The Messy Aftermath of a Rape at New Orleans's Beloved Nudist Country Club
The clothes have come back on and the victim has suffered panic attacks and public shaming.
Photos by Susan Burck
This summer, Maria Treme was drugged and sexually assaulted at the Country Club, a clothing-optional pool and bar in New Orleans's Bywater neighborhood. On June 30 she spent several hours there, soaking up rays in the buff while sipping margaritas. Then, at some point, she blacked out. According to WWL TV, Treme didn't remember paying her piddly $36 bar tab, or signing the credit card slip for another, more expensive, tab later. She remembers little besides waking up in her bed at home, bruised, beside a bottle of lube she did not recognize. Also, her car was gone.
When Treme returned to the Country Club to start piecing together the events with the venue's concerned staff, she was shocked to watch a video of herself that she didn't remember. After speaking to witnesses, she pieced together the horrifying fact that she had had sex in the pool with one man, sex in the sauna with another man, and then left the Country Club wrapped only in a towel with a third man.
This mysterious assault has made her life harder in all the expected ways—and then the city's Alcohol and Beverage Control Board reacted to her allegations by dangling the Country Club's alcohol permit over the club, threatening to take it away unless they made their clientele put their clothes back on. This misguided punishment led some in the community to harshly blame the already distraught Treme for ruining a New Orleans "tradition."
Now the 31-year-old feels uncomfortable on the streets of the city where she was born and raised and suffers from panic attacks. Still, Treme refuses to remain quiet about what happened to her. Most rape victims' names are concealed by the authorities, but Treme has spoken out and let her photo be published in order to empower other rape victims. "You're always told you need to talk about your feelings," Treme told me on the phone. "You're told that talking is the only thing that will make you feel better—except in cases of sexual assault, then people shame you into silence."
The beautiful Italianate raised center hall cottage that is now the Country Club was built in 1884. In 1977 it was officially but quietly established as a clothing-optional pool and bar unofficially but specifically for gay men. Attorney Jacqueline McPherson purchased the property in 1978 and expanded and added upon the pool area, which now has many private nooks and crannies. By the time McPherson sold the place in 2000, the Country Club had become ground zero for the gay-friendly Marigny neighborhood in the summers and for visitors during the Southern Decadence festival and other gay New Orleans holidays.
When I asked an older gay friend his thoughts on the Country Club for this article, he said only, "I went rarely; I'm just not that into public sex."
Other gay friends said similar things they didn't want quoted. Only Otis Fennel, 67, who has visited the Country Club most days it's been open, would speak on the record—and even he was protective, saying only, "The 80s were a whole different world," and, "Everyone always respected each other."
The club's status as a refuge for gay men shifted over time, however. Even before Katrina, I knew Bourbon Street strippers who loved sunbathing nude at the Country Club (no tan lines that way) among the gay men who paid them no mind. Other women began following suit—which eventually attracted us straight guys, who, as usual, ruined everything for everyone.
"The changes really did not occur until just the last five or six years," Otis explained. "Post Katrina they upgraded it, re-landscaped the deck. It's now got a well maintained saline pool, a fine bar, and a new, excellent restaurant." Either way, when the general population started attending the Country Club, a sign went up: "No Public Sex."
Though Otis does not see public sex as a necessity of gay life, he bemoans the loss of New Orleans's secret gay culture at the hands of mainstream assimilation, pointing to the recent closing of New Orleans's last secret French Quarter bathhouse. His shop in the city's musical hub, Faubourg Marigny Art and Books, is the last of the great Southern gay and lesbian bookstores.
"These gay spaces are important," he said. "On Frenchmen Street, I am exposing thousands of people to gay life and what literature is available. It's not just entertainment. These places offer a unique educational sort of thing."
There has been a continuous chipping away at the general music, art, and bohemian culture of New Orleans since the beginning of the Mitch Landrieu administration in 2010, though much of it can be blamed on neighborhood groups posing as mini-governments. Following a post-Katrina wave of gentrification, oppressive factions have used any complaint against a bar or nightclub as an excuse to neuter and normalize the city's once-permissive personality: Bands and clubs are fined for posting fliers, bars that earn noise complaints have their go-cup rights taken away and are forced to impose early closing times, second-line fees have increased as Mardi Gras parade hours have been capped. In the case of the Country Club, the owners of neighboring Markey's Bar used the rape case as an occasion to work up a petition against the pool.
Many Americans who have spent time exploring the dynamic beaches of Europe feel embarrassed of their own country's immaturity and prudishness regarding public nudity. People visit New Orleans to be set free from this type of Puritan bullshit. The Country Club's clothing optional policy was one of the primary reasons Bywater owns a reputation as a neighborhood that embraces a certain freedom and colors outside the social norms. When the city decided that being nude at a swimming pool constituted "disturbance of the peace or obscene, lewd, sexually indecent, immoral, or improper conduct," it didn't just harm a gay New Orleans tradition, it also hampered the personality of a beloved neighborhood and, in turn, our famously wild city.
"One of the greatest benefits you could offer to a visitor to this community is something different, something unusual, colorful," said Otis. "People loved that it was a little risqué. Now, I feel there is a void there."
Meanwhile, Maria Treme's nightmarish situation has only intensified—starting with the New Orleans Police Department. According to WWL, the cops decided they needed to gather more evidence from Treme before taking her to the hospital. In the meantime, the drug she'd been slipped (doctors reportedly suspect GHB, since Treme had remained social while blacked out) had left Treme's system before she could take blood test, though even if they'd found drugs in her system, she'd then have to prove she didn't take them voluntarily. "The drugging probably won't be on camera," said Treme, who is still reviewing over 100 hours of tape from various angles. "These aren't night-vision cameras anyway, so once night falls they are useless."
Calls to the Country Club went unreturned, but it does seem to have installed new cameras.
Treme admirably complicates her own situation by refusing to accuse all three men of rape. "I want the sicko who drugged me," she said. "I don't think it would be fair to have multiple people arrested for this. I don't want to, out of my anger and seeking justice, peg someone as a rapist if they just happened to walk into this incredibly fucked-up situation. I am trying to be thoughtful about all of this."
When the police didn't call her back for three weeks after her initial report, she phoned WWL and, following the station's TV story, the cops were blowing up Treme's cell. Her car was finally found at a local impound lot, but she couldn't free her vehicle because she couldn't pay a $700 fee and didn't have her car key. Through the window, on the seat inside, she could see a cellphone that was not hers and some other items she didn't recognize. But the cops she was with refused to break into the car for her. The police told her to call them when she had her keys, and left.
Then in October, as the community stewed over having lost its nude swimming privileges, some coward printed up fliers featuring Maria Treme's face and the words " NO EVIDENCE OF RAPE!" The fliers were posted around Bywater and Marigny.
Bywater can possess the same charms as Sesame Street: a small, colorful community where walking around means talking to all of your friends and other neighbors who, even if they don't know your name, recognize you. By the same token, gossip moves quickly and deep in tiny New Orleans, especially in Bywater, and while the city can be remarkably understanding and nonjudgmental about one's unfortunate drunken antics, it is not as forgiving to those perceived as having fucked with any sort of local "tradition."
"My city that I love with all of my heart and am so proud to be born and raised in scares me now, especially when I am in the Bywater and Marigny," Treme wrote in a Facebook post. "This flyer is the final step toward me never wanting to step foot in that area again."
Local gossip and media coverage became so heated that Maria finally heard from two of the three men she had sex with that night. She wouldn't share much about those conversations, only, "Speaking to these two men, I can tell they are scared and confused. Could one of them be a liar? I dunno."
The publicity also helped Treme raise the money to get her car back. "When I got in it, there was a bar of soap in the backseat with a very clear pubic looking hair inside of it," she said.
After she told them it was there, the cops came and bagged up the soap as evidence. Still, no arrests have been made.
"The city is an irredeemable bully," wrote lawyer Owen Courreges of the Country Club case in his Uptown Messenger column. "Nudity is no more a cause of rape than is the wearing of a short skirt."
A couple weeks after Treme's assault, Beyonce and Jay Z swam at the Country Club's pool while visiting Bey's sister Solange, who recently moved into what was, until fairly recently, a low-to-middle-class locals-only 'hood. Ed Sharpe and the singer from Arcade Fire recently moved to New Orleans, and Louis CK and Hannibal Buress have chosen several New Orleans clubs to try out new material this month. Now people actually call this place "Hollywood South" out loud, without irony.
"I'd been feeling uncomfortable lately down [in Bywater and Marigny] already, to be honest," said Treme, who lives in Mid City. "There's always someone who wants to give you a speech on New Orleans. Everyone speaks to everyone as if they are trying to teach them what New Orleans means. It's weird to have some young kid tell me about the importance of my city where I was born and raised."
Currently, though, Treme is more concerned with changing how druggings and sexual assaults are handled in New Orleans. "The NOPD doesn't have a protocol when this happens," she said. "They need to know the exact steps they must follow, and if they don't follow protocol they get reprimanded." She has a meeting scheduled soon with higher-ups at NOPD to discuss putting in place a better system for these kids of cases.
Treme is also getting ready to soon anonymously publish all the correspondence she has received from strangers in the wake of her very public assault. "I have gotten hundreds of letters and almost all of them start with the words, 'You don't know me but...' followed by horrific stories of being drugged and assaulted—some of them at the Country Club. These people don't tell their stories publicly, but they want their stories heard," said Treme, "because this victim-blaming mentality has to stop. This shame we put on people, it only helps the rapists."
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(Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the victim had watched all of the events on video. She actually pieced it together by speaking to witnesses.)
- New Orleans
- sexual assault
- Michael Patrick Welch
- public sex
- country clubs
- Alcohol and Beverage Control Board
- Maria Treme
- Jacqueline McPherson
- Southern Decadence fest
- Otis Fennel
- damned heterosexuals
- straight men ruin everything
- Post-Katrina gentrification
- public nudity
- nude sunbathing
- not having clothes on
- nude country clubs