Hidden beneath Paris’s historic cobblestone streets lies an underground world where hedonism is king. Inhibitions are thrown to the wind as champagne bubbles over glass flutes and the immaculately groomed eye fuck one another while nuzzling their dates. This world is a labyrinth of dark corridors and plush rooms, fine china, chandeliers, and the occasional strip pole. It is where former French finance minister Dominique Strauss Kahn used to spend his wild evenings, and where many a politician and celebrity still do. It is Les Chandelles, Paris’s most upscale and elite libertine club.
Traditionally, libertine clubs have been thought of as haunts for échangistes (swingers), and échangistes are mainly thought to be of the 40-plus variety. That is slowly changing. What used to be a secretive society made up of mainly wealthy middle-aged married people has been infused with dashing millennials. Some of these bright young things are fully immersed in the libertine culture, while some are merely testing the lascivious waters. They are the equivalent of elite sexual speakeasies.
I was introduced to this clandestine world when a friend of mine told me about a night he’d spent at a secret sex club in Paris with his ex-cougar a few years ago. I was intrigued. I’ve lived in this city a year and a half and I, like many, had heard whispers in the wind about libertines and their hidden establishments, but that was it. I’ve since learned that France is home to over 500 libertine establishments, and most of them are in Paris, right under our feet.
There are five kinds of patrons at sex clubs. In addition to the aforementioned échangistes, there are the candaulistes (men who enjoy undressing their women in front of other men and then watching as they fuck her); there are the exhibitionists who only play with their spouse/partner but get off on having an audience; there are the voyeurs who are titillated by watching other people have sex; and then there are the spectators—people who aren’t getting off and don’t plan on sleeping with anyone, but are intrigued by the dangerous atmosphere. And the societal boundaries may be stripped away, but the Parisian air of genteel sophistication remains: “By all means, kind Monsieur, join me and my husband for an Eiffel Tower in the sex chambers, will you?”
The first time I went to Chandelles was a Saturday night in March around 1 a.m. Six of us (three men, three women) went together, as you are only allowed to enter as couples. Men are sometimes let in alone, but rarely ever women due to fear of prostitution.
They are known to be a bit ruthless at the door. The dress code is strict and mandatory. Men are instructed to wear suits or, at the very least, dark pants and a jacket. Women must be in a dress or skirt and heels. Their [awful 1999-esque] website actually says they have a “sainte horreur” (holy horror) of flat shoes and short-sleeved shirts. Women have to be beautiful, and men need to, at the very least, look rich. Like most upscale nightclubs.
The first thing we encountered inside is an opulent cloakroom where we were asked to check our coats, bags, cell phones, and wallets. You are not allowed under any circumstances to have money or phones on you downstairs. The price of entry is €88 ($98) per couple, which includes one drink per person. After that, drinks are a casual €22 ($24) a pop. They gave each couple a card on which the bartender would record our drink purchases, and off we went downstairs.
A part of me expected to descend into a lusty lagoon of HPV, but such was not the case. People were sauntering about the pinkish-red tinted main room, sipping their steep drinks and mingling. Some were friends, and some were strangers feigning conversation while pondering whether said party was, in the immortal words of Elaine Benes, sponge-worthy. Climb a flight of stairs and you encounter more intimate rooms decorated with antique furniture and lavish tables befitting Marie Antoinette.
My group and I ended up in one of these rooms, sat down and made ourselves comfortable. But after about 40 minutes of casual banter and imagining what libidinous deeds were going down on the outside, we decided to see les boudoirs.
There are two rooms on either end of a long, dimly-lit corridor where le fucking is done. On one side of the corridor are dark enclaves with chairs and tables occupied by modish people smoking and murmuring to each other. On the other side is a long, cushioned bench where couples were parked, some making out, some pulling straps back over their shoulders or fumbling with shoelaces. Some of the women were in lingerie; some of the men were sitting in their dress pants with their shirts unbuttoned. It was the sex rooms’ sidelines. We all took a deep breath and walked in.
My idea was to ease into the situation, but the first thing that happened as I stepped inside was to immediately, and inadvertently, lock eyes with an attractive, middle-aged woman. She was already busy riding a man who resembled a French Richard Gere circa Pretty Woman, but the instant we walked into the room, a different man began taking her from behind. She looked up, wide-eyed—gasped—and then we made eye contact. That moment will be forever etched into my memory.
We were in the eye of the storm. At least thirty people ranging from their 20s to early 60s (this is France, after all) were sexing all around us. Slap. Spank. Slap. Some were locked in intricate threesomes, others in foursomes, heaving about in the dark. Men-on-women. Women-on-women. Sadly, no men-on-men. “So this is what straight sex looks like!” whispered my gay friend beside me.It was a mélange of moaning. My eyes darted towards a brunette with her head buried between the legs of a buxom blonde in the corner; an older man with a disarmingly great six-pack took a woman from behind, spanking her between each thrust; a man stood against a wall, yanking a woman’s hair as her head bobbed up-and-down on him. A young Asian woman, however, owned the room—her ecstatic squeaking was so strident that when she finally came, the room took a collective sigh of relief.
The scene throws you off at first, but you soon experience a moment of clarity: this is what these people do. This isn’t a one-off party that goes down every first of the month; Les Chandelles is open every single night, and their business is thriving. One of the employees pulled us aside to say that many a young couple has traveled to Paris and makes it a point to close things out at Les Chandelles, finishing off their trip with a ménage a trois or fashionable orgy. There is no judgment here.
We exited the room and retreated back to the bar. Champagne in hand, we all looked at each other and raised our glasses in salute to whatever the hell just happened. While some of us were expecting to have a more adverse reaction, we didn’t. We’d waded through a sea of orgies and flailing limbs, and came out on the other side.
The Fucking French.