Exactly how good is Toronto the Good?

“It’s sort of easy to look at Toronto and say it’s kind of conservative, kind of business and concrete and not all that sensual,” says Todd Klinck. “But I think there’s a huge underground in Toronto and I think, in a way, we have a very open-minded attitude.”

Klinck is a guy who knows from open minded. He’s the author of the transvestite-nightlife novel Tacones (High Heels), an independent fetish-porn producer, a sex-trade columnist for the gay men’s magazine fab, and a dominator (a male dominatrix), too. His is the sort of resumé that might have evoked frowns of consternation or nervous giggles 20 years ago, or even 10. But he says he’s right at home in Toronto in 2003.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever felt a moment of discomfort or fear about sexuality living in this city. It hasn’t crossed my mind. I’ve never felt I can’t be open about what I do.”

Welcome to the lusty, endlessly permissive sexual landscape of early 21st-century Toronto: can you stand the titillation? After 40-odd years of taboos dropping like liberal leadership contenders, once-Presbyterian Toronto the Good is now Toronto the mmmm- Good, a playground for the horny and adventurous: stripping is an entirely nude contact sport; prostitution is essentially legal; sex-toy and pornography shops cater to the sensibilities of everyone from raincoat-clad traditionalists to womyn’s studies majors. The internet has ushered in a brave new world of access to a polymorphously perverse spectrum of erotica, pornography and discussion. If you’re so inclined, you can now watch movies of urine-drinking or have cyber-sex with a man pretending to be the sorority girl of your dreams, without the inconvenience of talking to a store clerk or approaching a stranger in a bar. The giant communications leap of the internet in the 1990s helped create a buffet of sexual options able to satisfy the most voracious appetites and the most particular palates.

All of which means that it is nearly impossible to nail down the authoritative story on sex and love in Toronto. As Sarah Forbes-Roberts, one of four owners of the co-operatively run sex shop Come As You Are says, “Everyone experiences sex differently, everyone has a different understanding of it. I don’t really feel there’s a lot of authority to be had about sex.”

If you talk to a million Torontonians, you discover a million different sexual identities. Still, a few broad patterns do emerge. One of the largest of these is the extent to which technology has expanded people’s ideas about sex. Klinck says new technology has been hugely important in opening people up to new sexual experiences.

Gerald Hannon, a 58-year-old Toronto writer and prostitute, agrees that technology is a force that’s made it easier for his clients (almost exclusively heterosexual-identified men looking to perform oral sex or get fucked) to make the leap from curiosity to action. “Two innovations that have made this easier for them are the internet and the cellphone,” he says. “On the internet they get to see all this stuff that they find kind of tantalizing without having any record — they don’t have to go a video store or anything like that, it’s all just there. And then cellphones: if you get the urge you can make the call right then. I get a lot of calls from guys in their cars or in shopping malls, and that kind of thing would have been more difficult to plan before. You’d have to find a payphone or go home and make a call and by then the urge is gone.”

Not everyone agrees that the internet’s influence on our sexual culture is positive. Laila McDaniels, a.k.a. Ms Lily Fine, is a sexual educator who leads workshops on subjects ranging from “The Art of Kissing,” to “Strap it on, Get it on,” at the women-positive bookstore Good For Her, among other locations (for a list of upcoming workshops, check her website at http://www.lily-fine.com). When it’s suggested to McDaniels that people who would otherwise remain curious about elements of their sexuality are emboldened by the internet, she responds with scepticism. “I guess that’s one good theory about it, but it’s also a great place to get lots of misinformation and to do all kinds of dangerous and crazy things,” McDaniels says. “You have all kinds of people [on the internet] claiming to be authorities that barely know the back of their hand.”

Another broad trend, perhaps partially influenced by the exposure to different sexual lifestyles available on the internet, is the gradual blurring of the boundaries of sexual orientation.

“I think it’s because in a heterosexual relationship you can have your cock sucked no problem or you can fuck your partner, but unless you’re willing to talk your wife into putting a strap-on on and fucking you, you’re not likely to experience that,” says Hannon. “The asshole is this great undiscovered territory for a lot of men, and they are eager to discover it, and they’re embarrassed by it at the same time.”

(Women fucking their male partners with strap-ons, incidentally, is something that Forbes-Roberts says is growing in popularity among Come As You Are’s customers. “Our anal workshops are always pretty much full,” she says.)

Of his straight-identified clients, Hannon says, “At one point I would have said all these guys are just closet-cases and eventually they’ll all just come out. And I don’t think that anymore. I think a lot of these guys just occasionally want to fool around with another guy, but are more or less happy with the life they’ve built with their female partner.”

Klinck makes a similar observation. “Less people fit into a black-and-white category than we want to believe.”

McDaniels, who offers many workshops for women only, says the same is true — maybe truer — of women. “Statistically, women are certainly much more fluid in terms of their sexual expression. There’s a greater ease, I think, that women have and not all men have. It’s far more prevalent that women, given the right set of circumstances, might consider a sexual engagement with another woman.”

McDaniels says this blurring of boundaries is much more prevalent in Toronto than in other places across the country. “We tend to lose sight of the fact that we do swim in rarefied air and that outside of a community like this, if you go to smaller communities or rural areas, I don’t think that you’ll find people are as widely accepting.”

All well and good. And yet your correspondent — a married man approaching 30, possessed of relatively pedestrian sexual appetites — wonders: what’s love got to do with all this? It’s hardly news that the human thirst for sexual gratification is powerful and various, but there’s another basic need tangled up in our sex lives that is nearly as difficult to define as it is to satisfy. We often call it love, for lack of a more precise term, though love is an amorphous blob of a word, tied up as it is in familial connections, friendships and saccharine fantasies that serve as source material for Meg Ryan movies.

Someone who certainly feels there’s something missing from “the scene” (as he describes it), is Clint Tyler, who runs a marriage preparation program for Catholic Family Services of Toronto. “What’s out there is sexuality. What’s not out there is real intimacy you’re comfortable with and connecting with people,” he says.

In his course, he and four other facilitators emphasize that human relationships are about meaning. “Whatever the framework of the couple is, our challenge to them is: where does meaning come into your marriage? If you don’t have meaning, then you can still have good sex and money and everything and be very, very unhappy.

“And if you’re writing about the scene in Toronto, emphasize loneliness,” Tyler advises me. “Because the other stuff is artificial.”

Not everyone agrees that “the scene” is lonely. “It’s like two bundles of energy sort of bumping into each other and spending a little time together,” Klinck says of his bathhouse experiences. “It’s more body language and a subtle connection. It can be very wordless and it can be as simple as when you’re done, just eye contact and a pat on the back and a thanks and it’s just an acknowledgement that this is cool.”

What we’re discussing here that’s specific to our sex lives and underscores most sexual encounters is a yearning to experience a deep connection with another human being, beyond sensual pleasure and aside from commitment. The biblical term for having sex is “to know,” and whatever the translators of the Old Testament had in mind when drafting that phrase, it hints at a big part of what sex is all about. There’s a particular way that you come to know a person — your spouse, a stranger or a friend — when you are both naked and vulnerable and exposed, when you’re covered in each other’s bodily fluids and gasping and moaning, when the lines that separate one body from another become entangled and you might breathe the words “I love you” but mean “we are connected.” It’s a way of knowing someone that is different from the way anyone else knows him or her. For a few moments, in the best sexual encounters, an existential itch deep inside both of you is scratched and you feel you’re maybe not alone in the universe with your hopes and your fears. And there’s nothing casual or disposable about that moment, and it’s the opposite of loneliness.

Perhaps that’s what drives people into sexual relationships of all sorts; the unspoken, unconscious beat behind the symphony of our evolving and various sexual relationships. Maybe love isn’t the right word for it, but what else should we call it?

I put the question to Hannon. “I think what you’re describing holds true much more for what I’ve experienced in the baths or in the park where there could be a real sense of the other’s humanity and needs, and something, the magic of an unpredictable encounter, that humanizes you both somehow. It’s not just like masturbating with another person because you do very quickly become attuned to their needs and desires and passions of the moment,” he says. “It’s like one of those strange flowers that opens for 20 minutes and never blossoms again.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on February 6, 2003.