While Sydney’s once-thriving nightclub scene dies a slow and painful death, another type of venue is emerging from the shadows and taking its place – legal sex clubs. Once upon a time, these clubs were only mentioned in hushed tones and you had to know someone who knew someone. These days, they advertise in mainstream press, their owners appear on TV as sex and relationship experts and people are proudly “checking-in” to sex clubs on social media.
And in Sydney, they’re booming. Four sex clubs have opened in the past four years – two in the Kings Cross and Darlinghurst area, one in St Peters and another, just two months ago, in the inner west suburb of Annandale.
In the era of hook-up phone apps, that might seem counter-intuitive. But venue owners credit two unlikely factors for the resurgence of sex clubs – the lockout laws, which are about to be lifted, and the overwhelming “yes” vote on same-sex marriage in late 2017.
“Our customers are looking for venues where they can let their inhibitions run wild without having to worry about licensing or the police or judgment,” says Lawrence Jay, who owns Our Secret Spot in Darlinghurst and Annandale with his partner Jess Cattelly.
“The tide has turned, people are now happy to embrace their kinks and fetishes and people are now more open to exploring their sexuality than ever.”
Unlike a brothel, where an individual pays another individual directly for sex, at sex clubs clients pay a cover charge to enter. There is a strong chance they will then engage in sexual activity with their partner or with another consenting adult, but there are no guarantees.
Sex clubs can also cater to more specific sexual niches, such as BDSM, which encompasses bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
Mark De Viate, who opened Studio Kink in St Peters four years, ago, said exploring sexual fetishes had become more publicly acceptable, even “edgy and trendy”.
“Once upon a time you had to come out of the closet as gay – today it’s more about coming out as ‘kinky’,” he said. “It’s the next level.”
Ken Race, a professor in health, sexuality and culture at the University of Sydney, said there had been “an almost paradoxical” increase in boutique sex clubs catering to a heterosexual clientele at the same time as some iconic LGBTQI sex clubs closed down, such as Signal in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
“The legalisation of gay marriage has made private couple-dom the pinnacle of respectable gay intimate life and made casual or multi-partner gay sex less respectable,” Professor Race said.
“[While] many blame the internet for killing public gay hook-up culture, it has given increased visibility and opportunities for accessing fetish, kink and other sexual niches.”
Mr Jay also believes Sydney’s lockout laws made sex-on-premises venues more appealing by comparison to a night out at a club or bar. The 1.30am lockout will be scrapped in the CBD from Tuesday, but sex club owners will hope people’s new habits become permanent.
“In the past, someone would go out, spend a few hundred dollars on cover charges and drinks and then go home alone,” Mr Jay says.
“In our venues, everyone is there for the same reason and as it’s BYO, it’s a much cheaper night and you don’t have to worry about things like lockouts and last drinks. You can come and just have the party experience, or you can have the whole sex experience.”
Craig and Lisa – who wanted their names changed because they work in high-profile jobs – are professionals in their 30s from the eastern suburbs who have been engaged in what they call “the lifestyle” for about ten years.
The couple say that in the past few years there has been not only an increase in the number of swingers on the scene, but also a shift in the demographics.
“More and more younger couples are trying out the lifestyle, they seem more comfortable with their own sexuality and proclivities,” says Craig.
“The gay and lesbian communities have shown us all that you can be open and honest about who you are and what you like and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Craig says the same-sex marriage discussion in 2017 helped people who were curious about swinging to raise the topic in conversation.
“All of sudden we were chatting about what right people had in dictating the love and sex life of other people,” he says.
“That helped raise the topics of same-sex relationships, as well as poly-amorous and open relationships. Just like gays and lesbians, people are now ‘coming out’ as swingers.”