It's 2 a.m., and the Chute is packed.
The 50-space parking lot behind this gay sex club in central Phoenix is nearly full, and there's a line forming beyond the tinted glass door that serves as the Chute's main entrance. Inside, a young, muscular, topless man wearing a bondage harness eyes new arrivals.
"One by one, boys," he says, pushing a hidden buzzer that unlocks a second door.
The second door leads to a second waiting area with a price board: $17 a head for a towel and locker on weekends; another $25 for a private room; $35 for "specialty rooms."
There are more than 50 rooms for rent. I'm told they're all occupied, but if I want one, they'll call my locker number as soon as one opens. I pay my 17 bucks and get a numbered padlock and a key. I sign a temporary membership card affirming that I am a gay man and warning that if I am not, I am thereby invading the privacy of those inside. This card describes the Chute as a gay men's health spa which enables its members to explore the issues of identity and spirituality.
Through yet another door is a foyer of display racks of wares to help the Chute's members explore more than that: latex gloves, enema kits, handcuffs, jars of lubricant labeled "Elbow Grease," and a wide selection of dildos, the most impressive of which is "The Man Rammer," a black staff of such length and heft a careless wielder could be charged with armed assault.
Snakebite kits are available behind one counter. "For nipple suction," I'm told.
The Chute reminds me of a Halloween spook house, groans and all, except the heads jerking up and down in dark corners are not exactly bobbing for apples.
I navigate a labyrinth of intersecting passageways made of wood and corrugated steel, lighted throughout by dim, red bulbs and lined with numbered doorways. Some doors are closed. Others open into small chambers where naked men lie intertwined, or sit alone, towels around their waists, whispering invitations as I pass. They are uniformly white and middle-aged, and most could use some time in the mirrored gymnasium situated next to a cramped locker room in the center of the warren. Overhead speakers in the corner blare techno music, which periodically puts out public announcements: "Locker 41, your room is ready. Last call for Locker 41."
Besides the gym, there are four public rooms inside the Chute, each located behind batwing doors or straps of leather hanging down like the entry to a meat freezer. Inside these public rooms are sticky floors, couches, and wall-mounted video screens showing gay pornography (and, in one curious divergence, a rerun of Channel 12 news). These rooms are empty when I go in, but I'm not alone for long. Nude men trail me, waiting, it seems, for a signal. I brush past them and re-enter the maze, where dozens of men silently walk the halls, sliding glances my way, through air that smells of bleach.
Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Chute is hidden in plain sight, an unmarked, well-kept building on a major Phoenix thoroughfare.
By contrast, the Valley's five "swingers" clubs, which catered primarily to heterosexual couples, were located in remote industrial areas before the Phoenix City Council unanimously passed a law outlawing "Adult Sex Clubs" in December 1998. That vote was part of a controversial crackdown on sexually oriented businesses.
Led by Mayor Skip Rimsza, the council passed new laws to restrict the operations of strip clubs and made it illegal ". . . to operate a business for purposes of providing the opportunity to engage in, or the opportunity to view, live sex acts," because, according to the elected officials, "the operation of a sex club contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and is detrimental to the health, safety and morals of the inhabitants of the city of Phoenix."
Since then, the city has taken action to close four of these heterosexual sex clubs (operators of the fifth converted it to a legal dance club). A constitutional challenge of the Phoenix sex club law has reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it will be heard later this year.
Meanwhile, the Chute is open.
There are two reasons for the apparent double standard, says City Attorney Jim Hays.
The first is the city didn't officially know the Chute existed.
"We've heard there were gay bathhouse-type operations, but we haven't received any specific complaints, and our enforcement of these ordinances tends to be complaint-driven."
The second reason is political.
"The gay constituency is very vocal, and they resist what they perceive to be the government's attempt to focus specifically on places frequented by homosexuals who engage in that type of sexual activity," says Hays. "The basic point is they consider themselves to be a minority group, which creates an extra layer of analysis we have to go through so we're not perceived as picking on gay people.
"That's not to say such businesses are above the law, just that, in practical terms, it may take a little longer."
Hays adds, "I don't know if we have any gay vice cops, which might make an undercover investigation difficult."
The city attorney then half-jokingly asked me if I wanted to make a formal complaint.
I didn't, and I don't, though the Chute troubles me.
Barring pedophilia and rape, I think it's an outrage for any government to legislate sexual morality.
However, there's a public health concern associated with gay sex clubs which prompted a city as liberal as San Francisco to close down its gay bathhouses more than a decade ago to help curtail the city's high HIV infection rates.
Anal sex is far more likely to transmit HIV than vaginal sex. That's not homophobia. Just the uncomfortable truth.
Local gay-rights activist Jeff Ofstedahl argues that, despite this fact, gay sex clubs such as the Chute are no more likely to spread HIV than straight sex clubs.
"It doesn't matter whether it's a gay club or a straight club," says Ofstedahl, who pens a column for Echo magazine. "What matters is what the people are doing inside, and what precautions they're taking, because the message of safer sex in the gay community is much more prevalent than it ever has been in the heterosexual community."
I believe that.
But I don't believe the Chute's clients are poster boys for safer sex, or even an accurate reflection of the gay community's sexual norm. About the only sexual product missing from the display of wares in the entryway was a pack of condoms. (Later, I called the Chute, and the man who answered told me "Condoms are available to our guests who ask for them.")
Before and shortly after the City of Phoenix passed its sex-club laws, I visited every swingers' club in the Valley, and I found the city's descriptions of these places as Bacchanalian orgies to be vastly exaggerated. Far more people in the straight clubs were talking and dancing than having sex, none of them propositioned me, and those few who were doing it in public arrived and left together.
No one conversed inside the Chute. No one danced to the techno beat. There was no buffet or juice bar. Just a lot of men out for easy, anonymous sex. These men didn't know me, but a lot of them wanted to have sex with me, and I have a hard time believing they would have insisted I wear a condom.
This churned my gut, especially because of what I saw on several of their fingers.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.