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Northern Exposure 

Getting up steam for the city's first his-and-her sauna

What straight person isn't intrigued by gay bathhouse culture? My only glimpse into this exclusively male world was an elegant overhead pan of a bathhouse in Quebec filmmaker Robert Lepage's Le Confession-al: pale young men moving in and out of tiny, dark rooms in search of sex -- or laying in wait for an anonymous visitor.

I always wondered why there weren't saunas for heterosexuals, especially here in Montreal, a.k.a. Sin City. We already have a multi-billion dollar gay sex industry -- including 16 male-only saunas, reputedly more per capita than any other city in North America. And swinger-club culture thrives here. Group sex and partner swapping are de rigueur at places such as Club L'Orage International, a swingers' locale on St. Laurent Boulevard that throbs every weekend. There are even kinky cruises for open-minded couples on the St. Lawrence River.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before an imaginative entrepreneur decided to tap into the city's sexual energy and open a mixed sauna. Six months ago Andre Legault and his brother Richard opened Rosemont 1082 in a working-class neighborhood in Montreal's east end. Richard said he wanted to give straight Montrealers the opportunity to speed baise -- speed fuck. This province is now the only place in Canada where heterosexuals can have a steam, meet a stranger and rent a tiny room for sex.

Rosemont 1082 is housed in a nondescript building on a bleak strip of vacant properties and run-down shops. The first clue that it probably won't be spa-ish is the blackened glass on the entrance doors. The young woman behind the counter regards two females entering with a bemused, quizzical expression. She is obviously surprised to see us. "It's free for single women," she says, smiling. We soon learn why.

It's roughly six o'clock in the evening on a Wednesday --fetish night. The "sauna" has the feel and smell of a tavern. The 6000-foot space is dimly lit, the floor is concrete and the air reeks of smoke. The cedar sauna and luxurious whirlpool I saw on the Web site -- where gorgeous, hard-bodied men and women frolicked -- are nowhere in sight. In fact, there are no women anywhere. About a half-dozen men wearing not-quite-white towels are sitting or standing around the neon-framed bar. One is reading the paper.

It's hard to imagine how anyone could get turned on in this place. The decor certainly isn't, well, sensuous. There's a pool table, and the furniture looks like it was picked up at an end-of-summer Home Depot sale: fake wicker plastic deck chairs and tables.

The men, all of whom paid a $30 entrance fee -- turn eagerly to the door when two women walk in. We try not to make eye contact.

It seems single females are precious goods at Rosemont 1082. The sauna concept -- at least in its incarnation here -- isn't drawing enough women, says Jean Chouinard, a compact man in his thirties and the operation's night manager. "Single women don't tend to come. They will come as part of a couple, but rarely alone," says Chouinard, who has worked at the sauna for about five months. Most of the clients are single men on the hunt and swinger couples, he says. There is also the odd voyeur, and a few nudists who drop by on a regular basis.

One of the reasons single women are uncomfortable at Rosemont 1082 is that the men tend to be a bit needy. "They are too clingy," says Chouinard. "We tell them to take their time, relax. But they tend to glob onto women and not leave them alone." The staff constantly patrols the bar to ensure that the men don't harass the female clients.

The vibe from the men is overwhelming -- not aggressive, but intensely expectant. They strain to meet our eyes. One can only imagine what would happen if we took off our clothes, slap-ped on a towel and started to play a game of pool.

It appears that more than 30

years after North America's sexual revolution, women still aren't ready to have anonymous sex, at least not in a grungy bar. Robert Gemme, a sexologist at the University of Quebec at Montreal says it's because women still have more "traditional needs" when it comes to sex. "They still associate it with deeper feelings or with having a stable partner." Gemme certainly hasn't spent time with many of the women I know.

Terry Gould, the author of The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, agrees with Gemme's old-world view. He maintains that a sauna such as Rosemont 1082 doesn't appeal to single women because it's "anonymous and detached from the couple experience."

Gould says that for women, part of the appeal of swinger culture is that it's social. In fact, for many women, being a swinger is more about dressing up like a vamp and pretending to be "rich and famous" than it is about sex. Many of the clubs and resorts are quite opulent and attract many middle-class professionals, he says. "These women organize events and talk about their kids. These couples stay in contact."

But men and women's differing attitudes toward sex probably aren't entirely to blame for the estrogen deficit at Rosemont 1082. It might have more to do with the atmosphere. The rough-and-ready decor can't help. Or the "open concept" design, which is more conducive to ogling than intimacy. Women and men change together in a drafty open area only a few feet from the establishment's entrance, near the bar and pool table. There are no walls to hide behind -- only a row of grimy lockers with a bench in between. Once disrobed, it's necessary to walk across the bar to the pint-sized sauna hidden off in the eastern corner of the establishment, next to the small whirlpool.

The narrow -- roughly 4 by 12 feet -- shower area is also co-ed. The "bedrooms" in which clients can have sex are tiny, smelly and airless, with a slim foam mattress, a white plastic chair and a television.

Andre Legault admits that he has a few things to learn about interior design. "I listen to female concerns, and they do want more privacy, and a bit more of a romantic atmosphere," he concedes.

The concept can work. In Quebec City, Club Euro's mixed sauna has operated for two years. The club's manager, Nancy Savard, says they have made a major effort to put women at ease with low lights and cozy surroundings. But Savard does become a bit defensive when asked how many women come alone to the club. "That's the question I get the most, from the men of course," she says. "We do have regulars. If a man comes here there is a chance that he will meet someone."

Maybe the trick is to get more women involved in creating a space where they feel comfortable having casual sex. This approach appears to have worked in New York City. Club Cake was founded two years ago by three young, upscale New Yorkers -- two of whom are women. Cake's credo is "an orgasm a day." The group, which bills itself as "heterosexual, and feminist but not anti-male," is famous for its sex parties and is dedicated to giving women the chance to have casual sex in "comfortable and safe environments." Men can only attend Cake events if they are invited by women.

Cake made headlines in the New York Post when a couple at one of its parties had sex in an elevated booth while their image was being displayed on a large screen. Perhaps women can fully embrace the sexual revolution -- they just need to do it with style.

Legault hopes to make Rosemont 1082 more appealing to sexually adventurous females. Plans include creating a section exclusively for women and the men they invite, and adding a salon area with couches. He also hopes to transform the upper floor into more intimate space with private rooms -- some larger and equipped with a fridge for those weekend getaways. For the time being, however, pickings remain slim for the single man at Rosemont 1082.

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Patrica Bailey

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