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Public Displays of Affection

Sex in the park, on the street, in a cab, at the bar; exhibitionism isn’t just a fantasy in New York.

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‘I fantasize about having sex in the middle of the U.N. General Assembly,” says 28-year-old grad student Will. “Imagine the international spectacle the event would represent!” His choice of venue is a little narcissistic, but Will’s exhibitionist scenario isn’t exactly unique, according to a forthcoming book by British psychoanalyst Brett Kahr, Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?, based on the largest study of sexual fantasies ever undertaken.

According to the book, having sex in a public place is a common fantasy. An Elle–MSNBC.com survey conducted last year found that 22 percent of Americans had done it in public in the preceding year. But almost everyone we spoke with in New York had a tale of public or semi-public lewdness. Which leads us to conclude—admittedly unscientifically—that the rest of the country is bringing us down in the polls.

“We’ve done it on rooftops, in empty subway cars, in the backseat of cabs, in bar and restaurant bathrooms, in our offices, under a blanket in Central Park,” says one twentysomething couple, covering in one zipless relationship the most common public sex acts among the New Yorkers we interviewed. “Pretty much wherever the mood strikes us.”

We’re living in a brave new world of exhibitionism made up of blogs, online personals, and YouTube. And celebrities seem to be boasting of public sex dalliances of late, often in a relationship post mortem: Stroke Fabrizio Moretti in a New York opera-house bathroom with Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber on the Staten Island Ferry, Kirsten Dunst (allegedly) all over the place with Jake Gyllenhaal. But why are we so much naughtier here?

“There is so much energy and excitement in this town. It makes you think you can do just about anything, including have sex in random, public places,” says 31-year-old Wall Street project manager Thora, who once did it on the steps of the Criminal Court building after a particularly boisterous evening of karaoke at nearby Winnie’s. “Plus the fact that most of the inhabitants are young, liberal, horny, relatively well off, and frequently drunk—it’s like a recipe for public sex!”

Perhaps X-rated PDA is so pervasive here out of necessity. “Public sex in New York is almost redundant to me: We all live on top of each other and have no privacy—just ask my upstairs neighbor,” says Louise, a 34-year-old book editor in midtown who’s done it on her desk after office hours and in a shades-up apartment while the people across the way watched. “And if you do indulge alfresco here, you’d better be turned on by the thought of getting caught, rather than the idea of getting away with it, since in all likelihood someone will see you.”

Maybe that’s why we like it so much. Dr. Paul Dobransky, a psychiatrist and author of the forthcoming The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love, explains, “If you look at our two core instincts—survival and reproduction—then you can split arousal into two categories: danger arousal, which is a call to arms or to action, and sexual arousal, which is a call to reproduce. They’re two sides of the same coin, but the brain doesn’t always know the difference and can easily confuse the two.”

It would seem that the “danger” element is mostly an illusion—save for the Opie and Anthony stunt five years ago that resulted in arrests and fines (in flagrante in St. Patrick’s is a bit much even for New Yorkers).

“People are less scandalized here if they catch you,” says 29-year-old Greg, who got active in the back of a cab recently and gave the cabbie an extra big tip for being cool about it. Take one summer night in Tompkins Square Park, where Greg and his buddies noticed a woman literally hugging a tree while receiving 30 minutes of posterior oral attention from her male companion. “They didn’t even flinch when a passerby spotted the tryst and hopped the fence to get closer.”

But whether as observers or participants, the reality rarely lives up to the fantasy. It’s usually a rite of passage that need not be revisited too regularly, much like threesomes or tattoos.

“I definitely don’t fantasize about sex in public anymore after having what we’ll call a ‘youth played out in public,’ ” says 37-year-old lawyer Amy, a longtime West Village resident. “I realized that once the titillation over the space itself ended, the sex always sucked.” Even Greg knows when enough is enough. “I once did it in the bathroom at that Lower East Side dive bar Welcome to the Johnsons. Gross, right? I won’t even pee in there, normally. What the hell was I thinking?”

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