Pleasure-seeking: In pursuit of the real

From the world’s most exclusive sex party to subversive performances at the Chelsea Hotel, columnist Camille Sojit Pejcha chronicles the search for self-expression in New York’s underground

I’m of the opinion that the more expensive the party, the less fun it is—so when I get invited to an elite members-only sex club that costs upwards of $12,500 to attend, I’m on the fence. Nevertheless, I dutifully complete the application process for—photos, interview, and all—qualifying me for free entry to the “world’s most exclusive sex party” via the VIP lady’s list, a loophole available to beautiful women arriving alone. The dress code, I’m informed, is black tie plus a masquerade-style mask, and I’m not given the location until the night before, at which point I’m tearing through my closet, desperate to scrounge up an outfit. “Will this work?” I text the woman who interviewed me, modeling a slick black leather dress. “Absolutely,” she says. Buoyed by her approval, yet dreading the weather forecast, I try to negotiate: “What about with knee-high boots?” “No,” she says. “Stilettos.” 24 hours later, I’m sprinting through the downpour in six-inch heels. Outside a sprawling Manhattan townhouse, I’m greeted by two tall men in suits who review my credentials with expressionless faces, then welcome me through its imposing doors. As I duck inside, I’m hit with the sudden realization that I have absolutely no idea what I’m in for.

In the foyer, surrounded by women in lingerie and evening gowns, I feel both incredibly conspicuous and pleasantly invisible. Conspicuous because this is my first time leaving the house in stilettos, and I’m walking like Bambi on ice; invisible because with my all-black outfit and identity-obscuring mask, I’m rendered anonymous—one of the club’s main selling points for celebrity guests. I crane my neck to suss out if there are any in our midst; no dice, so I instead shift my attention to eavesdropping on the couple in front of me. “It’s our first time,” they tell the party’s attentive, tuxedo-clad staff, who swiftly guide them to the VIP section, where, I’ve heard, you can purchase add-ons like a “private hostess in the tradition of the Japanese geisha” who will see to your every desire.

When I get to the front of the line, I learn that we’re expected to check not only our inhibitions at the door, but also pretty much everything else: coats, bags, wallets, and phones, which are banned in keeping with the club’s policy of discretion. After my iPhone is slipped into a clear plastic bag and deposited with its brethren, I’m ushered toward the entrance. Then, an attendant pulls aside the velvet curtains, and I step into the lion’s den.

The room is, at first glance, less orgiastic than I expected: a few men in tuxedos and women in lingerie standing, champagne flutes in hand, in the oddly greenish cast of fluorescent light (the theme of this particular event, I later learn, is “neon.”) I make a beeline for the bar, and almost immediately run into the acquaintance who invited me over Instagram DM. He doesn’t recognize me at first, but after I pull my mask down to reveal my identity, Clark Kent-style, he whisks me away to meet the club’s owner, who in turn ushers me upstairs, past the velvet rope and into the party’s VIP section, though I lack the proper wristband.

There, we’re greeted by a pair of sylphlike women in metal lingerie that reminds me of that one scene in Star Wars; their chains jingle as they offer us libations from a silver tray, striding back and forth in their stilettos with impressive self-assurance. The owner tells me he took over five years ago when the founder stepped down (due to “burnout,” he says, though I’ve heard that in fact, the original leader was ejected for publicly outing Hunter Biden an ill-behaved famous guest as a member of the club—a violation of its most sacred rule). As he talks, I accidentally lock eyes with a woman sitting behind us on a banquette, making love to a Hitachi with reckless abandon. The owner tells me that running this sex party has changed his life: people are so open and unafraid to be themselves here, he says, that it ruins you for other parties, which seem boring by comparison. To my left, a man is eating a woman’s ass with an appetite so remarkable that I almost worry for her internal organs.

Sex is everywhere, but absent my own arousal, watching other people fuck feels like looking at a word so long it loses meaning.”

A hush falls over the crowd as a naked woman—one of the performers paid to enliven the atmosphere with acts of “erotic theater”—takes the stage, where she proceeds to belt an awe-inspiring operatic number. I’m almost as impressed by her core strength when, moments later, she pulls herself nimbly onto an aerial hoop suspended from the ceiling and begins to twirl, contorting her body into a series of graceful acrobatic shapes. Amid roars of approval, I excuse myself from the VIP section and slip away to explore the rest of the party.

The townhouse—which, according to Zillow, rents for $31,500 a month—is mazelike, with many floors and many rooms, all of which seem to come equipped with a surplus of Hitachis and leather floggers. In one, I see a muscle-bound man bending over to have his ass playfully spanked; in another, a small crowd congregates to watch two women make liberal use of the “personal massagers” that, at this point, may as well be the party’s unofficial mascot. I accept a stranger’s offer of drugs; we snort them in another, emptier room while, in front of us, a man in a tux and Venetian-style mask whips two scissoring women. Paid actors? Apparently not, because when I ask the stranger-turned-drug-friend, I’m informed that the event’s performers and staff are not permitted to hook up with the guests. They can hook up with each other, however, as two women on the other side of the room—one of them in a head-to-toe astronaut costume, complete with helmet—improbably demonstrate. “This must be the coolest party in New York,” one guy with finance-bro physiognomy enthuses to another.

Maybe it’s the weed I smoked, the rude glow of fluorescent lights, or the boyfriend I have waiting at home—but the sex occurring around me has taken on an odd, almost anthropological quality. I watch as a man grabs his partner’s ass by the handful, pummeling into her with woodpecker-like speed. He’s probably having the time of his life, but seeing it from a distance, I feel like I’m at the zoo. Sex is everywhere, but absent my own arousal, watching other people fuck feels like looking at a word so long it loses meaning.

This isn’t always the case. I’ve been moved by witnessing the profound intimacy of kink scenes, and just a few weeks ago, I was tickled to see a queer couple serving strap on the sex swing at Bound NYC. But something about the majority-heterosexual clientele—coupled with the relative normality of the desires on display, and the abnormality of the price point—makes the scene seem strange, almost abject. Eyes roving over the crowd as I wait for Slave Leia to supply my next drink, I wonder what all the other people here are really looking for. Indulgence? Freedom? Novelty? Sugar daddies?

In our conversation, the owner referenced the club’s high price tag as a “filter”: attendees are screened for aesthetic appeal, professional status, and personal wealth, creating an atmosphere where Dionysian pleasures appear as fruits on the vine. He’s passionate about creating a space for people to explore their desires without judgment, correctly identifying that, in the era of social media, one of the kinkiest things you can do is check your phone at the door. But I can’t shake the fact that to enter the Garden of Eden, one must first appease its gatekeepers—whether through gratuitous wealth, personal connections, or sex appeal.

Still, I can imagine the thrill the party offers to its mostly straight, majority-white, all-rich attendees: the idea that they’re trading the office or boardroom for an experience that might transform them, surprise them, break them open. At my least charitable, I think the people here tonight just want something to brag about to other, equally rich people. At my most charitable, I think the lofty price tag, and their willingness to pay it, reveals something more human: a search for the real.

The night is only getting started, but I can’t stay to watch the debauchery unfold because I’m supposed to be at another party: a post-opening celebration for Chelsea Hotel Portraits, an exhibition of my friend Tony Notarberardino’s photographs of the residents of the Chelsea Hotel. He’s been living there since the ’90s, when the New York landmark was still a thriving creative bohemia with a countercultural edge. The Chelsea has since been converted into a luxury hotel, historic rooms renovated to maintain just a hint of their original eclectic flair. But, I’ve noticed, that modern-day creatives are still drawn to its mystique: At NYFW, Eckhaus Latta soundtracked its show to Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea No. 2,” and Ludovic de Saint Sernin—whose kink-forward collection drew inspiration from the photographer and famed Chelsea resident Robert Mapplethorpe—chose the hotel as the destination for a post-show celebration.

I chug another glass of champagne and make my way toward the door, gripping the banister as I carefully navigate one of the winding staircases down to the party’s empty first floor where an art installation is now taking place: a man bent over a canvas of sorts, scrawling sexual words in what appears to be neon sharpie: “Bite, lick, fuck.”

As I wait for my Uber in the incessant drizzle, I text my boyfriend (who has, unlike me, seen Eyes Wide Shut) that I made it out alive—though as I exit my overpriced ride and dash through the rain to the Chelsea, I’m more and more convinced that my cause of death may be these increasingly impractical shoes. “Going to Tony’s?” asks the front desk attendant with a knowing look; with most of the hotel’s rooms now occupied by wealthy tourists looking for a taste of old New York, there’s only one destination for lost-looking women in all-black leather and sky-high heels. I take the elevator up and make my way to Notarberardino’s door, which—with its peeling paint and brass lion knocker—stands out like a beacon among the homogeneity of its neatly renovated neighbors. I can hear the sound of laughter, screams, and applause emanating from within. Fuck, I think, the performances must have started already. “Are you on the list?” asks a vinyl-clad twink standing outside, a welcome antithesis to the sex club’s serious men in serious suits. “Yes,” I laugh, and step over the familiar threshold and into Notarberadino’s hallway, lined with oversized antique picture frames, and lit, perpetually, with a dim red light, walking past the low-hanging crystal chandelier and beaded curtains and into his living room. I find a spot on the floor in front of the makeshift stage as the sideshow performer Anna Monoxide enters in a velvet robe, eyes obscured by a black veil less sheer than the fabric covering her pussy. She tugs seductively on the veil, revealing that it’s pinned to the skin of her forehead with long needles; as she slides them out one by one, blood streams down in crimson rivulets around her fluttering false lashes. She licks the needle, then grabs another, four inches long with a red rose at the end, undulating her body as she pushes it through the skin of her breast. The crowd cheers. Then she pulls her skirt up in phases, revealing her cunt, and plunges the next needle into the tender skin above her clit.

In creating a liberatory space where the sexual norms of society do not apply, both parties seek to create a haven for self-expression. But for the Chelsea’s queer community, this is not a luxury, but a form of survival.”

It’s hard to convey Monoxide’s sheer force of character, the contagious energy that makes each act feel like one of celebration, and the full-throated support of her audience: fellow sideshow performers, artists, and fixtures of the underground nightlife scene who spend their evenings on stage entertaining the upper class, then slip away to the Chelsea to perform for the pleasure of their peers. After her act, Monoxide grabs the mic to say a few words: “I want to say thank you to Tony for making all of us freaks and weirdos feel so good,” she beams, her rhinestone grill coated with blood. “And for giving us space to do the crazy shit that we do.”

As Monoxide rolls up the clear plastic tarp to contain the biohazard, the artist Caroline Caldwell—a longtime friend and Chelsea regular—presses me for details about the sex party. Six glasses of champagne deep, I struggle to find words for the fact that it felt like a hyper-commodified, pay-to-play version of the party unfolding around us—one intended for people who want to sample sexual liberation for a night, rather than building a life around the principles that enable it. Caldwell understands immediately: “Everyone wants to let their freak flag fly for a day,” she says. “But for the people here, it’s a lifestyle. They can’t just go home, wash off the costume, and put on their 9-to-5 drag. It’s the one space of normalcy for someone that feels abnormal in the rest of the world.”

Like the secretive members-only sex club, this party is full of near-naked people sipping glasses of prosecco. And like the sex club, everyone is here because we are collectively longing for something deeper, more present, more real—a place to be yourself in the company of people who won’t judge you. But Notarberardino’s parties are populated not with lawyers, celebrities, and public figures, but with strippers and showgirls, starving artists and aspiring musicians, sideshow performers and professional clowns—people who don’t adhere to the expectations of polite society, whether due to their sexuality, gender expression, or choice of profession. There are no rules or wristbands, and rather than being professionally vetted for social status, attractiveness, and affluence, everyone in this room is here because they have, in one way or another, defected from the norm, and made it safe for others to do the same. In creating a liberatory space where the sexual norms of society do not apply, both parties seek to create a haven for self-expression. But for the Chelsea’s queer community, this is not a luxury, but a form of survival.

After the performers take their final bow, I kick off my stilettos and make my way to the bedroom, where a beautiful stranger extends mushroom chocolate toward my mouth. Why not, I decide, and take it like a religious sacrament. The room is buzzing with feeling; performers and audience alike winding down, dropping acid, stripping layers of lingerie and social conditioning. As the sun starts to rise, I learn who had a bad day, who’s doubting themselves, who’s experienced a recent win, and who’s struggling with money or love. It feels like a sleepover, only everyone is naked, in a costume, or in Monoxide’s case, covered in blood. “This must be the coolest party in New York,” I hear someone say. He recounts the night’s performances; the Chelsea’s history; the fact that we’re slumped against the technicolor walls painted by the late artist Vali Myers, in an apartment once occupied by Dee Dee Ramone. Yes, we all agree, then ask him to pass the champagne.