Over 100 years of shenanigans at 35,000 feet.
An airplane toilet two hours into a crowded flight isn’t a sexy place. Countless tired, stressed passengers have passed through it, cramming the undersized trash can with nonsense, ignoring the countless invitations to clean out the sink for the next person, potentially letting a combination of turbulence and apathy create a truly unforgivable mess,
And yet a hell of a lot of people opt to enter that cramped, urine-sodden environment and have sex in it. Cramped, brutally efficient, box-ticking sex, more about having had the experience than the experience itself? Probably fairly frequently, yes, But there’s a lot of people doing it. According to one 2018 survey, 17% of Americans have had a sexual encounter in an airplane toilet.
What, then, is the appeal of seven minutes in heaven at 35,000 feet? Whatever it is, it’s been there for as long as humans have been taking to the skies. No sooner had people figured out how to leave the ground than someone was up there referring to his boner as the “captain’s log”. The Montgolfier brothers made the first successful hot-air balloon fight in 1783, and there is a record from a gentleman’s club in 1785 noting a bet between two Lords about one of them having sex “one thousand yards above the Earth”.
The first decades of aviation were wild—the Wright brothers made the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and barely a decade later, World War One involved huge amounts of flight. However, these were small planes, many of which didn’t even have roofs, let alone bathrooms. At least one German fighter pilot, flying ace Oswald Boelcke, got in trouble for taking a nurse up in a plane with him. He is sometimes said to be the first member of the Mile High Club, but given the dimensions involved and the constant need for a pilot to have their hands and feet on the plane’s controls, it seems unlikely they got up too much.
American aviation pioneer Lawrence Sperry, however, has a pretty solid claim to the title. A rich, hard-partying pilot, as well as the developer of an early autopilot system, Sperry had a sideline in giving flying lessons to wealthy socialites. Sperry seemed to have a habit of deploying the autopilot to free him up for other aerial endeavors. On one occasion in 1917 it failed, and Sperry’s Curtiss Flying Boat crashed into the bay in front of Babylon, Long Island. He and his passenger, Dorothy Rice Sims, were discovered by duck hunters, stark naked but largely unhurt, and claimed the crash had torn their clothes off. Unconvinced, the New York tabloid Mirror & Evening Graphic ran the story with the headline “Aerial Petting Ends in Wetting”.
And it all went nuts from there, especially after the boom in commercial aviation, and long-haul passenger flights—with toilets of course—became widespread. In 1999, one flight attendant told Salon how prevalent it had become: “I've seen couples going at it in seats ... usually the man sitting down and the woman on top. In bathrooms... with the woman screaming as though she was in pain and the flight attendants knocking on the door. I've witnessed a co-pilot and flight attendant having sex in the cockpit, guys masturbating, women too. I've seen many blowjobs, and a couple of men going down on their women. And one lucky guy had two women going down on him."
But why do people do it when, as Richard Branson says, “the problem with plane loos generally is that they are very small, and the acrobatics can't take too long because there's no room and people start banging on the door"?
Part of it presumably is self-perpetuating—it’s such an established thing that people have sex on planes that it just seems like a no-brainer. Branson himself claims to have joined the club at 19 in 1969, having a dalliance in the bathroom with a married woman on a flight to Los Angeles. Celebrities from Kris Jenner to Cara Delevigne to Gwyneth Paltrow to Voldemort have told stories about it.
But there might be more going on. Flying is often an emotionally heightened experience—a long flight usually involves some kind of excitement at where you’re going or sadness at the people and things being left behind. You’re way more likely to cry at movies on a plane than at ground level.
Psychologist Judi De Luca told Time: “We have little control over our environment while we are traveling by plane. Although we may not be consciously aware of our emotional vulnerability, our emotional brain is working overtime.” Pressure differences can also affect the brain, leading to difficulty with emotional regulation. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the same emotional intensity that makes you tear up at two-star movies could also manifest as “Hey, sneaking off to the airplane toilets with someone I barely know”.
Or the answer to “why bang in the airplane toilets?” might be as simple as why not, damn it?
Discover our travel size lubricants, candles, condoms and vibrators.