It’s cold. Really cold. And I’m in the New Orleans Central Business District doing what I do best: Getting lost. Finally, after a few false starts, I see a relatively nondescript three-story building. Out front, there’s a doorman and a young woman. At last, I’ve made it to Colette.
There are many different nightclubs in New Orleans, and an amazing number of strip clubs, but Colette is a different beast entirely. Rather than the backroom deals, or secret adventures carried on in bathrooms, Colette is a sex-positive club for people of all sexual orientations. And it’s not just for swingers.
Colette in New Orleans is only one among several in other cities. Founder John Melfi reveals, “In the mid-90s, probably ’98, I went to Amsterdam and saw a swingers club, and I thought, man, this would do really well in the States. So I had a nightclub in Atlanta that catered to couples. And then in 2000, I opened my first swingers club in Atlanta based on that (Amsterdam) model.”
He explains that the model has been surprisingly successful. “I did some research on that business model. I felt that as though it was a better model than the clubs that I had been involved in. The lifespan of a regular nightclub isn’t very long. Two years, if you’re lucky.’’ He adds, “But whereas a swingers club if you look in the States and Europe, they have a very long lifespan. So I thought that was another good reason to get into this business.”
Colette is one of the last remaining regularly open sex clubs in New Orleans, and it’s been keeping it hot for 19 years.
Walking inside the club, there is the downstairs area where there’s a small dance floor, a bar, some incredibly comfy couches, and a stripper pole. From what I understand, they don’t actually have sex on this floor; they save that for upstairs. And upstairs is definitely where things get interesting. Monica, the General Manager of the club, says, “Something that’s really great about our club specifically is that at Colette, our first floor is like almost any other upscale club, so there’s some division. Our play areas are upstairs. So you have division in the club. So for people who aren’t comfortable in that play space, you have that first floor for people to feel comfortable, sexy, all of that.”
The rooms upstairs are divided into different sections for different activities, with the one of most curious to me being the Circle Bedroom. “Jim,” a bartender who prefers to remain completely anonymous, a man who’s been there are several occasions, tells me he finds that room is his favorite. “I was in a polyamorous relationship, and I guess when I think about it, I guess we were swingers too. When we were here it was one of the closest moments we’ve ever shared when it wasn’t just us, but it was a group activity, people watching, and other people were involved. It was honestly the closest I’ve been to her. ”
The windows are one way, and a disco ball hangs overhead. Melfi says, “That floor had been an office at one time, and there were windows in that room that were there before. When we were walking in the building deciding what to put where, that room seemed like it would be a perfect room for people to watch through the windows if they wanted to.
“And so we got the round bed in there, and the disco ball was kind of an afterthought, add a little more light in there, so you can see from the outside. And the people on the inside, all they’re seeing is their reflection in the tint.”
Monica adds, “They can’t see who’s watching. And that’s part of the voyeurism of the lifestyle. You know a lot of people like to watch or be watched. You know the lifestyle isn’t just about swinging. It’s not just about trading partners. It’s about being intimate with each other and sharing your love for each other around other people.”
But it’s actually not the Circle Room where people have the most sex. According to Monica, it’s actually the Library, “The Library Room is probably the most popular area, just because it’s a sexy New Orleans environment.”
And it is a gorgeous library. There are few books, and no law books at all anymore. Melfi says, “It was law firm office at one time. It was designed as a library, so we decided to keep that. It’s just today they’re not the law books that were on the shelves.”
The thing about Colette is that it’s not just about swingers having sex. Far from it. “A lot of people think when you come into a club like mine,” Melfi says, “that people come in and they think swingers are just people that have sex all the time, with anybody who wants to have sex with them, and that’s really far from the truth. They’re from all walks of life. I think your readers probably know people who are in the swinger lifestyle. They just don’t know it.
“A lot of the people that come into the club never do anything in there. I mean they come in there because they like the atmosphere. They like being around open-minded people. Or people of like mind. And that’s really the reason why I opened my first swingers club. To give people a space where they could just meet and be around people that thought the same way they do. And we’re into the same things that they are. And then there’s the other people that do like to participate or make friends and go play with them in the club itself.”
Monica adds, “The people in this lifestyle are couples that are generally very successful couples. They’re happy in their relationships. And they just want to add something even more special to their relationship. So we don’t get that Bourbon Street crowd. We don’t get that really super rowdy crowd. We get people who are trying to make advancements in their relationship. And learn more about each other through other people. Or learn different ways to appreciate each other.”
And that’s the theme of the club: safety, health, and with an essential focus on being consensual. Melfi says, “So no means no, but from there, the rules today have become even more strict when it comes to consent. And so it’s very important to ask for permission for anything…if you’re around a couple that may like to be watched, it’s important to ask them if it’s okay for you to watch. Not just assume that it’s okay. So there are no more assumptions anymore. It’s all about asking and getting permission to do things.”
But what I think the most interesting thing about the place isn’t the sex or the bar downstairs with the stripper pole. What I think is the most important thing is the accepting atmosphere they have. Monica says: “This is an environment people can come to no matter what their sexual orientation is, what they identify as, you know, anything like that.
“You can be comfortable with that fact that even if people are judging you, they’re not going to say anything to you. And everyone’s going to be polite if not completely accepting of you. You know, and this is the one spot that I think, in general, that swingers clubs are that one spot could anybody could go to. Doesn’t matter your religion, doesn’t matter your race, doesn’t matter your size. That’s another thing I love about here, you know as long as you dress well, as long as you carry yourself well, you’re accepted here.
“If you identify as someone you weren’t born as, it doesn’t matter. You know we have people who aren’t even necessarily transgender, people that crossdress, for example, and come here, and some guys just want to put on some heels sometimes. And we allow that, and we invite it. I also want to see my members be accepting, it reminds me that I’m around good people. You know if someone walks in all super different, they come in, and I see my members like ‘Oooh, look at that person.’”
She adds, “I think as a society, in general, what’s great is we’ve become more accepting with the LGBTQ movement, you know, in America, we are not scared of sex. And we’re not so scared of people identifying as something different. You know people can say what they will, but we have moved on. We’ve had leaps and bounds in that at least…”
So that is Colette. A place where no matter where you come from or what you believe; if you are dressed well, and polite, you have a home. And that’s the real lifestyle they want to project, or as Monica puts it, “It’s not just about sex. It’s about just being accepting. And in your relationship. And loving each other and accepting each other for who they are. And wanting them to be happy, whether that is with you or someone else.”
Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his work here.