Despite the still lively gay scene in ‘gay capital’ Amsterdam, something has also been lost. Theater maker Dries Verhoeven (46) and performer Barnaby Savage (31) lead us through oppressed sex-free places, in the run-up to their performance The Narcosexuals.
“I could go here now,” says Dries Verhoeven, theater director, pointing to his smartphone on which the Chillapp is open. A sex party is going on two hundred meters from him. Verhoeven could register in this way, go to the apartment of the unknown man and take a stimulant to be able to immerse himself in free sex with the other men present for the rest of the afternoon, evening and night.
These sex parties under the influence of drugs such as GHB, 3-mmc or sometimes crystal meth – also known as ‘chemsex parties’ (chemicals + sex) – have been around for about ten years and took off during the corona period. They are the inspiration for Verhoeven’s last performance: The Narcosexuals, in which he lets seven dancers experience such a party.
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Lack of group feeling
It is a world that the average Amsterdammer may not know. Just like the cruise spot in Sarphati Park, behind the benches, between the bushes, which we just visited. Together with one of his actors, Barnaby Savage, we cycle past the visible, invisible, but also the many disappeared gay meeting places and bars in the city.
Because that is also why Verhoeven are the Narcosexuals made: he sees that more and more existing physical gay meeting places in the city are disappearing from the streets. While many gay men experience a lack of connection or group feeling, he sees. In its place are the chemsex parties – invisible, with all the benefits, but also risks.
What is left of the sexual safe havens for men in Amsterdam?
Darkrooms and drugs
Savage, Dutch-British dancer and performer, is waiting for us in the Warmoesstraat. De Cockring, a gay bar with a much used darkroom, was located there for years at number 96.
For Savage, this gay bar was his first encounter with a darkroom. He first came here as a 19-year-old boy. “I remember what the cruise room looked like: a labyrinth of cubicles. I found it very scary and didn’t dare go in.” He later discovered just how attractive he found cruising and anonymous sex.
The municipality closed the tent in 2010 because too many drugs were used and trafficked. Verhoeven, a fairly loyal visitor, still sees the indirect effects of this. “The consequence of such a closure is that people now meet where enforcement is no longer possible. In living rooms where a crystal meth pipe is simply on the table.”
Now there is a branch of tourist cafe Stones Café. When it was still the gay bar, there was a really big cock ring on the facade. “It was visible, it was a reminder of promiscuity and the animalistic in ourselves and society,” says Verhoeven.
Day and night version
Gay bars Dirty Dicks and The Eagle can be found a few doors down the street, but they too are under pressure due to the city’s Red Light District policy. There are plans to close the catering industry at 2am from 2023, while The Eagle and Dirty Dicks will be open until 4am.
“Where are those men supposed to go after that hour?” asks Verhoeven. “I don’t think anyone is bothered by the good breasts that go here. Perhaps some passers-by will experience a sense of filth and abnormality. The clearing is a symptom of a time when differences are increasing: a day and night version of yourself. Either extreme sex on the internet, or a place in public where we are prudish and good.”
Those who do not understand the lure of cruising: it is the surprise of the meeting, or the anonymity of the sex, that make cruising and darkroom visits so attractive, the men say. Most gay men date today through a dating app like Grindr, but that can feel like internet shopping.
“You immediately define your taste, even before you meet. Because of the profile you already know almost everything about each other: height, weight, hair color. You post your best photos. In fact, you can only get disappointed then,” says Savage.
Verhoeven: “In the darkroom you are in the shadows, you can still fantasize about each other.” “It can come as a surprise that someone looks more attractive or has better sex with you than you could imagine,” Savage adds.
Both Savage and Verhoeven praise the adventurous, exciting and democratic side of cruising. Whether in a park – the Rosarium in Vondelpark is the most famous – or in the basement at gay bar The Cuckoo’s Nest.
“I’ve never seen anyone be aggressive while cruising,” Verhoeven says. “You have to respect each other’s boundaries, because you are all in an undefined space, together you determine the rules. That creates a sense of camaraderie.”
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However, cruise locations are also under pressure. For example, there was recently a discussion about the much-used gay meeting place at De Oeverlanden, because a landscape park should be created. The many multi-person pee curls that the city used to have – where men could pee side by side outside – that were also used as sex places, have also decreased enormously. The Weteringscircuit was a lively cruise scene, until the rhododendron bushes were pruned and there was no more shelter.
Men are therefore increasingly seeking refuge via the internet and in the privacy of parties. Where sex and drugs are even more connected. Savage: “It’s something that the outside world doesn’t like so much that it creates a sense of togetherness. A space is created where men experiment sexually, without judgment.” Verhoeven: “At those kinds of parties, there is often a great sense of care for each other, for example when someone becomes unwell. But the outside world will not notice if something goes wrong.”
If the city cleans up a public space, it does not mean that those extremities have disappeared, says Verhoeven. “We sweep everything under the rug that I think we better look in the dirty mouth.”
In Sarphati Park, Savage points to two benches behind the basketball court in the park. On the surface, the benches are like any other, but this is also a cruise spot, he says, where he frequented. “Only there are fewer and fewer cruisers, especially because there is now a playground nearby.”
Cruising may be a far-from-my-bed show for many. But for Verhoeven, visibility of the dark, sordid sides of life is essential. “A subculture shows its middle finger according to imposed expectations.” Gays have acquired more and more rights, such as the opening up of marriage or the adoption of children, but they have also started to behave according to that heteronormative norm, he sees.
Verhoeven: “We are not all assimilated model gays. That bestiality has not disappeared, it is in all of us, in straights and gays. Although you could of course say that sex occupies a more central place for some gay men. When you suppress your sexuality for eighteen years, it can come out with a bang.”
The Narcosexuals: 22/9 – 1/10, The Stone Head via Frascati Theatre
Sometimes they look really long
The decor in which The Narcosexuals plays is an imitation of a social rental home from the 1980s and is located on the Stenen Hoofd. The house was previously located on the Wisselspoorterrein in Utrecht, later on an old cruise spot in Den Bosch during Theater Festival Boulevard. They are always locations on the fringes of the city. For six hours, the performers dance at a sex party. It’s not real sex (obviously), and they’re not really under the influence either: the dancers wear lenses that narrow their pupils and make them look high. Visitors walk around the house and wear headphones on which texts can be heard. You look inside through the windows. Some visitors tend to watch for a long time, others find it terribly uncomfortable, the performers noticed. Dancer Barnaby Savage found the pitiful looks of some onlookers most complicated. “As if we had to be rescued! But everyone has their own reaction, and it should be there.”
Simultaneously with the Narcosexuals installation on the Stone Head, a ‘sex cinema’ has been made in the smallest room of Theater Frascati, where you can show your ticket for The Narcosexuals can go for free. And as it was in sex cinemas, you can stay as long as you want. Homoerotic scenes from regular films are shown, selected by Dries Verhoeven and his husband Sergio Rigoletto, who is a film scholar at the University of Groningen and who conducted research into portraying male sexuality in film.
Rigoletto: “We were looking for scenes of gay sex and desire, which you rarely see in mainstream films. The internet is bursting with hard porn, in cinemas you see totally sugary, romanticized sex. I wanted to show something we could identify with more.” One of the scenes comes out Un chant d’amour by Jean Genet, from 1950. It is a film about the sexual desire between prisoners and their prison guards. Verhoeven: “With the prison, Genet found a striking metaphor for the walls that society places between people who would prefer to touch each other. The way in which the prisoners manage to approach each other from their cells is of great beauty.”