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Kink and the City

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Happy Ending is a small, cozy club/lounge on Broome street, just north of Chinatown. The awning gives little hint to its interior — it enigmatically reads "XIE Health" on a pink background. It used to function as a massage parlor (or so the story goes; I don't care enough to confirm). Downstairs, next to the bar and a dance floor best described as "optimistic," there are two semi-enclosed rooms, tiled, with built-in benches. (Imagine a fancy, red-lit sauna.) And to be sure, these rooms have faint but distinct sexual overtones; while not really big enough for a full-body massage, they're still clearly meant for (or at least trying to evoke) something a little more risque than mojito-sipping. But from the handful of times I've been there, I've never really seen these rooms utilized: the bench isn't at all comfortable, and besides, the occupants would, in a very real and awkward sense, be on display.

Which made it perfect for some of the demonstrations (performances?) featured at Lovefest IV, a recent erotic showcase of sorts, where, according to promotional material, "Uptown Meets Downtown." (Potentially-disappointing spoiler: This wasn't an orgy. Heck, there wasn't even any nudity.)

More than two hundred people RSVPed for the event, mostly through social sites like Meetup.com. (Members of the "New York Nightlife" group came, but a philosophy group and a South Asian crew were also well represented.) But I eyeballed about half that — maybe because of the rain, maybe because they chickened out, maybe because they realized it wasn't an orgy. No matter: the crowd was big enough to dispel an overly intimate setting, which would have been, at least for me, weird. Lovefest IV started out innocently enough, with an hour dedicated to conventional, awkward mingling, which was reassuring and normalizing. People slowly arrived, imbibed, and took stock of the characters and environment. (Both attention-worthy.)

And at seven, the first round of sessions began. There were two main areas for the seminars, one on each floor, along with a smaller "couches" space (simply a semi-circular couch surrounding an open space about the size of a modest living room). The "couches" space was immediately outside the two aforementioned "massage rooms," which housed, respectively, a massage chair, with attendant, and a terrifying-looking "toy" called the Sybian, which I'll attempt to describe shortly. (Sorry for all the quotation marks.)

So, in the "couches" area, around a gradually growing cluster of onlookers, an older bald man (a fairly popular look in this crowd, it seems) started intricately trussing up his lithe female model — in his words, he was "adorning her body" — while maintaining a steady smile and light banter. It was a demonstration of a Japanese bondage called shibari, and it looks absurdly complicated. Bald bondage guy did explain, mostly lucidly, exactly what he was doing: touching on the purpose, intent, execution, and theory. (He even gave a brief lay introduction to the body's pressure points and sweat glands.) Still, those strikingly symmetrical knots and twists seemed impossible to recreate without a ready, detailed set of instructions, IKEA-style. Which made it less a lesson than entertainment, and erotic appeal aside, it was — like any finely honed art — mesmerizing.

But the shibari demonstration was occasionally interrupted by a sound that I'll leave to your imagination, emanating from the room housing the Sybian. The Sybian is an ornate, $1500 orgasm-inducing machine (exclusively for women, I think) comprised of a leather stool, with a flesh-colored apparatus that resembles nothing as much as a flattened penis, with a flattened knob in the middle. And upon this, the woman sits and enjoys, while an external remote controls the intensity. (You figure out the precise logistics.) Cue interruptions.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a woman spoke about orgasms, doling out handy advice on how to work the pubococcygeus muscles ("the subway's vibrations make it a perfect place to practice, just contract and hold") and tips for vibrator shopping ("$30 is all you really need to spend"). I couldn't shake the feeling that I was at a trendy book reading: Happy Ending hosts a bunch of them each week (including one where I recently performed). The presentation was sharp and funny, true and in-your-face. And she spoke of orgasms, the go-to subject of most book readings in this city.

And the crowd, for its part, wouldn't seem out of place at a book reading. They were a polite and receptive audience, genuinely interested in being educated, not necessarily stimulated. To me, this would be an enormously thorny logistical issue: how to prevent an open event like this — i.e., one that holds even the faintest promise of sexual gratification — from being overrun by seriously creepy older males, a breed I'll take the liberty of labeling Craigslist Guys, or CLGs. (Of course, I don't mean to imply that all older males are creepy, or that all creepsters are older males. I'm merely referring to a type which all of us, especially the more fetching females amongst us, have no doubt encountered: the invariably single gentleman with a nasty streak of creepy activity, like hitting on the too young or the like. If I'm offending any CLGs, please comment below.)

But the organizers somehow pulled it off. I only counted three or four CLGs. (They're not difficult to pick out. They tend to wear shorts and colored wife-beaters with hair popping out all over, and accessorize with some sort of patently uncool carrying apparatus, like a fanny pack, or a too-small knapsack.) The crowd was indeed male-heavy, but only slightly, and not nearly enough to inspire any discomfort. Did many Lovefest attendees share at least some sexual anticipation? Probably, but that's okay — as long as it's kept in check. I didn't witness any misbehaving, and only overheard a few frat-like comments. (For instance, some guy at the shibari demonstration kept stage whispering, "That's so fucking hot. Do you see that? So fucking hot.") Many of the guests were older, awfully polite, and clearly knew what this was about. There's an etiquette — no photos, be courteous, etc. — that dictates these kinds of environments, and it was overwhelmingly respected.

Lovefest IV was a cooperative event, produced by Manhattan Cares and nycALTevents, and all proceeds went to the National Council for Sexual Freedom and Fractured Atlas. I met most of the organizers and presenters, all, unsurprisingly, fascinating individuals with lots and lots to say, advocate, persuade, etc. But by far the most compelling was someone who goes by the moniker MorpheusNYC. (He refused to divulge his real name, and I didn't press.) Before I met him, he was described to me as Clark Kent in the Bettie Paige shirt. Which wasn't far from the truth: Morpheus is a hulking, broad man, with an impressive chin. And he was wearing a dark cotton short-sleeve button down, with prints of Betty Paige all over. (It was subtler than it sounds.) If Lovefest were a cult, Morpheus would almost certainly be the leader. Actually, if you only spoke to Morpheus, you'd be excused for believing that it was indeed a cult. He speaks in sweeping, grand language, with a quasi-religious — albeit subdued — passion. He uses terms like "pleasure positive" (he claims to have coined that one), and believes war and suffering would cease if his "pleasure philosophy" were adopted. (Again, it came off as less crazy than it sounds.) Governments and religious organizations, he told me, are in the business of pleasure-denying; his life mission, which he repeated twice for me, is: "To effect positive social change by helping individuals and corporations organize, celebrate, and embrace pleasure." He told me he dedicated a full year of his life to the cause. (No word on Morpheus's occupation, or if it survived that year.) Beyond that, he was mute on personal details. But here's what I gathered while listening to his seminars:

- He organizes public pillowfights and Santacon, which, as far as I can tell, is a raucous bar hop where participants don full Santa costumes
- He's a dedicated tango dancer, as well as a triathlete
- He claims to have been a Russian interrogator while in the US army
- He's terrifyingly skilled with a whip

He gave two seminars, "Smarter Sex," which was like an advanced sex ed. class, and an intro to BDSM, where his whip-expertise was on full display. Two noteworthy things to mention about the latter: a whip actually cracks the air; it's unbelievably frightening and scared the bejesus out of me. And two, Morpheus displayed something called a Violet Wand, which is frankly the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. It generates static electricity, and can be outfitted with various heads. (Morpheus had this mini-rake attached, kind of like a severely bent fork, and ran it over the model's bare back while it glowed menacingly.) But this is its real claim to coolness: by holding the Violet Wand in a specific fashion, you can have the electricity flow out of your fingers. Touching someone who's literally electrically charged is magical. It's like touching an X-Man.

Susan Wright, a practicing lawyer, told me of the discrimination that members of the "kinky" community regularly encounter, and held a seminar on sex club etiquette. (In short: Respect.) And Diana Adams, also a lawyer, spoke about the intricacies and potential difficulties of polyamory. By far and away, the issue that's most often raised is jealousy. The common response, one that "monoamorous" folk often have severe difficulty relating to, is that practitioners have "conquered" jealousy, i.e., that it no longer influences or inflicts significant damage on the relationship. Polyamorous people, some would have you believe, have emotionally evolved beyond jealousy. Diana didn't take this line. She countered that jealousy is real and ever-present, even in polyamorous relationships, but its force is redirected, even harnessed: it's used as a reaffirmation of love, a continual signal that you are still very much in love with your primary partner. ("Poly" people, as they call themselves, are often in committed relationships (of couples/triads); it's just that outside affairs are allowed/encouraged.) This is an idea that demands exploration; alas, here is not the forum.

Lovefest was officially over at 10, when Happy Ending opened up to its regular Friday night patrons. But the Sybian stayed put for a while, and some brave clubbers had a go, while the curious merely gathered around.