feel as alienated from straight women—or, increasingly, men. Rather than facing discrimination and alienation, they can look forward to marriage and children: "They're not feeling as marginalized," Nardicio says. "Young guys are not as interested in a gay-only scene."
Even on the Internet, young guys are at least as interested in social- networking sites like MySpace as hooking up on Manhunt. "The 21-year-olds are interested in dating," Nardicio notes. "There's a lot less self-hatred."
Still, there's no question that Mayor Bloomberg's administration hasn't exactly been sex-positive. Rumblings about the city's policy came to a boil in January, when a reporter at the local newspaper Gay City News obtained a copy of an internal memo recommending that the city's health commissioner move aggressively to monitor sex clubs more closely or shut them down altogether.
Since the memo was leaked, city officials have been talking out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, public faces for the administration like Dr. Monica Sweeney—a top official working on AIDS prevention and services—have been attending public forums where, in Sweeney's case, she patiently explains over and over that there is no organized pogrom against public sex: "There have been no plans at all in the Department of Health to close commercial sex venues," she stated at a heated meeting at the LGBT Center in February.
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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