Every night, hundreds of men hook up inside Sex On Premises Venues across Australia. Some are out and proud members of our gay community, while others have a wife and kids at home. Same Same probes the places guys go to get off.
Studies have found that the majority of men under 60 think about sex at least once a day. The theory is that men are ‘hard wired’ to have more sex in order to pass on their genetic material. But if sex is only for passing your genetics onto the next generation, where does that leave gay men?
Often portrayed as sex hungry beasts on the prowl for whatever we can get, some people still believe gay men are ready to seduce heterosexuals into our clutches or worse, rape men who wont submit.
The reality of the situation is that there are many men who find themselves in same-sex situations that may not, or never will, identify as gay. Bisexuality, while strangely mistrusted some gay men, seems far more common now than in modern history. Then there are the men who engage in sexual activity with other men and never identify as gay or bisexual. These ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM) choose not to accept the social identifier of ‘gay’ for a variety of reasons, from cultural pressure to a lack of identification with LGBT culture. Many of these men fall between the cracks of Gay and Heterosexual, but like any other man have similar urges and needs.
Finding each other
So if men have these primal urges to engage in sex, often with people of the same gender, how would you go about meeting these possible sex partners? 200 years ago when homosexuality was illegal your options were limited.
There are records of men meeting other men for sex dating back to the fifth-tenth century, back when public communal bathing was common. The public baths were a Greek tradition way back in the sixth century BC and while in the West public bathing is pretty uncommon, it still occurs in some European and Asian cultures.
While bath houses were often a place for men to meet like minded men for a bit of ‘how’s your father?’, it was certainly not limited to them – gyms, public parks, movie theatres and toilet blocks were also possible cruising areas… and while homosexuality was illegal, some entrepreneurial business owners were prepared to overlook activity in their venues for the money it bought in and sex on premises venues (or SOPV’s) were officially born.
Described as ‘places where it was safe to be gay’, it’s the real reason it was ‘fun to stay at the YMCA’. Safer did not always mean safe though, with some venues seeing regular raids by the police with both patrons and owners appearing before the courts in both America and Europe.
With the rise of the gay rights movement there was a sharp decline in raids on venues which allowed homosexual activity, largely due to the difficulty in prosecuting the patrons of the venue, along with the lack of interest from the general public in such “victimless” crimes.
With the last of the raids occurring in the early 2000s, only in China has there been a raid in the last five years.
In Australia the first gay Sauna was the Bondi Junction Steam Baths, which opened in 1967.
In most saunas all patrons are given a locker in which they put their clothes, and wear a towel around their waist (or over the shoulder if they want to show off the goods!). With saunas you often have access to facilities like steam rooms, spas and, in some, swimming pools.
Of course, not all SOPV’s are saunas. Cruise Clubs provide a different atmosphere. Patrons keep their clothes on (for most of the time) and the venue tends to be made up more of a maze, with private cubicles available for use, some even with theme rooms.
Whatever the venue, lighting is usually kept low to set the mood, and there is always a ‘dark area’.
Australia’s oldest running SOPV is Ken’s Karate Klub, affectionately known as Ken’s or KKK. The venue was recently in the spotlight after NSW transport manager David Campbell was filmed leaving there one night. A media circus ensued with even a heterosexual Daily Telegraph reporter visiting the venue and giving his ‘horrified’ accounts of what he saw go on there (which if you read the article, was very little).
While police raids of SOPV’s no longer occur it seems the media can cause just as much damage to the business of a venue. Originally the idea for this article started all the way back in March of this year, but it was almost impossible to chat to someone who owned or ran a SOPV. I contacted both Ken’s in Sydney and Club 80 in Melbourne but even after repeated calls no one wanted to chat.
Luckily I managed to catch the guys from Bay City Saunas who run a group of saunas across Melbourne ranging from inner city, suburban and outer suburbs, including arguably the best gay sauna in Australia, Wet On Wellington.
Shane Gardner, has been working for Wet On Wellington for a number of years, but before that was a customer of the venue himself. “I had been going to SOPV’s since about 1996. I was a late bloomer and didn’t come out ‘till then! I got to know the owners at Wet and after a few years they asked me to become a manager. I had a background in bus management which I had worked in for 28 years.
“With this particular venue we are designing it more around a social place, rather than just being a SOPV. We get a lot of people who come in on the weekends who just want to relax and be entertained, relax in the courtyard and sun deck area and use the swimming pool. The cruising area is really secondary to them.
“Somewhere like Wet On Wellington, Monday to Friday, the majority of our customers, probably around 80%, don’t identify as gay. On weekends the majority identify as gay because they are out at the clubs, but on Monday to Friday they are business people, husbands, that kind of thing. And you need to cater to them – those who are just ‘blow and go’. They just come in, do their stuff and they are out again.
“But then there are those who come in, and want to feel part of the scene, they want to feel they belong somewhere. So they want to come and stay and be entertained. They want to feel safe and feel good about themselves, have a drink, watch some telly, have a swim in the pool, without the rush or hiding or that sort of thing. They want to talk, they don’t want to feel they have to fly under the radar like you do with some other saunas.
“The best promotion is word-of-mouth but that does not always happen. If someone comes in and doesn’t get their rocks off, then they might conclude there must be something wrong with the venue, not that they are ugly or anything!” Shane laughs. “Reality strikes. They might say ‘Wet on Wellington is crap, no one wants to play there!’ Its just like any other business, it does not matter if we are selling cars or whatever, its important that we are a professional organisation. We strive to provide all our clients with a safe and secure venue that is clean and tidy.”
Adam Hinds has been manager of Wet in Brisbane (no relation to the Melbourne sauna) for eight years out of the thirteen years it has been open.“Wet Spa and Sauna is located in Bowen Hills just outside the fortitude valley area in Brisbane. It’s on two levels – our facilities include a swimming pool, steam room, dry sauna and spa. There’s a cafe with free internet terminals, a dark maze area, sling room, lots of private rooms, glory hole rooms and a porn lounge area,” Adam explains.
“In my view a good SOPV is a clean one with condoms and lube readily available, friendly staff, fitted out with quality furnishings and well maintained. It is nice to see a venue put money back into its business for its customers’ comfort.
“They are a safe place to go without the worry of harassment or fear. You can remain anonymous, You can meet guys you won’t find out on the scene and you can see who you are negotiating sex with for real unlike a five year old photograph on the net.
“One of the biggest challenges is getting the safe sex message across to people,” he adds. Openly gay guys tend to already be quite knowledgeable, but a lot of clientele are bi, and don’t have the exposure to safe sex campaigns. Venues and beats are the only point at which they come into contact with the gay community.”
SOPVs used to be thought of as a cash cows, but whilst they are still viable businesses, gay men have more avenues to search for sex these days, says Adam.
“The internet has had a massive effect not just on SOPV’s but the whole gay scene. Once upon a time guys would ether go to a gay club or sex venue in hope of meeting guys, whereas now they don’t even have to leave the front door!”
I ask Adam what challenges he thinks SOPV face in the future. Will technology see the fall of the SOPV as we know it today?
“We have seen the rise of the internet, more venues and private sex parties, and I think now we are seeing mobile technology with location services such as iPhone it’s getting easier and easier to find other like minded men,” he replies.
“But even if you find someone on the internet you still need a place to go! I think venues need to show value for money, have a good presence in media, and as with most types of business need to be driven. I think we will find SOPV’s around for many more years to come.”
Are you a sauna-goer?
”’Ooh creepy!” Jaymes responds when I ask him about SOPV’s. From Brisbane, Jaymes is 23 and self described as an ‘experimental artist, bottle shop attendant and professional procrastinator’. Jaymes has never been into a SOPV. “I just imagine someone rubbing me up and going ‘Hey baby!’ and honestly I’d have no idea what to do. And in the dark what’s more! It’s too impersonal.
“I don’t have sex with people I don’t know or trust or want something a little more from. There’s a scene in Latter Days where he’s trying to have a conversation with the guy licking out his ass that sums it up for me. I have always been of the opinion that SOPV are only for people who are in the closet, sex addicts or as my new house mate says, ‘go at the quiet times to pick off the leftovers because they can’t get any otherwise’. Like hyenas and vultures at a corpse.”
Jaymes tells me he is in a relationship at the moment, but has never really been into the hook-up thing. “Occasionally a gay guy will come along in my social circles that takes an interest in me but I closed my Manhunt and only check Gaydar when I get messages. I miss the Mogenic days from when I was a kid. People got to know you as a friend and if they liked you they’d take you out for a picnic, get all close and cuddly and they wouldn’t disappear off the face of the earth once you had sex or suddenly remember they already had a boyfriend.”
No longer ashamed
29-year-old Andrew from Brisbane is working in the mining sector. He occasionally uses SOPVs and says he sometimes feels ashamed. “It’s almost an admission of failure and the last resort. Like I can’t manage to hold down a relationship, pick up in nightclub, meet someone or get a hit on Gaydar. So desperation sets in and at some point during a night out I make my way to the closest SOPV.
“This is really only an opinion I held after I broke up with my serious boyfriend. He was quite snobbish and influenced me to think that SOPV’s were shameful.
“Prior to that I’d had quite a bit of fun in both Sydney and Melbourne. Namely upstairs at the Peel which was a fave! I’m starting to become more comfortable with myself once again, and have realised what I think of myself is all that matters! And if I meet/see someone in an SOPV, what’s to be ashamed of? We’re both there! I think they will start to become more regular in my life – especially given the lack of talent on Gaydar.
“I predominantly hook up in nightclubs, sometimes with disastrous results. But it at least gives me some entertaining stories to tell! Clubs combine my three favourite things – alcohol, stupid dancing and the possibility of sex. Hence why I loved the Peel so much,” he laughs.
“I used Gay.com chat a lot early on, and have used Gaydar occasionally for hook ups, but some bad experiences/stupid decisions have turned me off using them. Plus, an SOPV is a much easier option for sex right now. I’ve never picked up off Grindr… oh wait… I ended up chatting to my neighbour one night, but nothing happened until a few days later when we had dinner! Other than that it’s not really worked for me.
“Considering that we are increasingly finding ways to distance ourselves from people, I think they [SOPVs] are still very important. For me it really is about having the confidence to use one. There are many other ways to have anonymous sex, but at an SOPV you don’t have to worry about trusting their profile, real life is always sexier than an LCD screen.
“With the rise of fake profiles and forums trolls, I think there is a general movement away from the dating/hook-up sites, and the rise in popularity of Grindr, people generally live there lives online. Between work, study, Facebook, SameSame, Skype, and updating Twitter on my touch screen phone I am never disconnected and rarely not in front of a screen.
“I think the pendulum has really swung way too far towards online life and people are getting sick of it. We are starting to swing back to a more normal state of being. Similar to the “gay scene” fatigue, I think online fatigue is a reality.”
Cutting to the chase
Raz is 33 and living in Sydney. He tells me he has never really been into socialising in the gay scene. “I’ll go out because my friends go out but I’m not really into that as a scene, so I don’t really ever go out and pick up at clubs! I basically started using SOPV’s as an alternative to sitting in a club with shit music and drag shows that I hate, for a chance to get a root at the end of it! SOPVs basically cut to the chase.
Raz tells me that a good SOPV is a clean one. “I think them not being skanky and dirty is a good start! I have been to a couple of saunas that are so freaking gross that you don’t want to touch anything because you’ll catch god knows how many diseases. I think a good chill-out space is good too. When I was with my first boyfriend we used to just go to Club 80 in Melbourne and chill out there because it was just good time on our own and to get away from our families.”
Does Raz feel that SOPVs are still relevant in modern gay culture with the rise of the internet? “I think they are super relevant! For one thing I think they are good for guys who are not into the scene and people who do not identify as being gay. It’s a better alternative to trolling parks at midnight and you don’t have to worry about gay bashers. It’s a safe environment and all types of guys go there.
“There is also lot less of the body fascism thing you get elsewhere. Its just a generally more accepting environment. And because people are just going there for sex I think that breaks down a lot of social barriers that you face when you go out to night clubs and bars.
“In terms of comparing it to the internet, I think its all right there. You’re not driving out heading to meet up with someone, its all right there in the building, so if you want to have sex with somebody you have sex with them. You don’t have to organise to meet them and have that weird talk like ‘What are you into?’, ‘I’m really into Twilight’, ‘Really? I hate Twilight,’ etc.
“Its more like ‘oh you want a root? I want a root… lets go.’ And sometimes without even having to talk at all!”