This story is related to this week's feature, "Pick Me Up."
Late at night in southwest Houston, a pale man in braids, shorts and a tie stands in a foyer in front of a dry-erase board that says, "Pussy rules the world." He hands us a complicated release form to fill out and tells us we may see people screwing. "Will you be offended?" he asks. A camera records us saying that we will not. We plop down $40 and walk into the city's newest sex club.
Around the country, such "on-site" clubs, as swingers call them, are becoming increasingly popular places for couples to hook up. While older lifestyle clubs were either secret boudoirs in private homes or simple bars devoid of hanky-panky, many of today's nightspots are both easy to find and easy places to do the nasty. One Leg Up NYC, Trapeze in Fort Lauderdale and San Francisco's venerable Power Exchange -- at four stories, the largest sex club in the world -- offer everything from condoms to lockers. Robert McGinley, the president of the National Association of Swing Clubs, explains the sex-club trend as the product of basic horniness. "People want to do it," he says. "They don't want to wait."
This sex club in southwest Houston, which I've agreed not to name, is a more modest affair -- yet no less skanky. Beneath red lights and neon liquor bottles, naked, steatopygous women stroll between tables and sit on laps. Speakers throb with techno overlaid by mounting female moans. Couples cluster in a hallway and peer into a small lounge, where a fat, glassy-eyed man slackly gropes the flabby breast of a woman next to him as another large woman in lace lingerie stands on her knees and sucks his penis.
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A wall of shame displays items that couples have lost in the heat of passion: a British flag tie, a sock, earrings, bras and pairs of underwear, many of them wide-girthed.
Since the club opened in January, the crowd has become older (and heavier, some former visitors say) -- a phenomenon that Sam, the owner, attributes to "natural selection." Still, the club's two dungeons are popular draws. Sadomasochists enjoy the sex swing, spanking bench and St. Andrew's cross, but Sam says swingers tend to see them as curiosities. They've damaged the cross's metal tie-off points by climbing up them to photograph each other.
Cops (who are often swingers, former officers say) recently raided similar clubs. In February, an undercover officer with the Houston Police Department's Vice Division allegedly purchased cocaine from Abdulla Ben Hadj, the owner of southwest Houston's Covia Club. Officers shuttered it. Three months later, they raided Magic City, a two-year-old, predominately African-American sex club off the South Loop that caters to a younger, hipper crowd. A cop walked in unimpeded, saw fleshy action and temporarily shut it down.
Magic City now officially serves swingers on Thursdays only, though a recent Saturday was steamy. As a DJ rapped over crunk hip-hop, a woman on the dance floor pulled off her G-string, waved it in the air and demanded Mariah Carey. A video room in the back, decorated with a stuffed tiger, was periodically closed for "private dances." Another door in a labyrinthine hallway was posted with the sign "Don't enter I'll kill you thks."
A patron in the billiards room said anybody who wanted to could join one of the club's attractive yet oddly lonely-looking women in a back room. "Her, right there in the white," he said, pointing to a woman against a wall in a V-neck top. "Take her back there and get her butt-naked."
A swinger who has visited the club explained that it's not quite that simple. "They sell pussy there," she said.
Polo, the club's owner, denies that he harbors hookers. He also doesn't like calling Magic City "on-site" or a "sex club" because a lot of patrons go to just dance.
Short of their use as prostitution dens, there appears to be nothing illegal about the clubs. A Houston police spokesperson referred questions about their legality to the city code on sexually oriented businesses, which doesn't directly regulate them.
Three more sex clubs are in the works in the Houston area, sources say. A proposed 12,000-square-foot club in Clear Lake would be Houston's largest. Sam says his contacts also intend to open a club at Interstate 10 and Beltway 8 and a large resort with swimming pools in Webster. The organizers didn't return calls.
For now, the main competitors for the city's two sex clubs are still private house parties. Sam says many swingers frequent his club for the same reason someone might choose a club to host a birthday party. "Whoever throws the house party," he says, "their house is destroyed, and they have to spend several days cleaning it up."
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