The year is 2013. Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is “selfie.” People are posting nudes on Tumblr and watching season 2 of Girls. There’s a documentary about Burning Man. The Feminist Porn Awards are still a thing. Lindsay Lohan is shooting The Canyons opposite an adult film star. It was a different time, and it was in this moment that Damon Lawner, living in Beverly Hills and one million dollars in debt, had the idea to start what would become the most exclusive and expensive sex club of our time, SNCTM.
It’s a story of serendipity. For the uninitiated, SNCTM (pronounced “sanctum”) became a phenomenon, and this particular type of “high-end” sex party turned into a trend. All over New York, Los Angeles, and London, masquerade orgies were being held on entire floors of upscale hotels or spacious lofts. The men worked in finance or real estate and the women were vaguely bisexual. There were a lot of slim gray suits and Agent Provocateur lingerie that cost more than a month’s rent.
Karley Sciortino, a writer and host of Sanctum Unmasked.
Emma Louise Swanson
It all feels very aughts: There was the second tech boom and an online culture that was increasingly image and wealth-obsessed. The self-development blogosphere-speak of Silicon Valley became enmeshed with millennial ethos, and every aspect of our lives turned into something to disrupt; our every action calculable. SNCTM rose to success at a time when “ethical non-monogamy” became yet another aspiration. In a real sign of the era, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness startup Goop wrote about the club, prompting speculation that she was one of its celebrity regulars—of which there were rumored to be many. There was also chatter that anyone who went had to sign a NDA, so whatever happened at SNCTM remained, more or less, in the domain of whisper networks.
Damon Lawner sold SNCTM in 2019, and is now opening up about what really went down in a new podcast, Sanctum Unmasked, hosted by Slutever author and Vogue columnist Karley Sciortino. In interviews with Lawner, his wife Melissa, and many people in and around the world of SNCTM, Sciortino goes beyond simply an exposé of freaky sex tales, focusing on the people involved in the scene and the very human questions at heart of sexual exploration: what happens when you try an open relationship and test your emotional boundaries along with those of the people you love?
Here, Sciortino spills the secrets on what really happens at a SNCTM party, whether the millennial “trend” of non-monogamy is over, and what we’ve learned along the way.
Damon set out to create “sexually transcendent experiences for the one percent.” Not that sex parties don’t exist today, but this specific kind of party feels very aughts.
Obviously, we went through a recession in 2008/2009, and this was the beginning of the economy growing and shifting. It was the nexus of all this stuff: the rise of the sugar baby, the economy changing, Fifty Shades of Grey was coming out, and non-monogamy was entering the cultural conversation. It was just the beginning, and this stuff felt enormously transgressive and exciting. If someone now was like, “I’m going to start a high-end sex party,” you’d be like, “Who cares?” Literally, right before I opened my computer I was watching the trailer for Sanctuary starring Margaret Qualley. She plays a dominatrix and it’s like, oh, we’re here now. Is culture going to become more wholesome again? And to bring it back to economics, I mean now, we are in this time of extraordinary income inequality.
With SNCTM and the “trend” of non-monogamy flourishing at that time, looking back, do think it was naive? These scenes attracted a lot of first-timers, and there was a sense that as long as everyone is a consenting adult, it was okay.
What’s fascinating is that this was before #MeToo. I do think that these spaces were ahead of their time, in a lot of ways. With SNCTM, the golden rule was always ask before you touch. That kind of language didn’t really exist outside in the normal world at the time, at bars, parties…or at least I wasn’t hearing that. However, SNCTM was also a maniac free-for-all. People in leadership at the company were sleeping with employees and performers, performers were sleeping with guests. There was an enormous amount of sex work without any determined boundaries.
The parties were shrouded in a mystery of “anything could happen,” but often that was only the case if you could pay for it. There were always sex workers or “sugar babies,” but SNCTM also had its own “house girls” or “atmosphere models.” What is the difference?
An atmosphere model is essentially an employee of the club, a performer, whose job is to walk around and create an atmosphere. It could just be a woman who is super hot and in skimpy lingerie, or she’s naked and wandering around brushing people with feathers, or she’s hanging out, asking people little sexy questions to initiate conversation. Some of them are dressed in fetish gear. It’s just filling the club with hot people who are uninhibited. Like, everyone wants to have that friend who gets the party started.
What went on that you think wouldn’t fly today? I know a lot of the performers were pretty young.
The performers were all super young, some of them as young as 18. They were allowed to drink and do drugs. The club wasn’t providing drugs for anyone, but drugs were rampant. The place provided alcohol and didn’t regulate how much the performers could drink. And for the first couple of years, the parties would often be at the mansion of some wealthy guy who was a fan of the party. Classically, these guys were a problem, because they felt entitled to be like, “Well, this is my house, I can do whatever I want,” like, groping people. At the time, there wasn’t as much nuance in understanding boundaries or consent or how to talk about it. So it’s interesting to talk to performers who were like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t do that now,” or people higher up at the company looking back at things in a new light.
For example, they did this thing where they would literally auction off women. They called it a slave auction. The performers would come out naked, and there would be an auctioneer who would spin them around and list things like, “Sarah is 5’10”,” and she’s whatever cup size, and the guests would cast their bids. Some of the performers being auctioned were sold for upwards of $10,000. So, what that means is she is your devotee for the evening…figure out what that means. SNCTM would donate a portion to an anti-trafficking organization, they actually made money from it. The performers got some kind of cut, too. What’s interesting is that some of the guests would then volunteer. But there was just a huge amount of sex work happening. It was like Seeking Arrangement IRL.
Wow. Do you think there’s a backlash against non-monogamy right now? Some pin it as an excuse for people to do whatever they want, without actually being responsible for people’s feelings.
It was framed as a sort of progression. In the ’70s, there was wife-swapping, and there had been rampant cheating throughout the decades. The idea was that our generation was going to change that. We were going to have ethical non-monogamy, we were going to have conversations our parents didn’t, and previous generations weren’t able to have. The idea was that this was more realistic, the way humans were supposed to engage with each other. People would constantly be quoting the fact that snakes or monkeys weren’t monogamous…which doesn’t make me any more comfortable, but, whatever. It was an obligatory conversation in certain circles. I just got back on a dating app for the first time in seven years and Hinge actually has a button you can click for relationship style: monogamous, non-monogamous…I do think a lot of people on dating apps are using “non-monogamous” as a code for just wanting to hook up.
Non-monogamy…is not this holy grail we thought it was.”
Commitment styles seem to shift over time and can be different in different relationships. You can’t immediately know what something’s going to be.
To be like, “I know I can never be in a monogamous relationship even for one minute at the beginning while I’m creating a foundation with somebody” is crazy to me. Most people on this earth are far more comfortable in a monogamous relationship. We understood that even as many of us were exploring. But, in terms of a backlash, I think what we’ve realized is that non-monogamy doesn’t actually work any better than monogamy; maybe it works worse. At least, it’s not this holy grail we thought it was, and it’s really hard for even the most progressive people. Like, it’s good that it’s an option now for people, and people don’t feel shame about it, but I don’t think it’s the answer a lot of people thought it was going to be.
Orgies aside, what the podcast really follows is the marriage between Damon and Melissa, the founders of the party, and the unraveling of their marriage as they begin to explore an open relationship.
It’s kind of like a slutty soap opera, especially at a time when they just heard about it. It’s like, “oh, let’s try this thing,” when you don’t have real models around you for how to do it. It feels like such a human experience. So many people at the club were new because it was aspirational; people would go who’d never had a threesome before. And maybe that opened their eyes to what was possible. If you’re the kind of person who is curious enough to go to a sex party, does that mean you could be in a non-monogamous relationship? I think for most people, what I’ve learned is that it opens up conversations between you and your partner you wouldn’t have had otherwise. And maybe you go to that party and it sparks something in you or it turns you on and you go home and use that energy.
It seems like a lot of people were looking for a new experience. And they got something out of it, whether it was money or a sexual encounter.
Part of what Damon did that was really smart was that it wasn’t just, “yeah, bring your young hot girlfriends.” He straight up had people contacting girls on Seeking Arrangement to invite them. He was just filling the party with men who have a lot of money and women who are open to the idea of fucking someone for money, and they don’t have to…they’re guests. He curated a very specific environment. When we talk about needing boundaries drawn for sex parties to work, the money can be a boundary.
Regarding their open relationship, in the podcast, you ask, “What happens when you shed societal expectations and just unapologetically pursue personal sexual freedom? What do you gain from that? And does there have to be a cost?” What prompted that question?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself at various points, in some capacity, over the years. You have to take risks to have rewards—we accept this in a career, or a creative life, or in sports: there will be some pain along the way and it will make you stronger. But with sex, there’s this narrative of “play it safe or else you’ll end up traumatized, or dead.” And I do think when you are putting yourself out there for new experiences, it’s about pushing your own boundaries to see where that line is, and often you find the line by crossing the line. There is some kind of emotional cost to this exploration. I’ve had it myself, exploring non-monogamy. There has been great emotional loss, amounts of emotional trauma, things I will never get out of my mind. But I do feel like I’ve become stronger and wiser with a greater level of self-knowledge around what I want and don’t want. Maybe there’s a cost to any growth. I guess the question is, how great is the cost? Is it worth it? Did you need to go on this journey to figure out what you wish you hadn’t?
For many people, relationships are tied up in finances—where and how we live. People move in together and can’t afford to live apart. Maybe non-monogamy flourished back then because the economy was in a better place.
Human beings are wired to desire safety, stability, security, novelty, and adventure. And if you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, you start to wonder, do I feel satisfied with just sleeping with this one person? Do I want to sexually explore? What would be the cost of that exploration? And almost everybody on earth decides, no, the cost is too high. I don’t want to do that. That’s why most people choose monogamy. It’s not that monogamy provides them everything that they need, but they choose it because the alternative seems too risky and painful. The thing is, I wouldn’t give up those experiences I had. If you asked me, “Would you rather have spent your twenties at home sober on TikTok doing some multifaceted skin care routine and look slightly better than you do now…because of how much you drank in your twenties, and just being an indie sleaze hoe from hell, doing all the drugs, partying way too much, never moisturizing?” I definitely wouldn’t have changed anything.
At the center of the podcast is a story not about some depraved sex party, but people’s morality and all of the ways in which we’re inherently flawed. It’s a human story about someone whose morals are tested, who has to make a big choice, and how that impacts their life. And along the way, we hear from all kinds of people about their time in this world, how it can be hard to tell what is healthy sexual exploration and what is just chaotic and impulsive, and how our past informs our sexual needs and desires. It’s, how does someone get here? And the essential questions: what was gained and what was the cost?
Rachel Rabbit White is the author of the poetry collections Porn Carnival and Porn Carnival: Paradise Edition. She also writes essays, short fiction, and journalism. Her blog, Temporary Paradise, can be found at patreon.com/rachelrabbitwhite.