Sex: The Multiplicity of Desire

The Hidden Chamber, Chelsea.Photo: Pari Dukovic

Among the fetishists, Hell’s Kitchen.

As soon as the elevator doors open in the mid-rise apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen, the host is there, in the doorway directly across from me, clipboard in hand. He is round, probably in his early forties, in a gray tank top, with close-cropped, thinning, graying hair and goatee; long, coarse hairs sprout from his shoulders and flabby upper arms as well. I follow him inside, past a dark sheet draped straight across the entryway and into a tiny, dirty kitchen to the left. He asks my name. I say, “Dan.” Immediately I say, “Shit.”

As has become a norm and especially in these situations, we’d made our acquaintance first virtually; I’d found his “party” via a Google search, which precipitated a brief e-mail exchange. Over the span of three Saturday nights, I’ve been sent out across New York in pursuit of some of the ways its 8.5 million inhabitants pursue each other. Of course, I cannot tell him this.

“James,” I say. “My name’s James.”

He looks at me. He smiles. “So which is it, Danjames?”

I tell him the truth. I give him my $20. He scratches out James on the clipboard, writes Dan. He asks whether it is my first time. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. We’re a very welcoming group.” He asks if I want a drink, pours Diet Coke into a paper cup, and leads me into the small, dimly lit living room. About eight men of varying ages and races are seated on two couches. There are, as well, chairs positioned next to an upright piano. I make my way toward one of them, careful to avoid stepping on a man inhaling furtively, lying on his back in front of one of the couches, a set of feet resting atop his completely obscured face, his erect penis in his hand.

Soon, two others will kneel on the floor in front of me. Each will take a foot, looking up to ask—mostly with their eyes—for permission to proceed. Despite desperately not wanting them to, I will feel I cannot say no, I will nod yes, and they will begin untying, with extraordinary care and delicateness, the laces of my shoes.

Ok, Cupid, How About We Match Plenty of Fishes in eHarmony?
Online dating moves offline in several Brooklyn bars.

Scott, a 27-year-old digital analyst, moved to Carroll Gardens two years ago, and despite being attractive and outgoing—he cycles and runs and plays dodgeball with a club he joined—and being “in love with New York,” he’s found meeting girls here tough. After his best friend met her future husband on, he figured he’d give online dating a try. A stint on OkCupid had not gone particularly well, leaving him questioning the site’s use of algorithms to filter matches—he likened it to—and realizing that “in a catalogue of music and movies, I’m an average guy, I won’t shine.” What he thinks he is good at, though, is actual dating. Exploiting a discount code he found online, he’d joined How About We, a site that operates under the icebreaking conceit of users’ offering ideas for first dates. His suggestion: “How ’bout we play a board game at a bar?”

And so after two drinks, he and his date—we’ll call her Amy—who’ve just met for the first time in three dimensions, press on to Zombie Hut, which he’s chosen specifically for that possibility. It is, however, packed. So they instead share a fishbowl full of punch with two straws. Scott had pegged Amy as a “finance-y girl,” but “not high-maintenance,” and meeting her in person, he’s not disappointed. Her dirty-blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail, and she’s wearing a long blue dress and denim jacket, which Scott likes and thinks affirms the plaid shirt and boots he’s chosen to convey, he hopes, “I can go out and have fun, but I’m also responsible, I have a job that pays bills.” The conversation flows easily: He grew up in New Jersey; in fact, he has a tattoo of the state on his chest, which she thinks is funny. She’s from New England; both are big fans of Mad Men. They both seem to be having fun, so they head to the Clover Club, and as they’re walking, their hands find each other’s. Scott pays for the drinks they order. Indeed, he pays for everything—he’d asked her out; it’s a notion instilled in him by his father, an “older gentlemen,” Scott says, who passed away last year. Alas, it’s loud here, too, so they proceed to Camp, one of Scott’s haunts. Sitting at the bar, he leans clandestinely to whisper to the bartender. A little while later, the bartender brings out the s’mores platter, something Scott almost always would have reserved for a second date. They share it, they’re smiling, they’re talking, they’re sitting close.

The Copacabana, midtown.Photo: Pari Dukovic

It’s late. Outside, Scott hails Amy a cab back to Manhattan. She refuses to let him pay for it. The truth is they are very drunk. They agree tonight was fun. They discuss their weeks, they are both busy, they agree perhaps the weekend after next. Before she climbs into the backseat, Scott leans in and kisses her cheek. She smiles. The Scott of two years ago was an altogether different beast: Bringing a cute girl home was the only measure of a successful night.

Walking home, he stumbles a bit. He is still smiling. He is, he thinks, an old soul. It takes some effort to climb to the top floor of the brownstone apartment he shares with two girls his age and to his bedroom at the top, beneath a low, sloping ceiling. He lies down on his bed. On the walls, which he’d painted blue, hang a few medals from races he’s run, a map made of license plates, a Chris Mullin jersey, and an abacus. Lying there alone, still in his clothes and boots, he falls soundly asleep.

Her Name Is Tina, She Was a Showgirl, but That Was 30 Years Ago, When They Used to Have a Show
A golden-years mixer at the Copacabana, near Times Square.

A few blocks from Times Square, about 200 men and women congregate on the top-floor atrium of the recast Copacabana for a mixer organized by the New York City Baby Boomers group. They range in age from 49 to 80 and are all single. The ceiling rises dramatically; there are blue laser lights, a D.J., and a dance floor where a portal has opened, time has collapsed on itself, and they have returned to the eighth grade.

Marc Anthony implores: “Tell me baby girl ’cause I need to know.”

They stand around the perimeter, watching about a dozen couples dance. The aptitude of the dancers varies: Many shuffle back and forth from foot to foot, clapping off-rhythm; others bob like buoys; two showboaters betray their obvious time in ballroom-dancing classes. A fiftysomething in a tweed sport coat and black pants, his thin hair dyed the same brown as his mustache, approaches an Asian woman in a partially sheer black dress: “You dance the hustle?” he asks, shifting on his feet. She smiles demurely. “You gonna dance with me?” She does not answer. He keeps at it. What ensues is a public molestation punctuated by twirls.

Whitney Houston declares: “I’m every woman.”

Jackie has come to the Copacabana with some girlfriends from New Jersey. She will not say her age. She dated a guy she met here—a college professor with whom she’d connected “intellectually”—but after five months, she’d cut things off: Despite being a millionaire, he would not spend any money. She’d been married previously. She’d loved her husband but for a very long time “was not in love with him.” It wasn’t that they grew apart; “we just never really grew together.” She’d read the other day in the Times that a lot of people were divorcing in their fifties, “like 50 percent.”

The problem is there are so few options. The guys at the clubs are too young; she’d tried eHarmony; she’d wanted to go to another, similar event yesterday hosted by one “Steve Fox,” who tends to attract men of “a higher caliber,” but they—Jackie gestures to one of her friends standing beside her—couldn’t. Her friend, bolder and with a thicker North Jersey accent, makes a face and points to “that one, over there,” a woman in the middle of the dance floor who at this moment throws her head back, tosses her bright-yellow hair, and playfully pushes away the man in Dockers she’s dancing with, simultaneously tugging down on the tiny black Lycra dress that meets her fishnet stockings at the base of her buttocks. Jackie’s friend continues: “Disgusting … get a fucking grip … with the tits sticking out? … I mean, Jesus Christ … that’s all they want.” Jackie is nodding. I ask if they know her. They do not. The friend says: “What’s there to know?”

Her name is Tina. A few minutes later, she is catching her breath, fixing herself, running her fingers through her blonde hair, pulling up the Lycra around her chest. She crosses her legs, leans very close on the couch to talk. She smells like roses and speaks English with a thick accent. She is a blonder version of Charo.

She tells me she grew up in Puerto Rico, came here for college at Trenton State, has lived for the past 25 years in a co-op on Central Park West. Her last relationship was with a professional soccer player from Kazakhstan who approached her in the park a couple of years ago while she was walking her bichons frises, Flash and Scratchy. He was in his thirties, beautiful. At first she resisted, she knew it would not last. It did not; his visa expired. She was alone again, very depressed. Coming here is, for her, “just for fun.” She likes to feel sexy, to dance; the men are all silly, they have no money (the women here, they have all the money), many ask outright for sex.

The Lyghthouse Inn, Sheepshead Bay.Photo: Pari Dukovic

The truth is she would give anything to turn back time, to be back with her husband. They’d met when she was dancing on 48th Street; he’d given her a $50 tip and his business card. He was in the printing business, nothing like her. Together they were crazy. They were married blissfully for 25 years. They had two kids. Eight years ago, he developed pancreatic cancer. For two years, they fought it together. As he lay dying, he told her she was the happiest person he’d ever known. He urged her not to change.

Over on the dance floor now, the lights swirl, Lady Gaga warns that “he can’t read my poker face,” the man in the tweed jacket targets another Asian woman, the ballroom man is with a new partner—plump, brash, wearing polka dots, she’d approached him, their aesthetic more lambada than merengue—while the others look on, like Lydia, 59, a widowed secretary from the Bronx who recalls with nostalgia crazy nightclub parties in the eighties but who, now, would settle for someone to sit next to at the movies; or George, 74, a retired military man and lifelong bachelor who long cared for his sickly mother and feels horrible about recently breaking up with a girlfriend ten years older who’d begun increasingly relying on him for help physically.

Tina tousles her blonde hair and smiles. She says, “I’m trying.”

Dark Mist Rolling In off the Water, a Beacon, Brief Is Enough
At a short-stay Sheepshead Bay motel.

In the parking lot outside the large, squat Lyghthouse Inn not far from Coney Island, the cars trickle in and out, Jaguars, SUVs, taxis. Inside, beneath a brass-leafed recessed ceiling, old nautical oil paintings and photos of iconic New York scenes on the walls, the men do the talking between thick glass at the front counter. “How much for a short stay?” asks one. He has a black plastic bag with a bottle of liquor inside it. His accent sounds Lebanese. The man behind the counter points to the sign without saying anything: $60.

“I have a girl in the car,” the man replies.

There are fixtures with flickering orange bulbs. An African-American couple with many black bags, including one overflowing with off-brand chips, approach the counter side by side. Sometime later, a man with a purple silk button-down, dress pants, and black ponytail walks to the counter, slips $60 beneath the glass, and receives his key, with neither he nor the clerk uttering a word. The woman, a blonde in her fifties with a big chrome-colored purse, her eyes circled in blue makeup, had come in and walked near the vending machines and out of view. She follows him now down the hallway to the fetid, windowless room that for the next four hours will be theirs. Simultaneously, a different kind of guest emerges from a room, a family—a man, a woman, and their three children, all speaking Russian—glancing only briefly at the couple as they pass them on their way out.

Men Are More in Their Heads Than You Thought
A “polite” S&M dungeon, midtown.

“Go ahead and pour some wax on him,” Rebecca suggests to Natalia, who is sitting next to me on a pleather couch in the Red Room. Nearby hangs an elaborate harness and suspension system, numerous paddles and switches and instruments, a device from which weights of ten, twenty, or 50 or more pounds can be hung from the testicles, a gigantic wooden platform with more chains and hooks, hoods, boxing gloves, and a bottle of Purell. Natalia is 24, from a conservative family, and very beautiful, with bangs and big doe eyes. She lights a red candle, turns it horizontal, drips its melting wax onto my naked forearm. She also caresses me with sparks via a terrifying device that ends with a softball-size globe swirling with electricity, and spanks me with a large black paddle. She asks if it’s okay to spank harder. I tell her it is. None of it particularly hurts. Which can be, apparently, the point.

A giant Rottweiler is dozing on the couch in the living room. I’d arrived about an hour earlier—Rebecca, 48, who rents the massive Chelsea loft, had sent the elevator down and let me in—there is a lull in business right now, and the girls and I have gathered to talk. They are a most agreeable, most articulate group: Rebecca and Natalia; plus Alexandria, a thin, redheaded, hard-looking woman with a New England accent in a plastic nurse’s outfit who settles on 35 for her age; and, suffering from a cold, Betty, 24, part Asian, Rubenesque, tumbling out of a billowy, cream-colored nightgown, a recent hire and art-school graduate from the Midwest who seems to be struggling to marry her didactic ideas about sexuality and gender with the job’s on-the-ground realities (i.e., clients consistently choose the conventionally attractive Natalia over her).

Vanilla, Hunts Point.Photo: Pari Dukovic

“My philosophy is that you’re a human being still,” Rebecca says, comparing her dungeon to others in the city, where, she explains, the women never come out of character, savagely beating the men, so that it is not unusual for the clients to end up with horrible bruising and even broken bones. She and her husband, a psychologist practicing on Long Island, frequented all sorts of dungeons before deciding to open this “polite dungeon” of their own, the Hidden Chamber, in 1996.

“We treat our clients as we would want to be treated,” she says. There is no sexual contact whatsoever; the girls do not typically undress. It is a cerebral thing,” she says, and they all agree vigorously. “It’s not about sex. It’s more like a form of therapy.” Rebecca says she’s hired them as much for their intelligence—their ability to carry on an extended, highly creative conversation—as their looks.

This, they say, is what the men are like: Almost always they are married. Sometimes their wives know. They are typically white (sometimes Asian), many are Jewish, most are middle-aged. They are doctors, attorneys, executives, businessmen. They come on work breaks or after work; Natalia likens it to women and pedicures. They spend the vast majority of the time talking. Many want to wear women’s clothes, often not sexy but matronly ones, and be humiliated. Humiliation includes spanking and systematic insults, sometimes proffered by the girls, occasionally received by them. As we’re talking, a client of Rebecca’s arrives. She says it is not a problem, we can keep talking; making him wait can be part of his session.

An hourlong session usually consists of the man sitting beside them on the couch, dialoguing a scenario, primarily “tease and denial,” which ends with him masturbating himself. Mother-son is common. So is sister-brother. There is, as well, father-daughter. Adult-child. Human-dog. Hospital (particularly common with physicians or the sickly). Robot-human. Alien-human (a spaceship has crashed on Earth: “I hear you aliens are big sluts … ”). For eighteen years, one man indulged the same fantasy: His girlfriend was forcing him to suck another man’s penis, to swallow his semen; the mistress would squirt soy milk in his mouth to simulate ejaculation. Another arrived with five pages of typed dialogue, which Natalia memorized and repeats verbatim each time. Natalia’s most difficult session involved a black professional who wanted to be racially humiliated in a slave-master scenario. This is what he wanted her to say: “Don’t you want this hot white pussy? Too bad you’ll never get it, you dirty nigger.” “It was not,” she realizes now, “about me. My only purpose is to help them through what they enjoy.”

Rebecca leaves, then returns a few minutes later. Her thick brown hair has been let loose, her lips are bright red, her attire a mixture of sex and business suit. She says it is rare she sees clients anymore (she is, she acknowledges, “no spring chicken”), but some, including this one, are longtime regulars. She advises me not to worry about what I’m about to hear, it will not hurt as badly as it seems, she can enjoy it. The girls return to their couches in the living room with the Rottweiler, waiting for the bell to sound or phone to ring, half-watching Bob’s Burgers on an iPad or surfing the Internet, a copy of the Steve Jobs biography on the couch. As I tour a few of the empty rooms, lingering over a recent issue of Newcummers, there is a sound from behind the doors far down the hallway: paddle smacking skin. Rebecca’s voice shouts, quivering, “One … two … three—Oh, no, I’m a bad girl—four … five … six … seven … eight … nine … ten … ”

Straight, Gay, Bi, and Curious
Plotting a seduction at a dinner party, Red Hook.

Nutty, 38, self-described “curvy,” with short, brown hair, a project manager for a design-build firm, is, though she does not want to admit it, thinking about a girl we’ll call Kelly. She’d texted her earlier and invited her to late-night karaoke, though she knew Kelly’s parents are visiting; Kelly had texted back that she’d try to make it. Nutty is hosting a dinner party, her loft lit dimly, her iPod shuffling—New Order is playing—her friends at her kitchen table laughing and talking, in the distance the fog horns of Red Hook occasionally sounding.

Kelly, she knows, is nothing approximating the love of her life. That woman was older, bombastic, brilliant, Jewish, “glorious,” with long legs, big boobs, big hair, and a Ph.D., whom she’d met in New York years ago—their first date a screening of North by Northwest at bam. Nutty had followed her to New Mexico when a too-good-to-pass-up university position opened, and they’d lived together in a small desert town with two dogs; it had been their little oasis, until it wasn’t. Nutty still holds out hope they’ll end up together, happily ever after, one day. Which leaves this meantime.

All-night milonga, midtown.Photo: Pari Dukovic

Surrounded by couples (lesbians and gays getting married and having children, imitating, ironically, all these years later, their straight brethren), she is mostly comfortable still reveling in the chase. Although, in this case, it was Kelly—beautiful, strong but feminine—who was the pursuer. One day after work, three drinks in, on the dance floor during karaoke at the bar Hope & Anchor, she was suddenly all over Nutty. She’s ten years younger, and straight, while Nutty is “butch, basically,” though she chafes against the rigidity of the traditional butchness in which one’s vagina goes not only unpenetrated but unacknowledged (a rigidity that’s only hardened recently, she says, with young lesbians in New York frequently undergoing surgery to remove their breasts). And so, driving her back that following morning—after Nutty had agreed to take her home and fucked her again and again with a dildo—Nutty was playful but intent: Her love of the “power of dick” and of “packing” notwithstanding, she wishes to be fucked. Six weeks later, ideas and roles have blurred into … into whatever this is, which, sitting there with her friends, she takes pains not to put too fine a point on.

At the dinner, they eat Brussels-sprout salad and risotto and a chocolate cake drizzled with a sauce a friend makes impromptu out of oranges. They uncork the eighth bottle of wine. When Nutty saw Kelly last, a week earlier, in the street after dancing at a bar in Prospect Heights, she’d seemed agitated; she said she’d had a lot going on at work; she said, “I don’t think I can go home with you tonight.” She was worried Nutty would be upset. Nutty insisted she was not; they were, essentially, “friends with benefits.” Nutty takes her phone out of her pocket and checks one last time.

Though the plan had been to head late-night to Hope & Anchor—it’d been Nutty’s intention to hook up, with Kelly or without—instead she and her friends head down onto a long pier and, overlooking the blinking buoys and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, smoke pot, watch old rap videos on their phones, and, with their arms wrapped around one another, sing the theme song from Flashdance. Back at her apartment, it is very late. She leaves the dishes dirty, brushes her teeth, drops her clothes onto the bathroom floor, grabs her favorite cock (the one with the upturned curve), and, facedown on her bed in the dark, closes her eyes, focusing only on what she’s feeling, which is, soon enough, ecstasy.

Playing, Sharing, Trading, and Teasing
A communal affair at a Chelsea hotel.

There is a process attached to gaining access to the One Leg Up “erotic event” (OLU’s “Yummy President” Palagia finds the terminology “sex party” reductive and degrading, seeing herself as conduit to “the sensual movement”). An application form and photos must be submitted. Those accepted pay a monthly membership, in addition to up to $350 for attendance to events, which vary in sensuality (from “à la carte” to “takeout” to “eat-in”), held once or twice a month in secret locations. I receive an e-mail instructing me to report to a suite at a hotel in Chelsea beginning at 10:30 p.m. and no later than midnight, when the door for tonight’s eat-in soirée would be closed. In keeping with the theme of “Mystery Night”—those not dressed in costume would be made to strip at the door—my date and I (men cannot show up stag) both wear fedoras and scarves.

There are red candles, red rose petals, red lightbulbs, red sheets on a king-size bed in the bedroom, red cloth draped on the old couches in the living room. In the small kitchen, a table has been set up, and the bottles of alcohol we’ve all brought with us are being poured for us by a young blonde bartender in a teddy with a giant quill tattooed on her forearm. There are about twelve couples mingling. Several seem to know each other. Upon entering, each of us has been given a playing card, and now we are to find the stranger of the opposite sex with the one that matches.

There has been an error, and my date and I end up with matching cards. We nevertheless are soon approached by a couple. The man is in his late fifties or early sixties, tall and thin, with short gray hair. His wife wears a variation of the same outfit every woman is wearing (a short, tight black dress with some bit of sequins) and looks about a decade younger. She talks to me, the man to my date. I ask many questions. They are both professors from the South. They flew to New York specifically for this event, as they do several times a year. They have been married for about a decade, they have been OLU members for about half that. She is a laboratory psychiatrist studying the efficacy of various medications. Nervous, and gulping tequila, I ask about antidepressants, whether it’s true they’re no more efficacious than vigorous daily exercise (in most cases, she says, they are not). She seems to grow quickly uninterested, if not outright uncomfortable. She asks about me and my—wife? Girlfriend? I answer obliquely: This is our first time, we are here mostly to “feel things out.” Within a minute or two, I am leaning against the wall, alone.

Union Pool, Williamsburg.Photo: Pari Dukovic

Suddenly, dramatically, Palagia calls for our attention, please. A man begins drumming in a corner. In the middle of the room a young, ­raven-haired woman begins removing long black gloves and then her black teddy. Naked but for the tassels swinging from her perfect breasts and the Chanel No. 5 wafting from her pale skin, she grabs the full-size human skeleton hanging nearby, clutching it to her, dancing erotically with it, ultimately lying down on the carpet with it atop her, shimmying, caressing it. Its femur abruptly dislodges, lopping onto the floor. She goes with it, continuing her caress. The music ends. Applause.

Not long after, Palagia, elongated cigarette holder in hand, once again has an announcement. It is 12:30. It is time to strip to our underwear. It is time, she says, for “play.”

Outside, the sky has opened, lightning cracks, and my date and I stand against a window, laughing, slowly taking off our clothes, me furtively gobbling cheese and crackers that no one has otherwise touched. Immediately, everyone heads off to the bedroom, and we are alone, save for one couple on the couch a few feet away who are kissing and petting heavily. My date and I share a smoke with a young woman working the door, who parrots what everyone else here says—this represents sophistication, an acknowledgment of the absurdity of rigid sexual monogamy. (Palagia, 41, an attractive Greek-American who speaks in elongated, sensual syllables and regards herself as a “sexual anthropologist,” tells me that what she’s offering is a public service: “You have no idea how many marriages I’ve saved.”) While my date heads off with another woman to smoke cigarettes on a fire escape, I stay behind.

The king-size bed is directly in front of me, in the middle of the room. It is covered in bodies. For a long time, they just cuddle, laughing. They begin kissing. They are in various states of undress. Some time passes. I notice the professors, each sucking on another person’s genitals. At the lower end of the bed, another couple is naked, a man driving his penis in and out of a woman’s vagina. I cannot make out their faces. Everything is a dimly lit red.

Inside the Embrace of a Stranger
Dancing at an all-night milonga, midtown.

Around 3 a.m., just next to the Empire State Building, through a nondescript glass door and up four floors, the elevator opens. At a table along the side sits a small, beautiful woman in a short slip dress and high heels. She is a renowned visual artist, 50 but looks 40, thin, with almost translucent skin. “Poema” is playing, and before her a few dozen people—the majority of them strangers to each other—blur, sweeping back and forth. It is not such a stretch to say that these milongas—or, more accurately, tango—saved her life.

She grew up in a poor, unstable household in the Midwest, fled to a mid-Atlantic city, married, raised two children, and sublimated herself as her husband’s career as a doctor advanced, finally worked up the courage to divorce him at 40, hurled herself into life, fell madly in love (for the first time) with a man who was 32, knowing what was to come, so that, several years ago, at 45, she was brokenhearted, crying as soon as her kids left for school and until the moment they returned. One day she found herself at a swing-dancing class. She thought the whole thing absurd. But suddenly, as she was spinning—

“I’d been so miserable, I could only focus on what I’d lost, and now I had to focus on the present. And so it became all I wanted to do, to go and spin more.” One year passed. She became a better dancer. It was, though, “a weird community.” The men were nice but often religious. A friend took her to her first milonga. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and people on the floor started coming up to me and asking me to dance, and it was chest to chest, and it freaked me out.” She did not go back for a few months, until her niece, a ballerina, came to visit. This time it felt different. She began taking tango lessons.

“I had issues with intimacy, with wanting to please, with being able to say no. So I had this repeated cognitive-therapy experience that men would go away and come and go away.” She practiced and practiced, soon outgrowing her hometown, traveling to New York on weekends. Men took notice of her skill. She became comfortable inside the embrace of a stranger.

It was several months ago that a man approached her. He was big, Mediterranean, she was not looking to get into a relationship. But that night, “it was one of those times when you just meet someone and you have this amazing dancing experience, and you’re, like, wow.” It was very late when he asked for her name. They became friends on Facebook. He asked her out to dinner the next time she was in New York. After dinner that night, they danced again.

“We’re a couple,” she says. “We’re happy. We’re still in that glowy part. At my age, I know there’s no logic to it. At the end of the day, I guess we’re all just DNA and hormones. We want to feel. Love feels good.”

The song ends. The man she’s been watching, her boyfriend, breaks apart from the woman he’s been dancing with, a stranger, and exchanges his first words with her: “Thank you.” He returns to her at the table, sits down beside her. He takes her hand in his.

Three O’Clock in the Morning, Still Working
Ladies of the night in Hunts Point.

During the day, the Hunts Point section of the Bronx thrums, home to one of the busiest food-distribution facilities in the world. Very late at night, however, it is desolate, with dozens of the diesel trucks that rumble through its one square mile lining the industrial roads leading to the water. Inside some of the dark cabs are women performing sex acts on the drivers.

And yet, if tonight is any indication, Hunts Point’s reputation as the city’s most notorious red-light district might be rooted in some nostalgia. There is, of course, the downturned economy. More so, there is the Internet, which has all but decimated street prostitution as an industry. The result is two particular types of johns outstanding: those without online access and those whose fetish is the clandestine public hunt. After the thunderstorm, it has turned chilly, and Vanilla and Tiffany are among the few women still out, a few blocks up Hunts Point Avenue from the water. The traffic is light. Barely dressed, smacking gum, they teeter in giant heels between parked cars, differentiating between the occasional NYPD cruiser—mostly, it seems, they and the police adopt tactics of avoidance—and the cars whose passenger windows lower, drivers in shadow asking, “How much?”

The answer appears to be variable, but in this instance, driving a hard bargain, they agree to talk to me for ten minutes in exchange for $60. (Vanilla, who does the negotiating, will later claim the price was for each.) We are standing just off the road in a courtyard of a tall brick housing project inside of which, in the stairwell, Vanilla has just finished sucking one man’s penis and Tiffany riding another’s. They leave little doubt that, given the choice, they’d prefer to engage in paid sex than paid introspection.

They are, and they seem to know this, archetypes. Roommates, they met through work. Vanilla is 21, originally from the Dominican Republic, round. Tiffany is 22, from outside Poughkeepsie, thinner, more inclined to smile. Both have various words and symbols tattooed on them. Both come from families they describe as fairly stable—Tiffany’s mother is a nurse, her father a truck driver; she was introduced to the business by a high-school friend. Vanilla was brought here by a pimp at 13. In the beginning, they could make $2,000 a night, which fueled manic material consumption: “Fendi, Gucci, Prada.” Now it is far less. Each has seen two men so far tonight. The stated price for a blowjob is $50, sex double; they prefer the stairwell, but cars and truck cabs are most common; all men can be brought to climax within the allotted fifteen minutes, most far sooner. The men are all the same, always married, always complaining about their wives, from cops to construction workers to unemployed: “Dogs.” There is no end to their cravenness. Each woman has been raped repeatedly. What they have learned is to trust their instincts. They are, they admit, scared. Vanilla has three kids; Tiffany has two. None of them live with their mother. Vanilla is thinking of going to school to become a nurse. Tiffany plans to be a dental assistant. Each wishes she never started, but will give herself another year or two more. Tonight has been slow so far. Both light another cigarette.

“Can we speed this up?” asks Vanilla.

Closing Time, I Know Who I Want to Take Me Home
Last call at Union Pool, Williamsburg.

At the back of Union Pool, a bar in Williamsburg, packs of the very drunken—hipsters and fraternity/sorority types and where the two converge—guzzle their drinks, screaming over the noise. Up against a far wall, a guy wearing a vintage Phillies baseball cap and Converse sneakers leans into a girl wearing an unflattering but apparently ironic pair of mom jeans, a tattoo of an eye on her arm. Their tongues dart in and out of each other’s mouths.

She has to pee. As she begins walking away, he grabs her hand, pulls her back, kisses her again, and she kisses him back, then walks off again, laughing. He smiles, takes a gurgle of his beer, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and abruptly turns to look at me. I’ve been standing next to them for a few minutes, trying to be inconspicuous while writing in a tiny notebook.

“Writer?” he asks.

I tell him I am.

“Me too,” he says.

The girl returns quickly. He asks her if she’s going home. She says yes, gesturing to the girl she’s come here with on the other side of the bar, and then asks him why. He laughs. She laughs. They make a similar face. The girl says she’ll be right back, navigating around a guy wearing a Santa hat screaming at a girl wearing something resembling a burlap sack, cinched at the waist: “OhmyGod, you’re so fucking hot!”

She’s back. “Well?” the guy asks. “Well?” she answers. She pulls his head down, knocking off his cap, sticking her tongue back in his mouth. As the guy’s hands sweep furiously across her backside, angrily, almost violently, a voice calls out: “Pool’s closed! Everybody out!” The lights cut on, music cuts off. The girl takes the guy’s hand, leading him into a throng of people clutching tote bags. “She’s taking a cab,” she says, referring to her friend. “Let’s go.”

Among the Podophiliacs, One More Time, With Feeling
Back in Hell’s Kitchen at the gay foot-fetish party.

The man on the floor with the feet on his face increases his jerking. The party’s host suggests I check things out in the bedroom.

There is one covered lamp; it is very dark. On the bed are two men, each moaning and rubbing his penis against and between two other men’s respective feet. There are a few others of us standing there, watching, including a very large man near me in the doorway, who follows me back to the living room a minute later, sitting down on the piano bench beside my chair, as the two other men—both African-American—kneel before me, untying my shoes.

The fat man, in his mid-forties, with disheveled graying hair and aviator glasses, a plum dress shirt tucked into khaki pants pulled high across his globular stomach, keeps rocking forward, clearly wanting to touch me. I clearly do not want him to. Nor, for that matter, am I comfortable with the men now massaging and furiously sniffing. As my argyle socks stick on their way off, I chuckle awkwardly and apologize for my sweating feet, to which they respond with incredulity, since sweat seems part of the appeal. Several others have come in now, including a thin, white-haired man with open sores on his legs who identifies himself as a gym teacher and a young, fit Asian man wearing glasses and jeans, who is, I overhear him telling the man massaging his feet, a physician.

The fat man cannot resist any longer.

He bends at his large waist from the piano bench and begins furtively tapping my feet, stealing rubs in between the other men still massaging and smelling and licking and sucking them. I acknowledge none of this, focusing instead on a guy around my age who’s sitting on the couch next to my chair, a man kneeling before him as well. We are talking. He has never been here before either; he thought up until the very last minute he would bail; he is jet-lagged, having just returned from Brazil for business. I tell him I have been to Brazil. We talk about São Paulo, how strange a city it is, about Brazil’s growth in general. He is friendly, and I do my best to ignore what’s going on with my feet, focusing instead on our conversation and the guy’s eyes, seeing in them—or, reading into them?—some agreement about our ironic distance from this situation. It’s then that he looks down, looks back up, and asks if he can touch, too.

Sex: The Multiplicity of Desire