Canberra reborn as capital of sex

It is 7pm, and the Fantasy Lane supermarket in Molonglo Mall is doing a roaring trade. A man in a cowboy hat is browsing through the latest X-rated video releases. In the next aisle, a couple are pushing a shopping trolley laden with goods for the weekend: half a dozen videos, a set of handcuffs, a dildo, a bottle of massage oil. Just a typical Friday night in Canberra.

It is 7pm, and the Fantasy Lane supermarket in Molonglo Mall is doing a roaring trade. A man in a cowboy hat is browsing through the latest X-rated video releases. In the next aisle, a couple are pushing a shopping trolley laden with goods for the weekend: half a dozen videos, a set of handcuffs, a dildo, a bottle of massage oil. Just a typical Friday night in Canberra.

Yes, Canberra. The Australian federal capital, dismissed as a soulless, grey city peopled by politicians and bureaucrats, is the throbbing heart of the nation's sex industry.

Canberra has 16 licensed brothels and 15 sex shops, for an adult population of just 180,000. Thanks to liberal laws that make it the only place in Australia where X-rated videos can be filmed, sold and distributed, it is also the headquarters of a thriving mail-order business churning out hard-core pornography for a million customers around the country.

The arrival of a brown paper package with an ACT (Australian Capital Territory) postmark is the stuff of schoolboy jokes in Australia. But the mail-order business gives the sex industry political muscle; last week it threatened to lobby its subscribers in marginal seats held by MPs resisting moves to relax the video classification system.

The threat was issued by the Eros Foundation, the industry lobby group, fronted by a highly personable couple, Robbie Swan and Fiona Patten. They run Eros from their home in the Canberra suburb of Yarralumla, a stone's throw from the Governor-General's residence.

Ms Patten is 35 and gorgeous, all eyelashes and cheekbones, and Mr Swan is not bad either, an athletic 49-year-old with greying bouffant hair. They both assure me that Canberra is a sexy place. "We think so," says Ms Patten, husky-voiced. "Oh yeah," agrees Mr Swan.

The walls of their home, a former bricklayer's cottage, are plastered with erotic artworks. Avid consumers, they say, of the product they promote, they have a mind-boggling collection of videos with titles such as Porn in the USA and Bridesbed Revisited.

"My mother and father are here every other day borrowing stuff," says Mr Swan. "They're in their 70s." He adds: "Take a squiz in our bedroom; there's lots of interesting things in there." I peek around the door. A cast-iron bed, two enormous mirrors, strategically located, exquisite Japanese erotic prints, and, in pride of place, a television and video recorder.

There is clearly more to Canberra than might appear at first sight, an impression reinforced on meeting the ACT's chief minister, Kate Carnell.

Ms Carnell, 44, is an unusual politician. In opposition, she was happy to be photographed attending a sausage sizzle at a brothel. Three months ago she cut the ribbon at Champions, a new gay men's sauna. It is also rare to interview a senior politician who litters her conversation with references to penises and vaginas.

"I'm proud that we're the centre of the sex industry," she says. "I don't understand how the other states can allow films with realistic simulated rape scenes, but ban films that show two people having loving and explicit sex, with erect penises going into vaginas. Weird."

The X-rated videos contain real sex, and are illegal in Britain. Ms Carnell says their content is strictly controlled. "They are actually rather boring. There are only so many positions that people can have sex in. I'm quite comfortable about looking at them myself occasionally, very happy to, but they're remarkably limited."

This sort of talk is all the more extraordinary given that Ms Carnell is a Liberal, or conservative, a member of the same party as the Prime Minister, John Howard, who runs the federal government just down the road. It is no secret that Canberra's sex laws are anathema to Mr Howard, nor that "Kate Carnal", as she's sometimes known, is a thorn in his side.

Canberra's sex shops and brothels are confined to the industrial suburbs of Mitchell and Fyshwick. Demand always rises when parliament is sitting. But the busiest night in the history of the capital's brothels was in 1992, during the World Council of Churches annual conference. At one establishment, delegates queued for two hours.

Mitchell and Fyshwick are also home to four X-rated video companies that account for the ACT's second biggest export, after timber. Pine, then porn: the industry has an annual turnover of £13m.

At Axis, the nation's major distributor, 460 VCR machines whirr away, copying films imported from the US and Europe. In the master suite, 12 television screens show couples cavorting in a manner unlikely to be approved of by John Howard.

Gerry Hercus, owner of Axis, a diminutive man with greased-back grey hair, glances across at the screens. "That's not real, you know," he says, indicating an improbably large male organ. So what is it like, watching such scenes all day? "It's just like Walt Disney to me," he replies.

The company also shoots its own videos, mainly in rural locations that lend them a distinctively Australian flavour. "Haystacks, creeks, paddocks," says Mr Hercus.

His first director was David Haines, a British-born former deputy chief censor who caused a sensation when he resigned to make pornographic movies. Sadly, his films proved "a little conservative", according to Mr Hercus.

In the Axis warehouse, he waves at the massed ranks of videos awaiting dispatch. "We've got 200,000 tapes in here," he says. "We've got gay, straight, transsexual, anal." So much for Canberra's squeaky-clean image. The capital will never seem the same.

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