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Valentine's Play

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Issue: 59 Section: Sexuality Geography: Atlantic Halifax Topics: sexuality

April 19, 2009

Valentine's Play

Reflections from a women’s bathhouse

by Jill Ratcliffe

Twice a year, Halifax's men’s bathhouse, Seadogs, hosts a queer ladies night for woman-identified folk. Photo: Hillary Lindsay

As we step past frosted glass doors into a small, well-lit foyer, my heart is pumping. The sound of excited voices through a second set of doors leaves me wondering what to expect. Feeling exhilarated by the space and slightly flushed by two glasses of wine, I notice my palms are clammy. This is my second time at Shedogs Bathhouse.

An older, very butch lady meets my friend and me at the front window. While taking IDs and tickets, and offering towels, she relays the rules: respect, consent, confidentiality. Allowing our entry through the interior set of doors, she directs us to room four, where we can change and leave our belongings. All the lockers are taken because it is a full house tonight.

My only question, “Have we missed the fisting workshop?” is met with, “Starts in 10 minutes.”

The veneer of security is understandable. Bathhouses have long been targeted as hotbeds of homosexual activity. In 2000, Toronto police raided Pussy Palace, a women's bathhouse night at Club Toronto. Police, almost all of them male, entered the establishment and walked around, taking the names and addresses of some ten women and questioning volunteers.

Traditionally, gay bathhouses are places where men can go to have sex with other men, regardless of sexuality or social status. Bathhouses for women are much more rare. Twice a year the local Halifax men’s bathhouse, Seadogs, hosts a queer ladies' night for woman-identified people. Tonight is the ladies' Valentine's Day bathhouse.

Room four is one of many small rooms off a long, dimly lit corridor. Each is equipped with a small bed, wall-to-wall mirrors and a handful of condoms and little lube packages scattered like candy on the clean, white sheets. In one room there is an erotica-reading party, while others are occupied by lovers. We are told that the rooms on the main floor have a “doors-open policy.” Private rooms are in the basement; ten dollars for a key.

After stripping down to our underwear in room four, we continue down the hallway. Guests are asked to change upon entry, which can be interpreted any way we like. Others don bathing suits, lingerie, tops, bottoms, or nothing at all. In the hallway someone passes us wearing only a harness. The sauna, hot tub and showers are all occupied by lounging ladies soaking up the steamy air and sultry sights.

Down a narrow stairway at the back is the basement. It consists of an open hallway, more small rooms, and an S&M dungeon where tonight’s workshops are taking place. Tonight there is a fisting demonstration.

The volunteer lies in a sling in the small dungeon packed with eager learners. Self-identified “Sex Geek” Andrea Zanin is gloved with black latex, promoting safer sex as she offers her tips and techniques. We learn that typically, fisting does not involve forcing a clenched fist into a bodily orifice. Instead, all five fingers are kept straight and held as close together as possible, then slowly inserted into a well-lubricated vagina or rectum. Once insertion is complete, the fingers either naturally clench into a fist or remain straight.

”It may seem extreme, but fisting is in fact one of the most intimate and sensual kinds of penetration two people can enjoy,” Zanin encourages, while caressing her eager volunteer.

I am told by a friend that the volunteer had met Zanin only 20 minutes before the workshop. She had attained the position during a Bathhouse planning meeting because of a deep enjoyment of extreme penetration and fisting. An obvious fan of public play, the volunteer appeared relaxed despite the 40 of us eagerly crowded around her. She gives in to her pleasure, allowing all to observe an intimate display between strangers.

The Bathhouse is filled with women of all makes and ages who appreciate and are affectionate with one another. Halifax is a small city and all the faces here are familiar. Admittedly, running into the lady who sat next to me at last night’s organizing meeting, or the waitress at my local coffee shop, is a bit of a rush. However, regardless of these relationships we all seem to be able to transcend the barriers built in our daily lives in order to create a safe and positive sexual space for ourselves and each other.

For me, participating in this space fulfills different needs: on one level it is purely sexual; on another it is deeply social; on another level it fulfills the need to resist. Our daily lives are controlled on many levels. Society tells us what and who to desire. These desires are then commodified and sold back to us through a plethora of bodily products. Through challenging our comfort levels and pushing our own boundaries we are able to regain some semblance of a collective power—the power of femininity, of raw pleasure and fluid desire.

The air is alive with intrigue, which for some leads to kisses, touching and even hot sex. And everyone is allowed to watch.

Jill fights the right in Halifax and works to oppose capitalism and all forms of oppression.

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