Clare Hand is a self-described flaming London lesbian. She’s spent the last year writing about queer women’s nightlife in her city. She documents the atmosphere, music, fashions, vibe (are you going to get laid or make new mates?), and those behind the nights.
Clare decided that it wouldn’t be right to only document dyke nightlife in one city, so she packed her bags and hit the road. She’s written about the thriving scenes in New York, San Francisco, Bogota, São Paulo, Berlin, and Dublin so far. This list will keep expanding. Keep an eye on her Dyke Nightlife Diaries here.
The Pussy Palace — yes, great name — was a women’s sauna party in Toronto. A couple of times a year, a collective of women would take over the Toronto Club Bathhouse (usually a men’s sauna) and turn it into a steamy, sweaty, sexy haven for queer women and trans folks. It was immensely popular and, according to Loralee, one of the founders, was “the epitome of female decadence.”
“It [was] bacchanalian,” she told me. “It [gave] women the opportunity to escape for several hours of absolute sexual indulgence.”
One night back in September 2000, when there were 350 scantily-clad women sauntering around the club, living their best aquatic lives, five male police officers raided the venue on a liquor license violation.
They scoured the premise, “slowly” and “aggressively,” witnesses said, searching private rooms and questioning people. They could have done this on any other day, at any time, but they decided that midnight at a women’s event was the perfect time to force their way into the bathhouse.
The raid sparked outrage in the public and local media and turned the organisers of Pussy Palace into mighty community activists. When the case went to court, the judge lobbed the police’s “liquor violation” claims out the window and lambasted the Toronto Police Department for violating the security, privacy, and equal rights of the people inside.
There are multiple academic articles about this incident and the legal action that followed. We covered a lot in my second week at college during a gender, sexuality and law seminar. I am sure all the readings and conversations in class that day were riveting. I, however, was far too busy finding this (or a similar) sauna, planning my trip to Toronto, and day-dreaming about the essentials: What bikini should I wear? Do people even wear bikinis? Do you get too hot having sex in a hot-tub?
Low and behold, six months later, my best friend Laura and I were sitting on a plane to Toronto. I’ve been friends with Laura most of my life; we went to school together and have a really close, sisterly (aka asexual) friendship. Laura and I go into details about partners and feelings but never discuss sex and pleasure. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how we like it.
Laura knew I had my heart set on this sauna. My extensive research had revealed that the Toronto Club Bathhouse was now called Oasis Aqualounge. It is one of few bathhouses in the world that centres women’s sexuality, and they have a night called Sapphic Aquatica for women/trans folk where cis men are not allowed.
We conveniently arrived the night before Sapphic Aquatica. I put my bikini on under my clothes, packed a towel, and went to meet some friends for a pre-drink at a rooftop bar. It was a beautiful evening, with wispy clouds edging across a lilac and orange sunset. I sipped a cocktail and chatted with people as the DJ spun disco classics. At about 9 p.m. — when I should have been heading to the sauna — I plunged into an existential crisis about my life and sex-drive, wondering why the hell I wanted to leave my friends to go to a sex party alone. I decided to stay on the rooftop bar, occasionally wondering what I was missing at the lesbian sauna.
I was in a foul mood the next day, disappointed that I’d chickened out, stayed in my comfort zone, and failed to try something very new. I frantically browsed Oasis’ website, and found something called First Taste Saturdays, a Q&A and guided tour of the lesbian sauna’s venue (free for women[-identified], $20 for M/F couples). And this time, glorious Laura, the ally of my life, offered to come with me.
We arrived at Oasis — a redbrick mansion on a quiet residential street — a little before 3 p.m. The reception area was painted in palm trees and dotted with naked Barbies doing splits. We signed-in and strode into a blue-lit bar. It was very early doors, there were a handful of people scattered around and a couple of poles minus the dancers. The music was quiet, and the mood was mellow.
Laura and I got a couple of IPAs and headed out to the garden to wait for our tour. It was a beautiful garden with a heated pool, decked wooden seating, a sky blue mural, lots of plants, and a thatched roof. A gay flag dangled from the fire escape above. Why am I describing the garden in such detail? Well, I was sitting on a bench, coyly sipping a beer with my best bud, trying to avoid eye contact with Laura so we didn’t burst out laughing. There was a couple thrusting with the pace and enthusiasm of a pair of mating snails in the pool next to us. Obviously, this was a safe space and a bathhouse; we were in the wrong for reverting back to our childhood and wanting to snicker like school-kids. The situation was just so excruciatingly uncomfortable; it felt I’d taken my nan to watch “Blue is the Warmest Colour“ at the movies.
We had to shift our focus, so we started talking about Laura’s family, the political situation in Colombia, the weather, taxes—something, anything to distract from and drown out the gentle groans of the couple unenthusiastically humping a few feet away.
Thankfully, we were soon called over for the Q&A on the other side of the garden. Fifteen of us congregated around our charming host and guide. There was one lone person in a towel, Laura, six heterosexual couples, and me. The host excitedly talked us through Oasis’ events: naked karaoke, erotic hypnosis, BDSM workshops, and foot fetish night. She went on to state that we “shouldn’t come here to try and save or spice up your marriage, only come to enhance your intimacy,” to her audience of mainly hetero couples all over fifty. One looked eager, clutching the hand of the other who looked like they were about to jump the fence.
Laura looked very engaged. She nodded when people asked about the facilities and club etiquette; she looked unfazed when they asked if they need to wipe down surfaces after they use them or requested to rent the vibrating Sybian saddle. I knew the only words roaming around her mind were “WTF am I doing here?!”
When all the questions had dried-up, we walked past the couple (still) having expressionless, mundane-looking sex, and headed back inside the stately house. Our guided tour started in the Jacuzzi room, where three people were having a soak. As our tour processed through, we said “hi” as if we were at an apartment viewing. They lifted a wet hand and pruney fingers to give us an awkward smile and wave.
Next, we headed upstairs and stopped on the landing to discuss the BDSM room. Inside, a woman bent her leather-chap-wearing partner over a pommel horse. As she put a gag in their mouth, our little innocent tour group tried to keep its composure, desperately looking for something, anything else to look at. Our guide made a joke about us not being voyeurs yet. We all laughed joylessly, as if our mom just made a sex joke.
There were lots of red and black pleather surfaces, mirrors, peepholes, condom machines, and a room that looked like the trunk of a Volkswagen campervan. Our group meandered around in pin-drop silence. We were all hyper-aware of ourselves, of how little we’d had to drink, and how bright the daylight outside seemed.
When the tour eventually concluded, we all scurried back to the (now slightly busier) main bar and were asked if we wanted to stay for the evening.
“It will cost half,” they said.
Safe to say, staying wasn’t an option for us. I felt many things; aroused was not one of them. This was no fault of the sauna, the facilities, or the folks inside; everything and one was just swell. However, next time I want to go to a sex party, I will just go to the sex party, not a lesbian sauna. I’ll go at night, full with tequila, and see where the evening takes me. I won’t rope my heterosexual, (almost) sister into coming with me. I won’t go on a guided tour, and I won’t just rely on Google to tell me what a Sybian saddle is.
Laura and I launched back out into the early evening sun. It was another beautiful pinkish-orangish evening. We walked away from the lesbian sauna in silence until Laura stopped abruptly, took a deep breath, and said, “You know I’m the best friend you’ll ever have right?”
Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s right, too.
For more on Toronto’s Oasis Aqualounge, head here.