Life, etc

The ‘sex-on-site’ venues tour: Queer Melbourne’s erotic otherworld

By Rebecca Hodes 31 July 2014

Picture going on a tour of venues where people go specifically to have sex. Usually with strangers. In all kinds of unusual ways. But, it seems, whatever they’re doing, they’re awfully hygienic about it. Seem like an unusual way to spend a morning? REBECCA HODES actually did it. The tour, that is. Strictly business.

I’d picked up the flyer for the “sex-on-premises venues tour” in the Global Village area of AIDS2014. At the bonanza of research-meets-industry infused with advocacy that is the biannual International AIDS Conference, the plenary venues are where findings are presented, the exhibition hall is where pharmaceuticals pitch their products, and the Global Village is where activists lay hold to loud speakers. It is where the magic of the AIDS Conference happens, where you are confronted with innovations in health and human rights advocacy the world over (harm reduction programmes at trance parties in Mexico, how-to guides for promoting safe-sex in Thai brothels…) The happenings of the Village are evidence in action of the radical globalism and creativity of the largest, most inter-connected health movement in history.

It was lunchtime on the fourth day of the AIDS Conference. I was en route to the next session when a stack of pamphlets on a table caught my eye. The pamphlets adapted the conventions of pornography to eroticise safe sex, activist media strategies pioneered by AIDS activist groups in the United States during the 1980s. As examples of HIV educational materials they were excellent, titillating and informative at once, and as frank as they come. Together with the stack of pamphlets was the flyer advertising the “sex-on-premises venues tour”. This was how I found myself on a bus with a group of other AIDS2014 delegates and local volunteers with the Victorian AIDS Council, the following morning at 8am.

 

Miss Polly Filler, a gorgeous drag queen, was our tour guide. Wearing a red satin flamenco dress with a bodice made out of condoms, and with a head of blonde curls that would make Dolly Parton swoon, Miss Polly mapped out Melbourne according to queer sexual proclivities. While the south has a greater reverence for the body beautiful, for designer accessories and iPhone addictions, the north is grittier, a hub for cross-dressers and more alternative types.

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Photo: Miss Polly Filler, the guide for the sex-on-premises venues tour at AIDS2014

Our first stop on the tour was Sircuit, which combines an old-style Aussie pub with a nightclub and cruising spot. Sircuit is where Melbourne’s gay rugby team, the Chargers, do their annual charity striptease for an event known as “Locker Room.” On the ground floor, pool tables are decorated with red ribbons in iconic reference to the AIDS conference, and the ceiling is adorned with hundreds of red lanterns, which the owner explains are symbolic of healthy blood cells in keeping with the conference theme. Leading on from the bar is a dancing area which is packed on weekend nights. Upstairs is a section known as the ‘tasting plate’.

At the entrance to this section, if the bouncer has established that you are not intoxicated (and thus inadmissible), there is a cloakroom where you leave behind your valuables, your drinks (glass shards are a danger to patrons’ hands and knees), and perhaps your clothes. Next you enter a series of rooms where patrons talk, dance, kiss and fuck each other, in standing cubicles, in private rooms, or in bigger collective spaces furnished with chairs, ropes and slings similar to those you might find in a well-appointed Pilates studio. There is a definite S&M aesthetic, from the studded leather of the furniture to the presence of chains, and even a pillory that resembles a set piece from the London Dungeon.

Another key feature is the ubiquity of safe sex paraphernalia. Condoms and sachets of lubricant are available in every room, together with educational posters. In the bathroom, basins are fitted at a lower level, providing easy access for post-coital rinsing. Dispensers of anti-bacterial gel are affixed to the walls, much like at the shopping trolley area of your local supermarket.

Our next stop on the tour is Club80, the muscular core of sex-on-premises sites in queer Melbourne. As we ascend the stairway entrance, the club’s maintenance man, shirtless in a pair of denim overalls, passes me. “I usually greet people on this stairway by telling them to ‘get fucked’, he says, “but I won’t say that to you lot.” Our group will shortly be joined by an official from the Australian Ministry of Health who has agreed to discuss the legislative and public health strictures governing the city’s sex-on-premises venues. Also, as Club80 prohibits the entry of women, I am on forbidden turf here.

On the first level of the club is a café and pool-table area. Coffee is brewing and we perch on bar stools while the tour organisers, volunteers with the Sexually Adventurous Men Project and Victorian AIDS Council, brief us about their outreach programme at sex-on-site venues. The volunteers with this project follow a “passive outreach” approach, eschewing the “shoulder-tapping” of active health interventions. They hang out in the areas of clubs where sex doesn’t usually occur, in the bars and lounges, where they answer the questions of patrons who engage them.

These are not “latex evangelists”, members of the “safe sex squad” who enforce particular kinds of behaviours. Their advice is a combination of public health and sex-positive guidance, and it is offered in the precise doses requested and desired by those it seeks to support.

Adjoining Club80’s café is a lounge where patrons watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. This is where the volunteers hang out, chatting with the patrons. The other floors are where most of the physical action takes place, including the dance floor in what is known as “The Basement”, decorated with iron drums that provide club management with the potential to constantly reconfigure the floor plan.

On the reception floor there is a bank of computers with high-speed internet, all the better to check in with social and sexual networking apps like Grindr, Tinder, Scruff and Squirt. There are pool tables and a large flatron, switched to an international news channel. On the walls are prints by Tom of Finland, whose iconic images of scantily-clad men in tight jeans and biker boots, with He-Man pectorals and cantaloupe-half buttocks, captured and conveyed the aesthetic of the 1980s ‘clone’ – a subculture of men with neat haircuts, manicured facial hair, checked shirts and 501 jeans who exploded into the gay scene in the 1980s, subsuming mainstream straight heartthrobs with their own brand of erotic iconography.

The upstairs level of Club80 continues the warehouse theme. Empty drums, graffitoed in reference to a kind of gritty urbanism, provide patrons with surfaces on which to dance and lean. Public rooms feature various incarnations of erotically-enabling furniture. There’s even a little cage that simulates a sexy jail. Private rooms, with beds, basins, slings and stools, are available to hire for the evening at an additional cost. Again, condoms, lube and safe-sex information materials are ubiquitous.

Back in the café area, Danilo Di Giacomo, a Senior Policy Officer with Australia Department of Health, explains the government’s approach to sex-on-site venues. Some years back these venues were at the centre of a regulatory wrangle that hinged on their distinction from brothels. The government regards brothels as occupational spaces, because they are sites of sex work. Sex-on-premises venues, however, are regarded as recreational sites in which patrons pay the club owners, but not each other, for the purpose of engaging in sexual activities. These venues fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health, and they are required to comply with certain regulations in order to operate legally.

These regulations, published by the Victorian Government as a list of “Principles and procedures for the Promotion of Sexual Health at Sex on Premises Venues”, must count among the most remarkable documents ever issued by a governmental health authority. The regulations require that all staff working at the venue receive training in sexual health, including HIV and Hepatitis A, B and C. They require that operators ensure that condoms and water-based lubricants are available in all locations within the venue where sexual activity may occur. They require that safe sex materials be displayed throughout the venue, with specifications regarding their height and legibility in dim light. They mandate that venues provide a clean and hygienic environment, that they monitor the implementation of these guidelines through log-books, and that a list of rights and responsibilities for patrons are on clear display.

In the guide for patrons, they are informed that they have the right to “be treated with respect; freedom from discrimination; safe and consensual sex; [and] information about sexual health”. Through their patronage, clients agree in turn to “contribute to the health and well-being of other users, and staff; engage in sexual activities that minimise the risk of transmitting blood borne viruses and sexually transmissible infections [and to] treat other users of this venue on a respectful and non-discriminatory way.”

These guidelines and, more importantly, their rigorous implementation, have set the parameters for the regulation of these venues by local health authorities. They help to ensure that the venues function as sites of safe, consensual sex, with access to peer education and support programmes. Two of the three venues also hosted free, bi-monthly screening days for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, during which patrons could check their sexual health, and local health officials monitor the community’s epidemiological profile including HIV incidence.

The existence and popularity of these venues are testimony to the changing history of the AIDS epidemic. In the early 1980s, the early years of the epidemic, calls were mounted to close the bathhouses and sex-on-site cruising venues in gay centres in the United States and elsewhere (including in Australia and Japan). As AIDS morbidity and mortality escalated within urban gay communities, cruising for casual sexual partners – once an expression of gay liberation in the same way as pre-marital sex was a statement for women’s lib – assumed frightening new consequences. Sex-on-site venues in cities closed amidst accusations of being plague-houses. As David McDiarmid, an Australian artist who died of AIDS in 1995, explained in his autobiographical essay, “A short history of facial hair”, cruising became a “quaint historic activity”, pushed underground, overlaid with the fear of contamination, risk and guilt. Randy Shilts, in his brilliant but flawed account of the early AIDS epidemic in the United States, And the Band Played On, also described how AIDS altered gay sexual culture in urban centres of America, and how bathhouses were closed down by public health authorities, or because panic, grief and fear had – at least partly –subsumed libido.

Thirty years on, the epidemic landscape of HIV in affluent societies such as Australia has changed beyond recognition. Antiretroviral treatment has rendered HIV a chronic, manageable illness. Instead of the discourse of garrulous morbidity that once surrounded AIDS, a public health language and ethos now dominate discussions of HIV and its management.

When quizzed about the response of the Australian public towards tax dollars being spent on HIV education materials that borrow elements of pornography, and on supporting outreach programmes in venues whose purpose is to facilitate casual sex, health official Danilo Di Giacomo justified the government’s treatment of these venues in empirical terms: “The evidence shows that when you work with a community in supporting good public health outcomes, you succeed.”

For the communities themselves, including older gay men who have lived through the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and younger gay men who are newbies to the scene, the potential of these sites is at once excitingly vast and reassuringly specific. On an experiential level, a Friday night at one of these venues has little to do with public health regulations and epidemiological forecasts, and much to do with the desire for pleasure, fun and erotic indulgence.

Our last venue of the tour is Wet on Wellington. With a swimming pool as well as a sauna and steam room, this is the most akin to a “traditional” bathhouse in both the Turkish and San Franciscan traditions. Wet on Wellington is venerated as a highlight of gay Melbourne, and was voted by the gay travel website Spartacusworld.com as one of the top five venues of its kind the world over. It is famous for its pool parties, its relaxed ambience and the strict standards of cleanliness, and it is run essentially like a loved-up Virgin Active. In the summer time, the local bears organisation – a subculture of rugged, gay men with a lot of body hair – hold their “aqua-bear” aerobics classes in the Wet on Wellington pool.

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Photo: The sparkling swimming pool at Wet on Wellington

The club’s code of conduct reaffirms its commitment to safe, consensual sex. Sexual activity (with or without a second party), is not permitted on the ground floor or in shared public spaces. This includes the swimming pool, Jacuzzis and showers (which have been fitted with a special eco function that switches the water off automatically if the tap button is not repressed). But sexual activity is permitted upstairs, in the custom-made “Suckatorium”, and in the many other cubicles and rooms, which include padded floors so as to maximise patrons’ comfort. As in the other venues on the tour, condoms and lube are much in evidence, as are posters advertising the dates of sexual health screening and forthcoming parties.

The owner recounted his experiences of running the city’s premier sex-on-site gay venue. As with each of the proprietors and managers who had opened their doors to our group of HIV interventionistas, policy wonks and public health officials over the course of the tour, he gave us a frank and wry account. His greatest reward was a healthy profit margin, while his challenges included drug use on the premises, particularly the growing popularity of crystal meth: “With ecstasy, everybody loved each other, but with “ice” [crystal meth], guys get aggressive.”

In order to maintain that delicate balance between the requirements of government authorities, the standards of public health, and the desires of their patrons, these clubs strive to create an environment that combines safety and hedonism. They are pursuing that most elusive of behavioural dualities: the protection of sexual health and the prospect of erotic adventure. As Wet on Wellington’s code of conduct states: “We’ve developed this code to ensure that all our patrons experience the one thing we strive really, really hard to achieve… A fun and safe venue for all to enjoy… When you’re done reading, pop your birthday suit on, grab your towel and perhaps a drink… Now relax, explore and ENJOY!” DM

Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian at the University of Cape Town, and the author of the recently published Broadcasting the Pandemic: A History of HIV on South African Television (HSRC Press).

Photo: Pamphlet advertising the tour, created by the Victorian AIDS Council

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