It was the kind of place where the mysterious stains are exactly what you think they are.
Wherever there are people, there is masturbation. From the plains in Africa and the mines in Mongolia to the Denny’s on the side of Highway 1, around the world people are rhythmically mashing their own genitals 24/7 in grimaced delight. Society has developed rules to mediate when and where pumping your python (or greasing your peanut, for you ladies) is unacceptable, but for the most part it’s a boundless, self-indulgent global free-for-all.
One of the perks of masturbation’s massive popularity is that no matter what your masturbatory desire, there’s an entire industry out there catering to your every whim. For example, if you feel like masturbating in an establishment filled with private chambers where never-ending channels of porn play on loop, you can go to a peep show or, as they’re sometimes called in Montreal, a “jack shack.” For those of you who haven’t been, jack shacks are a lot like porn theaters, except you get your own private room with a coin-operated TV. When I first heard about them, the concept intrigued me: a strange business model stuck in an era in which the internet doesn’t exist and machines still operate by coins—like a spank bank for steampunks.
Walking around Montreal, I had seen some of these places before without realizing what they were. The front windows are usually blacked out as neon signs buzz with names like “Sex Village” advertising 24-hour “private cabins” or "cabines privées," if you speak French. The entrance is usually littered with homeless drug addicts and sex workers. In the past, whenever I’ve passed by these places, I would feel their heavy, grungy stigma and wonder what it could possibly be like inside. There are several of these places, some in the Gay Village at the back of video stores, and others in the back of sex shops or in stand-alone buildings dedicated to slapping the salami. I decided to do a survey of them all.
Just for fun, I went on Tinder to see if someone would come with me. Judging by how uncategorically gross these places seem to be, it was very likely that no one would say yes. But at the last minute I met Karen, a fashion student from Montreal, who agreed to accompany me.
“This is completely insane. But yeah, sure.”
We met up at my house a few hours beforehand to drink a bit and go over the game plan. Karen had the face of a porcelain doll and at first looked pretty innocent, but when she told me to stop listening to the Shins because it’s not 2009 and laughed, then promptly grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured us shots, I knew I was in for a weird night. She had once considered being a surrogate mother, and she thought the phrase “raising awareness” was really stupid. I liked her. She had a nice smile.
We polished off the bottle of whiskey as we planned our route for the night. We would start in the Gay Village to see what those ones were like, and then we'd go to the red-light district on lower St. Laurent. We got into a cab around midnight, red-faced with whiskey on our breath, and started our adventure.
I realized we hadn’t talked about our expectations. I considered bringing it up, but maybe it was better this way. Karen was perched up on the middle seat excitedly. The mystery of this sketchy, sexual, weird world we were about to enter seemed to hold us in suspense. We slowed down to Wega Video, an adult porn store that had a cabine in the back. We looked inside and to our dismay saw that it had already closed.
Disappointed, we decided to turn around and go to Sexothéque on St. Laurent because it was a short ride and open 24/7. The cab dropped us off, and we stood in front of the place for a moment. Our faces were lit red and blue by the flickering neon lights.
Sexothéque, legitimately cleaner on the outside than it is on the inside
Part of me was still holding on to the idea that it would be nicer and classier than I had expected, or that, at the very least, the staff would pretend to have some class by having a guy welcome you from behind a desk with a candle burning in front of him while Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played over the loudspeaker. But if the outside was any indication—smashed windows, graffiti, cigarette butts, and crushed Pepsi cups—the inside was going to be a dark, pervy mess. As long as we could get a private room rather than having a homeless pervert squad follow us around like at a porn theater, I thought, we’ll survive this.
I opened the door cautiously and couldn’t see a thing. We inched in farther and started to see shapes moving around as our eyes adjusted to the light. It smelled like cigarettes and cheap, flowery perfume and was quiet.
“Hello, my friend. What do you need?” came a voice to the left of me.
I looked and saw a short South Asian man wearing a baseball hat and a hoodie. He looked to be about 45 years old, and the small amount of light around the room caught his stray eyebrow hairs extending several inches from his face. I didn’t answer right away, and his head darted side to side before checking his shoulders. His shiftiness was making me feel uneasy, and I kept an eye on the door in case things got too weird.
I didn’t really know what to ask for in a place like this. I looked to my right and saw a row of sex workers in high heels with makeup caked onto their leathery skin. The ones that saw me were staring and smiling, but most of them clutched their handbags and faced forward with glazed-over eyes. I just wanted to go into one of those magical rooms with endless porn like I had heard about.
“Uh, could we have a room?”
“Ah,” he said, smiling a bit more than I liked. “Yes, my friend. Come with me.”
It looked like the whole place was one giant room, with a bunch of curtained-off smaller rooms in it connected by a hallway. Figures ducked in and out of the curtains and crossed the hallway to the other side. A few people were standing in the hallway talking. They turned as we approached: “My man, what you need? Girl, you need something?”
We shook our heads and kept following the eyebrow guy down the hallway. Where was he taking us? The curtained area ended, and the doors were now caged and numbered. He took out a giant key ring and opened up room number 3 for us.
The blue light of a TV illuminated the room as we walked in, to the left of his outstretched arm, holding the door. The room was about the size of a small suburban garage and had three things in it: a TV on the wall, a cracked leather chair in the near left corner, and a podium with numbers on it that was cemented to the ground. Right now the TV was playing some kind of promotional image of a blond woman smiling with a dick beside her face.
“OK, my friend, you have one hour. It’s 22 dollars.”
Karen and I looked at each other to see if we wanted to spend that much time and money here. She cocked her head as if to say, “Why not?” which made sense. I paid him, and he lingered by the door for a bit before leaving: “I’ll be back in an hour. My name is Solomon.”
I shook his hand, “I’m Stephen, and this is Karen.”
His eyes lit up when he saw her and smiled as he shook her hand.
“OK, 'bye my friend!”
I got the feeling he wasn’t used to unthreatening, docile couples coming in and using his porn cells very often.
I sat down on the cracked leather chair as the porn started playing. Karen sat on my lap. The room was dank and cold, and we could hear the porn from the other rooms next door playing over ours. It smelled like a bowling alley. The numbers on the podium changed the channel, so we started flipping through the different movies and laughing at them. Most of the movies were from the 80s and had the quality of overdubbed VHS tapes.
The interior of a Sexothéque cabine privée. Yes, that's a knee cushion for beejers.
The girls had giant perms, the guys had mustaches, and the plots were iconically bad. The movies were all at the same stage, so we flipped through nine different versions of hairy guys being seduced by fitness instructors, teachers, and piano students with their clothes still on. We settled on the fitness instructor one—Karen thought the actress was hot.
Despite the lack of hygiene, lighting, and safety in this place, the room felt sexually charged. Neither of us had ever done this before, and we were getting turned on by each other’s sense of adventure. The actors started with the standard fellatio on the desk, and I jokingly told her we should reenact the scene. She one upped me and started kissing my neck while undoing my belt. I took off her shirt and she started going down on me. She glanced at the screen and saw that the scene had moved on to sex.
“Do you have a condom?”
Fuck. That’s stupid of me. I didn’t think this would actually happen, but I should carry them all the time anyways, I guess.
“I’ll go get some,” I said, jumping into my pants. I burst out of the caged door and left it open a crack so I could get back in. Solomon was standing right outside the door against the wall. His head snapped in my direction attentively,
“What you need, my friend?”
"OK, follow me."
Solomon led me through the dark corridor into an open area as the sounds of 80s porn music leaked out of the rooms. He showed me to these two guys lurking in the corner, who walked up to me.
“What you need, man?”
They were the guys you never want to run into in a dark alley. They wore dirty, stained winter jackets and bounced from side to side with bloodshot eyes. Patchy facial hair covered their heavily blotched faces. A stench of piss, plastic bags, handled change, and what could have been blood floated off of them in my direction. The one who asked me was shorter and was wearing a crusty plaid jacket. He looked like he was covered in a thin film of sawdust.
“It’s two for five. Two for five.”
“You need anything else, man?” the other guy said with a raspy voice. He was wearing a torn-up Raiders jacket with salt stains, his hood up. He touched his nose and mimed snorting three or four times with his eyebrows raised, as though if he kept doing it, I might say yes.
“No, thanks. Here’s 20.”
I handed the first guy a $20 bill, and he took out two warm, green LifeStyles condoms and started shifting in his pockets. He pulled out a handful of change. He gave me dollars and quarters at first, and counted it out for me,
"4.50, $5 dollars. We good?”
“No, you owe me 15.”
The Raiders jacket guy nodded in humble agreement, like he had been trying to do the math too.
“OK, 9.75, $10. We good?”
“No, it’s 15.”
“Oh! You’re killin’ me man!” he said, looking genuinely disappointed that he had to give me more.
The Raiders guy stepped in closer as plaid jacket was now counting out the rest of the change in dimes. The Raiders guy was staring right at me. I could hear him breathing heavily. I didn’t dare look at him, but knew I had to get the fuck out of there.
“OK, that’s good, thanks!” I said, and backed away. I hurried back with $12 in quarters chinking around in my pockets and warm condoms firmly clenched in my right hand.
I realized I really had to pee, and asked Solomon back down the hallway where it was.
“I’ll take you.”
I had to wait for the washroom to get free, so I talked to Solomon for a bit. He told me he had been working here for 15 years and has a family in Markham, Ontario.
“These guys with their crack,” he said, waving his hand into the darkness in disgust. “It’s all the time. It’s all anyone wants in here. There’s nothing I can do. Is that your girlfriend with you?”
“No, no. She’s not my girlfriend.”
“But she’s not a hooker?” he asked with disbelief.
“No. I met her on Tinder.”
“It’s a dating app—a little like this place, actually.”
I went to pee, said goodbye to Solomon, and hurried back to caged door number 3.
I walked back in the room. Karen jumped in surprise and terror and held her chest.
“Oh, it’s just you.”
I sat on the chair and took off her clothes. This was happening now. Her moans mixed in with the sounds coming from the TV as she writhed up and down in the dim light.
We finished and sat there on top of each other in a drunken, sweaty haze. It looked like we had about 15 minutes left on our deal. The car mechanic guy was eating the neon spandex girl out like it was his last meal. Now that the sexual tension was broken, we could see the porn for what it was, and it was really funny. We switched around the channels at the cemented podium and laughed at the actors. The cool air from the room touched our sweat, and we went under my jacket to warm up.
Out of nowhere the screen turned back to the photo of the smiling woman with the dick beside her, and Solomon burst in the door jingling his keys.
“Hello, my friend! Time is up!”
Karen inhaled quickly and covered her chest in shock. I was topless.
“Is that your girlfriend?” he said excitedly.
“No. I just told you we’re… never mind.”
Karen pulled her pants up, and I stood in the way to try to give her some privacy. Solomon left, and we got dressed. We strode down the hallway a little less apprehensively than when we came in, like we had somehow conquered something.
As I was leaving I realized I hadn’t taken any photos. I borrowed Karen’s iPhone, held the camera up to the room, and took a photo. A giant unexpected flash lit up ten or so sex workers, and crackish looking individuals milling about in the shadows, who immediately turned towards us.
“Yo, what the fuck you doin’ with that camera, man?!”
One walked quickly toward us as the others gathered together in the darkness. I could hear the violent anger in his voice. The adrenaline kicked in so hard that I couldn’t feel my limbs. I knew what he wanted most was the photo deleted, so I made the quick decision not to run and try to cooperate with him.
Before I could say anything, one of the sex workers grabbed my arm and dragged me outside.
“Let me see the phone,” she said.
“I have to unlock it myself,” said Karen. I handed it to Karen, but the angry guy was outside now and snatched the phone back. He started to walk away, and I walked after him but was stopped by two or three sex workers.
“You wanna take fucking pictures of us, huh?”
“No, it was supposed to be of the room; we’re deleting it right now.”
Finally Karen got the phone back after reasoning with the guy, who couldn’t unlock it. She deleted the photo while having her phone grabbed at by four or five panicked hands.
We got the phone and entered a cab. My heart was still beating violently out of my chest. Karen looked remarkably calm.
“Sorry, that was stupid,” I told her.
“No, it’s OK,” she said, “I’m feeling pretty shaken up right now, though.”
I held her hand because I didn’t really know what to say, and it seemed like an OK thing to do. She gripped it back.
“Do you wanna get food?” I asked.
She laughed, “OK.”
We stopped at a late-night burger joint, and the mood started to lighten. We had been through one of the most surreal, sketchy, dangerous, and thrilling nights of our lives.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” I said in between bites.
“Yeah, I know. Hey, you wanna go to another one?”
I looked at her in shock before realizing she was joking.
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