Swinging London

In the new film Sleeping Beauty, Emily Browning portrays a student who stumbles into a shadowy sexual hinterland of rich people.

Illustration by Ray Smith

In the new film Sleeping Beauty, Emily Browning portrays a student who stumbles into a shadowy sexual hinterland of rich people with gorgeous houses, who are happy to pay for extraordinary sensual experiences. While this might seem the stuff of fantasy, it is not so far removed from the lotus eating that occurred until recently at 33 Portland Place, a dilapidated 22,000sq ft Robert Adam mansion south of Regent's Park.

33 Portland Place was the elegant backdrop for the Killing Kittens parties, licentious events attended by carefully selected members. Evenings would begin with up to 200 members arriving in masks to drink champagne in the ground-floor rooms. As the night evolved the upstairs bedrooms would open, while in the basement the Jacuzzi would soon fill up. The owner of Portland Place, Eddie Davenport, a party-loving self-styled 'Lord', was delighted to host such debauched evenings, swapping his usual smoking jacket for a damson dressing gown to observe events unfold. But earlier this month Davenport was found guilty of fraud and sent down for more than seven years. It looked as though the fun might be over.

However, Killing Kittens founder Emma Sayle, an athletic and glamorous blonde, educated at Downe House and the daughter of a diplomat, is not so easily discouraged. Thirty-three years old and engaged to Ian Botham's son Liam, she remains committed to making sure libidinous and beautiful Londoners are able to enjoy themselves however they see fit. She has found new homes for her boutique orgies across several undisclosed Central London locations, and is also launching a fresh range of more intimate gatherings.

With a background in PR and events organisation, Emma brought New York's women-only Cake 'porn parties' to London eight years ago. The popularity of these club nights, which featured pole-dancing lessons and sex-toy salesgirls, gave Sayle the idea to set up sexy, female-friendly parties in London. 'The whole point of Kittens is that it is glamorous and decadent. The high ceilings and period interiors of 33 Portland Place created the right atmosphere as our guests arrived. As things heated up, the girls loved to be bent over the antique furniture.' There was something of an in-joke when the billiard room was used as the location for the therapist's office inThe King's Speech. 'Do you remember the couch Colin Firth sits on? It's been here since our first party. You wouldn't believe what's happened on it.'

Perhaps unsurprisingly, following the demise of Davenport, a number of Sayle's wealthy regulars have offered their own properties for the events. And this winter she is launching Penthouse Parties, to be held in private penthouse apartments. 'The Penthouse events will be black tie, with vintage champagne and gorgeous waiting staff. At the larger parties you have some people there for the dancing and the booze, others that like to watch and then the core that like to be involved. These parties will have a more intimate feel. I will hand-pick members whom I know and know what they like. The parties will be rocket-fuelled.' There will be up to 50 guests at each event, and the cost will be £300 a couple. 'The idea of something even more selective has massive appeal,' says Tom, a VIP events organiser. 'You're pretty vulnerable at these things, and you want to be damn sure that everyone's on the same page.'

This summer, Killing Kittens also launched a new website, killingkittens.com. So far there are 16,500 people signed up, of whom 40 per cent are based in London. Of the singleton members 6,900 are female and 700 male. From November, platinum members can opt into a match-making service, in which ten individuals whose interests are aligned will be invited to dinners held in hotel suites - with the location a secret until the afternoon of the event. 'The ratio of men to women will depend on the tastes of the participants, though probably it will be six or seven girls to three or four men,' Emma tells me. 'And sex will certainly be on the agenda.'

What, I ask one member, is the draw? 'Let's be honest, I never thought I'd go to an orgy,' says Laura, a consultant in a private hospital. 'But several girlfriends met Emma and tried it, and explained that you can choose how involved you want to be: if you just want to drink with the girls, that's fine. Even if you decide you want to dance around in your suspenders, you can and you won't get pestered. It's pretty liberating.' One rule of membership is that women may approach men, not the other way round. 'There's no pressure to get naughty.'

Laura adds: 'It's also a looks thing. You've had a crap week, then five hours later you're standing at the bar and a gorgeous Brazilian girl wearing nothing but two metres of pearls is kissing three other fantastically attractive women. It's hot. It's escapism. It's a change from the Pitcher and Piano.' Much like at Manhattan's School of Sex parties, the female-focused events launched by swinging couple Jasmine and Rocco in 2007, each Killing Kittens member is vetted on looks, as well as age, and the cost per event (£150 for a couple, and £50 a single girl) ensures everyone is relatively well-heeled. 'One of my favourite moments was running into a member of the England rugby team,' says Sally, a criminal barrister. 'A girlfriend whispered it was like being with someone from a Maximuscle ad.'

Dr Richard de Visser, a lecturer in psychology at Sussex University who has published research into swinging, suggests that the easy access the web provides to information about sexual sub-scenes tends to make them flourish. 'On the one hand, sex parties have been around a long time and therefore this is nothing new. On the other, technology leads to greater awareness of, and hence greater openness toward, diverse sexual practice: once you know that other people are involved, you are more likely to consider it yourself.' Still, de Visser is satisfied that most people go for the right reasons: 'You're unlikely to do something that doesn't feel natural to you. It is more likely that Kittens members already had desires for voyeurism or exhibitionism, and would otherwise have been trying to address these needs covertly. Now they can take control and follow their wants in relative safety.'

Another London location where a taste for exhibitionism can be indulged in safely is The Box, which opened off Brewer Street this spring. Founded by Simon Hammerstein, the original Box in Manhattan opened four years ago and is celebrated (and occasionally reviled) for its explicit stage shows and hedonistic audience participation. The UK version opened to a media storm, as guests including Prince Harry and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley were photographed emerging, and tales of X-rated acts came out: lesbian contortionists, simulated sex and the devilish compere Raven O urging guests to 'answer every fetish'.

The Box is already a super-charged play space. 'People get so sexed up the energy is beyond electric,' says Petra, a fashion designer. 'You often see groups of people heading home who look like they've got every intention of carrying on the party.' So perhaps it's unsurprising that The Box team has been in touch with Sayle. She tells me: 'We are going to launch something with them which is really quite special, but it is currently under wraps.'

Portland Place may have closed but, as Emma says, 'They can shut down as many private houses as they want, they won't stop us.' Licentiousness in London has a history reaching back to the Hellfire Club in the 18th century, and far beyond. As Samuel Pepys (known for his roving eye) liked to sign off: 'And so to bed...' ES

Original article published in ES Magazine, in October, 2011