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A slurp ramp of our own

How viable is a women-and-trans bathhouse?

WAITING & WISHING. Is Toronto's women's and trans' sex culture vibrant enough to support a full-time bathhouse or is that wishful thinking? Credit: Suzy Malik Illustration

Right now, if you’re female and horny you’re probably shit out of luck if you’re looking for quick, hot sex.

Queer men are, to put it mildly, not in the same position. Bathhouses where guys can find casual, anonymous sex have been around in North America’s urban centres since at least the late 19th century, with exclusively gay bathhouses establishing themselves in the 1950s. Any time of day or night, 365 days a year, the baths are open, providing men in search of booty with a meeting place complete with complimentary towels, gloryholes and those hard little beds. While many queer men have mixed feelings about the baths, they’re still always there as an option.

Women and most trans people — all but those who pass as bio boys, that is — aren’t as lucky. True, we’re better off in Toronto than most cities, where there are no general admission sex venues for women and trans people at all. Toronto has the Pussy Palace, a queer women/ trans bathhouse organized by the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee at least once a year since 1999. The committee also throws “Bathhouse Lite” events and other themed bathhouse parties several times a year. In addition, several organizers about town throw semiregular invitation-only sex parties.

Despite all these promising developments, the establishment of a full-time bathhouse for women and trans people in Toronto still seems like a far-off dream. So what would it take to have a full-time bathhouse for us? And, if such a thing existed, would women and trans folks come?

“I’d love it, but I don’t think it would work,” says Carlyle Jansen, founder of local feminist sex shop Good For Her and one of the founding organizers of the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee. “We’ve handed out surveys to women who go to the Pussy Palace, asking them how many times a year they would go to a bathhouse, and the overwhelming response has been four times a year, maximum.”

Jansen attributes the cap to child-rearing responsibilities, monetary constraints and the differences between queer men’s and women’s sex culture.

“Women have kids [and] there’s an income disparity between women and trans folks, and men. We make less money, and it’s a question of where we’re going to put our money. Gay men also have grown up with a culture that assumes that public sex is out there and you can go get it. Women and trans people aren’t necessarily socialized the same way.”

Cam Lewis, manager of Church St bathhouse Steamworks, agrees that volume is the biggest hurdle.

“Certainly they have to have the volume. Business is business, and it’s just going to take an entrepreneurial person to make it happen. Should [women and trans people] really have more hurdles than anyone else? Probably not, [but] their hurdle is going to be enough people coming in. If they’re only going to get 20 women coming out a day, that’s not a lot.” Lewis says it’d take somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100 people a day to keep a bathhouse operational.

Lewis notes that there’s no reason why sex tourism, which makes up a significant portion of men’s bathhouse visits, couldn’t work for women, too.

“We’re a city that’s blessed with the ability to run bathhouses, and if a women’s market emerged it can certainly only put us on the map more… both for women in Toronto and throughout North America. Tourism makes up a hunk of our business. Gay men have doing it forever, and maybe it’s the women’s turn to make that happen.”

What do the queers on the street think about the prospect of a full-time women and trans bathhouse?

“I don’t think it’s something a lot of people would go to,” says Osama Bin Thuggin, Arab drag personality and political party girl around town. “I think there are still a lot of issues people have to work through around public sex and shame before that happens.

“When I tell people I went to a bathhouse their reaction is still, ‘Oh, that’s dirty, you’re going to get a disease.’ There’s also a difference between what people support theoretically and what they’ll actually show up to. There’s an assumption that other people will go so you don’t, or you assume that no one’s going to be there so you’re not gonna go.”

“It’d be a great thing,” says local trans activist Ayden Scheim, “but I know a lot of people who, with the Pussy Palace, spend months trying to figure out whether they’re going to go, weeks figuring out what they’re going to wear, hours actually getting there and then once they do it takes them hours to get it on.

“If [Pussy Palace] only happens once a year and people aren’t going, I don’t know if they’d go if it was every day. I know a lot of people who would go on a regular basis, but I hang out with sluts.”

While both support the idea in theory, neither Scheim nor Bin Thuggin would be regular attendees.

“Women and trans sex things aren’t my thing,” says Scheim. “I’m more likely to go to a gay men and trans bathhouse.”

“I’d go occasionally, at best, because I’m in a relationship and having lots of sex at home,” says Bin Thuggin.

in dreaming up our own sexual utopias, it seems clear that making a women’s bathhouse work would mean an entirely new creation, not just a cookie-cutter replica of men’s bathhouses as they currently exist.

One possibility for making a sexual space for women and trans people a sustainable business would be to run a variety of events out of the space so that it wasn’t just a bathhouse. Jansen says she’d love to see “a nightclub with play space, where I could be really sexual — anything from getting a lap dance to taking my top off to cruising to going to play in an attached space.” (For more on just such a space turn to page 39.)

Alternatively, a bathhouse that appealed to different segments of the queer population on different nights might keep up interest and bring out new bathhouse-goers.

“The success of our people of colour bathhouse this March speaks to that,” says Jansen. “People of colour (POC) weren’t coming out to the Pussy Palace until we organized a POC-only bathhouse. So, you’d need to have a people of colour-only night, maybe a night for trans women, a night for younger folks… and I know a night for therapists where they wouldn’t run into their clients would be very popular.”

Despite the many obstacles, there is still hope. Legally the time is ripe for the creation of new sexual spaces, bathhouses or otherwise. Last December the Supreme Court Of Canada ruled that consensual sexual activity between adults in a private club is not illegal, opening up the opportunity to create new sexual spaces free from the need to keep things clandestine.

Ishwar Persad of Ghandarva Creations is one organizer who’s actively working to create a semi-regular queer sex space. Persad has been throwing multigender queer play parties for more than two years now. His parties are open to all genders and emphasize queerness and antioppression values.

Although Persad thinks a full-on bathhouse for women and trans people would be a stretch, he’s part of a collective working toward starting a monthly sex party that would include queer women and trans people, hopefully kicking off in the new year.

“We’d like to use a bar that has a play space upstairs,” says Persad. “That way, once a month we can do our thing and the rest of the time there can be the bar and the regular programming.”

Although the Toronto scene might not be ready for a women’s bathhouse yet, there’s a new generation of queers who can’t imagine the scene without the Pussy Palace.

Jansen agrees that the culture of public sex among queer women and trans people has changed since the launch of Pussy Palace.

“When we first started doing the bathhouses, women were much more hesitant. People who go now know how to cruise and do their thing.”

She argues that what Toronto women and trans people are building as a result of the Pussy Palace and other sex-positive events is fundamentally different from men’s bathhouse culture.

“Men’s bathhouses come out of a culture of shame,” says Jansen. “What we’ve created is more like, ‘Let’s celebrate that we’re ready to have sex.’ It’s worked really well. We’ve had feedback from some queer men that they wish their bathhouses were more like ours.”

Unlike bathhouses for queer men, the Pussy Palace is entirely run by a collective of volunteers, which makes for a different vibe. For one thing, there’s no lack of conversation at the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee events. “Because we’re trying to create feminist, antioppressive space, we talk a lot.”