In Our Words Makes Gay Sex Happen on Stage

Alan Bounville, Artistic Director of In Our Words, writes about turning gay sex — pre and post AIDS — into an immersive theater experience called "Adonis Memories."

My interest in the Adonis gay porn movie theater started circuitously. Upon moving to New York City in 2009, I was excited to partake in the robust LGBTQ mega club culture that I had tasted during my previous trips to the city as a tourist. But by 2009, the era of mega clubs seemed to all but vanish. This was the year that the New York State Senate voted against marriage equality. And it seemed that a preponderance of energy in LGBTQ circles was swirling around that fight. I got wrapped up in that world, helping to create an activist group that pressured elected officials to adopt pro-marriage equality positions, among other concerns for the LGBTQ population.

It was during this time that I met Tobias Grace. Toby, a journalist who interviewed me for some of my activist work, soon became a dear friend. During one of several visits to his home, he shared with me gorgeous poetry that he wrote about one of his great loves, someone who he met at Adonis, a Midtown Manhattan fixture from the 70s-90s, right on Eighth Avenue. Immediately I thought about an idea for a play: Adonis, a place where casual gay sex was abundant and also a place where lasting love could emerge. With Toby’s permission, I was able to use the poems as inspiration for a play that I wrote, aptly titled, “Adonis.” The play has had two readings and a workshop production and has now spawned a companion project titled “Adonis Memories.”

In “Adonis Memories,” which premieres in early December, I have collected stories from other people who also spent time at Adonis. The production is an immersive experience, where audience members can choose which storylines they want to follow; it is docudrama meeting immersive theater. The move to explore this subject matter in this way came from the evolution of the “Adonis” play. During its development, the theater space seemed to morph more and more into a realistic representation of the Adonis movie theater. Actors would be fucking right beside audience members. Gay porn played on a movie screen pre show and during transitions in and out of Adonis scenes.

Before talking with Toby I was unaware of these now closed spaces like Adonis, places where hundreds of men got it on on an average day. Had that world existed when I moved to NYC, would I have longed for that as well as the vanished mega clubs? I have been to a number of bathhouses prior to my life in the city, but this felt like it was different. It felt like it was freer, more regular than it feels now. In this work I often hear about the ecstasy of sex before HIV. Common to this narrative are comments such as this one from one of our “Adonis Memories” subjects:

“Of course the atmosphere is different nowadays. The venues now seem to be more work than the days of sex practically falling in your lap years ago. More ego and just plain rude whether it’s a private orgy or bath house.”

I began to wonder, though our actors never touch our audience or ever do anything sexually unsafe, what would it look like if our audience was able to more realistically explore public sex, sexuality, and intimacy through this work? What if we were able to recreate the free-roaming experience of Adonis itself? All of this is why “Adonis Memories” will be performed at Paddles, one of the few public sex venues still in existence in the city. We are not inviting our audience to engage in sex acts, but we want them to feel the energy that only comes from an actual space where public sex is alive and well.

Performers in "Adonis Memories." Photo Credit: Alan Bounville.

Performers in “Adonis Memories.” Photo Credit: Alan Bounville.

When asked about his involvement in both projects, Adam Fitzgerald, our General Manager had this to say. “With both ‘Adonis’ and ‘Adonis Memories,’ IN OUR WORDS is breaking some long-existing barriers in theatrical/sexual limitations while exploring important and often ignored pieces of gay history – it is very exciting to a be part of this journey.” Adam succinctly captures the mission of these projects. It is ironic that we live in a society where violence is portrayed in art ad nauseum. But to portray sex in art still feels taboo. Yet sex and sexuality give life: physically, emotionally and spiritually. Is it not time that we celebrate and elevate sex, sexuality and intimacy to their proper place in our creative discourse? I think it is.

Venues like Adonis closed for some very specific reasons. Developers were pushing for the closing of public sex venues, especially gay ones, to redevelop what was often prime real estate. This was a major push that started under the administration of Mayor Ed Koch and is alive and well today. (Part of why the mega clubs I was longing for also no longer exist.) Koch, a closeted homosexual until his death, did further harm to the LGBTQ community by doing next to nothing to stem the onslaught of the HIV pandemic. Unlike his contemporaries in cities like San Francisco, Koch’s internalized homophobia contributed heavily to the deaths of countless people due to AIDS-related complications during his tenure as mayor. This political apathy and high death toll exacerbated the AIDS panic that contributed directly to the closing of several bathhouses and public places for men/trans women to have sex with men/trans women. Of course, HIV itself contributed to the waning interest in such spaces, as people were dying and becoming more fearful of sex in general. Another prominent reason public sex venues declined is of course due to the rise of the internet. No longer were LGBTQ people limited to physical spaces to find sex and love.

If HIV and the oppressive responses to it never existed, where would we be today in regard to expressions of sexuality, and specifically LGBTQ sexuality?

I have often wondered, if HIV and the oppressive responses to it never existed, where would we be today in regard to expressions of sexuality, and specifically LGBTQ sexuality? Would Adonis still be here if that were the case? We may be starting to answer that question. In 2012 the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Truvada to be used as Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to help prevent the spread of HIV. There has been much chatter about the treatment and some fantastic resources for people to learn more about this new world of HIV prevention. There is a Facebook group called PrEP Facts: Rethinking HIV Prevention and Sex, facilitated by Damon L. Jacobs, a PrEP advocate and user, who writes, “PrEP is more than just a new way to fuck. It offers a new paradigm of choices, decisions, actions, and responsibilities. We have an unprecedented opportunity to be catalysts for real change in the world — not just with our bodies, but with our minds and actions. It invites us to rethink HIV prevention and sex as tools for expanding love, information and compassion, instead of promoting fear, shame and stigma.” One look at this Facebook group reveals lots of sex-positive conversations. I imagine soon that society as a whole will be talking about PrEP this way and its potential role in people’s lives.

Of all of the factors that caused the decline of public sex venues, is feeling less fear about sex something that will cause an increase in attendance to such spaces now? Several private parties and a handful of public spaces still exist for sex in New York City. But many of them feel underground. One has to seek them out. They are not in obvious places like they used to be. One host of private sex parties recently blogged on his observations about attendance dropping at his condomed parties and rising at his condomless parties. Another manager of a public sex venue shared with me that their attendance numbers are the same pre and post PrEP, but condom use is down overall. Will PrEP bring more people out of the woodwork to explore sex in public spaces? Right now it is not clear either way. What is clear is PrEP use is still relatively low, under 10% of all gay men in cities like New York, though that number is on the rise. If that percentage continues to increase, I wonder what will actually happen. Maybe we will see another era where places like Adonis are commonplace. Maybe people will become more careful sexually and choose to stay away from public sex venues. Maybe we are on the cusp of something completely new.

And of course, let us never forget, PrEP only prevents HIV infection. There are plenty of other sexually transmitted infections out there. At the epicenter of my inquiry is what I believe to be my ultimate question: Can true sexual liberation ever actually exist when it always will be a negotiation between consenting parties and all of the physical, emotional, and spiritual factors associated with the act? “Adonis” and “Adonis Memories” hopes to ask questions like these and keep this conversation going.

To learn more about this work or to attend the upcoming production in NYC, please visit inourwords.org/adonismemories.

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