Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

The Playboy Mansion for the Masses

Plato's Retreat offered "champagne sex at beer prices."

The Reagans, along with their goal of restoring traditional values to the nation, may have been moving into the White House in January 1981, but Americans were not quite ready to end the decade-and-a-half Bacchanal they had recently enjoyed. For the particularly adventurous, there was Plato’s Retreat in New York City, a vestige of the unrestrained sexuality of the 1970s. Having opened its doors in 1977, the “first openly advertised, popularly priced spa for public sex,” as Sam Keen called it, was still alive and kicking in the early 1980s. Unlike many countercultural or what would become known as New Age activities or institutions, Plato’s Retreat had no ideological, therapeutic, or spiritual ambitions. The club, very simply, offered people the rare opportunity to have sex with or in the presence of others, a 20th century version of the ancient Greek orgy (hence the name). “It was the Playboy mansion for the masses, champagne sex at beer prices,” wrote Keen for Psychology Today in 1980 after visiting the place for research purposes only. (As a reporter, he was required to keep his clothes on and, as the manager made perfectly clear, “look but don’t touch.”)

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Located on a quiet residential street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one certainly would not know one was entering a palace of carnality. After paying the $40 cover and agreeing not to consume drugs or alcohol (a rule routinely violated), patrons could enjoy a swimming pool, dance floor, game room, and buffet stocked with cold cuts and potato salad. It was, however, the mattress room where most visitors quickly gravitated. In addition to the wall-to-wall mattresses and gymnasium pads, the “mat” room had mirrors on the ceilings and along two walls, allowing greater visibility for spectators and participants. Only (nude) male and female couples could enter the room, after which any heterosexual or lesbian reconfigurations were permitted. Thirty or forty couples were typically active in the mat room on any given night, a sea of moving body parts. (Keen likened it to an aquarium.) Most of the diverse collection of guests remained with the partners with whom they arrived, although swapping was perfectly acceptable if mutually agreeable. The room was surprisingly quiet, given all that was going on, and there was little kissing or touching beyond the ocean of mass copulation. “The atmosphere was reminiscent, not of a gourmet restaurant where each morsel is savored, but rather of a McDonald’s,” Keen thought, “the sexual equivalent of a standardized menu.” And unlike the Playboy mansion, Plato’s Retreat was not a haven for the Beautiful People, as Keen put it diplomatically, this further making his visit more instruction manual than erotic experience.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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