Sex With Strangers: David Rakoff on the Exotic Erotic Ball

The Exotic Erotic Ball hoped to bring raunchy fun back to New York nightlife. But suppose they gave a fetish party and nobody came?

Evan Seinfeld and Co. at the 2006 Exotic Erotic Ball / Photo by Louis Dollagaray/WireImage
Evan Seinfeld and Co. at the 2006 Exotic Erotic Ball / Photo by Louis Dollagaray/WireImage
WRITTEN BY
David Rakoff

I walk behind the stage, back to the VIP area. Here, too, is the same mindless milling about. Saturday night in eighth grade with nothing to do, except replete with such extra-ritzy accouterments as folding chairs and inflatable loungers. On a little platform, a pasha ties up his belly-dancing slave. (My, her descent has been fast; from first lesbian kiss to seraglio prisoner in ten minutes.) The tying-up process takes so long, its methodical steps and knots requiring such a docile and unmoving victim that it renders the entire need for restraint moot. It is as gripping as watching someone make pierogis, although the Viking in the brown bedspread cape, plastic-horned helmet, white sneakers, and glasses seems to enjoy it.

"I think I was at his bar mitzvah," murmurs someone beside me.

People paid an extra $46 to get back here. As I exit into the general area, a man stands at the doorway, looking as longingly as Moses must have gazed at the Promised Land he was forbidden to enter. I try to disabuse him and tell him he's missing nothing, that it's like blowing your frequent-flyer miles on a first-class upgrade to Grand Rapids, but he is having none of it. Somewhere, somebody is having a sexy, fun time that he cannot see. I know just how he feels.

Midnight. What should be the height of the Ball. At the dungeon, a sleepy torturer desultorily flicks his horsetail whip on the back of his victim, shooing away imaginary flies. The already sparse crowd is thinning out dramatically. A Moulin Rouge spoof onstage is an amateurish, unsynchronized can-can. A Joe Pesci type stands in his motorcycle boots and leather jock. He holds his bundled clothes under one arm, his car keys glinting in his closed hand. It kind of ruins the effect.

But God love him for trying. Lame as the proceedings have been, this is nowhere near a full-fledged fiasco. Both Ball founder Perry Mann and his producer Howard Mauskopf are philosophical when they talk about their unspecified losses on their $600,000-plus investment. They acknowledge that they didn't reach out enough to local businesses, nor to the gay community. But hey, it's the first year in a new city. Hopefully with better advertising and a different venue, things will improve. Critical to any success, however, will be more people getting into the spirit of the evening. Mann is absolutely right when he says that the Ball is what people make it. It's hard to ignite a sense of collective passion in a crowd where only a quarter of the people are in costume. Even the sexiest of getups is powerless when outnumbered three-to-one by a boner-quashing sea of Dockers.

The larger truth, however, is that there is no real pressing need for an Exotic Erotic Ball in this town. I have always tried to be the kind of New Yorker who can simultaneously decry the hideous corporate annexation of Times Square without getting misty-eyed over a neighborhood or time when an underage girl could abase herself for a bunch of leering patrons. I'll admit that it saddened me when I first heard that New York had to import something like the Ball to get its groove back. Had we really become such a bunch of super-ego-ruled milquetoasts that we were looking to California for our wizards of id?

I am reminded of one summer in college, when I worked on a study of schizophrenics. What never failed to astonish me was how the patients, people who had supposedly been cut loose from the moorings of rational human behavior, all started to look like conventional strivers in some homogeneous psychotic suburb. All of them, it seemed, were getting messages transmitted from the radio or television directly into their brains, or their metal fillings were telling them to stand outside the Israeli embassy in their underpants. Voices in the refrigerator? Get in line.

Things seem similarly canned and derivative here at the Ball. I see the same white pleather nurse's outfit over and over again. As for the bespectacled Bill Gates-without-the-billions in his molded white plastic Star Wars stormtrooper costume, 'nuff said. One of the daring acts during the evening is a troupe lip-synching numbers from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film released before most of the performers were even born. "Wasn't that great?" says the MC wearily. "You can see it a thousand times, and even on the thousand and first, it's still just great."

So by the time Thomas Dolby comes on, it is officially the last night of summer camp and everyone's eaten too many cookies. People seem tired. Dolby, by contrast, dressed in WWI flying-ace gear seems anything but, gamely performing his hits, complete with a video screen showing strange footage that casts its beams out into the darkness of the space, backlighting the figures of people on their way out, myself among them. I will miss George Clinton. Tommy Lee, I will later hear, is a no-show.

It is 1:30 a.m. when I finally leave, and although late, the place still lacks that up-all-night La Dolce Vita muzziness. Where is the spirit of abandon to cover the emptiness inside, the grand erotic gesture that one will doubtless regret in the morning but which one does anyway with an insouciant, liquor-fueled "Who cares?" Even Perry Mann, who founded the Ball back in 1979, has taken a break from having sex for the last two years and, although born Jewish, has become a regular churchgoer, too. "I've had threesomes, foursomes, orgies, and I've stepped back. It's interesting. I look at people and things in a different light," he says. Sex can be many things, but it is not salvation. It is no longer enough, if indeed it ever was. As unimpeachably true as a statement like "Make love, not war" may be, it also feels quaint; the reductive naivete of a bygone world. Even the young aren't that young anymore.

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