By Sorcha O’Higgins Photography by Tatiana Oudine
A car inches out under the ascending shutter of the entrance to a building in the grimy Balvanera neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.
The car is a Mercedes Benz, practically contraband in import-restricted Argentina, and the building is nondescript, its windowless, stucco facade oppressive and unyielding. The only embellishment is a large neon heart, flashing relentlessly in the afternoon sun like a desperate romantic. In the driver’s seat, a suited businessman, mid 60s. The passenger is a blonde in her 20s. They could be work colleagues attending a meeting, or a father collecting his daughter. But given that they are leaving one of the city’s 160+ sex hotels in an incongruous car, in a shitty part of town, in the middle of the day, the reality is an altogether more titillating prospect.
They could be work colleagues attending a meeting, or a father collecting his daughter.
Telos (ho-tel backwards, the H is silent in Spanish) are pay-per-hour hotels, erected for the sole purpose of providing people with a convenient place to bone down. They are a cornerstone of Argentina’s cultural landscape, as emblematic of the spirit that fuels Argentine society as the pious devotion to football, the thinly veiled foreplay of tango or the aggressively polarised politics. In his foreword to historian Juan Pablo Casas’ book Telos: A Map of Argentine Sexuality, Sergio Olguin says ‘We wouldn’t be who we are without them.’ To understand why, you must understand Argentina. Quilombo, pronounced ‘ki-lum-bo’, is an umbrella term that captures the country’s soul. It means chaos. Passion. Corruption. Freedom. Protest. Hedonism. And, perhaps not incidentally, it also means ‘brothel’. The good, the bad and the eccentric, quilombo covers it. And in a place where such a word defines its essence, naturally man’s basest instinct is accommodated and encouraged.
Argentines are lascivious beings who wear their libidos on their sleeves. Desire hangs in the air, palpable in every eye-fuck between passing strangers. Italian immigrants, the forefathers of modern Argentina, arrived in the Buenos Aires port of La Boca at the end of the 19th century to a scarcity of women in the fledgling city.
Desire hangs in the air, palpable in every eye-fuck between passing strangers.
Whorehouses became the social and coital epicentre of the lower classes until they were outlawed in 1936. However, ‘illegal’ is a term to be taken lightly; ‘tolerated’ is more in line with judicial practicalities, and hotels informally operating a turno system – two or three hour blocks of time to get down and dirty – began to spring up all over the city in the 40s and 50s. And so the telo was born.
They were legalised in 1959 and given the name albergue transitorio, meaning ‘temporary shelter’. There was a boom in the 60s, after the telo became immortalised in the 1963 film La Cigarra no es un Bicho, propelling them from the gutter into the mainstream. Despite the staunch religious and political conservatism of the country at the time, people’s carnal appetites would not be suppressed and sex hotels became a profitable enterprise. In the 70s, a sexual revolution occurred, influenced by changing societal attitudes and exposure to the glamour of foreign cultures in film, art and literature.
The 80s and 90s saw another renaissance with the advent of themed rooms.
The middle class became more discerning, and so the telo itself underwent major physical shifts in response. Rooms became more elaborate: glass-walled jacuzzis, saunas and TVs showing porn were installed, mirrors adorned ceilings and water beds were the pinnacle of sexy sophistication, as typified by the luxurious Jota Jota telo in Nunez. The 80s and 90s saw another renaissance with the advent of themed rooms. Collonaded Baroque hot tubs complete with bow-and-arrow wielding cherubs, LED-rimmed octangular alcoves reminiscent of the Star Ship Enterprise, an entire hotel dedicated to the Gardens of Babylon; extravagance reigned supreme.
But the biggest innovation was the inclusion of private car-parking direct to the rooms, first seen in the late 1960s, and now the telo’s defining characteristic. Privacy became paramount, and this catapulted the telo from being a handy place to go for a shag, to the perfect place to go for a secret shag. Argentina is mired in contradictions. It is Catholic, but sex hotels are ubiquitous.
What happens in the telo, stays in the telo. Even in death.
Love is revered, but adultery is rampant. Monica Alvite, owner of Hotel VIP in Olivos in Buenos Aires province, tells of an awkward fatality that occurred in one of her father’s hotels. ‘A man came in with his mistress, and after a while she comes out crying that he’s dead. It was terrible, but doubly so for his wife; not only would she find out that her husband has died, but that he died while cheating on her.’ To spare the spouse the horror of the truth, the man was taken outside to make it look like he died in public. What happens in the telo, stays in the telo. Even in death.
In a typical telo, the clientele can be divided in two. Midweek customers are older. They come in their cars, often on their lunch break, most likely indulging in some afternoon delight with an illicit lover.
The weekend crowd is younger, snapping up the late night turnos with whatever hottie they picked up at the club.
The weekend crowd is younger, snapping up the late night turnos with whatever hottie they picked up at the club. In Argentina, university can take almost a decade to complete, house shares are not common, 40% inflation makes living alone pricey and familial bonds are strong, so many Argentines live at home well into their late 20s. Instead of banging in the backseat of a car, young people go to telos. Of course, there are hotels that cater to a more ‘specific’ crowd; in the ghettos of Constitucion, for example, rundown telos turn a blind eye to prostitution and offer rooms at discounted rates for shorter periods of time. There are certain telos that break the two-person-per-room limit and, apparently, some even have interconnected rooms for group sex.
There are a number of ways in which telos differ from regular hotels, apart from the obvious. Primarily, there is no interaction with the customer. People go to fuck, so anonymity is fundamental. To this end, there’s no check-in or check-out and most operate on a cash only basis. Each room even has its own hatch or separate vestibule for the delivery of food, alcohol, condoms or sex toys. But all this clandestine activity imbues them with a lurid lore – two-way mirrors, hidden cameras, peep holes, post-coital detritus etc. Once inside the room, you can do what you want, so if you’re getting jiggy with some bumps of coke, no one’s going to know. But the only cameras are for security. The mirrors are purely reflective. The cleaners work ceaselessly, changing sheets, airing out rooms. The reality is decidedly mundane; it’s just like any other business. Except this business is sex.
The cleaners work ceaselessly, changing sheets, airing out rooms.
Since Argentina’s economic crash in 2001, there has been a decline in the industry. This is partly to do with a change in people’s finances, but also due to the fact that parents are more comfortable with their children copulating at home, putting a significant dent in the weekend trade. In an effort to entice customers, there are even discount vouchers online for 1.5 hour ‘Quick Love’ sessions. But something else is happening; telos are becoming an escape. Couples come to spend a quiet night together away from the kids. Friends come to watch football matches in peace. Newer telos such as Dissors are akin to 5* hotels, offering gourmet cuisine in opulent surroundings, perfect for a special occasion.
Friends come to watch football matches in peace.
Sex hotels are not unique to Argentina. They are common in Japan and can be found all over the world from Brazil to Spain. But what sets them apart is how ingrained they are in Argentine culture. They are so normalised that there’s even a Facebook page where people share anecdotes about what happened to them in a telo. As long as there are lusting loins and teenage boners, as long as there are sexy secretaries and horny handymen, as long as there’s Viagra, telos will continue to prevail, whatever shape they may take.