"It's not guaranteed you're going to get laid here."
This caveat comes from 23-year-old Mistress Natasha, sitting at an empty bar, attired in a sheer black blouse, black miniskirt and black platform go-go boots. She takes a drag from her cigarette.
"People have such misperceptions about this place," she continues, emitting a slight laugh of disbelief. "They think it's like that movie Eyes Wide Shut -- that it's like a cult or something. You come here to meet people, and if you hit it off with someone, you do your own thing."
Mistress Natasha is a dominatrix. She would be a dominatrix anywhere, but these days she's the house dominatrix at this members-only swingers' club. It's located in downtown New Orleans behind a non-descript doorway that generally goes unnoticed among the nearby cafes, hotels and office buildings. Here, couples and singles gather Wednesday through Sunday evenings to meet each other, have sex, watch porn, watch each other, swap partners -- or sometimes to just gossip or trade recipes.
"It's just a place where people can come to relax and get away from their kids," says Mistress Natasha, who refers to herself as the club's "party favor" whose services are included with the membership fee. "It's a really great opportunity to meet friends and lovers."
Wild rumors about "the sex club in the CBD" have swirled since it opened in early 2001, fueled by the air of secrecy surrounding the place. There is no identifying sign outside -- just a street number on the door. The club takes out no advertisements or even a listing in the Yellow Pages. It gets its business only through word of mouth and from its Web site.
For this story, one of the club's Atlanta-based owners, citing concerns about members' privacy, agreed to let me in only if I didn't disclose its name and exact location. It's worth noting, however, that anyone who can work an Internet search engine can locate its address in less than a minute.
"People who are in the lifestyle," says the club's manager/hostess, Joanne, "they will find it."
One recent Wednesday afternoon, during the time of day when they are usually busy booking appointments, changing sheets or separating packets of condoms, Joanne and Mistress Natasha give me a tour.
The club occupies the site of a former law office. At night, a doorman stands outside the plain entrance, ushering members into a tiny lobby. There, a mirrored elevator takes them to the second floor, where the action is. (Joanne often sees people on the sidewalk, craning their necks to try and catch a glimpse inside.)
Stepping off the elevator, the first thing you see is a check-in desk. Beyond that lies an opulent lounge, resembling a grand living room with a soaring ceiling and extravagant furniture and artwork. Bamboo candy dishes are filled with condoms. Off the lounge is a "movie room," where three leather couches face a TV that, at night, plays porn.
A dimly lit hallway contains four overstuffed couches. One room off this hall is the red-lit Dungeon -- the domain of Mistress Natasha. Two adjacent "private" rooms contain beds, small TVs (also showing porn) and doors that lock. "Some couples go straight in there, they play and they leave. Maybe they just want to get away from the kids," Joanne says with a giggle.
In the back part of the club are four "semi-private rooms" with sheer curtains that act as walls. Across from these rooms are two nearly identical rooms side-by-side: the voyeur room and the group-sex room. Both have four beds arranged in a square. The only difference: the voyeur room has a one-way mirror so people in the hallway can observe the goings-on inside. The group-sex room, meanwhile, is the only room where non-participants may not enter. "If you come in here," Joanne says, "you have to play. You can't just watch."
Joanne is a 30-year-old native of Quebec, with small, sharp features and long honey-blond hair. She favors wigs of every style and color and frequently giggles. "Everyone who works here is not a swinger," she tells me in her thick French accent. "I like sex, but it doesn't mean I'm going to jump on 15 people in the group room!"
Joanne stresses that the club is not a brothel, strip joint or "massage parlor." It's all legal, she says. Since they don't sell alcohol -- it's BYOB -- there is no liquor license and therefore no scrutiny by state or local authorities. It's a private, members-only club, so what goes on inside the building is governed only by club rules such as no cameras (also to protect anonymity) and no pestering somebody for sex.
"Unwanted advances are not welcome here," Mistress Natasha says. "No means no, obviously. But people are well-behaved."
The club welcomes all races and sexual appetites -- and is making an effort to cater to the "fetish community," says Mistress Natasha. Fees are on a sliding scale: after membership dues, single men pay the most for nightly admission, couples pay less, and single women get in free. By Joanne's figures, about 1,600 couples, 700 single men and 300 single women (counting transvestites) currently have memberships. Out-of-towners hold about 70 percent of memberships. Joanne says a lot of couples travel a long way to get there "because they don't want to run into their kid's Little League coach."
The club itself takes up only the second story of a three-story enterprise. Upstairs on the third floor is a swingers' bed-and-breakfast, featuring tasteful Shaker furniture and bedrooms with such themes as "Japan," "Italy" and "Dungeon" -- the latter has a window with blinds, for optional shared viewing with the "French Renaissance" suite next door. Only overnight guests may enter the third floor.
The first floor is an as-yet-unfinished dance area that will eventually connect with the second-floor club. It has a soda-and-juice bar, a dance floor and DJ booth, and lush raspberry chaise lounges. "I don't know if people are going to be allowed to have sex in here," Joanne says. "That's something we need to talk about."
Attendance at the club varies, and some nights have special themes. Saturday is couples and single women only -- no single guys allowed. Sunday is "Undies Night." Tonight is Wednesday, Fetish Night. The action gets going around 11 p.m., say Joanne and Mistress Natasha, who encourage me to return and check it out for myself.
It's busy for a Wednesday, Joanne says. By 11 p.m., several people are gathered in the main lounge, where a small bar offers glassware and mixers for the alcohol that members bring. Here tonight are seven couples and eight single men. There are only two single women --me and my friend Sarah. A few more people arrive later.
A woman has signed up with Mistress Natasha to get spanked. She has long strawberry-blonde hair and is wearing a leopard-print bodysuit, matching devils' ears, knee-high boots and a studded dog collar. It's her first time getting spanked by a professional, and she lingers in the lounge nervously finishing her cigarette while Mistress Natasha readies the Dungeon.
With her freckles, sweet smile and reddish-brown hair swept into a fall, Mistress Natasha has a girl-next-door appearance that contrasts with her heavy makeup and black vinyl bra and pants. Before landing this gig, she trained at Pandora's Box, an upscale fetish parlor in New York. "I used to work in the service industry, and I had to be so fake and kiss people's asses all the time," Mistress Natasha says happily. "I can be myself here -- and they kiss mine!"
The Dungeon is a long, narrow room with one outstanding piece of furniture: "the rack," a cast-iron cross-like structure with manacles, ropes and other means of restraint. On it, Mistress Natasha trusses up willing "slaves" for public spankings that range from mild lashings to full-out whippings. Slaves must address her formally and kiss her feet when she's done. The most outrageous thing she's encountered in New Orleans, says Mistress Natasha, is a couple who "are into electric shock and anal stuff" and bring their own special toys.
In the Dungeon is a waist-high partition dividing the room in half and ending just before the rack. It's a vestige from the building's law-firm days, and Mistress Natasha wants it removed because it doesn't let her swing her arm fully when she's flogging. For now, the divider serves as a shelf for Mistress Natasha's equipment of leather cuffs, riding crops, paddles, rope, a feather duster, a braided leather cat-o'nine-tails, and flogger whip. She has actually broken a flogger and paddle on slaves in past sessions. "There was a flaw in the wood," she explains. "That's why I don't buy online."
The strawberry-blonde woman enters, takes off everything except the dog collar and devils' horns, and stands at the rack facing the wall. Mistress Natasha cuffs her feet and binds her hands above her head with rope. She works with expert flicks and spanks, mostly light to medium strokes with a few rough ones. The man who came in with the slave sits in a chair in the corner, watching.
The slave gasps and moans and says later that it really excited her.
Back in the lounge, most of the members are in their 30s and 40s, with a sprinkling of older and younger people. Most look like a cross-section of people you'd see at a shopping mall; few are model-perfect. A woman in her 40s with short platinum hair is curled up on a couch, wearing a sporty Tommy Hilfiger shirtdress. The others in the lounge chide her to get up. She sleepily stretches one leg into the air and says that if they play Madonna, she will dance.
Later, the same woman emerges from the group-sex room to go to the bathroom. She's naked and chats with Sarah and me. She says she doesn't have to get up early tomorrow because she works from home. She says she's lucky. For the rest of the night, she's one of the few people here completely naked, though sometimes she's wearing a red thong. Her partner, an older man with silver hair and a George Hamilton suntan, is wearing a very short towel.
The single men vary from a pale man who asks Mistress Natasha about enemas, to a good-looking, urbane Denzel Washington type in his early 30s. Another single man, a muscular guy with no shirt on, says he's a firefighter from a suburban parish. Most linger around the single women -- Sarah and me -- trying to initiate conversations. All seem to have a good handle on the "back off" rule; we've been hit on far more aggressively in bars.
Sometime after midnight, another couple enters, a well-dressed woman and a man, both in their early 30s. The woman is wholesome-looking with curly hair. The man is tall, with a mop of black hair and heavy-lidded eyes. They head for the Dungeon -- but first, the woman stops in the bathroom. When she opens a stall door, she catches me, sitting on the toilet fully clothed, scribbling notes. She doesn't seem to notice -- perhaps because, as the second slave on the rack tonight, she's got more on her mind.
Mistress Natasha binds her up like she did the first woman, except this one is gagged and standing on one foot -- with her other foot suspended from a rope above her head. She seems like more of a pro at this than the first slave -- she has signed up for two sessions --and Mistress Natasha isn't wasting her time with gentle strokes. She says later it's the woman's punishment for cheating on her boyfriend.
People gather outside to watch. The boyfriend is standing in the Dungeon for most of his partner's first session. He strolls in and out, occasionally chatting with those of us watching from our cluster at the doorway. At one point, he turns to Sarah and me. "You like that, huh?" he asks, not waiting for an answer.
We question people about what brought them to the club, what got them started on the swingers' lifestyle. Many say they were just curious and felt comfortable enough to lose their inhibitions here. We're interrupted by the woman in the red thong, who comes over to tell us that "there's some action back there," gesturing toward the group-sex room. The sounds emerging from the room leave little to the imagination. You're not supposed to look, but a quick, illicit peek behind the door reveals about seven or eight people in little groupings on the mattresses.
At about 2 a.m., Sarah and I finally leave. The club is still going strong.
Not every night proves as interesting. A couple of weeks later, I arrive at the club on a Thursday, this time with another friend, Jill. The same number of people are here, but the sex rooms are empty, and it's Mistress Natasha's night off. Jill and I chat with some couples and a 32-year-old pharmacist who drove an hour and a half from McComb, Miss., because "you're never going to get anything like this in Mississippi." There's also an amiable guitarist from a touring rock band. He had seen the club's Web site, so when he finished his gig at the Maple Leaf, he stopped by to check it out.
In the lounge, three couples are standing around, talking about their kids. A few others sit on plush couches, also making small talk. On a sofa just down the dimly lit hallway is the only action in the place tonight -- a nude middle-aged couple and a muscular man, also nude, who is servicing the wife as the husband looks on. But they quickly retire to a private room when too many people gather nearby.
We stay for only a couple hours. The doorman who takes us down in the elevator apologizes. "Last Thursday, it was wild, it was like the set of Caligula. So I thought this Thursday it would be that way again, you know -- people swinging naked from the chandeliers." He shakes his head. "You never know what you're gonna get."