Inside Beverly Hills’ Most Exclusive Sex Club with Karley Sciortino
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.
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.