History of Single Life

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A series about hooking up through the ages.

Strange as it may seem, the idea that sex is a "private" act is only a couple of centuries old. Medieval castles had only one bedroom and one bed — the private factory of the lord and lady for manufacturing heirs. Like a troop of bonobos, everyone else in the household bunked and fucked where they could. Though the Church insisted that naughty parts should be kept hidden at all times, sex in the premodern world, whether it took place between poultry in the barnyard, dogs on the city streets, or people out in the hayfields, was considered a part of life.


    Public sex could even be public entertainment: When the English sent a delegation to the Duke of Burgundy in the 1470s, he honored them with free passes to the local bathhouses — and not so they could freshen up from the journey. Judging from contemporary illustrations, the Brits would have found large tubs meant to be shared by several people, together with attractive female attendants "skilled in the arts of Venus." Three hundred years later, the Marquis de Sade was regarded as a weirdo by his contemporaries not only for his habit of sticking crucifixes up his ass, but also because he preferred to hold his debauches in private or with only his trusty serving-man present. Proper eighteenth-century libertines, such as the members of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club, considered public sex a form of elite male bonding.
    It was the nineteenth-century triumph of the bourgeois family that pushed sex into the bedroom and closed the door. Victorian morality was made possible by three things: the idea that the nuclear family should be the basis for both society and domestic architecture (and that children should sleep alone until they got married and moved out), the widespread use of coal that made it possible to heat a house with separate bedrooms, and the increased prosperity that made the first two affordable. By the early twentieth century, any other arrangement seemed so unthinkable that Freud insisted that for children to see their parents in coitu would probably turn them into serial killers.
    Still, the idea of public sex remained alive in back rooms, brothels, bathhouses and bawdy tales of ancient Rome — and, like any other appealing taboo, it was bound to be broken sooner or later. The swinging that got started among bomber pilots and suburbanites in the ’50s stuck strictly to bourgeois conventions and usually involved fornicating in private (as is implied by the idea of the "key party"). But to counterculturists inspired by

In the 1970s, organizations like the Sexual Freedom League were organizing group gropes from Noe Valley to the Netherlands.

books such as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Harrad Experiment, group sex was the best thing for smashing conventional morality since LSD-spiked Kool-Aid. Soon, groups such as Jefferson Poland’s Berkeley Sexual Freedom League and the Amsterdam-based Suck and SELF collectives (whose expatriate American members included Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin) were organizing group gropes from Noe Valley to the Netherlands. Other believers in this extreme iteration of free love included revolutionary groups such as the Weather Underground and communes such as northern California’s Olompali.
    Yet the mostly white, middle-to-upper-class, college-educated professionals who picked up on the "group sex thing" in the ’70s were a far cry from the hippies who had started it. As Tom Wolfe wrote in "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," a 1976 essay, "It is an odd experience to be in De Kalb, Illinois, in the very corncrib of America, and have some conventional-looking housewife (not housewife, damn it!) come up to you and ask: ‘Is there much tripling going on in New York?’ " Exclusive trysting places for the famous and beautiful, such as John Williamson’s Sandstone retreat in California’s Santa Monica Mountains, gained national notoriety, and even Jeff Poland was kicked out of the Sexual Freedom League when he protested their new policy of charging a cover to get into the orgies.
    No piece of real estate better epitomizes how sexual outlawry could become co-opted by commercialism than the basement of New York City’s Ansonia Hotel — better known as Plato’s Retreat. By that time, public sex

The AIDS epidemic shuttered Plato’s Retreat by 1985, but the idea of group sex never quite died.

was old hat to the gay community: Plato’s was originally called the Continental Baths, an upscale playground complete with a swimming pool, coffee shop, massage parlor, steam room and floor show. Bette Midler spent time as a featured performer at the Continental; when she mentioned the baths on the Tonight Show in 1970, an armada of straight couples descended on the place. The gay and straight markets mixed like massage oil and water, and by 1976 the club’s new owner, Larry Levenson, had turned the Ansonia basement into a straight bathhouse. Before long, up to two hundred couples a night were forking over a $25 cover charge, plus a $5 six-week membership fee, for an unlimited buffet of bagels, lox, chicken salad, wine, Scotch (at least until the state liquor commission shut the bar down) and sex. The rules were simple: No single men were allowed in, no one had to do anything they didn’t want to do, and the patrons had to enter and leave the orgy room in pairs.
    AIDS, declining revenues and the New York City Board of Health shuttered Plato’s by 1985, but the idea never quite died. Pornography had introduced the idea of sex as performance and conditioned a new generation of voyeurs and exhibitionists, so the revival of the commercial sex party was all but inevitable. Events such as London’s Fever Parties and the New York-based One Leg Up were being held regularly by the turn of the century. For the less adventurous,

Group sex hasn’t lost its counterculture badge.

Cake NYC rented out entire nightclubs to throw lavish but softcore parties targeting professional women. The erotic and the commercial had become inextricably intertwined.
    Beyond such well-publicized but ultimately banal events, though, the spirit of rebellion still survives. Even as Rudy Giuliani was turning Times Square into a family-friendly playground in the late ’90s, a reviving subculture of underground sex parties, such as the Slurp events thrown by Manhattan impresario Abby Ehmann, were embracing an explicitly non-commercial ideology. "Nothing is for sale, not even water," Abby told Hustler magazine in a 2001 article on her Slurp parties that regaled the reader with lurid and mostly invented tales of lesbian BDSM scenes and anonymous blowjobs. (In reality, Abby’s parties, which draw an equal mixture of miscellaneous artists, perverts, Burning Man-types, amateur pornographers and other beautiful weirdos, hardly ever include anonymous blowjobs.) Group sex hasn’t lost its counterculture badge, proving that some things will always be too outré for Madison Avenue — which is probably why, for a new generation of libertines, it has become as normal and as much a statement of belonging as it was in the eighteenth century.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.