How are sex on premises venues surviving the pandemic?

The cruising level of Sydney Sauna, one of several gay sex on premises venues remaining in Central Sydney. Photo: Sydney Sauna/Facebook.

Every threat imaginable has been thrown at Sydney’s unique gay sex on premises venues: HIV, Grindr, gentrification and urban development. Will the pandemic finish them off for good? Gary Nunn investigates.

The first thing you notice as you walk up to the top floor of gay sauna 357, in the heart of Sydney’s once bustling CBD, is the memorabilia.

Exploding out from the wall is the shiny big yellow bumper of a New York style cab, headlights on. 

Squint past them and you spot the beginnings of a theme. The wall signage reads: ‘In honour of the legendary TAXI CLUB 1956 – 2012. RIP.’

Next, your eyes are drawn to the red neon lit sign hanging from the ceiling, reading ‘SIGNAL’ – the Oxford Street sex on premises venue which closed in 2019.

Beside that is an even bigger rectangular white neon sign with red font: ‘KEN’S AT KENSINGTON’.

There’s an ‘in honour of’ explainer next to that, too. It celebrates Ken’s Sauna (1972 – 2012), explaining that it started life as The Purple Onion underground drag venue; it was illegal to cross dress in the 1970s .

Drag queen Kandy Johnson ran it as a sauna for 40 years, initially under the alliterative but clandestine name Ken’s Karate Klub, as homosexuality was illegal in NSW.

“This was also so Kandy could explain all the rubber floor mats and occasional groaning!” it continues.

“It’s people like Kandy (who died in 2014) that have made 357 not only possible, but legal.”

Next to the wording is a picture of Kandy doing a drag show around a packed pool at the sauna.

It seems a far cry from Sydney’s sex on premises venues of today, which have largely faced off a number of threats to their business: the HIV epidemic, hook up apps, lockout laws and lockdown orders.

But today, two looming threats linger: the creep of development and the embers of Omicron.

“Everyone has $20 for ice cream and sex”

Ty Dovans is the owner of 357 sauna, named after its address at 357 Sussex Street. The venue recently marked its 20th anniversary.

“Our bread and butter was lunch,” he says, referring to 357’s reputation for being busy during the daytime on weekdays, a point of difference from other sex on premises venues.

“But now there is no lunch,” he says gesticulating to the empty top floor, which even recently, was packed. 

The memorabilia, including a lit sign from the Midnight Shift’s video bar before it became Universal, populates the large, attractive jazz style bar instead.

Dovans is keen to see it in an LGBTQI museum.

“I’ll donate everything to anyone who says they’re opening a gay museum  – all they need to do is get in touch,” he says. “It’s essential we get one here in Sydney.”

357 has weathered previous storms. One was the 2008 global financial crisis.

“During that time, we also owned an ice cream shop just behind here,” Dovans says. “We were still packed every day because everyone had 20 bucks for sex or five bucks for ice cream. They’re the two best things in the world! Sex and ice cream.”

He smiles at the memory. 

“But this is bad. This is really bad.”

The usually busy venue’s trade is currently down 50 per cent. Some days it’s 40 per cent. Others, 60 per cent.

There’s still an appetite for a sex on premises venue; its Wednesday lunchtimes are still relatively busy and, when it reopened after Sydney’s lockdown in November, there was a queue down the street.

The business is only sustainable now because Dovans and his partner own the property. If they were renting it, he says, they’d be finished. He also concedes that a developer may one day make him an offer he can’t refuse, and he’ll be forced to move to a smaller venue.

“Five years ago we said, ‘We’re never selling.’ Today things are different. I don’t think a 1,000 square metre venue in the middle of the city is feasible,” he says.

But as one of the only gay owned and operated sex on premises venues in Australia, he’s keen, after everything the venue has endured, to stay open – even if it’s one day in a smaller venue.

One threat the venue has stared down is the rise of hook-up apps like Grindr. 

“It’s never affected our numbers in the past,” Dovans says. “And I don’t think it will in the future, because people still can’t host. There are lots of reasons why people don’t want to bring you into their home. So I don’t know that online offerings will affect us more than they already have.”

The interior of 357 features tributes and memorabilia to previous Sydney sex on premises venues which have ceased operating. Photo: Gary Nunn.

“People live here”

There’s a poignant and, perhaps surprising reason Dovans wants to keep 357 open for as long as possible.

“There are ten people who come here every day. They live here. It’s the only place they feel safe. All their possessions are in the lockers. This is their home. I even pick up mail for them here. My staff don’t think I know that they wash their clothes for them.”

Strictly speaking, Dovans knows they’re not supposed to sleep in the private cabins of most sex on premises venues. But he’s more lenient.

“These people don’t have anywhere else. I’m not throwing them out on the street. And I will always stay open. Even if I’m losing hundreds of dollars. I’ll stay open for them.”

“We fought for these venues”

ACON’s acting Director of Sexual Health Matthew Vaughan says sex on premises venues play a pivotal role within the community of gay and bi men.

“Before the internet and chatrooms, they were a real meeting place where you could be yourself, amongst like-minded men and amongst community,” he says.

“But that still stands today: especially for those who live alone. Some still go as much for the community connection as the sex.” 

At the height of the HIV pandemic, conservatives pushed to shut down Mardi Gras and the bathhouses, as other cities such as New York did. 

ACON pushed for them to stay open, in order to capture the community with safe sex outreach, messaging and resources. 

“It’d be a shame if we lost the history and the opportunity to be together and socialise with each other in these unique venues,” Vaughan says. “ACON will continue to support venues as much as we possibly can.”

The Sydney Gay Community Periodic Survey, published by Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW, shows that in 2021, 18.5 per cent of gay men met their sexual partners at saunas, a drop from 27.8 per cent in 2019. The most popular was a mobile app: 49.2 per cent. 

A spa within the 357 venue. Photo: 357.com.au.

“Australia is very conservative, very backwards”

Dean White is the owner/manager of Trade.

The Crown Street venue, previously called HeadQuarters, is billed as the largest men’s gay bar and cruise club in Australia, with a capacity of 250.

Different from a sauna – customers aren’t in towels – it offers something unique, according to White.

“I plan to stay in my lane as a cruise club – I don’t want to step onto the toes of the saunas,” White says. 

“Sydney needs a venue like Trade there. Most other bars cater for drag shows. A big city needs a men only bar that’s a bit dirtier, a bit edgier, a men’s club.” 

Since taking the reins in 2018, White has targeted a younger demographic than HeadQuarters was known for.

He says NSW has slipped backwards in last five years for international gay travellers.

“Sydney used to be up there with the top cities for gay men travelling overseas – London, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam and NYC,” he says.

“We’ve fallen off the radar as a visitor attraction for gay men from those cities; we used to be a must-visit.”

That’s a concern, he says, given WorldPride will be held in Sydney next year.

“We need to keep Sydney alive if it’s going to be a destination of choice for those travellers,” he says, adding that the lockdown laws did untold damage and took too long to wind back.

There are broader reasons for slower business than just the pandemic, he says – although that hasn’t helped.

“Business at the moment is manageable but tricky. The media is making things worse by whipping up hysteria,” he claims. “As soon as business gains momentum, another Covid story will set us back another couple of weeks before people gain confidence to cruise again.”

Those broader reasons are, White says, conservatism, ice and perhaps even the the #MeToo era.

“I have to be honest – some gay bars are now frequented by a majority of heterosexual women, which changes the vibe,” he says. “It’s no longer a sexy environment; it feels like gay men are treated like a sideshow comedy: let’s all get pissed and silly and laugh at the drag show. It’s juvenile.”

When I ask him why more women are feeling safer in gay bars than straight ones, he postulates that the #MeToo era is at play.

“They’re not getting groped or unwanted advances there,” he says.

But, he insists, this is why a men only club is still relevant in 2022. 

Australia’s conservatism and over-regulation also represent threats to a buzzing scene for gay men, he says: “We’re incredibly backwards. Go overseas (especially Europe) and all the clubs have darkrooms.”

The scourge of ice

A big scourge on the LGBTQI community is named by both business owners: crystal meth.

“It’s a big ice problem here, and it feels out of control,” Dean White says. “It’s not a nice drug. It makes guys sit there at home for three days rather than go out dancing on ecstasy like they used to do.”

Ty Dovans agrees, and his vehement anti-chemsex stance is reflected in the venue’s very strict no drugs policy.

“I’m very against recreational drugs, especially ice” he says.

“I’ve seen people in Sydney who used heroin and cocaine throughout my life but ice is worse. It’s inexpensive, and it ruins lives.”

Interior of Trade on a themed night during the 2019 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. Photo: TRADE Club Sydney/Facebook.

The future

Ty is committed to running 357 now he owns it, even if it’s a smaller venue.

Dean White says the future is looking good for Trade.

“We’e looking at extending our opening hours – Bodyline closing has thrown business my way,” he says.

“I’m still enjoying it, not running at a loss and happy with how it’s going.

“And I believe there’ll always be a space for men only spaces on the gay scene.”

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.

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