Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

February 12-18, 2004

cover story

Sex and the Witty

NOTE: No photographs were taken during regular club hours.
NOTE: No photographs were taken during regular club hours.

How a Philadelphia couple is turning their lifestyle club into the latest franchising craze.

Al sits in the black leather chair in his suburban Philadelphia office making last-minute arrangements for this weekend. The phone rings and Al’s partner -- he nicknamed her "Redhead" after they first met -- leans over to answer. It’s another person asking for directions. She looks up at her computer to the 30 new e-mails blinking on her screen. Just as she hangs up, the phone rings again -- one of the guests wants to know what to bring and where, exactly, they can park the family minivan. The sky turned dark hours ago, but how can it be 9 p.m. already? Need to get to the venue, Redhead thinks.

She reaches across the stacks of Manila file folders scattered around the desk and rifles through her notes, going over a mental checklist of preparations for the weekend. Red roses. Check. Paper hearts and wall decorations. Check. Chef's dinner menu. Check. Bavarian chocolate for the party. Check. Goodie bags for the guests. Check. Mixers and soda. Check. Sheets laundered, towels folded. Check. Shipment of 1,000 condoms. Check. Supply of dental dams. Check.

As frenetic as her evening becomes, Redhead never loses focus. And by the time she and Al arrive at the party at Club Kama Sutra, the lifestyle club they own, their 200 guests are finishing dinner. Some are standing topless on the stairs. Couples on the second floor are starting to have sex. "We go through this every weekend," Redhead says. "It's like planning a wedding for every single weekend of the year. Except that people are coming to play and meet new couples -- not to exchange wedding vows about fidelity."

The guestlist at Club Kama Sutra (CKS) is long and continues to grow, and it's no wonder. Britney Spears open-mouth kissed Madonna during last year's MTV Video Music Awards show. Single men are given a harem and asked to choose a mate on reality shows. And the Fab Five have become national heroes for turning slovenly straight men into ideal dates every week. As Americans get used to the idea of different sexual lifestyles, many are also considering "the lifestyle," a phrase people now use to mean they are in a committed relationship but are open to experimenting sexually with other people. Demand for safe environments where those "in the lifestyle" can meet other couples has reached critical mass. Lifestyle clubs are flourishing all over the country, and members--affluent men and women in their late 20s to early 40s -- are paying top dollar for admittance. Clubs are legal, highly profitable and now about to multiply: CKS is franchising and in negotiations for new clubs in Atlantic City and outside of Washington, D.C.

"Right now there is so much untapped potential," says Mandy Molto, promotions director for SDC Media Incorporated, a Miami-area promotions company. "This is only the beginning. The lifestyle is becoming more accepted and demand for quality clubs is going through the roof. For people who've figured out the right model, they've got a bankable franchise operation ready to explode."

When Al and Redhead arrive at CKS, some guests are still lingering over dinner. Intimate tables are draped with nice linens, votive candles flicker next to fresh-cut flowers in tiny vases. In the back of the room, champagne-poached salmon and filet mignon niçoise are served in heavy silver platters. At first glance, CKS looks like any one of the tony restaurants down the street from the club, which is located in a very prominent area of Center City. Then a well-dressed couple, sitting next to the buffet, finish their glasses of wine. As the woman leans in to whisper something to her date, the flap of her black wraparound skirt slides off to the side, revealing a thin, black garter strap and the top of her black lace thigh-highs. Above them, a framed sketching shows two women kissing -- the club's walls are lined with original works of erotic art.

The night begins in the Club Kama Sutra restaurant and bar, where couples enjoy gourmet meals and flirt over cocktails.

The night begins in the Club Kama Sutra restaurant and bar, where couples enjoy gourmet meals and flirt over cocktails.

The couple has come to CKS because they're in the lifestyle. They won't necessarily seek out another couple to swap partners, like swingers did in the 1960s. But they're also not averse to finding an attractive couple to play with -- that may mean touching only or it may mean all-out sex, as long as boundaries are set first.

Seven years ago, when Al and Redhead first met through a mutual friend, they clicked instantly. Al is the guy in the bar who women glance at when they think he's not looking -- then meet his intense stare and start to blush uncontrollably. He is impeccably dressed. He stands 6 feet 4 inches tall, and his olive skin is always clear. Al is in his mid-50s, and when he met Redhead, he was running his own business and she was selling real estate after a stint on Wall Street. Al nicknamed her Redhead because of her cascading, wavy red locks. Though she's now in her 40s, Redhead has curves but is still slender -- her body would make a woman half her age jealous.

At the time, Al and Redhead knew they wanted to be in a relationship together, but that at some point they might want to try sex with other people. "We were both at a place where we knew that monogamy wasn't realistic for us," says Al. "But we also knew that we were committed emotionally to each other. We didn't know of an alternative. So we started looking for solutions."

A friend told Redhead about a little-known lifestyle club that was four hours away by car. "We drove all the way there, stayed for two [hours] and drove right back," Redhead says. "It wasn't very clean. The people were really friendly, but they weren't that attractive. It wasn't right for us."

They continued searching out venues, driving for hours to get there and back, and eventually decided that Philadelphia should have a club of its own -- one that met their high standards. "We got tired of driving all over the country to find a place that we'd only be disappointed in later," Al says. "I'd just sold my business and Redhead was a successful realtor. We saw an incredible business opportunity."

The night continues in the second-floor dance room and bar, where couples find other CKS members to play with.

The night continues in the second-floor dance room and bar, where couples find other CKS members to play with.

When they opened CKS in December 2000, Al and Redhead had two other business partners, an attorney and an entrepreneur. They advertised in local papers and online, signing a hundred members, and started to hold small parties. Al will not disclose the club's profits, but he does say that most of the money is made from membership dues and party fees. In just three years, their active membership has grown to more than 8,000 couples and hundreds of singles who come from as far away as New York and Virginia. Redhead answers the phone 1,200 times a month on average, taking calls for new memberships and party reservations. Every weekend, CKS hosts 300 people -- 15 percent on average are brand-new members. They are attorneys, bankers, City Hall employees, teachers and stay-at-home moms.

Those in the business estimate that 10,000 lifestyle clubs have opened nationwide, both in major cities and what seems like the middle of nowhere. The Lagniappe Chateau in Shreveport, La., features a hot tub, a girls-only room with mirrors and another room where it's Mardi Gras year-round. Lake Geneva, Wis., is host to A Playful Pleasure, a five-acre estate offering two hot tubs and overnight stays. In San Francisco, the Power Exchange is a thriving 40,000-square-foot "adult sexual play space." Three years ago, Molto was promoting two lifestyle clubs in Texas for SDC Media. "All of a sudden, I'm representing 20 clubs in that state alone," she says. "It seems like a new club is opening somewhere every week." SDC also maintains, a website that helps people in the lifestyle to find clubs and parties. "We have 250,000 active members on this site alone, and we get about a dozen requests for new club listings every day. It's hard to give a precise number, but I'd estimate that there are easily a million Americans at some stage in the lifestyle."

Evidence of the lifestyle's popularity is mirrored on television and in the print media. Both The New York Times and Cosmopolitan recently ran stories about couples experiencing sex with multiple partners. Two female characters on an episode of HBO's Six Feet Under talked frankly about swinging and went to a party together. And in March, Viacom-owned VH1 will broadcast a documentary about the lifestyle, which will feature CKS and some of its members.

"We are more and more willing to exteriorize our private world, to shed our emotional inhibitions and to experiment," says Dr. Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. "We are a more liberal nation today than in earlier eras. People are on reality television revealing themselves at all hours, and Massachusetts has just legalized gay marriage. Sex is out in the open, for better or for worse."

Lifestyle clubs have flourished in large part because of the Internet. Ten years ago, couples were hosting lifestyle parties -- but the invitation process was daunting and convoluted. There would be a friend of a friend who knew of a party. There'd be a map, at the very last minute, explaining how to get there. There'd be a guarded list of names and passwords. There'd be an identification check and a moment of sworn secrecy. Then people started using the Internet to surf online personal ads, and some started to find venues and establish clubs. "It used to be such a difficult process to seek out something like this," says Molto. "Now clubs have great websites with application forms and virtual tours. It's like joining a health club or a gym -- but you're not under any kind of obligation."

At the same time, the lifestyle's growing popularity doesn't ensure a club's success. At CKS, about 10 percent of first-timers will never return, Al says. Some couples realize quickly that watching their mate -- along with many, many people -- engage in sex acts just isn't for them. On a busy Saturday night in January, the club's third floor bar became an impromptu exhibition stage when two women, affable but plump, stripped naked and started to kiss. One of them fixed a giant purple dildo to a strap, and the other climbed on top of her and began to writhe. Many couples stayed to watch, but two who were standing near the exit decided they'd had enough and walked out of the club.

In at least one other state, law enforcement officials decided that they'd had enough, too. A Broward County, Fla., sheriff's office organized a sting on two lifestyle clubs in 1999, arresting more than 50 people and charging them with lewd conduct. Prosecutors eventually dropped 20 of the cases. Five judges ruled that if the sheriff was going to arrest someone on charges of lewd conduct, someone other than the arresting officer who was at the club had to be offended. To date, there's nothing illegal about consenting adults -- however many there may be -- engaging in sexual activity, as long as no other federal or state laws are compromised. In many ways, belonging to a club like CKS is not unlike joining a gym. Membership fees are paid to club owners, "and the adults are consenting to participate in a certain activity," Al says. "People can legally work out in a gym, and they can legally have sex in at CKS."

Lifestyle clubs may not be illegal, but they do have to follow city code. In February 2003, a nightclub in West Warwick, R. I., exploded into flames killing more than 100 people. Shortly after, Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections cracked down on clubs in the city, making sure that every venue met emergency exit and lighting codes. CKS, like other clubs, met the requirements. Though it's been inspected annually since the club opened, CKS has never been cited for any code or safety violation, according to Andrea Swan, L&I spokesperson.

The playroom offers a place to see other couples having sex -- and to be seen.

The playroom offers a place to see other couples having sex -- and to be seen.

Though Al and Redhead secured the proper licenses and permits, they did meet some resistance from their neighbors. "Some neighborhood groups didn't want us around," Al says. "They thought we were going after their daughters or something." Redhead closes her eyes and nods. "Like there were going to be prostitutes standing around the door and on the street or something," she says. "We're not Jehovah's Witnesses. We're not out to convert anyone's daughter. Hundreds of people walk past our club every day and they'll never know that we're here or what's going on inside our doors."

The weekend before Halloween, CKS hosted a "Puss in Boots" night for couples and bisexual women, and an uninitiated young couple decided to try a night in the lifestyle. Before arriving, the couple went online to begin the application process. They read the pages of advice about what to expect at CKS. Then they filled in their first and last names, home address, telephone numbers and birth dates.

The couple, who asked that their names not be used, walked in the main entrance to the two women sitting behind the registration desk. Behind them, two prominent signs hung on the wall explaining that absolutely no recording devices are allowed and that if nudity offends, they should leave. Across from them, a few couples sipped cocktails at a tiki bar. On the other side, couples were finishing their dinners.

A blond receptionist asked for photo identification and searched the CKS computer database for the reservation and to verify their ages -- no one under 21 is allowed in the club. Then she asked for the membership dues -- $50 per couple annually -- and the party fee of $100.

She handed the couple a long list of rules. Members must present identification and their CKS membership card for future parties, no exceptions. They must make a reservation ahead of time and get confirmed for admission. Once they're inside the club, they can't leave until they're ready to go home. They must adhere to the dress code -- no jeans or sneakers allowed. Sexy clothing for women and dress clothes for men are highly recommended. If they arrive as a couple they must leave as a couple. If they bring alcohol (CKS and most lifestyle clubs are BYOB), they must check in all bottles, cans and coolers with the bartending staff. No heavy drinking is allowed. Exchanging money or anything of value in the club is prohibited. And most of all, everyone must be treated with respect.

Then the receptionist handed them a release form and asked the couple to sign and date it. They must promise not to bring illegal drugs on the premises and will not disclose the location of CKS or any of the activities that happen at the club. They promise never to divulge the names or identities of any CKS club member, staff or owners. Their signatures mean that they are not members of any media outlet and that they are not operating as an undercover law enforcement agent.

The young couple signed the release and the receptionist asked them to wait for a host couple. At CKS, all new members are escorted around the club by a couple that is active in the lifestyle. Host couples give tours of the facility, explain club rules again and answer questions.

Mirrors cover the walls and a see-through ceiling panel lets members on the third floor watch the action below.

Mirrors cover the walls and a see-through ceiling panel lets members on the third floor watch the action below.

A man in a gray suit walked down a set of red carpeted stairs and over to the couple, and a woman with blond curly hair wearing a short black skirt and white halter top followed behind. They introduced themselves as Fred and Alyson. He's a 45-year-old interior designer and his partner, Alyson, is 31 and manages his office. As they began to explain the rules again, a staff member wearing a blue vest and bow tie over a well-pressed tuxedo shirt starts checking the couple's card. Keith, who is the club manager, looked over the paperwork. Most nights, he oversees a staff of 20, including bartenders, busboys, coat checks, receptionists and host couples, and makes sure that every night runs smoothly. He also works with the kitchen and the award-winning chef, who would not give his name, but who once headed a three-time Philadelphia Magazine Best of Philly restaurant.

Alyson and Fred walked the couple up to the second floor, where the lighting is more subdued. They stopped first at four large cubicles. A dozen people stood next to the walls, some holding hands. Some gazed up at the ceiling, where mirrors reflected naked bodies twisting in and out of each other on the futons below. A woman was lying down with a man's penis in her mouth. He was kissing the woman beside her. Another man was moving his head between her legs.

One of the cubicles was blocked by a red velvet rope. "These are semi-private, so if couples don't want anyone else to join them they're allowed to use this," Alyson said. Next to each futon was a wicker basket filled with condoms, a box of tissue, some towels and a tiny wastebasket. There was no funky smell, and no one was sweating. "We keep the temperature comfortably cool and the air circulated," she said. "The condoms are there for a reason. If you're going to try [this] out, you must use condoms. And to be honest, I can't really think of anyone here who would consent to having unprotected sex. They're right here, and everyone uses them."

Alyson led the group down a small hallway to two big open spaces, each lined with futons and wall-to-wall mirrors. Nothing, save for a dozen bodies, was out of place. The futons, which were custom-made and have an industrial-strength rubberized cover, were fitted with freshly washed sheets. Condom wrappers were in the wastebaskets. The mirrors had been polished. "It's not too crowded in here yet," Fred mentioned to Alyson. "We might actually get a bed tonight."

The couple looked confused. "Do you guys get to have sex while you're working?" the girl asked.

"No, but we're done being host couples a little bit after midnight," Fred said. "That's when you'll see three or four people on every one of these mattresses. If you use this room, we ask that it's not just the two of you. This is the group playroom for threesomes or two couples per group."

While threesomes with women are encouraged, club rules prohibit male bisexual or gay activity of any kind. "This is a private club, and the members wanted it that way," Fred said. "So there is no male-on-male activity. Our members were OK with bisexual female activity, so that's allowed and sometimes it's encouraged." On the rare occasion that two men start kissing or fondling each other, a staff member will ask them to stop. Twice, Keith has asked men to leave for not adhering to club rules.

CKS does what it can to give its members what they want, and because it's a private club CKS can limit the number of single men. "If this place was just open to everyone, think of how many guys would come in here and strip down naked just to get laid," Alyson said. "Women feel uncomfortable if single men are just standing around ogling them. So there are limits on how many guys are allowed into the club."

Couples watch as CKS members play in the clubís large playroom.

Couples watch as CKS members play in the clubís large playroom.

Like most lifestyle clubs, CKS has a membership comprised of many races and ethnicities, but it does restrict single males. They are invited to join Friday night singles parties and pay $100 annually in membership fees and $100 per party. But many lifestyle clubs around the country are more strict: Single men can't join the 13th Floor lifestyle club in Dallas. Blondies Playground in Hayward, Calif., does allow single men in on certain nights, but it keeps a strict ratio of one single man per five couples. But for a single man to get in to Blondies, he must first submit a picture of his face and torso (no genitalia) and fill out a long application. If he passes that stage, he then has to submit an essay describing the unique qualities he possesses that would make him an asset to the group. Then there is a formal interview process.

Fred and Alyson led the couple past a spotless bathroom and shower area. "These rooms really are only for going to the bathroom and cleaning off," Alyson said. "I mean, I know there's a temptation to get into the shower with a couple of people, but we try to respect the bathroom space as the place to do your thing alone." They walked up another flight of stairs to the third floor, and a tall woman with short blond hair stopped in front of Alyson and waved a can of whipped cream. "Who's ready for a lick?" she asked. Alyson obliged, pulling down the elastic of her halter top to expose her naked breasts. The woman sprayed a helping of whipped cream on each of Alyson's nipples and smiled at the couple. "Who's going first?" she asked.

"No, not them, they're new tonight," Alyson said.

"OK, well, maybe later," the woman said and bent over to lick off the whipped cream. The young couple giggled and the girl, embarrassed, started to divert her eyes.

"That's probably the most important thing that you need to know," Alyson said, pulling her shirt back up. "There is a reason we tell people not to do anything on their first night. You need to think really hard about how you'll feel watching him suck on another woman's nipples, or watching her having sex with another man. This is not for everyone. If you're not secure in your relationship and open to trying things with other people, then it's best to wait until you're ready. Some people will never be ready. And that's OK if this isn't for you, because you're still going to go home tonight and have amazing sex."

The group walked past the bar and dancefloor, where a few people were dancing to ambient music. Alyson led them to a wooden banister and told them to have a fun evening. It's nearly midnight, and Fred has already made his way downstairs to change out of his clothes. Across from them is a long U-shaped seating area with a tropical mural painted on the wall. Couples were watching the dancefloor. Some were kissing in groups of three. Below the banister, a Plexiglas floor revealed the open playrooms downstairs. Fred had already claimed a mattress, and was kneeling behind a woman who was on her hands and knees. She was looking up at another man -- and seconds later, Alyson was there, quickly taking off her skirt.

It's easy to understand why some couples would be drawn to a club where people are open about their sexuality and having sex, right there, for everyone to see. There is no pressure to participate -- voyeurs are as welcome as those with big sexual appetites. What may be harder to understand is why so many people are willing to jump into bed. "It's hard enough being at a club and approaching a woman just to talk," says Steve, who owns a cleaning business and is a CKS member. "Here, I'm asking a woman and her boyfriend if it's OK to make out with her."

Steve, who is 34, visits the online CKS chat rooms, where he meets couples and gets to know members of the club. He met his girlfriend, Tracy, in a similar online forum. "I wanted to meet people who would explore sex with me, and so did Tracy," Steve says. "That was easy enough. Then we tried to meet couples online or in personal ads. That was a disaster. We'd agree on a place and a time, then we'd show up. They didn't always fit their description, or they were just strange people."

They came to CKS initially because it was close to their home, and they found that they had more options at a club. "When we met a couple for a group date, it was sort of hard to escape them if things weren't going well," Steve says. "At a club, if we don't click with a couple we move on to the next one, and there are no hard feelings. It's just so much more easy and convenient. Think of all the bad first dates you've been on."

Tracy says that for her, CKS is as important as a health club or a religious group is to other people. She and Steve were asked to become host couples, and Tracy, who is 23, works in the coat check. "Coming here is like coming to a community center," says Tracy, who also works as adult model. "Some people do gardening. Some people go to church every week. This is our circle of friends and where we're comfortable being social. It's our community center."

But choosing to be a part of this community meant making some difficult decisions for Steve, who lost a group of friends when he told them about CKS. "I used to be close with a lot of people, who didn't look at me the same way after I told them," he says. "I told a few people and by word of mouth suddenly everyone knew. People didn't approve." Tracy also lost touch with her friends, who didn't want to hear about her nights at the club.

"We know that we're not doing anything wrong," Steve says. "But then again, who's really to say what's right and wrong? These are individual choices that we make. If anything, this has helped our relationship. We are completely open and honest about everything. We don't have to lie about cheating or about the thoughts that we may have -- and believe me, everybody has them. We love each other very much. We protect each other. But we were in a healthy relationship when we started. This is not the way to fix a broken relationship, cure your insecurities or get through some midlife crisis."

 Just after midnight, the CKS staff prepares the restaurant for a morning brunch buffet where tired couples will enjoy fruit, pastries and juice.

Just after midnight, the CKS staff prepares the restaurant for a morning brunch buffet where tired couples will enjoy fruit, pastries and juice.

The impetus for franchising came to Al and Redhead when they got word that people were driving from hundreds of miles away to be at the club for a few hours once a week. "We've visited clubs all over," Al says. "We don't feel superior to other clubs, necessarily, but we definitely think that there's a demand for our product."

Ten years ago, the idea of franchising a lifestyle club wouldn't have worked. Mainstream advertising would have been difficult, and too few people even knew that the lifestyle existed. The first lifestyle club to succeed at franchising was the Ft. Lauderdale-based Trapeze, which recently opened a club in Atlanta, Ga. Trapeze is similar to CKS -- both have roughly 8,000 square feet of space, a dancefloor, erotic art, dinner buffet and dining area, open playrooms and semi-private areas. Both offer theme nights: Trapeze holds frozen T-shirt and body painting nights. In addition to Puss in Boots, CKS has biker and schoolgirl nights.

CKS is now in negotiations to open two franchises -- one in Atlantic City and one outside of Washington, D.C. In order to be considered, Al and Redhead require that investors hold $150,000 in liquid assets, which cover the costs of setup. Each franchise territory is 50 miles, to prevent CKS clubs from competing for the same clientele. "Running a club like this is very profitable, but it's not as easy as it looks," Al says. "To potential franchisers, we help them find a location. They can't just get a warehouse and set up shop. There has to be a good kitchen, enough bathrooms, enough space for a bar and for playrooms. We also help them find couples -- when a couple becomes a member of one CKS club, they gain entrance to all the clubs. And we train staff, which is probably the most important aspect. Privacy and discretion can't be overstated. The staff needs to be aware of this but at the same time be sexy and nonrestrictive."

And although the U.S. economy seems forever moribund, Al and Redhead may just have tapped into unchartered success. "Now is a very good time to franchise," says Gene Fisher, vice president of the Del Mar, Calif.-based, a clearinghouse for information about franchising. "There are a lot of high-ranking executives who lost their jobs because of the sour economy but still have enough assets to invest. These are the people who are getting into the franchise business. Think of Subway, which is the country's largest franchise operation. The economy gets bad, but people have found a product that they really like. Subway has a solid brand name, good training and supervision and good operating manuals. Investors who want to open a new business are reducing their risk, because they're buying a concept works." Whether or not CKS is the next Subway, Fisher wouldn't say.

Close to 1 a.m., couples begin filtering down from the playrooms and back into the dining area where a light breakfast buffet is served. CKS was crowded with 90 couples tonight, but the floors are clean and the bar is still stocked with mixers and snacks.

Al stands near the front stairway taking in the room. Once in a while they've had a difficult time making sure that everyone is ready to leave when the club closes at 2 a.m., but most members leave much earlier. They have jobs and plans the following day, and they have babysitters who need to get driven back home.

Redhead walks over to Al and begins preparations for closing the club. It was another successful night. More new members, and the sign-up list for next weekend's party is nearly full. For Al, real pleasure doesn't necessarily come from playing with other couples, but from the knowledge that he's succeeded in providing his guests with the ultimate candy store. "I'm the luckiest man on earth," he says, draping his arm over Redhead's shoulder and giving it squeeze. "I'm in love with an amazing woman. I've never had to lie to her, and I couldn't be happier."

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