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And They're Always
Glad You Came

And They're Always
Glad You Came


COMMENTARY: They say the Internet killed the gay sex club -- but as one writer finds out with just a little bit of research, for some people, those dark corridors are inviting more play than ever.

I sit fireside with a portly, rosy-cheeked man puffing a stogie while he regales me with stories of yesteryear. We might have been models for Norman Rockwell, but instead of being in a den in a small New England snowcapped cottage, we're just two of the many men at one of the West Coast's most hard-core gay sex clubs.

Slings, glory holes, jockstraps, assless chaps -- it's all about easy access here, unless you're trying to talk to management. Due to the nature of their business, staff members of sex clubs are rarely willing to speak on the record. Most of these clubs existed illegally in earlier incarnations, so there remains a nostalgic reticence to do anything in the public eye. Not to mention, the confidentiality of their customers is paramount to their prosperity.

Although this club is legal, I have changed names to protect the anonymity of staff and patrons. This club is so legal, in fact, that the building it's in was selected with the help of members of the vice squad and the department of building safety enforcement. Regulations for a legal "encounter establishment" include certain distance from schools and residences.

With a Plexiglas partition between us, I tell the cashier I'm there to see Glen, the longtime manager of the club, who is a friend of a friend. "In the microphone," the cashier gruffly orders me. Crouching down, I speak carefully into the microphone: "Is Glen around?" I ask, tempted to order fries with that. "I'm Glen," grumbles a burly man as he emerges from darkness.

"I'm a friend of Rob's from the bar next door," I explain. "He said I might be able to talk to you about ... "

Glen interrupts me. "Step to the side," he says, looking annoyed. Speaking into my second microphone of the evening, I carefully state my reasons for seeking him out. To my surprise, he invites me right in. We sit on the patio by a blazing fire pit while other patrons refuel before their next go-round.

As one might expect, the advent of Internet cruising has negatively affected revenues at encounter establishments over the past 15 years. In Southern California, Internet cruising for sex began with DELOS, a BBS (bulletin board system), and progressed to AOL chat rooms and now hookup sites. So why pay a $15 or $20 entry fee when you can get it for free on Craigslist?

"The Internet," Glen says ominously, "is dangerous. We give condoms and lube. We promote safe sex. We have on-site HIV testing. Online you could meet an ax murderer. We get people out of the parks, out of the alleys, and out of the restrooms. We give them a safe place to come."

Hooray for double entendres.

After working in the sex club industry for almost 15 years, Glen says the way he views sex has changed.

"I've become jaded," he explained. "I look at porn now and it's like watching Oprah. There's no stimulation."

Porn isn't the only thing playing on the TVs, though. "We have HBO on by the coffee machine," Glen boasts, explaining that there are regular patrons who come not for sex but for what he refers to as the "congeniality" of the place. Suddenly I'm no longer at a sex club; I'm at Cheers. "Maybe they're sober and they don't want to go to a bar, so they come here for eight or nine hours and sit and drink coffee and watch movies." Glen says this cheerfully while I die a little inside for these guys. Keep in mind there are no comfy couches; there is no Wi-Fi or cafe mochas. There is a hard black bench and Sanka in Styrofoam cups.

Regarding the possibility of romance in a sex club, Glen gives me an emphatic "Oh, yes."

"I for one am an example of that, and I know many people who met in sex clubs who have gone on to meaningful relationships." Glen met his partner of 14 years in the previous unlawful incarnation of this same sex club. Sounding a little like Mae West, he sassily recounts their meeting: "I was working behind the counter and he said, 'You're a little big in the hips, but you'll do.' Then he hit me in the head with his head."

To clarify, his beau head-butted him, and the rest is history.

I don't get it either.

Glen sings the praises of sex club love. "Here you can connect instantly, you know if you're compatible right away." If by "compatible" he means establishing who is a top and who is a bottom, OK, but I think Glen and I have different ideas of what it means to connect with someone. There is a saying: If you think you want to fuck someone, just talk to them and you probably won't want to fuck them anymore.

People don't talk much in sex clubs.

And Glen doesn't like the ones who do: "That really pisses me off, the ones that come here in groups and chitchat in the back." By the back, he means the place where the majority of the sex goes on. No chitchat in the back. No heavy cologne. No jacket and tie. This club is about hard-core, blue-collar, John Goodman-in- Roseanne masculinity. Stinky armpits and musky balls. Men in drag are not allowed entry.

Glen explains, "I tell them we have a dress code. I do let one guy wear heels here because he's a longtime customer. And he has a muscular body. He likes to wear high heels and Daisy Dukes. He rides a motorcycle here." What about an F-to-M trans person? I ask, fully expecting a transphobic response.

"I had one last night," Glen says as if talking about a Snickers bar. "He's very muscular, covered in tattoos, looks like a man. We take it on a case-by-case basis." One thing is for sure: Women are never admitted; even the HIV counselors have to be men. In a gay sex club, Glen informs me, "Women are dick killers."

Perhaps Glen's favorite aspect of the sex club experience is the absence of class, which is interesting, as he grew up in a wealthy New York suburb. "You don't know if the guy you're sucking off is driving a Bentley or a Pinto," he says. "Everyone is pared down. There's no stigma."

While he seems very proud of what he does, he picks and chooses to whom he reveals his occupation. "I tell everyone I work in a gay club, but I don't tell everyone it's a sex club," he says. He insists it's not about the shame of working here, but more about "keeping people calm, not giving them a bad view of gay life." I ask Glen if there is such a thing as too much sex. "I don't know," he says, stumped. "I think there are definitely sex addicts who come here, people I see every night, but it's not my place to judge them or turn them away." Glen has had patrons request that he deny them admission to the club, but he refuses.

The issue of HIV is always delicate, and the minute I utter the acronym, Glen interrupts me with something he's clearly said before: "I think everybody who comes to a club like this should assume everybody else is HIV-positive, and if they don't play that way, then they're foolish. I don't want anyone getting sick on my watch, but it's their choice."

Patrons are required to sign a waiver saying they will engage only in safe sex, but that's simply not enforceable. At a meeting with owners of encounter establishments, a high-ranking California official suggested that in an effort to reduce HIV transmission, HIV-positive patrons wear pink ribbons inside the club to identify themselves.

"That's like going back to the days of Hitler," Glen says angrily.

After our conversation, Glen invites me to "stay and play" at the club. I am flattered and, like any good Jew, lured by the offer of something for nothing. I walked around the dark corridors, men's stares piercing me, speaking the not-so-secret language of cruising. I wish this place was more like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. I'd like to walk in and smell the rich mahogany of an old-time bar instead of the noxious fumes of industrial-strength floor cleaner, poppers, and lube. Cheers had a little more character.

And when he was in his prime, I might have followed Ted Danson to a glory hole.

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Matt Siegel