Efrain John Gonzalez is a New York City sex historian who’s been photographing the city since the ’70s. As the founder of Hellfire Tours, he offers guided tours through the city’s Meatpacking District, highlighting the underground sex and kink scene of the ’80s and ’90s that is no more.
“I consider myself lucky because I’ve been able to go to these places and photograph them and record them,” Gonzalez says. He’s been able to see the legendary places that make up New York’s unique sexual history: the Hellfire Club, the Vault, the Anvil, Mother and the Mineshaft. “I always enjoyed the city at night.”
Gonzalez moved to New York in 1975 and became a taxi driver, which let him to explore the city and its sights. He discovered the Hellfire Club in 1982 and was hooked — he frequented the place until 2002, and it became the inspiration for his work over the years. It was a sex club for gay, lesbian, poly, trans and leather folk. “If you came there, you were basically accepted,” he says.
But it was the Meatpacking District between 1982 and 1986 that captured his attention. “That was a wide open period,” he explains. “You had a series of clubs a short walking distance from each other all basically open to different types of sexualities and expressions of sexuality.”
After the AIDS epidemic in 1985, many of the city’s sex spaces closed down. The Hellfire Club found a loophole by removing its backrooms and glory holes so that it could stay open under a new name — The Vault.
“You could spank someone, you could fist them, you could jerk them off, but you couldn’t have regular [anal] sex,” he explains.
The ’90s saw a resurgence in the scene as clubs like the Nutcracker Suite and Pandora’s Box opened shop — but with gentrification on the horizon, it was a short-lived renaissance.
“When the Meatpacking District became commercially viable, when they began selling and dealing all the land that was ‘on-hold.’ The prices began going up, and a lot of places we used to play at disappeared,” Gonzalez says. “I was very sad.”
Ever since he moved to NYC, Gonzalez has documented the Meatpacking District’s evolution. With Hellfire Tours, he takes his customers through the neighborhood, piecing together the area’s sexual history with the pictures he’s taken throughout the decades.
“I could show you photographs of the buildings the way they used to exist at night, before they got cleaned up, sanitized, and turned into perfume stores,” he says.
“What I do is show a culture that used to exist, that started a lot the S&M groups and organizations,” he says. “It was a community built on people coming together, talking to one another. Now that has pretty much changed.”
But Gonzalez keeps the spirit alive with his walking tours, through the cobblestone streets and under the High Line, so that others can relive the days when kinksters and sex deviants filled the streets unabashed and free.
For more on the history of the Meat Packing District, read All Sperms Forgotten.