May 1st, 2015, 02:08 PM

Play Vice

By Jordan Nadler
Image credit: Carenina Sasha Sanchez
Paris has a sexy secret. Explore the underground lifestyle where more is more.

The silverware on the table rattled as a text buzzed across my phone.“Here! Red coat, long hair.” 

I took a deep breath, got up from my table at the back of Hippopotamus in Place du Ternes and wound my way through the busy restaurant. I found her standing by the door. A beautiful brunette in a red coat, with lips painted just as bright, and pursed in that way that signals you are looking at a Parisian woman. We made eye contact and she nodded, pressing her lips further into a small smile of acknowledgement.

I had purposefully chosen a table as far away from the main crowd as possible. As we moved through the restaurant, heads turned as gazes fastened on my lunch guest. At 57 years old, she has maintained a poise and elegance women thirty years younger envy. 

When we reached the table, she removed her red coat, revealing a form-fitting dress that stopped above her knees. She’s not exceptionally tall, but her legs are long and toned, and were tucked nicely into a pair of red, high-heeled cowboy boots (an initial suggestion that this was not your average lady-who-lunches.) We small-talked for a while, discussing the people we knew in common and the fact that it never stops raining in Paris. I was wondering how to bring up the subject we had come here discuss, when the waiter arrived to take our order.

“La salade du chef,” she said promptly. “Et—do you like rosé?” she asked without looking up from the menu.

“I – yes,” I replied.

“Et une carafe du Côtes de Provence,” she told the waiter. I glanced at my phone. It was half past noon.

“I am a French woman, after all,” she said. She handed the menu back to the waiter and he left. I waited a moment and began.

“So tell me, Clara, how did you come to be the leading lady of the Libertines?”

And so began a series of stories that unlocked a secret door into a lascivious Paris most people can’t imagine.

Clara Basteh belongs to Paris’ underground culture of elite swingers (or échangistes), a discreet underworld of sexual debauchery that captured sensationalist headlines recently when France’s former finance minister—and presidential candidate—Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with pimp- ing and prostitution. The word libertine requires some definition, as it doesn’t strike the French sensibility in the way it might shock in Anglo-American culture. If you search for a strict dictionary definition of libertine, you might come across this one: “One devoid of most moral restraints, which are seen as unnecessary or undesirable, espe- cially one who ignores or even spurns accepted morals and forms of behavior sanctified by the larger society.” 

Image credit: Carenina Sasha Sanchez

Libertines are not amoral creatures who run rampant through the streets. They simply function by a different code of what society deems “normal” sexual behavior. In France—if the stereotypes are accurate—the culture is relatively indulgent towards libertinage. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was eventually acquitted in French courts for his sexual depravity, few in France were outraged. 

“Here the Roman Catholic church is dominant,” says Basteh. “It is more WASPS in your country (America). Protestants are stricter regarding marriage methods. That’s why they split from Roman Catholicism...because even in the 16th century there was too much libertinage. Even priests would have mistresses. The Pope would have children. WASPs wanted to get back to strict religion and be less vulgar.” 

Basteh threw herself into the Parisian libertine culture relatively late in life. A Sorbonne graduate who had become an accomplished writer and poet, she and her now ex-husband began writing erotic stories and posting them online about a decade ago. When a publisher asked her to write an erotic roman, she began looking into the secret playgrounds of Paris’ échangistes. Her first erotic novel, Itinéraire d’une Scandaleuse, appeared in 2007. While she was researching the novel, she and her husband started to attend private parties and frequent libertine clubs. It didn’t take long before they were totally immersed in the lifestyle. 

“My husband and I started to be a libertine couple because, after ten years of marriage and a six-year-old boy, we tired of a traditional relationship,” she says. “That’s how we got into this world and started meeting people—and of course started writing about it.” 

Libertines are not solely échangistes. There are voyeurs—men and women who like watching others have sex. There are also candaulistes, like Basteh’s ex-husband—men who seek sexual pleasure by undressing and revealing their female partner to strangers and then watching her engage in sexual acts with them. Some libertines are attracted to sex clubs simply because they like the environment. They enjoy being able to take off their clothes and walk around naked; or remain fully clothed and have a drink with their friends, taking comfort in the knowledge that they are in a place free of moral judgment and reproach. 

“You won’t believe me, but you are more peaceful in a libertine club than in a normal club,” says Basteh. “People in libertine clubs just don’t mind. You can strip, whatever—do what you want.”

The libertine movement stretches back to the 16th century, but gained notoriety in the 18th century through the Marquis de Sade (the father of Sadism) and later with the legendary maisons closes in the French capital. The Marquis de Sade has left us a rich literary legacy of sexual depravity. The infamous French aristocrat—a novelist, playwright and professional prisoner—shared with the entire world his perverse sexual appetite and propensity for blasphemous foreplay.

His first arrest came after he forced a prostitute to incorporate crucifixes into their sexual acts. Years later, on Easter Sunday in 1768, the Marquis beckoned a chambermaid into his bedroom where he proceeded to cut her flesh and pour hot wax into her wounds for the remainder of the evening. As British author Jason Farago noted in an article titled “Who’s Afraid of the Marquis de Sade?”: “Even his best novel, Justine, featuring a libertine priest defiling a girl with a strategically inserted communion wafer, scandalized French society not for any pornographic excess, but for its pitch-black moral vision—in which abusing other humans is not just ac- ceptable but positively virtuous. True morality, for Sade, entailed following your darkest and most destructive passions to their farthest possible ends, even at the expense of other human life. (The whips are for beginners: Sade had no particular problem with murder, though he was an unsparing opponent of the death penalty. To kill a man in passion was one thing, but to rationalize killing by law was barbarous.)”

In the 19th century, princes and crowned heads of Europe came to Paris for erotic assignations in discreet and exclusive clubs such as Le Chabanais.

Queen Victoria’s eldest son Bertie—later King Edward VII—frequented Le Chabanais so often that his coat-of-arms hung over his favorite bed and he had his own “love seat” specially built to facilitate lascivious access to his regal private parts.

Image credit: Carenina Sasha Sanchez

Today’s French libertines may be removed from aristocratic depravities of the past, but the tradition continues unembarrassed. France is home to nearly 500 libertine clubs, most of them in Paris. The City of Light has long been the capital of sexual indiscretion. But while legendary sex clubs like Le Chabanais and the One-Two-Two have long vanished, the libertine tradition continues in Paris at establishments bearing different names, such as Les Chandelles and Le Mask. They cater to an exclusive clientele with a taste for elegant depravity. If you’re looking for BDSM and latex body suits, go to Berlin. If you prefer to swill champagne and smoke cigarettes in close proximity to dimly lit dens reserved for the ultimate dolce vita, Paris is your city.

“Libertines are mostly in big cit- ies because you shouldn’t meet your neighbors, or your working partners or, you know, people from your children’s school,” says Basteh. “You don’t know libertines at day time, just at night.” Today’s libertines are not sadists à la Marquis de Sade. They do, however, share his rejection of society’s idea of “acceptable” sexual behavior. They march to the beat of their own libidinous drum. They are libertines because their sexuality knows no bounds, and their guiltlessness grows with every pink-lit binge. 

The “bedroom” preferences of libertines differ from person to person and couple to couple, just as in traditional relationships. Some libertine couples enjoy having sex with each other in the company of other people. Others like to intertwine with other couples. Still others like to swap spouses. Some men take the wives of their friends; some women take their friends’ husbands. There are those who like like to be made love to, and those who prefer a more—zealous—approach. Some older women take younger men; some older men take younger women. All have one thing in common: they are completely free from boundaries and expectations. There are no rules, but there is equally no vulgarity. It’s swinging for the civilized. 

Typical of a modern libertine couple is Pierre and his wife. I “met” Pierre—not his real name—on Libertchat, an online forum for libertine news, an- nouncements, evenings, games, and chat rooms. The site facilitates the loosening of sexual curiosities and, eventually, if one so desires, the acting out of adven- turous sexual lifestyles. Pierre and his wife, who married in their late thirties, have integrated acceptance of sexual non-exclusivity into their marriage. They use Libertchat to meet other couples and single women. “Humans are animals,” says Pierre, “and sex is sex.” Despite their libertine lifestyle, they claim to be unswervingly “faithful” to each other. “We love each other,” says Pierre. “And we like to include other people in our bed.” 

The difference between libertines and people who cheat, argues Pierre, is that “libertines acknowledge this fact together, and act on it together.” The “modern” version of libertine clubs with clients like Pierre and his wife started gaining popularity during the sixties when sexual morals were opening up and people began to publically own their sexuality. Before then, Paris sex clubs still mainly catered to the rich, serving as discreet locations for high-society romps, far from the city’s sordid brothels and maisons de passe that have come down to us in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. 

Image credit: Carenina Sasha Sanchez

Until the 1960s, sex clubs were primarily a man’s world being serviced by women offering tariffed sex. Today, men arrive at libertine clubs with their wives.

“When I was a teenager in the seventies, we had free sex. There was no AIDS, we were free,” says Clara Basteh. “Okay, we used to catch things, but nothing serious.”

Although it might seem like a contradiction, given the furtive nature of libertine establishments, the libertine culture offers a social life for some. Like most bars or clubs, sex clubs have regulars. “It’s always the same people,” says Basteh, who has come across DSK at least twice at Les Chandelles. The difference is that libertine regulars tend to sleep with each other before the night is through. 

In France, libertines are not embarrassed to show their faces in these establishments. In French culture, a person’s—especially a man’s—sex life is seen as his business; he has the right to privacy even if he is cheating on his wife in the comfort of his own privacy.

A popular Paris libertine club is Le Mask in the 2nd arrondissement. It caters exclusively to couples—except on Mondays and afternoons when singles are admitted. “It’s a bit of a different crowd,” says the club’s owner Sophie Levy about the afternoon clientele. She likens them to people who visit strip clubs in the middle of the day. “One wonders why they are not at work,” she says. Le Mask’s market niche is échangistes. Unlike at private parties in wealthy people’s homes where women show up on their own, at Le Mask and other upscale Libertine clubs, only couples are admitted.

Levy says sex clubs are the safest places for liber- tines, even safer than pri- vate parties, because there are bouncers and security guards. “There is a level of respect, a mutual understanding,” she says. “There are no men coming up to women with unwanted advances.” 

There is no obligation to engage in sexual acts at libertine clubs. Voyeurism is a large component of the lifestyle. That is why, in many sex clubs, the main areas resemble chic bars or swanky lounges. Sexual acts usually take place in cush- ioned side rooms and alcoves; or, if a couple is feeling especially conservative, in the privacy of a public bathroom.

When you walk by Le Mask on the street, nothing visible indicates what happens inside on innocuous Rue Feydeau, except perhaps for the abrupt end to burnished Haussmannian facades and the sudden appearance of dark windowless panels. The same goes for Les Chandelles in the 1st arrondissement. There are no neon signs flashing, nothing showing the club’s name. Everything is discreet. Except for a valet sign in the cobblestoned Rue Thérèse. 

Most libertine clubs in Paris enforce similar sartorial guidelines. Men must wear suits or, at the very least, dark pants and a jacket. Women must wear a dress or skirt and heels. Les Chandelles is known to be the most chic and exclusive of Parisian libertine clubs. Its website goes so far as to recommend prospective female guests be “unsettlingly beautiful.” Men do best when they look like they have a lot of money. There is a wide range of ages at libertine clubs—from people in their twenties to couples well into middle-age. And then, of course, there are the older men who arrive with their long-limbed “associates.”

Image credit: Carenina Sasha Sanchez

I checked out Les Chandelles with three male friends and two female friends. Perhaps it was because we were on the younger side of their usual clientele (we are all in our mid to late twenties) that we got in quite easily. Once you get past the bouncer you find yourself in an opulent cloakroom. Everyone must hand over their coats, wallets, cell phones and anything else they have on their person. One of my girlfriends was even instructed to remove her sheer blazer. You then receive a card on which the bartender will record your drink purchases. On Saturday nights the entry fee for a couple is €88, which includesthemandatorycloakroomand two drinks. Under no circumstance can you keep any form of money on you—a rule imposed to eliminate any suspicion of prostitution.

Les Chandelles was temporarily shut down in 2011 following an investigation into alleged prostitution (albeit high-class alleged prostitution) on its premises. The ex-footballer Alim Ben Mabrouk was arrested with two other people on suspicion of carrying out “highly organized pimping” at the club. Needless to say, it re-opened, but with strict precautions.

Les Chandelles is a labyrinth; a cavernous pink-lit stone world where you can find yourself in tucked away rooms with plush couches and beautiful chandeliers, or darkly lit chambers where ten to twenty people are doing their thing—whatever that thing may be. We saw a myriad of couplings (or triplings) going on next to each other. Women on women. Men on women. In one distinct corner, men on woman. (We did not see any men on men.) Yet it didn’t feel like an out-of-control sex party. It felt more like a group of people with similar secrets who found each other, and this was their esoter- ic clubhouse. Besides the occasional strip pole, there is almost a feeling of timelessness.

The place is big enough that you don’t have to be close to the sex rooms if you don’t want to be. There are nar- row staircases that lead into what look like fancy living rooms where people are allowed to smoke (libertine club patrons, mindful of discretion, do not go outside for a cigarette).

Getting into Le Mask is a bit more theatrical. When you arrive at the door, you encounter a stern-looking bouncer who can deny entrance to anyone who does not meet the dress code. After the bouncer gives you the nod, he radios in to someone inside. A big black door opens and a man dressed in black pants, a tight white collared shirt, black suspenders, and a long-nosed Mardi Gras mask comes out and ushers you into the bar. People are sitting on chairs, drinking cocktails and laughing. A lit-up display of liquor bottles, adorned with a collection of whips, crops and feather ticklers dangling from a leather bucket, illuminates a black wall. Deeper into the room, the bar transforms into a lounge. At first glance the area is elegantly put together. The lights give off a dim red glow and there is a candle on every table. The couches are wider than at most lounges. People are meant to get comfortable on them—as comfortable as they want. The fabric is vinyl. Liquid resistant. There are large boxes of tissues in shiny black plastic holders next to each one. Once settled in, it is almost possible to forget you are in a sex club as you drink and make conversation. Then something happens. A naked couple emerges from around a corner and vanishes behind a semi-opaque glass wall in a bathroom where their silhouettes begin to fuse together into different shapes.

The downstairs of Le Mask is where you can see a contrast between the chic-ness of Les Chandelles and the ambiance of some of the other libertine establishments in Paris. Going down the stairs, the walls are covered by stretchy black fabric adorned with large plastic-looking rhinestones. At the bottom of the stairs is a tiny dance floor with a disco ball a strip pole. The back wall is a mirror. Next to the dance floor is a series of rooms where heaps of body move around in the dark. For whatever reason, the scent of beautifully fragrant essential oils permeates the air, making it smell like you are at a spa.

Clara Basteh confesses she sometimes finds it hard to have left the lifestyle. “I found it difficult to stop because I’m used to living like that,” she says, “but I want to be involved in a relationship and I have to accept that most men are not libertine.” Basteh and her husband divorced a few years ago, and she acknowledges their lifestyle was to blame. “I got used to better lovers,” she admits with a smile and a shrug. She has since started dating a man who has no interest in taking part in the libertine world. “We will see what happens,” she says. “I love him, and I would never do anything to ruin our relationship. But I do miss it.”

I don’t know what I expected to find when I started digging into the world of Paris’s libertines, but I discovered there are two worlds that exist in the City of Light; one above ground, and one clandestinely below. Though the libertine world will never make itself known to you, if you look hard enough, you may very well find a secret entrance of your own.