Karley Sciortino Takes on the Secret L.A. Sex Club in Sanctum Unmasked

In a new podcast, the sex and relationships writer does a deep dive on SNCTM, the controversial sex party for billionaires, politicians, and celebrities.

Photograph by Emma Louise Swanson

As a sexuality and relationships writer whose Vice series Slutever saw her traveling across the U.S. to interview folks with alternative sex lives, Karley Sciortino has met her fair share of eccentrics. (Chief among them: Betty Dodson, who held group sessions to teach women how to masturbate; and a group called the Rocky Mountain Pony Herd, whose members have a kink for horse-centric cosplay.) But the sex expert and columnist says her latest project—a podcast chronicling SNCTM (pronounced Sanctum), the sex club modeled after Eyes Wide Shut—brought her to one of the most “complicated personalities” she’d ever encountered: Damon Lawner.

Lawner, who conceived of the Los Angeles club in 2013, is the subject of Sciortino and iHeartMedia’s Sanctum Unmasked podcast, which comes out on April 13. He first created SNCTM to get out of debt, but by 2015, members were paying up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to his exclusive bacchanals. There have been rumors of several celebrities and politicians attending, but Sciortino isn’t naming names. The host, who also wrote Vogue’s “Breathless” sex column, has spent the past year or so working on this podcast—interviewing the club’s erotic performers, the guests who partied there, and Lawner himself. “At the beginning, he didn’t know if he trusted me,” Sciortino says. “It became this relationship in which I tried to prove to someone that I had the best journalistic intentions. I wasn’t trying to just cancel this person.”

Still, the subject matter of Sanctum Unmasked and what went on at the club skews dark at times, exploring topics of objectification, consent, sex work, and abuse. At its core, the show is an exploration of how sexual fantasies, relationships, money, and power are intertwined—and how they can lead some to their downfall.

How did you first hear about SNCTM?

Sex parties are, to be honest, not really my thing—I’m not an exhibitionist or a voyeur. But because of my job, I’d been to and heard of quite a few. I always saw them more as an anthropological experiment; it’s just not the environment in which I’m gonna have the best sex of my life. I’d known people who went to SNCTM years ago in its heyday, and they told me crazy stories. A friend of mine knew some performers who had worked there. It sounded like this place that was back in a messy, pre-Me Too, less boundaried time—wild and fascinating and problematic and exciting. Then iHeartMedia approached me about doing the podcast and I looked into it further.

iHeartMedia approaching you seems uncommon.

They were trying to find someone to host it. I think that was a little hard because it was someone that had to get along with the complicated personality that is the main character.

You’re talking about Damon Lawner?

Yes. The club still exists in a new iteration; Damon sold SNCTM in 2019 to new management, almost for it to be a more corporate entity. After the pandemic, it reopened. I had never really talked to someone like that before, interviewing him for 20 hours over the course of weeks to tell his personal story. You end up developing a very specific relationship.

What kind of relationship is that?

Obviously, we got to know each other more over time. But at the beginning, I think he was suspect of me because, I mean, how could you not be? He’s like, this woman that I don’t know is telling the story of my life and could rinse me. The whole podcast isn’t criticizing him, but it’s not praising him, either. Part of the story is about how he knows he was in a complicated position and did some things he wouldn’t have done now.

Did you have a difficult time getting people who were involved in the club to open up to you?

We found people to be willing—a lot of the performers who spoke were open about really intimate things, good experiences, bad experiences. This one woman told us about one of the most extreme things SNCTM did: these auctions of women at the club. The women stood up, naked, in front of men who would place bids to be devoted to them for the evening. And what that means exists in a very gray area. One woman was talking about being 20 years old, how it was so transgressive, but it felt complicated because it kind of felt good. But then we had other people saying, no, I was sexually assaulted.

It’s well-known that sex is intrinsically linked with money and power. But did working on Sanctum cause you to have any revelations about their interconnectedness?

In a way, it did highlight even further how different the world was before 2017, before Me Too. It was a no-boundaries fest that led to some wildly fun experiences and some wildly messy and likely traumatizing experiences. Working on this also confirmed to me how, if you’re rich, you can get whatever you want. There are certain gender dynamics that are created at a club that’s extraordinarily expensive. They’re prohibitive to almost everybody, and even if you can afford it, you have to make it through another application process that is about whether you’re hot enough. And what happens if the prices are in the thousands for men, but women get in for free?

A lot of the men were paying upwards of $10,000 for bottle service. One woman who worked at SNCTM told me she felt pressure to be “part of the entertainment.” That’s one of the questions we ask at the top of the podcast: what is it like to be in a space that’s intended to create an atmosphere of sexual freedom without shame, but at the same time is straight-up elitist by design?

I wanted to ask you about your column, Slutever. Is there something that your readers have taught you through their letters and emails about sex that you didn’t know before?

Since the beginning, when I was writing a blog, it’s always been this interesting barometer for what resonates with people. It becomes revealing of the issues people deal with in their own lives. I was always shocked that, the times I wrote about having difficulty being able to orgasm during sex, specifically penetrative sex, the response would be tenfold compared to everything else. These are the things that people struggle with that are hidden. And then it starts to make you feel more connected to humanity.

Is there anything sexuality-wise or about your personal love life that you would never discuss publicly?

The biggest one is when my ex of four and a half years and I were breaking up last year, over the course of six months. I wasn’t writing, “Yo, I’m the most stressed out I’ve ever been in my relationship! We might break up! Couples therapy was awful today!” When things are that raw, difficult, triggering, and confusing to me, I don’t find it helpful to write about it. I need some perspective before I can write about things.

He was very private and it did impact my column quite a bit. But, of course, I wanted to respect his boundaries, because I would want the same in return. As I get older, I inherently want some increased privacy around my own relationships, but I couldn’t reduce it to something like: I don’t wanna talk about anal sex at all.

Let’s move on to the Culture Diet questions. Are you yourself a podcast enthusiast and, if so, which are your favorites?

I listen to podcasts all day, every day. My favorite is the Every Outfit podcast, from the Instagram account Every Outfit on Sex in the City. The hosts are real people who work in the fashion and film industries, so they have a nerdy level of knowledge that I don’t. Sometimes they just do Sex and the City recap episodes; the ...And Just Like That recaps were so much better than the actual show. I also like How Long Gone. They’re smart in a way that comes across as kind of stupid and that’s my favorite kind of smart. I’m that way myself. It’s very approachable to be an idiot.

What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?

I’m an embarrassing rewatch person—I recently re-watched Sex and the City and then I rewatched Curb Your Enthusiasm. Of course, I loved White Lotus. One of my favorite shows of all time is Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. Also, I’m not usually a Ryan Murphy person, but I really liked Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Richard Jenkins, who plays Jeffrey Dahmer’s dad, is so good.

Do you believe in astrology? What’s your zodiac sign?

I used to be very much like, “Astrology is stupid and it makes women look bad.” But I’m now seeing how it can be fun, and I know my whole chart because every lesbian I’ve ever met in L.A. has fucking read it: my sun sign is Libra, with Scorpio rising and Scorpio moon. I do think that when people talk about Libra qualities, they sound right. I’ve also only ever dated Libras (by accident) in serious relationships. That must be some kind of weird red flag.