Life & Culture

River Phoenix’s Insatiable Appetite for Sex

Trey Taylor shines a light on a lesser known side to the Hollywood star

  • TextTrey Taylor

“Have sex, no doubt about it.”

This is how River Phoenix, that Amory Blaine for the macrobiotic diet crowd, answered in response to the question: Would you rather eat a great meal or have sex? Maybe it was because he enjoyed a strict vegan diet since the age of nine and once famously said, “I wouldn’t eat a hamburger for $40,000.” More likely, it was because River Phoenix had an unslakable sexual appetite. He loved to fuck.

Phoenix died from an overdose 25 years ago on Halloween night outside Johnny Depp’s LA club, The Viper Room. While he lived, drugs and alcohol were his vices. His third way of altering his consciousness “without drugs or alcohol” was “blowjobs…and music,” a 21-year-old Phoenix told Details in 1991.

Like any randy son of Hollywood, his sexuality was muted and xeroxed onto 2-D, poster-sized centrefolds in teen magazines when he broke out in Stand By Me at 15. To his own detriment, Phoenix was the triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock and roll, with his band Aleka’s Attic. He was constantly labelled a heart-throb, which he despised. “A pin-up. Oh, God. I wish you hadn’t said that. A pin-up!” he groaned in a 1990 issue of Vogue. “All the outtakes [from photoshoots] that you never want to see again in your life go through the teen magazines forever.”

“The real non-issue to the young actor is his own sex appeal,” an article in a 1993 issue of Detour explains. “Admittedly, he is not a teenybopper heartthrob à la Jason Priestley, but he does have a huge following amongst women and men of all ages.” Phoenix emerged the other end of production for Stand By Me unscathed – nay, improved – by puberty. His virility went unchecked. But sexual play was encouraged in the Children of God sect.

His first sexual experience was when he was aged four. Living in Venezuela with his peripatetic family – who were subscribed to the Children of God cult (the same one Rose McGowan was reared in) – kids were coerced into performing sexual acts with parents and other children. He only addressed it once, in the Details interview. Phoenix said that, at four, he’d lost his virginity to “kids. But I’ve blocked it out. I was completely celibate from ten to 14. I haven’t really had sex with many people – five or six. I’ve just fallen into relationships that were fulfilling and easily monogamous. You know, that’s the way it is: monogamy is monogamy until you screw someone else.”

Following that celibacy, his string of girlfriends included the actress Martha Plimpton, Samantha Mathis and Suzanne Solgot. However, it was widely rumoured that he had experimented with men, too – mostly as part of his research for the role of a male hustler in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. “I think maybe he had feelings that way,” Mike Parker, the hustler on whom the film was based, said. “Everybody has a level of curiosity. River struck me as real curious. Maybe not because he was gay but because he wanted to understand.”

“If he loved somebody, male or female,” his former girlfriend, Suzanne Solgot, added, “he felt he should check it out.”

Whichever side of the cup Phoenix sipped from, he was always thirsty. “Sex was nearly all that River could think about,” his Stand By Me co-star Corey Feldman once said. “So, he decided to lose his ‘second virginity,’ you know, because he lost his first when he was four. So, he decided to lose it to this older girl he knew, and strangely enough, he asked his parents for permission. Instead of just saying yes, his parents put a tent in the backyard for their son to get it on in, and they ‘decorated it to enhance the mood.’”

When he lost his ‘second virginity,’ Phoenix told anybody who would listen. “That summer … River’s calling me up and telling me he lost his virginity, and I still was a virgin,” recalled Ethan Hawke in 2016. Hawke and Phoenix were often up for the same roles while he was alive, and Hawke was jealous of Phoenix’s talent. So when he found out his rival had dealt his V-card first, “it was a nightmare for me.” To Joe Dante, the director of Explorers, Phoenix wrote a letter which literally spelled it out in all caps, “WELL IT HAPPENED. IT FINALLY HAPPENED.”

“It was a beautiful experience,” his mother Arlyn later described of the arrival of her son into manhood.

Phoenix explained the event as “a very strange experience. I got through that, thank God.”

Still, the act of sex was more a meal for him. He described it in alimentary terms. “I wouldn’t want to lick her juices if they were made up of her metabolism’s version of all that shit that goes in a sausage,” he told Details, before launching into his own version of Britney Spears’s famous quote: “But she could eat my sausage – lick it, put it in her ear, up her nose, I don’t care.”

Maybe he was done fucking when he tragically died. Maybe he had tasted every dish at the buffet. It was never confirmed, but it has been said that just hours before his speedball-induced seizure on a cold, unforgiving pavement, he ate a hamburger.