Historically queer sex in Toronto’s bars and clubs has meant backrooms and bathrooms, with varying degrees of acceptance on the part of bar owners and police. In recent years there’ve been some notable additions to mixed venues and events that encourage group sex, emboldened in part by a 2005 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that quashed indecency charges against a Montreal swingers’ club owner. But how welcoming are these mixed-gender spaces of same- sex action? Xtra asked writer and sexual adventurer Andrea Zanin to investigate.
It used to be the swingers’ scene made its home in the suburbs, with those in the know meeting up at a designated bar event and then going to have sex elsewhere. But in 2004 Club Wicked, which bills itself as “Toronto’s first and only hedonistic on-premise club,” opened up in downtown Toronto, following four years of private-home parties that built the club’s clientele. “On premise” means patrons are welcome to do the nasty right there in the venue, rather than simply hooking up and heading home.
“We opened a club on Richmond and Church and we were there for two years but the demand was huge so we moved to our new location,” says Aurora Benzion, one half of the husband-wife team behind the hopping sex club now located on Queen near Dovercourt.
Today Benzion says the club has a database of 30,000 members from the GTA and all over Ontario, Canada and the States. You’ll easily find 500 people there on a weekend night.
At Wicked membership is required. A his-and-hers form (photos required) can be filled out on their website, after which a potential member must wait for a confirmation letter — approval is not guaranteed. New members may also be approved at the door or be vouched for by existing members.
The main floor is laid out like a nightclub, with the usual booths, tables and dancefloor. The stripper pole and dancing cage might give a clue as to the nature of the place, as does the flirty vibe, but no sex takes place on the first floor.
“People who want to take it a step further can take it to the second floor, where you can play, or sit and watch, or do your own thing with your partner,” Benzion says. The area, located up a narrow staircase, is called Shlomo’s Penthouse, and it has the feel of a bathhouse, except that it’s more spacious, better lit and immaculately clean. Clothing must be shed at the entrance; only towels and lingerie are permitted inside.
“We have a voyeur room with a two-way mirror, we have a room with glory holes, we have a Jacuzzi, a sauna, showers, a hot tub, sex furniture — all kinds of things for all kinds of fantasies.”
In the swingers scene woman-on-woman action is de rigeur, while sexual contact between men is largely frowned upon. In spite of prevailing attitudes in the subculture, the owners of Wicked are far more relaxed about gay sex than you might expect.
Of gay men at the club, Benzion enthuses, “They create atmosphere, they’re fun! Gay men are great.”
And what about bi guys? “There’s this thing about men being bisexual that’s very much in the closet in the [swinging] lifestyle,” she says. “Men, if they like another man, people say, ‘Oh, you’re gay.’ No, he’s not gay. He’s married, he just wants to get it on with another guy. In my opinion there shouldn’t be any labels.”
For all that Wicked’s owners seem open-minded about queer sex the club’s attendance policy adheres to a strict gender binary, with equal numbers of men and women allowed in on most nights. Single women are welcome; single men are too, but only within strict limits.
“It’s an environment geared to making women comfortable, which is why we don’t allow single men on Saturday nights,” says Benzion. “Some are allowed on Friday nights but it’s a limited number. We try to balance it.”
This creates a practical challenge when it comes to male couples who might want to attend, because they’d count as two single guys. “If you are gay, by all means come, just bring some women friends,” says Benzion. “I don’t need to see your marriage certificate.”
But chances seem slim that a gay couple would recruit women “partners” for a night to get into a swinger’s event when there are plenty of places they can go without the hassle of working around a hetero-based door policy.
While the rules theoretically make it easier for female couples to attend, there’s also the question of appearance to deal with. As the club’s website states, “Most of our members are 25 to 40 years old (or at least appear to be) and while we won’t be asking for your birth date at the door, most of our guests will be looking to meet people within this age range, that dress with style and have personal sophistication.”
In practice this means the crowd looks very straight, with no one pushing gender limits. On my visit the club was populated by muscled men and slim, longhaired, busty feminine women. While it’s reasonably diverse from a racial standpoint, trans people seem entirely absent and the average body size falls within a narrow range. It was very hard to picture even the handsomest of butch dykes or the most luscious of fat femmes fitting their idea of style and personal sophistication, and trans people aren’t even on the radar. My female-to-male trans partner passed without even a second glance, but I wonder what would have happened in the lingerie-and-towels room had we chosen to play there.
The distinct absence of people who colour outside the lines of gender and who don’t fit into a narrow definition of “attractive” left me feeling that Wicked is a less-than-ideal choice for many dykes and trans people.
At the other end of the spectrum are sex parties run by Ishwar Persad of Ghandarva Creations. The parties, which run every three to 12 months depending on the busy Persad’s availability and attract approximately 100 to150 people, are all about welcoming folks who don’t fit the mainstream mould.
“In terms of cultural background, age, body size, orientation, sexual practice, I really try to have a very inclusive space. For me that’s a priority,” says Persad. “A lot of my friends of colour will ask if there are people of colour there and the answer is yes, and there will be even more if you come out.
“People don’t want to feel like a minority within a minority. They want to feel engaged and find a critical mass within the space so that they feel represented and comfortable as who they are.”
Persad’s parties are held in a confidential location that’s disclosed only to those who RSVP and pay for their tickets. To get onto the guest list interested individuals can email Persad through his website or simply spend some time making their way into Toronto’s loosely defined sex-positive queer scene — the highly sociable Persad flits about at various queer events year-round, from Pride parties to SM conferences.
“People get on the [invite] list if they are referred to me,” he says. “So it’s a community of people who carries out a screening process. Referrals are no questions asked, I trust people, and it’s been working really well.”
Attendees are sent a detailed 12-page invitation packed with explanations about the kind of experience they can expect to have, rules of conduct and a crash course on how to be respectful of trans people. Persad also facilitates a group check-in at the beginning of each party that reinforces the need for mutual respect.
In paying attention to critical mass Persad has perhaps nailed the reason why some sexual scenes end up looking overwhelmingly white or straight.
“I actually have maximums for straight people, specifically straight guys,” says Persad, “so even though my parties are pansexual and everybody’s welcome, everybody needs to be aware, particularly straight folks, that they’re coming into queer and trans space.”
Indeed Persad’s most recent party, held the weekend before Pride, featured a wonderfully mixed crowd in terms of gender, sexuality, race, body size and, for the first time, ability. Accommodations were made for several guests in wheelchairs.
“It’s not an accessible space but I’ve made it accessible,” Persad says with a smile.
But despite the hyperinclusive character of his events, he faces a challenge when it comes to bringing in the gay men.
“I do a lot of outreach in the gay community but a lot of the reactions I get are, ‘Why would I want to be in a space where women are being sexual?’” he says.
Goodhandy’s, billed as “Toronto’s pansexual playground,” comes at queer sex from a different angle. When it was launched in 2006 the club was created with trans women in mind.
“The original mandate was to have a place where there was a membership area with booths for T-girls and men and couples who like T-girls, and there were two nights devoted to gay men,” says Todd Klinck, who operates the club with his business partner, trans woman Mandy Goodhandy.
After more than two years in business Klinck defines Goodhandy’s as a place that “caters primarily to the queer community, but that encourages open-minded straight people who don’t mind hanging out with queers,” he says. “They have to be more than tolerant.
“But it’s very hard anymore to know what people are in terms of their orientation. It’s cool, I like that.”
The club is located on the second floor. At the top of the stairs a door leads into an open area with a stage at the front and a bar and tables at the back. On the bar’s second floor, you’ll find more open seating, as well as private curtained booths tucked behind the stage and elsewhere, stocked with safer sex supplies. The booths are almost always available for use, but depending on the nature of a given event, sex may or may not be allowed to take place in the rest of the space. At the twice-monthly I Love Sex Parties, a special area is set aside for women and trans people only.
“I’d say pretty much every time we’re open there’s some kind of opportunity to have sex, but there are many times when it’s not really the focus,” Klinck says. “It evolved from being more controlled, like renting a booth, to now where it’s more like a back room, it’s open. But every day it’s about cultural sensitivity and what the event is.”
He goes on to explain the enjoyable challenge of providing a safe environment for guests. “It’s kinda fun to train new security staff, especially if they’re straight males who have only worked in a traditional club. The way we enforce our rules is so case by case. Is it acceptable for him to have his cock out and playing with it? Well, what night is it, what’s going on, how is he looking?”
Goodhandy’s recent Pride edition of the I Love Sex Parties welcomed more than 300 people from across the gender spectrum. “We didn’t break it down to specifics but more than 90 of the people there were in the female or trans category,” says Klinck.
Still, even here, managing the gender lines is difficult. “Sometimes when there’s only a small group of women there it’s kind of hard for them because there are so many men,” says Klinck diplomatically. “The reason we have the women and trans area is to give them a breather. We realize that with the single men there’s too much learning for them, they’re still learning etiquette.”
Goodhandy’s has become a rare haven for a specific sort of bi man. Among male-female couples who attend the I Love Sex Parties Klinck says that, “a common theme is that the husband or boyfriend is bi and the swinger’s community in general has a double standard when it comes to bisexuality. They encourage bi women for the pleasure of the man but if the man wants to be with a guy, they might have to discreetly find someone and go to a hotel, because it’s just kinda frowned upon.”
What about mixed sex parties that are based around kinky play? Dana Shaw, organizer of the monthly Bent parties, acknowledges that the so-called “pansexual” BDSM scene is not always as welcoming of queers as it purports to be.
“While pansexual parties did start out with the idea of egalitarian, welcoming open-concept kind of stuff, in reality it never really panned out that way,” she says. “Gay men already had a space for themselves carved out and they really didn’t need straight people to invite them into their spaces. They never really felt welcome because they still get the message quite frequently that, ‘That’s great you’re queer, that’s not my thing but you go ahead,’ which is not the same thing as saying, ‘Please feel free to use our space as you see fit.’”
Shaw, who is queer herself, says that Bent is an exception to the rule.
“Queer is welcome,” says Shaw. “To me queer means feel free to be not straight. Feel free to fuck with gender. Feel free to question the norm. Feel safe knowing that that is not only okay but welcome and delightful.”
Like the Ghandarva parties Bent is held in a confidential downtown location disclosed only to attendees. RSVPs are due the day of the party, and can be sent to Shaw through the event’s website, with payment taken ahead of time or at the door. Guests are required to sign a detailed waiver. The location is a warehouse-like space with a discreet entrance but a surprisingly warm atmosphere. A buffet is provided, safety monitors circulate constantly and sexual play is permitted in a smaller second-floor area overlooking the main play space.
Like Persad, Shaw cites the problem of creating critical mass at events. “The challenge is that unless a certain critical mass of queer folk come to Bent they won’t see themselves reflected enough to know that it’s okay to be there,” she says.
The result, says Shaw, is that while Bent often sees gal-on-gal action, guy-on-guy action is less frequent and the demographic is largely straight — or perhaps heteroflexible. Still the vibe is noticeably relaxed when it comes to varying sexualities. After all when you get off on bootlicking or being flogged, it’s hard to criticize others’ interests.
Thanks to our sexy models Elizabeth Berry, Nancy Irwin, Jakeroo, Luke Ng and Ricardo Wilson, and special thanks to Goodhandy’s for providing the scene for the photo shoot.
WHERE THE ACTION IS:
Pansexual nightclub with regular sex parties.
120 Church St.
Swingers club that welcomes on-premises sex.
1032 Queen St W.
Monthly pansexual BDSM play party.
Host of regular community sex parties.
LAY OF THE LAND
In 2005 the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a conviction against the owner of a swingers club in Montreal, ruling that unpaid consensual sex between multiple adults in a commercial space was not criminally indecent. The ruling created a new two-pronged test for criminal indecency: First it has to be shown to cause harm to the individuals or society and second that the harm or risk of harm thereof is “incompatible with the proper functioning of society.”
Aurora Benzion, co-owner of Toronto’s swingers venue Club Wicked, says she and her husband and business partner Shlomo Benzion consulted with a lawyer and police before launching the business in 2004.
“Until the cops here knew the outcome of the Supreme Court case they weren’t going to charge us because they didn’t know if it would hold up,” she says.
But even before the ruling, “They just told us to stay away from drugs and minors and selling alcohol without a licence, and we wouldn’t have a problem. We don’t deal with that stuff, so no problem.”
But the ruling doesn’t mean it’s open season for swinging. “If you read the ruling you’ll see that it says swinging is legal but there is a guideline as to how to do it to be legal,” she says. “You can’t just take a Starbucks, close the door and start having a sex party.”
The key element is privacy — club owners must ensure that nobody can walk in off the street without expecting to see sex.
“Wicked is defined as a private club so the ruling didn’t change the way we were operating,” says Benzion.
While it may be the only swingers club in town, Wicked is far from the only mixed-gender venue in Toronto for people seeking consensual unpaid sex in a group setting. These days a range of club owners and party organizers are operating sexual events with remarkably little concern about their legal vulnerability.
“We saw the precedent with the Supreme Court and we thought, ‘There’s not really anything different from a swinger to our people,’” says Todd Klinck of Goodhandy’s, home of the twice-monthly I Love Sex Parties. “People are people. I don’t have any fear about getting busted.”
Signs are posted at Goodhandy’s second-floor entrance to let people know what to expect when they enter the space, and a door person verbally reinforces the message. “Anyone who comes into the club sees the sign on the door. If someone’s out of place, or we think they might be, we talk to them at the door to make sure they know what the night is. Sometimes we’re totally wrong and they know what it is, sometimes they’re like, ‘Hey, it’s not for me.’”
Ishwar Persad of Ghandarva Creations, who runs semi-regular sex parties, is similarly confident. “I’ve been doing this since before the ruling but it means I’m a lot more confident knowing I’m not doing anything illegal,” he says.
In addition to sending a detailed invitation to each guest ahead of time, posting a security person outside the venue to check guests on the way in and requiring a sign-in once inside, Persad provides verbal explanations and facilitates a group check-in at the beginning of each party.
At Bent, a monthly kink and sex party, only guests who have RSVP’d are permitted to enter and they must sign a legal waiver at the door. In addition numerous signs are posted inside the space to inform people that sexual activity takes place on the second floor.
“We’ve never been raided, but we did have police come by,” says Dana Shaw, producer of Bent. “They visited, we exchanged hellos and info and never heard from them again. This is exactly what I expected because we are on the right side of the law.”