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In New York, Even the Orgies Are Getting Gentrified

A new wave of erotic parties catering to 1 percenters and the 'sexual elite' has made group sex trendy again.

Palagia started throwing orgies because she needed the money. It was the late 90s, and she and her friends had been living in a West Village squat until it was burned down by mistake—her roommates left before it was rebuilt, but despite threats of eviction, the Greek-American decided to stay. The problem was that she couldn't afford rent on her salary as a teacher.

"I had to come up with a creative idea to keep living there because I was making next to nothing," she told me during a recent conversation at her current apartment in Chelsea. The West Village townhouse was behind an iron gate and looked like a jail, making it an ideal space for a certain kind of theatrical—and erotic—party.

Palagia (pronounced pal-asia, it's a pseudonym; she didn't want her real name to appear in this article) had plenty of experience with sex-filled events. She attended her first orgy in 1990, before she was old enough to drink, at a DC restaurant near the National Mall. The event, thrown by a group called Capitol Couples, could be described as a swinger's party, though Palagia refuses to use that term (or the word orgy, for that matter). She was "totally shocked" at first; she even ran into her second-grade teacher and her husband, who was handcuffed to a toilet and wearing a cock ring. Her teacher was so embarrassed that she immediately uncuffed her spouse, put his pants on, and left.

"What I learned from this wasn't about shame, but it clarified something else," she explained. "That couple always seemed the most in love, the most connected, as opposed to the other couples and families in my suburban town. They were living this lifestyle and creating fantasy together."

Speaking of orgies, here's an interview Noisey did with Ty Dolla $ign.

Palagia remained a part of the group sex party scene after moving to New York in 1996, regularly attending S&M events at the Vault—a notorious kinky spot in the Meatpacking District that supposedly featured celebrity cameos from Madonna, Robert Downey Jr., and Heather Locklear. She went to sexy shindigs at places like the Hellfire Club, Idlewise, Trapeze, and Checkmates (the latter still exists). Each had its own style and vibe, but Palagia thought she could one-up them. "I always loved erotica, but didn't like the rules of erotica or the rules that were currently in the books or in people's minds," she explained. "I wanted women to come to a sexy environment and make their own rules, break them, be naked, masturbate—but no one would touch them without permission." One Leg Up was born.

I wanted women to come to a sexy environment and make their own rules, break them, be naked, masturbate—but no one would touch them without permission. —Palagia

In the beginning, OLU was strictly a rent party. Palagia's friends would pay nothing, $10, or a max of $80 for a couple, and the hostess didn't see it as a business. "It's not like I woke up one day and said, 'I want to start organizing sex parties as my career,'" she told me. "I came up with an idea to save my own self in the way that I wanted to be saved. And people thought I was fucking crazy."

Palagia's brother made her a simple website in 2000, and she developed a roster of paying members as well as a rigorous application process (you had to write an intelligent essay if you wanted in)—both features most sex parties didn't have at the time. Her goal was to build a community that was about "safe and sensual environments for women." By the early 2000s, OLU had expanded into two events, a "whetting your palate" sex-free party called a Take-Out where couples could mingle, and the full-on soirees, which Palagia branded as Eat-Ins.

"I played and I fucked and I had a great time. Those were the fun days," she said. In 2003 a writer from the New York Post came to one of her events and published a positive piece that emphasized her parties' high standards. After that, Palagia resigned from her teaching position and became a full-time sex party planner. "After that article published, I knew I was on to something," she said. "[One Leg Up] started to grow even more and blossomed into something that I didn't expect."

Over the years, the events have acquired an aesthetic—a fusion of burlesque performance art, nostalgia for the 20th century, and a type of sensuality you might find in vintage French porn. In other words, the sort of orgy your grandmother might have been comfortable attending, assuming she attended orgies. Each party has a theme: "Sexy Medics," or "Flower Power," or a Roaring 20s event that required guests to don pinstripe suits, flapper dresses, and old-timey masks.

Palagia goes out of her way to make each event as immersive (and theatrical) as possible. She hires live musicians, stilt walkers, fortunetellers, and conversation facilitators to help break the ice. She also bans guests from using technology like smartphones, ensuring a certain amount of focus on the task at hand. Each event starts out like an ordinary costume party before the focus shifts and the guests begin to engage in all types of sex—be it group play, sensual touching, or light BDSM.

One Leg Up is one of the oldest sex parties in New York—Palagia says she knows 15-year-old kids who were conceived at her events.

At one recent party, held in a sprawling apartment suite in downtown Manhattan, I saw a nude 50-something-year-old man use a feather duster to tickle a young Italian woman's nipples while his wife went down on her. In another room, a 48-year-old woman from New Jersey sat on a leather couch and let a stranger hold her new fake breasts—though she didn't allow him to touch her below the waist.

OLU is one of the oldest sex parties in New York—Palagia says she knows 15-year-old kids who were conceived at her events—and also a vestige of a bygone era, a remnant of the days when squatters lived in the West Village and hype spread through word of mouth, not social media. Today there are more sex parties than ever, and thanks to the internet it's never been easier to indulge your sexual whims—take your Tinder date to a swingers club! Or cut out the middleman and form your own Tinder orgy! But as group sex becomes more mainstream, and a new wave of parties sell themselves on being expensive and exclusive, some experienced prurient partiers in the scene are wondering if they've lost a little bit of soul on the way.

Illustrations by Heather Benjamin

Group sex has been around since at least the days of antiquity, but in the American imagination, orgies really took off in the 1970s. Not only is that decade now known for kicking off the " Golden Age of Porn," it was also when the swinging subculture emerged into mainstream consciousness (maybe most famously, a pair of New York Yankees swapped families in 1973). Stereotypes about orgies are still linked to that time: aging dudes with Ron Jeremy mustaches, vaguely European men wearing medallions in hot tubs, " key parties."

Libertine New York City was home to a thriving group-sex scene for years, but the community hit some turbulence in the 2000s. Rents were going up, making it difficult to maintain a consistent venue—Palagia had to move out of her townhouse and OLU became a wandering party that was held in a series of apartments and hotel rooms. But after 9/11, Palagia said, new regulations required hotels to restrict guests from having a certain number of people in a room unless they all signed in, making anonymous orgies more difficult to organize. The financial crisis only made things worse.

"Once the recession hit in 2008, I noticed that people's creative energy was depleted and [party organizers] were under a lot of duress," Palagia told me. At one point, she rented out her personal apartment for a full year to keep her business afloat.

We built a dome on the roof, would bring fire spinners, multiple DJs, and had our own Burning Man camp. —Kenny Blunt

Kenny Blunt, who has organized Chemistry, a New York sex party for Burning Man devotees, since 2006, remembers a similar orgy slowdown. When he and his co-hosts first started the event series, "it was always like a labor of love and it was always a crazy situation," he told me. "We built a dome on the roof, would bring fire spinners, multiple DJs, and had our own Burning Man camp." You couldn't get away with that sort of thing now, however, he explained: "New York has changed a lot in the last ten years. We can't get away with that stuff anymore, and it's really sad to me because rooftop events aren't the same. No one allows you to do anything on a rooftop anymore."

But even if New York is tamer than it used to be, in many ways it's easier to organize a sex party than ever. In the past few years, money has come flooding back into the city, and people are more open to the idea of orgies than they once were.

"When I first starting attending these kinds of events, they were hard to find," explained Larisa Fuchs, founder of House of Scorpio, an LGBT-friendly sex party and longtime friend of Palagia's. "I've seen kink, swinging, polysexuality, and polyamory come out of the shadows more and more in the last twenty years, and especially in the last few.

"The internet has helped a great deal—it's so much easier to organize, promote, find your people," she added. Thanks to the web, there are now "more sex parties than ever."

And in a world where there's an app to set up threesomes, fewer sex parties feel the need to hide their light under a bushel—there's Sanctum, for instance, the exclusive club that bills itself as "LA's #1 erotic experience." In London, there are a host of fancy orgies, including the Heaven SX event series, which caters to the hottest of the hot. The most famous sex party to emerge in recent years is probably Killing Kittens, an extremely posh London-based affair that, like One Leg Up, sells itself partly on being about women's pleasure. The difference is that KK is explicitly marketed to the "world's sexual elite" and cultivates a mask-heavy Eyes Wide Shut vibe—and while OLU has stayed local, KK is attempting to become a global brand.

In March, KK came to New York, and a Post preview of the event practically drooled over the idea of 1 percenters having exotic encounters with one another:

Leggy models in Christian Louboutin heels and Wolford stockings glide from room to candlelit room. A dapper man in a custom suit eyes them while sipping Champagne by the mansion's fireplace. A DJ plays in a corner. Oysters are slurped at the bar.

And then, in a matter of minutes, pants are off, bras are unhooked and a tangled web of nude revelers go at it on a bed plopped smack in the middle of the 12,000-square-foot home.

That sort of press undoubtedly helped KK's NYC launch sell out (tickets were priced at $250 for couples and $150 for single women—men cannot attend by themselves), leading the organizers to add a second weekend. Call it the Coachella of orgies. Or, as one attendee later described her experience to me, "Killing Kittens felt like the Starbucks of sex clubs, complete with disgruntled workers suffering through a soundtrack of Rihanna dubstep remixes." The sex writers who descended upon the event in the service of gonzo-style reviews were even more scathing, calling it "the nakedest middle school dance I'd attended in decades," "a bust," and "depressing."

I attended the second KK party later that month, at a rented loft in the Flatiron district, and it was what you would expect: plasma TVs everywhere, a leopard-print pool table, speakers pulsing EDM. Guests—many of them Wall Streeters with foreign women on their arms—were wearing expensive suits and cheap masks. There was a lot of awkward mingling and chain-smoking on the tiny balcony while attendees gathered enough liquid courage to enter a "play area" in a separate room that included a humongous bed and a perimeter of pleather couches. At the bar, a real estate broker told me that attending Killing Kittens was a reward to himself for closing a multimillion-dollar deal. His date, a European woman who didn't seem to know him very well, said the exclusivity attracted her.

Once attendees finally did embrace the "sex" part of the "sex party," the physicality barely felt as interesting or unique as the price tag and branding might suggest. As I sat on the couch and observed the play room, a handsome man more or less climbed on my date (with her consent) and whispered something like, "You're a freaky girl, aren't you?" She humored him for a minute, but sharply kicked him off her lap once he began chewing on her ear like a dog toy. On the big bed, it looked like a flesh pit of people auditioning for amateur porn. As people fucked in Brazzers-friendly positions (doggy, missionary, nothing particularly exotic), it sounded like each cluster of well-tanned limbs was trying to out-moan the next.

Another guest, who had also attended One Leg Up the prior week, said "for a party that is promoting itself as 'elite,' you'd expect something better than TVs playing Breakfast at Tiffany's on loop, IKEA furniture, and $15 vodka sodas in plastic cups. If I had paid for this myself, I would feel like a sucker."

This points to an obstacle many sex parties overcome—it can be surprisingly hard to create intimacy at events centered around the most intimate act of all. This is especially true as parties like Kenny Blunt's Chemistry grow and have to adapt to changing circumstances.

"We did a slight price increase a couple years ago. We have to because costs rise. It's a much bigger production now than it used to be," Blunt told me. "We used to fit everything we need in our conversion van, which was like a Scooby-Doo kind of van. And now we rent a 15-foot truck and have a storage space filled."

That's a big change for what was once a "friend-filled zone," as Blunt described it, which is now populated by a lot of outsiders who might not be familiar with what is going on. "You know we do try, especially at the beginning [of an event], to welcome new people, and kind of answer questions," he said. "But it is an environment where you are kind of thrown in on your own. It's a big party."

Killing Kittens, for one, shows no signs of feeling ambiguous about bigness—there's another New York event on May 30, and founder Emma Sayle has expanded to Australia while eyeing Canada and other European cities. "We can launch anywhere in the world, as long as we have the right partners who understand the brand," she told me in an email.

Chemistry is following that model of expansion as well, and their next party is also on May 30. "We'd like to do a few other big events and maybe do a ski weekend or trip with a core group," Blunt told me. "We might want to start franchising in other cities, too."

This is a normal enough model for any entertainment brand—develop a product that people like, test it in different markets, spread as far and as fast as you can. But some veteran erotic-party organizers are suspicious of these sorts of ventures.

"I think [Killing Kittens] is so cheesy," Palagia told me. "It will be nothing but a one-hit wonder because it's contrived and only focused on the money.

"People respect my parties and keep coming back because I've curated them in a way that's true to my own vision," she continued. "I'm not saying I'm better than all the other parties. I just have a different style, and that's why I've been doing this the longest."

Larisa Fuchs agrees that the mentality some parties embrace is flawed. "One pet peeve I have about other parties is that entry requirements, like wearing a costume or bringing a partner, can be bypassed with enough money," she said. "Having the ability to pay a premium doesn't make someone a better fit for your party, unless what you're really after is a following of those who can pay the premium."

Plenty of people seem happy to pay, however, and the idea of rich people having strange forms of sex seems guaranteed to get press—as a Daily Mail headline from January put it, "The rise of the middle-class swinger! Posh orgies the hottest new trend as professional couples flock to VIP-style sex parties."

The question is whether these erotic events will sustain themselves for a long time—whether they can make the transition from mere parties to communities a la One Leg Up. In any case, Palagia is still going to be in New York City doing her thing; it's not just a job, it's her lifestyle. "I'm going to throw these parties until I can't fucking walk," she told me. "Well, even then I still might throw them."

Follow Zach Sokol on Twitter.