Research Showcase: Chris Haywood

This is a guest post by Chris Haywood, Reader in Critical Masculinity Studies in the School of Arts and Cultures.

What happens in sex club…’: Erotic Hierarchies, Affective Atmospheres and Cultures of Desire 

As I look through the calendar of events, I see a list of themed evenings that include Greedy Girls nights, an evening for Couples and Unicorns, Black Man Fan Clubs, daytime meetings with MILFs and a night with the Young and Hung. I am in the world of the sex club, clubs that are marketed to heterosexual men and women. These are not strip clubs, lap dancing clubs, gay/lesbian bars or sex entertainment venues; rather, they are often simplistically and heteronormatively referred to in the popular media as ‘Swingers’ Clubs’ or ‘Swap Clubs’. Such clubs provide a collective sex environment for men and women to have (often anonymous) sex with other individuals, couples and groups.

Despite their prominent online marketing and their episodic spectacularizing in the media, sex clubs are quite difficult to find. By day, a sex club might be mistaken for a hotel, a recently closed pub or a factory lock-up. As such, they often appear emblazoned by the ordinary; remarkable and unique places erased in their pursuit of discretion. However, by night, clubs become transformed into what Delph (1979) refers to as ‘erotic oases’: places for ‘edgy sex’ or ‘sexual behaviours and activities that might be considered to be at the borders or the edges of the permissible, desirable or conceivable’ (Pheonix and Oerton, 2013, p.163). Despite recent media reports estimating that in the UK alone, there are over one million visitors per year, we continue to know very little about what happens in a sex club, who visits them and why they continue to grow in popularity.

That is until now.  

Through the use of ethnographies, online profile data and in-depth interviews, I have been mapping out and exploring cultures of desire with the aim of providing an insight into the ways that sex, sexuality and desire are configured in clubs. Whilst sex clubs have primarily been used as a place to access and understand the identities, cultures and practices of the swinging communities, the transgressive and transformative potential but also the scope for social and cultural inequalities impact of the sex club has been underplayed.

Sex clubs are ultimately involved in the selling of fantasies. By using concepts such as affective atmospheres, de-subjectification, abjectivity, sexual hierarchies and commodity fetishism, I capture how the commodification of the erotic both reinforces and transcend traditional gender, sexual and racialized identities and practices.    The research provides an insight into how clubs with their classic pornscapes, their highly theatrical wipe-clean faux satin and leather furnishings and voyeuristic spatializing, provide the erotic circuitry for charged moments of staged desire. It is a desire that is always haunted by a temporary resolution that has visitors to the sex club, always coming back for more.

Sex Club: Recreational Sex, Fantasies and Cultures of Desire by Dr Chris Haywood is due to be published by Palgrave later this year.

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