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3 min

Bathhouse revisited

Comparing the inaugural Pussy Palace to its decade-old incarnation

CASTING ON. Go ahead and discuss knitting at the bathhouse if that's what it takes to get you unravelled. Credit: Suzy Malik

As I sat in the lap of a half-naked friend in an armchair at Club Toronto on Sep 25, dressed in mesh see-through underwear and ready for action, the conversation of a group of women down the hall drifted over. They were talking about knitting.

It wasn’t what I expected. Ten years of dogged determination, innumerable hours and unforeseen roadblocks — not to mention the legal battles — by not much more than a handful of dedicated volunteers to bring women and trans people a safe and open sexual playspace on a semiregular basis and it all culminates in a conversation about knitting? How about “You’re hot, wanna come to my room?”

Moving on from the friend and the armchair, another sexy acquaintance and I gathered up some random bathhousers for a circle jerk. No shortage of willing people, that was cool. Once in the room together I anticipated some hot conversation but somehow it kept slipping toward everyday matters like what people did for work. Sure, some people’s jobs are sexy but it wasn’t what I had in mind.

The 10th-anniversary bathhouse was a far sigh from that first experiment on Sep 14, 1998. Maybe there was talk of knitting and of work there too, but it would’ve been hard to hear over the partying, elation, excitement and sex.

That first bathhouse was a once-in-a-lifetime event. A critical mass of curiosity, willingness, adventure and novelty combined to fill all four floors of Club Toronto to overflowing, creating records for venue attendance and — I’m quite sure — activity. It certainly set a record for the amount of activity I’d ever had in one night.

I would love to experience that first bathhouse again. The vibe of several hundred eager, sensual, shimmering women and genderqueers is something to behold, regardless of what you get up to.

Don’t get me wrong. Subsequent bathhouses have also been hot and humming. Inclusivity’s been improved — the committee has dedicated itself to diversifying its membership, creating separate events for people of colour and opening the doors to trans folk. (Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival take note, if you haven’t smartened up yet.) Playful and sexy services have been added: rooms where, with the help of a skilled volunteer, you can find your G-spot, enjoy an erotic massage, commune with a temple priestess, line up for a lap dance, experience BDSM play or explore anal pleasure, to name a few. You don’t have to know how to cruise and pick up in order to have a good time.

Women and trans folk definitely come, so to speak. When the women and trans bathhouse is open for business — once, maybe twice or three times a year — interested, wiling and curious attendees arrive and, in the case of the event’s most frequent venue Club Toronto, form a line on the sidewalk and roam the mazed hallways and many rooms of the converted Victorian mansion on Mutual St. (I sometimes wonder, as I bang about in a room or troll the hallways and staircases, what respectable family used to live there and how traumatized they would be now.)

But attendance was definitely down at the Sep 25 installment and a problem with occupying a venue as sprawling as Club Toronto became evident. Lop off one or two floors and the resulting concentration of bodies would’ve made for a steamier, up close and personal, “Hi, you’re cute” kind of energy. Not that we lacked for steaminess, but where have they gone, those who packed that palace and shook its foundations 10 years ago?

One friend, herself in a committed relationship, speculates, “Everyone’s married so they don’t come to play anymore.” Others muse about a lack of publicity, that it was mostly those already in the know who got advance notice and set aside the night to attend. Certainly the enormous work of organizing and delivering this safe and sexy space for the community must mean that some tasks get shortchanged.

Or is it that the idea of a bathhouse for the queer women’s community — a welcoming place to be freely sexual — is still a hard sell? Ten years ago I wrote in Xtra that lesbians in general have a reputation for taking a circuitous and deviating route to the bedroom while gay men “get laid on the way home from work.” After the success of that first event I postulated that what was lacking for women and genderqueers was not the desire for anonymous, one-off sex, but the facility. But inside that facility on Thursday night it seemed that the circuitous route is still being followed. Knitting as a lead-up to “I’d like to do you”? Water cooler chitchat as accompaniment to group masturbation?

To be honest I’d be happy to talk about knitting or work or the colour of my socks if it gets people in the door and, later, to the door of my room. Just about anything goes at these events and those who might still be intimated by the idea of a house romping with sex should know that being ordinary is also okay.

We in Toronto have something that’s envied by communities across the country and I, for one, would love to feel those walls throbbing more often.