3 min

Sex money talks

Will bathhouse owners succeed where activists haven't?

Credit: Joshua Meles

City Hall’s Committee Room B has a very sturdy boardroom table, around which are gathered 17 people invited by Peter Bochove, owner of Spa Excess. He’s called everybody together just two weeks after police arrested two patrons of Hamilton’s Warehouse Spa And Bath for alleged indecent acts.

Bochove has something to sell, over and above his usual trade in locker keys, towels and promiscuous gay men. He’s pitching a national campaign, a campaign that’s been rattling around in his head for more than 20 years, when Toronto police destroyed his old bathhouse business, The Romans, by raiding it.

“I want to call it The Committee To Abolish The 19th Century,” Bochove tells the group which has been quiet throughout his hour-long spiel. The various representatives from Toronto Public Health, the New Democrats and the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) nod appreciatively, while representatives from most of the rival bathhouses – who seem to have come in pairs as if there’d be safety in numbers – are harder to read. Some of the people in the room have a history.

“I’ve heard it said you have more money than brains,” Bochove tells Chris Srnicek, by way of introduction. “But that’s not for me to say… though I just said it.” Srnicek, who owns Toronto’s Central Spa, bought the Warehouse just days after the raid. He chuckles and, after a few seconds, so do the other people around the table.

Bochove is pitching a committee that would challenge Canada’s sex laws on two fronts: political and legal. He’d set up a fund for lobbying the government to reform the laws that criminalize consensual sex in places like bathhouses and, maybe, brothels. At the same time, the committee would support a court case – most likely that of Terry Haldane, the Calgary man charged with being found in a common bawdy house after a police raid in 2002 – in order to have the laws brought before the Supreme Court Of Canada. The journey to the Supreme Court would take as long as five years, and wouldn’t be cheap, even with the pro bono lawyer Bochove has already recruited.

Bochove isn’t exactly a visionary in all this. His is the second gay-led, Toronto-based sex law committee launched up since Calgary. A group of activists have been meeting since the spring of 2003 to campaign for sex law reform; member Richard Hudler attended the Bochove meeting. Bochove only attended one of their meetings. He’s a businessman. The activists are activists. The two groups might have the same general goals, but the difference is in the details.

For example, Bochove thought up the name of his committee before the first meeting and presented it fait accompli; a year had passed before the Sex Laws Committee adopted its self-evident moniker. Its draft press release last month read: “The committee is a Toronto-based group of organizations and individuals (DESCRIPTION TO BE INSERTED).”

In response to Hamilton, the Sex Laws Committee talked about a press release, about a bus trip of men from Toronto to the Warehouse to show solidarity, about holding a community meeting. Bochove already has ACT and Toronto Public Health onboard for a press conference slated for this month. He plans to launch a website within the next few weeks. He has repeatedly requested a meeting with Defence Minister Bill Graham, who represents the Toronto Centre riding that includes the gay village, and says he won’t stop until he gets a meeting with him.

The Sex Laws Committee still has no mission statement, mostly because members have been stuck on the issue of consent, in particular whether children and teens are able to grant it. Bochove doesn’t want to go down that road: if he can get rid of all the laws concerning adults having sex out of the sight of those who might be offended – great. You could bicker forever about consent. If bawdy houses for the purpose of prostitution are a sticking point, he is flexible.

It’s about what works. After all, Bochove needs to build a war chest. While it may be fine for a committee of activists to spend years building the broadest, most inclusive, most consensus-driven, most ideologically pure mission statement, business owners aren’t nearly as fussy. They just want to be able to rent out their cubicles and lockers, show their porn, and sell sex toys and booze to adult customers without having to worry about police intrusion scaring those customers away. That means money. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the only straight people fighting the sex laws in Canada are Quebec swingers; unlike their do-it-at-home counterparts elsewhere, Quebec swingers tend pay money to go to sex clubs.

But here’s the rub. Though Toronto and Montreal are where the gay sex money flows most freely, they are also, perhaps not coincidentally, the cities where police are least likely to be a bother.

Rather than mulling over the issue of civil liberties, the question for bathhouse owners is: Does the business cost of the sex laws exceed the cost of a five-year legal and political campaign? Aside from Bochove, they haven’t answered yet. Maybe their accountants are working on it.