Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Peeking into the darkness

My first visit to the bathhouse is not what I expected

Credit: Adam Glen

As god is my witness, I honestly thought there would be actual bathtubs. Okay, maybe not the traditional claw-foot numbers that our grandmothers relished back in the day, but I figured there’d be something along the lines of tasteful, Greco-Roman sorts of tubs, complete with alabaster statues and wistful-looking guys in togas. Yes, my first trip to a bathhouse is certainly an eye-opener.

I don’t really know what to expect when I first approach the doors to Spa Excess, one of Toronto’s most popular bathhouses for gay men. I even wore my gardening shoes, in deference to some vague notion of sticky floors in dimly lit hallways. Imagine my embarrassment at what I discover beyond the classy oak doors that front onto Carlton St.

It is spotless. A light scent of citrus lingers in the air as I am greeted by a friendly young man in the glass cubicle that stands between the outside world and what I had assumed was a veritable orgy of gay sex. But as I pass through the interior doors into the tub’s spacious bar area, the first thought that strikes me is how classy and, well, normal it all looks.

Sure, there are a couple of guys in towels sitting at the bar, but it’s nothing I don’t see every week in the Membership Plus area at the YMCA. Instead of the loud grunts I expected, soft music plays overhead. The sun streams through the windows, giving the room a peaceful, cheerful sort of look. It feels classy, clean and, dare I say it, respectable. Apparently I’m not the only newcomer who’s expected a dank hovel of depravity.

“It used to be like that years ago,” says Spa Excess owner Peter Bochove. “These days people expect more than just a place to have sex. They expect it to be clean, polite and well run.”

Spa Excess is Bochove’s second foray into bathhouse entrepreneurship. His first club, the Richmond Street Health Emporium, was one of the establishments targeted during the infamous bathhouse raids of 1981.

“They trashed it,” he says sadly. “Completely destroyed it. It broke my heart. It was such a beautiful place, and I’d built it from scratch. It killed me to see it ruined like that.”

Instead of wallowing in defeat, Bochove found his activist spirit and fought back. He sued the city and won the right to operate as a bathhouse. His family even got involved, with his Dutch parents lobbying on his behalf. The victory was hard-won.

“It took everything I had,” he says. “I was broke from the fight.”

Broke but not beaten. Bochove dove right back into business, rallying investors for Spa Excess and threatening the liquor board with a similar lawsuit if they denied his new venture a licence to sell alcohol to his customers.

“It was a bluff, but it worked, and now I’m the only bathhouse with a liquor licence in the city.”

As my guided tour continues, the club’s main attraction becomes more apparent. I am delighted to see at least one hot tub, but I’m a little mystified when we enter the spacious marble restroom areas. What’s with the black glass over the urinals?

“It’s one-way glass,” Bochove explains. “For guys who get off on watching someone take a piss.”

On the second floor, the halls are dimly lit, lined with numbered doors that lead to small but tidy cubicles, each containing just a bed and a lamp. Some also feature two-way mirrors for voyeurs. Still, there’s nothing that really shocks me.

Until, that is, we reach the third floor. There are slings and an orgy room that reminds me of the never-ending staircases in MC Escher’s Relativity. There are even ergonomic glory holes, brilliantly designed to allow fellatio recipients to stand behind walls on elevated platforms so their service-minded brethren can stand comfortably while performing their tasks. My chiropractor would be so pleased.

“It depends on what people are in the mood for,” Bochove says. “If they want something more vanilla, they stick to the second floor. But there are always guys who become curious about the heavier stuff, and they eventually venture upstairs. The more they come, the more relaxed they get with experimenting.”