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13 min

Sharing the steam

Will gays and lesbians come on mixed bathhouse nights?

“Too much cliqueyness, too much cliqueyness,” Mel Watson says with an expression that’s part pained, part disdainful.

“We’re in the 21st century, honey, It’s time to lose the ‘tude and time to become a real person. We’re all gay. It don’t matter what sexuality you are. If you’re gay, you’re gay, so why not come together and sail the same boat together?

“If y’all can parade up and down the street pronouncing this, then y’all should be able to mix together —and be friends, be family.”

Watson, the manager of Friction bathhouse, repeats this mantra in so many ways as he and the club’s owner/operator Guy Nunes-Vas plug what they feel is a long overdue element of queer life in this city: a mixed sex space-plus-steamer for all sexualities and gender expressions.

The plan, says Watson in full PR mode, is to kick off with Mixed Mondays, beginning Aug 25. He says he’s the one who “provoked” Nunes-Vas into trying something new.

“Why should we limit ourselves when we can open ourselves up to everybody?” Watson asks. “It’s so typical of the gays and the lesbians to say, ‘you’re gay, you’re a lesbian.’

“It doesn’t mean you have to play but you can come and lounge, you can come and socialize, you can come and work out,” he says, pointing to a small gym space within the maze-like configuration of the 10,000 sq ft Pender St club that opened its doors just over a year ago. Ever the gracious host, Watson is happy to show off Friction’s de rigueur steam room, showers, banks of storage lockers that add to the labyrinthine feel of the lower floor, 45 private rooms, public playspaces and queen-sized bed —complete with metal cuffs —just off the dance floor.

On those mixed Monday nights, he says, there’ll be no such thing as men’s space or women’s space.

“A part of the mixed Mondays is just that: relax, have fun if you want to have fun, do what you gotta do. But it’s not ‘this is her space and this is his space.’ It’s the fact that it’s our space, it’s for all of us,” he says.

“You rent a room, you rent a locker, you get your towel, you get your lube, you get your condom and you have fun,” he continues. “Your boundaries and anybody’s boundaries is up to you guys.”

But respect is key, says Watson, the only time he’s allowed caution to colour his enthusiasm for the concept.

“There’s no violence unless it’s a fetish scene but those have to be consented to. That’s always most important. If for some reason somebody is uncomfortable with that then you ask them not to partake.”

Mixed Mondays are only the first step in his plan to inject new options into Vancouver’s steam scene.

“If the mixed Mondays go over well, then I’ll get dyke night going where there won’t be any men,” Watson promises. “I will even hire lesbians to work the door,” he adds.

All 12 of the Friction staff members are currently men.

What will convince Watson that a women-only night is viable?

“I want to see more women then men on mixed Mondays, and when I see more women than men in my club they will get what they want.”

Watson says women’s reaction to the idea of the co-ed nights has been overwhelmingly positive.

In short, Watson says, “Lesbians are, ‘Yaaay!!!”

“I think that finally this is a breakthrough for the lesbians. I hope that this is encouraging lesbians to now want to open up a bathhouse for women —and maybe have mixed Mondays with men running through their club,” he says with a heavy but good-humoured hint of challenge in his voice.

As for the response of gay men to the idea of sharing steam with queer women, Watson says half “are actually jazzed about this.”

“I’ve had a few who say they might attend or they may not,” he admits.

But Watson appears undaunted by that reaction.

“There’s too many others that want to partake,” he maintains. “When it comes to what we’re doing, everybody is either on the same page or they’re going to feel uncomfortable.

“No matter what, we’ve opened up the doors,” Watson emphasizes.

“And we’re not closing them. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

“Yeah! My god, yeah! I’d go,” exclaims an excited Shaira Holman about the possibility of having a women-only night in a Vancouver bathhouse.

“We need to have more sex-positive spaces for women. It’s important for us to have spaces where we can go and be, because we don’t have any,” she says.

“Would I go every week? No,” she concedes. Her personal life is spoken for in volumes, she intimates.

Holman, part of the Bride of Pride (BOP) collective that hosts queer women’s leather-and-kink parties, is just as enthused about Friction’s co-ed steam plan. But not so much about holding it on Monday nights.

“Monday is the worst night of the week. Nobody goes out on Mondays. Nobody goes out on Mondays,” she repeats emphatically.

Still, she says, she’ll probably go to the mixed nights “because we don’t have anything else.”

But it really would depend on the vibe, she says. “As long as it’s queer space, I’m absolutely okay with it —because we’ll pretty much mind our own business.

“I don’t need to see dick,” she adds bluntly. “I’m not interested.”

Holman is not so sure gay guys will turn out, though.

“The thing is, guys don’t need to share our space because they have so many spaces, so why would they come, really? Why would they come to a space where there’re women?” she asks.

“The boys are going to be so upset,” she predicts half-jokingly.

“They’re squeamish with us even at PumpJack,” she observes. “We’re very welcomed by a huge amount, [but] there’s always a few guys who are like, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?'”

Potential gender discomfort notwithstanding, Holman welcomes the new sex space —especially since space is so hard to find these days.

Whether it’s due to high rents or the lack of available options, Holman says it’s “a complete challenge” trying to find space even for Bride of Pride events.

“I’m the space guy. I cruise buildings. They’re very expensive in the city.

“A lot of that [has to do with] the movie industry and now the Olympics,” Holman contends. “People can rent out to the movies for a month and get their entire year’s rent.” The outcome is that people with empty buildings have no interest in renting out their spaces to artists or small, community-specific groups whose events are not necessarily money-spinners.

On average, Holman indicates, renting a space for an event runs about $500 a night.

“You could spend a lot more,” she points out. For $500, it’s possible to get a hall. But halls take a lot of time-consuming work to give them any atmosphere, she adds. “You can’t do it to make money. You can only do it because you think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.”

Danielle Doucette, the creative force behind the now also discontinued women’s sex parties, WET, agrees that finding space that is cost-effective as well as comfortable for sex, socializing and dancing in Vancouver is an issue.

“I mean you could find a club to hold a club night but we wanted something more intimate and more social. And I didn’t want to move to the suburbs,” Doucette says.

Having sexual space in a gay bathhouse is a welcome opportunity because women need as much space as they can get to push sexual boundaries, she insists.

“We don’t have a space that we can be safe, open and free to explore. We don’t have a space to explore sexuality,” Doucette says.

But even as she applauds the idea of a co-ed night, Doucette doesn’t feel the idea is a particularly radical one.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of men who aren’t comfortable with that, and I think keeping them there is keeping the dollars there,” Doucette contends. “It’s kind of playing it safe like, ‘Let’s see how it is, but we’re not going to lose all our business because we’ll still have the men paying the money going there.'”

She also feels that it’s primarily going to take off among a certain demographic of women. She says it’s the women who lack space but don’t consider themselves dykes who will most likely go to Friction’s co-ed nights —with their boyfriends or husbands in tow —but looking to play with other women.

“So I think in that case, it’s going to take off big time.”

But in terms of it leading to a women-only night, that’s a different crowd, she says.

Doucette thinks there’s a need for a women’s night but feels there’d be one already if the need was pressing enough.

“There’s a reason there isn’t one and it could just be that it’s not sustainable,” she suggests, adding that women need one for the very fact that they don’t have one.

“We’re still oppressed as women sexually. We’re not allowed to be as free as men of whatever sexuality,” Doucette says. “We have to live up to different standards and I don’t believe that’s how we are naturally. So, radical? No. A welcome event? Yes. It’s a step in the right direction,” she says.

But for a women’s night to be viable, some strategic marketing will have to be done, Doucette indicates.

“They have to figure out what [would] stop people from going and let them know that it’s okay, other than just saying, ‘Hey come on out, it’s going to be a good time.'”

That means tapping into the reasons why bathhouses are not traditionally women’s space. “Is it because we tend to want to be able interact with the people before we’re having sex or hooking up with them?” she asks.

“It’s kind of like why we don’t really have a place like the PumpJack. It’s a difference. We’re different, I think,” she argues.

One of the ways women and men are different, she suggests, is the way they cruise.

“It’s just like you walk in, you get a towel, you go to your room and people are just hanging around the sauna,” she notes of the traditional bathhouse.

But for most women, icebreakers are key —like giving and receiving massages, she says.

“It’s giving them something to do so that it’s not so blatantly ‘I’m here to pick somebody up.’ You would have to give them something that would give them a reason to approach somebody else.

“It’s very hard for a lot of women to be the aggressor,” Doucette notes. Then again, she says, maybe women who are comfortable in that role that will end up going.

“I definitely agree with the observation that women tend to need a little bit more pre-sexual foreplay,” says event promoter Sylvia Machat. “There needs to be the ability to have conversation, somewhere people can sit and take in the ambience and get to know each other. I think that’s important for women’s comfort level.”

Machat says she’s excited about women having access to a bathhouse environment that has been such a fixture in gay men’s culture.

“I think that’s definitely a big part of it. Historically, and also in terms of gay culture, I think that bathhouses have figured quite prominently, and so it’s exciting to have access to that element.

“In addition to that there’s obviously access to fun opportunities,” she says with a laugh.

Machat says she’s more than curious about how the co-ed nights are going to work. And while she’s not aware of a longing within the community for a mixed gay and lesbian sex space, she acknowledges that it’s not the sort of thing that’s openly discussed.

“It would be interesting to see how the two dynamics affect each other, because it’s possible that having gay men in the space could potentially allow women to open up and be a little bit more manly in the way that they are cruising,” she muses.

For Machat, the idea —not to mention the practice —of sharing playspace with men is not radical at all. In fact, it’s long overdue, she maintains, adding that’s she had some experience with being in such a situation having gone to similar events.

“I’m [also] quite a reader. I’ve done a lot of reading of queer history, queer culture and so I’ve kind of been exposed to it in at least an academic sense. So to me it’s not anything shocking and new because I’ve familiarized myself with the concepts,” she explains.

Now it’s just a question of getting more practice, she quips.

“I would have wanted a space like this five years ago. But I’m sure that in terms of the average mindset, this will be a very new and different thing.”

As for the possibility of having a women’s night evolve out of the co-ed event, Machat is enthusiastic but a bit skeptical. She points to her own challenges in coaxing people to come out to events and blames the notoriously laidback Vancouver atmosphere.

“People don’t seem to have as much of a need to go out in Vancouver to events as they seem to elsewhere in North America. I think that’s part of it.”

Another reason, she says, is that women are still the primary caregivers for children and have less time to go out.

Yet another obstacle is the way the queer population is dispersed and is dispersing.

“You see the gentrification of areas like the West End and Commercial Dr, and you see people emigrating out to the suburbs which then makes it more difficult for them to access the city to go out on whatever evenings, especially if they have children,” Machat points out.

Still, she says, we need to have women-only sex space regardless of whether women take advantage of it or not.

“I think it’s important to have that avenue open so there’s the opportunity to explore, and to give people a venue in which to be free and to feel liberated and to feel like they’re not being judged for their sexuality.”

While Friction can do its part to facilitate women’s sex space, it’s ultimately up to the women’s community to attend and sustain their attendance, Machat says.

“I think if people go out, if they attend, and if they make the effort then it has the potential to keep going. If people stop going of their own choice, it’s going to fizzle,” she predicts.

“What the Friction people can do to help facilitate that is take an active role in listening to what women have to say, just talking to women when they go though the space. Just doing that real customer service follow-up that is crucial to any business, so that you’re aware of what their needs are,” Machat suggests.

“They might not know what their needs are but you just have to listen to what they are saying and try to interpret from that.”

Following the Queer Film Festival’s screening of Raunchorama Resurrected —a series of racy, and sometimes hilarious sex-themed and gravitating-towards-porn shorts —attendees made a long and eager beeline over to Friction to check out the Hot Mix afterparty.

The night proved to be a trial run for the bathhouse’s plan to have Mixed Mondays, where queer men and women share sexual and steam space one night a week.

Here’s what some Raunchorama afterparty people had to say about mixing it up in traditionally gay male space. (Photos by Sabina Zahn)

BASTIEN BEAUCAGE

I’ve been in Vancouver since only a year and all the queer events I went, trans people are eager to go somewhere safe. All the shades of the gender can be all at the same play party or spa or bathhouse, as long as they know what they are going to.

I think just like any event, it might be weird at the beginning. It would take probably a few months for people to get used to going to a place like this.

For Mr Average, it might be radical to think of this, but for the queer community, they’ve been waiting for that for many years.

I think between responsible adults, it’s possible to do anything with consent.

TARA R

I think it’s really fantastic. As a dyke, I really envy the public sex spaces that gay men have created and maintained. I think it has really influenced some gay men’s sexuality. I wish there were those spaces and opportunities for dykes to do that. I’m not sure if the mixed Mondays is going to work because there’s no history to my knowledge of that happening here. And I think there would be a lot of straight men coming —they might come and try to see dykes get it on. But then they might be a little scared that gay men might hit on them.

At the film tonight, it was really exciting to be in a room with dykes and fags and pansexual people and bisexual people and trans people all watching erotic films. It was an exciting energy and it was nice to talk to gay men about sex as well. There’s not that many places where you can have those conversations.

RICHARD ARIAS

I think it can be an interesting experiment. I’m not sure how it’ll work out in the end, because we’re so used to having segregated spaces —for either gay people, lesbian people, transgender people, you name it.

It needs to be very well-designed. There needs to be something that you feel is common, that you feel you could go to as a gay men, but also lesbians, something that binds us together. I have no idea what that could be.

Whatever you do against segregation builds community —it could be a political community, a kind of party community. But if you are blowing distinctions and reducing segregation, you are building community in the end.

MITCH KENYON (RIGHT)

I’ve never thought about it before but I can see from tonight that you can feed off each other’s energies and I think it’s really good. And certainly a place like this is much more exciting when it’s full and if it can be full with men and women, it’s better than being almost empty with just a few men. I really like the concept.

I also produced an event called Rubbout, which was more of a pansexual event, and I did find we did end up narrowing it down to just gay males because there are lot of people who do find it inhibiting to be sexual for gay men when there’s women in the room, especially in a fetish like rubber. But I think that a Monday night like this would really work. Those who feel uncomfortable around women have six other days a week, so there’s something for everyone this way.

BRIAN MCRAE (LEFT)

I’ve been to Australia to Sydney’s Mardi Gras and those are very mixed events and you get the dances that totally have a mixed energy about them and people really get into having a good time with each other. I think it’s a great idea.

I think probably for Vancouver it’s probably pushing the boundaries a little bit. I’m noticing Vancouver changing a lot and I think it’s ready for something like that.

KATHY LOEWEN (RIGHT)

I think it’s fantastic. Corinne (left) and I are in a committed relationship. We support any consenting adults that want to be in a safe and what’s clearly a very open and clean environment to express their sexuality in whatever way it is, whether it’s private or it’s in a more communal-type of environment like this.

Male facilities like this have enjoyed a lot of success over the years but women-only type spaces have had really a hard time trying to get this type of idea off the ground.

The idea that male space is encouraging women to have their own night or co-host with them is really cool and progressive.

The queer community underestimates how open women are to the idea of just casual encounters and casual hook-ups. I think it’s very prevalent in the gay community and it’s not so much accepted amongst lesbians. But I think a lot of lesbians, given the opportunity, would probably be quite interested in space like this.

CORINNE SUSINI (LEFT)

It’s kind of a premiere because I don’t think any lesbians-only sauna —like this kind of venue but for lesbians only —would really work anywhere in the world because maybe we are not interested in that to sustain a long-term full business just for us.

I think it’s really cool that the guys are open to let us to take one of the nights, and who knows, maybe we are more interested than we think we are.

It’s important to be sexual in different ways and in different venues, even for women. It’s not just a guy thing.