When American tourists rhapsodize about Toronto, the same adjectives come up over and over. Toronto: so safe, so clean, so... sexy? "I come to Toronto as often as possible," gushes Diane from Texas. "It's just a great city. I went for dinner, I went to museums, I went to the CN Tower..."
After a full day of sightseeing, though, Diane, a brunette in the mold of an older Natalie Wood, set out to do what she came to Toronto for. "I went to Club Hers and they were having a blast," she says.
"I went to Wicked and there were lots of pretty people there." Diane (who declined to give her real name) is into "the lifestyle," and Toronto is her sexual playground. "I try to get here once every other month," she says.
The Greater Toronto Area is now home to at least a dozen establishments that describe themselves variously as "swingers' clubs," "hedonists' clubs" and "lifestyle clubs," and which are increasingly drawing clients from afar. "I've been getting a lot of compliments from people coming from Florida, from California, from New York," says Shlomo Benzion, co-owner, with his wife, Aurora Benzion, of Queen West hedonists' club Wicked. "It's becoming a destination," adds Ms. Benzion. "The people you meet, it's their third time, and they're going to come again."
Ménage à Quatre, a new lifestyle club, has just opened in Etobicoke, bringing the total number of such establishments in the GTA to at least 12. The sex clubs have been proliferating since 2005, when a Supreme Court decision rewrote the definition of indecency, ruling that clubs that offer group sex and partner-swapping are legal because they cause society no harm.
Since then, the Canadian sex-tourism trade has flourished, particularly in the GTA. "There's a buzz around Toronto," says Diane.
Wicked, Club Hers and Ménage à Quatre are all "on-premise" establishments, meaning that clients can engage in sexual activities in the club - and just about anything, as long as it is consensual, goes. Wicked, for example, is housed in a three-storey building and the vibe gets kinkier the higher you climb, culminating in a third-floor members-only zone featuring "sex furniture" and quarters designed for sexual idiosyncrasies.
On-premise clubs are illegal in some U.S. states, but even in states where they are technically legal, such as New York, the practice isn't well tolerated, says Richard Pollara, proprietor of Ménage à Quatre.
Mr. Pollara, who is from Florida, says that he decided to start his club here, "because of the Supreme Court decision and Canada's long tradition of being accepting of other people's private lifestyle choices."
Although in operation only two months, Mr. Pollara's club already has 400 members. "I would say that 25 to 30 per cent of the people who are coming to the club are coming from more than an hour away, and the vast majority of them are coming from two or three hours away," he says.
Wicked, which has been in operation for almost six years, claims 30,000 members. Ms. Benzion says membership spiked following the Supreme Court's ruling. "The legitimization drew a lot of traffic from south of the border," she says. But membership swelled locally as well. The media coverage brought the lifestyle to people's attention, while the ruling legitimized it for people who might not have risked it.
Now, it seems, folks are flocking to the lifestyle. "We get a lot of people that come in as groups," says Mr. Pollara. "We had one group that came in from Buffalo and they booked a bunch of rooms and then en masse they went to Wicked on Friday night and then they came here on Saturday night."
Hotels located near the more popular clubs sometimes offer special deals to the clubs' clientele; however, when contacted by The Globe and Mail, hotel management denied a connection. Occasionally a lifestyle convention will take over an entire hotel for a weekend: "There have been one or two in Toronto over the last couple of months, bringing in 200 or 300 couples," Mr. Pollara says.
The majority of GTA swingers' clubs are located in Mississauga and Brampton, giving rise to friction between residents and the clubs they perceive as hosting immoral or illegal activities.
"These things are on the rise, and the city has no idea what goes on in there," says Councillor Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), who recently attempted to have Mr. Pollara's club, located in his ward, shut down. "I think they're brothels.... When single guys can't get in there alone, they're picking up a hooker and going." He has been pushing the City of Mississauga to discuss the clubs.
When it comes to the issue of prostitution, Mr. Pollara contends that his club is free of it. As for lowering the standards of the community, the Benzions say that they have a good relationship with the locals, and that their clientele is "very peaceful. They want discretion," Ms. Benzion says.
Wicked's clientele is a far cry from most preconceptions of traditional swingers: over-tanned and over the hill, bobbing in a hot tub. Wicked does have a Jacuzzi, but the similarities end there. The crowd on a recent Saturday evening was multicultural, relatively young, and obviously well-groomed for the occasion.
An American couple in their 30s surveyed the room. "We come here because [on-premise clubs]are illegal in Michigan," said Kevin. He and his wife, Elsa, frequently leave their home state to visit clubs. (Neither wanted to be identified by their real names.) "There's a club in Columbus, Ohio, but it's not as good," said Kevin, who would not reveal his profession except to say that he has a post-graduate degree. "And the city is not as cosmopolitan as Toronto."
Elsa, a property manager, says she was impressed with the overall "higher calibre of people" who frequent the on-premise clubs. "Doctors, lawyers, bankers, nurses..."
"These people," says Diane, a bilingual MBA, "they're not worried about money." She dropped over $2,000 on her last visit to Toronto.
Mr. Benzion, a savvy businessman, is aware of the revenue his establishment brings to the city. "I'd like to see more backup from the municipal government. The same way as they're backing up Pride.
"In future, if we are doing good for the city, I'd like to see some recognition."