Valentine's Day

SheDogs bathhouse 'an experiment in loving our bodies'

Female bathhouses still new to Halifax

'Eat My Heart Out' was a female bathhouse event which took place Feb. 11 in Halifax from 7 p.m. to midnight. Artwork: Jade Nauss

Some women were wearing silk pajama bottoms. Some were in bikinis or bras and underwear. Others wore nothing but a smile.

At least 50 women crammed around a hanging thick black piece of sturdy material, attached on each corner to a large chain, with all four chains bolted to the ceiling. Lying in this sling was a volunteer, and standing over her was Toronto's Andrea Zanin, the ‘Sex Geek,' who was about to show the eager room how to put a whole hand inside a vagina.

Was this in conservative Halifax? It sure was. On Feb. 11, a bathhouse for women and transfolk was held on Gottingen Street.

From SeaDog's to SheDogs

The venue is called SeaDog's Sauna & Spa, and is usually for men only. But on special nights two or three times a year, a group of volunteers who call themselves SheDogs take over and host a girls' night.

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2199 Gottingen St. is home to SeaDog's, or on special nights, SheDogs. Photo: Emilie Bourque

Maggie Haywood, one of six volunteers who put together the Valentine's bathhouse, says it all started in 2004 with an idea from Doug Melanson, president and CEO of SeaDog's, who decided to start holding ‘dyke nights' at the bathhouse.

Melanson approached Haywood, who owns and manages Venus Envy, to help promote the event.

Haywood says the first few events were attended by a small group of people who mostly knew each other, and members of that group decided to form Shedogs -- and really get the event off the ground for next time.

Since then they've hosted anywhere from two to five bathhouses a year, with the most recent one, ‘Eat My Heart Out,' being their best attended event yet. Around 90 women from all sexual backgrounds and walks of life came out to show each other some love.

"It's a party. It's an experiment. It's a crazy little idea about loving our bodies, and maybe loving other people's bodies too," explains the SheDogs extensive website.

Haywood says, "For women, there aren't that many non-judgmental spaces to express themselves sexually."

How getting started at a bathhouse works

Upon arrival inside the porch, you hand over your ticket and are given a towel and a bottle of water. You can also rent lockers for $5, which is a necessary place to put your stuff since street clothes aren't really welcome at the bathhouse.

It seems it doesn't matter what you wear, as long as it's not something you walked in wearing. Lingerie and bikinis are popular choices. The idea is to slip into a different outfit (or lack of outfit) and with that, a different sort of reality.

The rules are the first thing you're told. They're simple, but important: respect, consent, and confidentiality. All attendees are encouraged to openly ask permission before kissing or touching someone, even if the signs are there. And whatever happens at the bathhouse, stays at the bathhouse. It's common to run into people you know in a small city, and it's made clear that who was there should not be repeated.

Beyond the porch

Part of the hard work of the volunteers is giving every single person a thorough tour.

The first thing you see beyond the entrance is a lounge. This was the only ‘no-sex' room. There, a TV was set up playing episodes of the popular show The L Word. Nervous newcomers sat and snacked on chocolate-chip cookies, strawberries and candy hearts.

The lounge also features a bar where men usually drink at the male bathhouse, but SheDogs have never served alcohol. Perhaps sobriety is what keeps away the rude groping you might picture in a nude bar at 2 a.m.

The bathhouse has many narrow hallways and small rooms, with dim blue-ish lights everywhere. It feels easy to get lost, but also provides a comfortable sense that you can keep moving and exploring as you wish.

The rooms, which would normally be for renting in the male bathhouse, are kept open. They are very small with mirrored walls and hold a single bed, a locker and a box of tissues.

Some rooms are used just for talking. Some are used to bring out a person's exhibitionist tendencies, while others sometimes watch. Many rooms had themes.

There was a massage room where a registered-massage-therapist-in-training was giving luxurious 10-minute free back massages.

The reading room was filled with books and porn where women read erotica to each other.

The make-out room featured a girl who you could make-out with for five minutes, as long as you kept your hands above waist-level.

And in the violet wand room, you could have your nipples touched by something that looked like it produced purple lightning bolts or static electricity. It felt, on the hand, like a good shock.

Towards the end of these rooms was a locker area, and beyond that a hot tub, dry sauna and showers. Downstairs featured five more small rooms, which were locked and available to rent for $10. There was also a small rec room area, a couch, a sling, a place to chain wrists on to the wall and a maze of sorts made of wrought iron.

An ‘action'-packed schedule

When enough people were assembled in the lounge, there was an ice-breaker game, where participants had to try to be the first to unwrap a piece of bubble-gum in their mouth (no hands allowed) and blow a bubble. The winner received a red leather strap-on dildo harness.

Shortly after that, Sexy Girl put on a presentation called ‘tushie time,' which featured products for anal play. Popsicle sticks were handed out and everyone got to taste strawberry-cheesecake-flavoured lube.

While some people enjoyed the hot tub, others played Twister with varying degrees of clothing on. Others played spin the bottle and later in the evening something called a ‘circle jerk' took place. Women sat around in a circle and watched someone lead masturbation techniques, while some practiced on themselves.

Learning about extreme penetration

No single activity was as popular as the fisting demonstration. There, whatever taboos one thought couldn't be broken were obliterated.

The audience for Zanin's demonstration was a combination of eyes glued to her hand, and eyes darting around, seeking proof that other people were also actually watching. The general crowd resembled a pack of medical students who would have to memorize the procedure in order to save someone's life.

Jade Nauss was the volunteer for Zanin's educational demonstration.

She is a 24-year-old student at Dalhousie University and the University of King's College, and is in an open relationship with her boyfriend of two years. She says they both fully support each other's alternative sexual lifestyles.

Nauss has attended many Shedogs bathhouses before, but noticed a decline in their frequency. She went to Haywood to see if they needed any extra help. Soon she was attending meetings, organizing other volunteers and making posters.

"When we were talking about demos and decided on extreme penetration, (Haywood) said something about volunteers and I just shot my hand up, because I really enjoy extreme penetration and fisting," says Nauss.

Nauss was busy all night as the violet wand demonstrator for other women, and didn't have much time to think about anything else.

"I got kind of nervous for a minute or so before, just walking through the crowd and seeing all the faces peering everywhere ... and then I just sort of went into a this-is-what-I'm-doing mode," says Nauss.

"I'm very involved with the BDSM community, so I've done a lot of public play/public sex stuff ... so I know what it feels like to be very vulnerable in front of a lot of people."

‘People thanked me, I was really taken aback'

She says although she's been involved in sexual demonstrations a dozen or so times before, she'd never been in front of so many people at once. She was happy that Zanin was such a relaxing and professional person, especially since she'd only met her 20 minutes before.

"After I laid down and opened my legs, I felt fine," says Nauss, "I just started getting really turned on because she started touching me, and then I closed my eyes a lot, and at some points it was almost like there was nobody there. So I just tried to concentrate on what I was there for."

Zanin put on black latex gloves, and explained tips and techniques while getting started. The shape of her hand was less a fist and more just straightened fingers bunched together. She continued to articulate what she was doing with her hand inside Nauss, and checked in with her occasionally to ask how she was doing. Most times it seemed she didn't need to ask.

When Nauss' moans ended after Zanin successfully demonstrated what kind of pleasure can be attained, Zanin showed how to remove gloves by peeling them inside out and one into the other and then said she thought Nauss deserved a round of applause. With that, the entire room gave her a loud cheer.

"People thanked me, I was really taken aback," says Nauss.

She, like many others, says she feels lucky an event like SheDogs can take place in Halifax.

A curiosity and a challenge

"Anyone who has even the slightest bit of curiosity about it shouldn't hesitate to go ... people shouldn't be scared of the bathhouse. It is a really safe space. Safer than your average bar, for example," says Haywood.

All kinds of people go, and for all kinds of reasons.

Some women were married to husbands who didn't satisfy them sexually. Others were married to husbands who supported their participation.

Some were lesbians, and others were bisexual. Some would call themselves straight, and others were transgendered. Most women were white; some were black.

Some came with partners; others alone or in groups. Some were over 50, but most seemed between 20-30. Some were large and some were dainty. And every set of breasts looked entirely unique.

The most prominent reason women gave for attending was either out of curiosity or to challenge themselves to do something different and outside of their comfort zone.

Thoughts on the bathhouse experience

Jen Bridgman is in her mid-40s and has two kids. She attended the last bathhouse during Pride Week 2008, and says she heard about it through word of mouth, then went out of morbid curiosity.

She says she goes to Burning Man every year, so was used to nudity and alternative social gatherings, but didn't know what to expect.

"Within five minutes of being there, it was like ‘Oh, this is no biggie,'" says Bridgman.

As far as sexual orientation goes, no one asks, and no one cares. "As a bi, I didn't feel uncomfortable at all there ... I felt like I fit in as much as anybody did. Your whole preference just really didn't matter at all."

Another woman in her 40s who attended the Valentine's bathhouse says she saw an ad for it that day, and decided to try it out. She's been to female bathhouses in San Francisco and Miami before, so she knew she'd probably enjoy a local event.

"I like being around just women. It's atypical to be able to have that sort of space."

She says it's nice to be around positive and supportive women, and that "It's a good way to explore sexuality. We live in a very inhibited society, and it doesn't lead to much connection with people."

Another woman, a 27-year-old graphic designer, came with her 35-year-old partner. She says she has a boyfriend who somewhat knows about her other life, but not all the details.

She'd been there before, and wanted to take someone with her this time.

She says her partner found it scary and intimidating, but once she was there it was fine. "It's very scary to go whether you're with someone or not. But once you're there, you kind of relax, and you kind of see that it isn't as scary as you thought it was."

One 23-year-old Dalhousie University student attended for the first time. She says she was surprised at what a comfortable, welcoming and safe environment it was.

"It was an interesting opportunity to explore my own and other women's sexuality -- an opportunity that as women, we don't normally have very often."

Another woman, 28, who owns her own business, said it's a great place for women to feel support, and that no one should feel scared to attend.

"I think a lot of times when people think of bathhouses, there may be negative connotations, but there's a lot of acceptance and you can appreciate all different types of bodies, sizes and women. And it's not all about sex, it's also about socializing and learning from workshops and conversation."

Many, including Haywood, says there can be a lot of anxiety over something like what to wear, but Erin from Venus Envy, who attended for the first time, says as soon as she got there "it all just sort of dissolved. Everyone was so relaxed."

Canadian context

Although many people are surprised to find out an event like this exists, Halifax is not the first to hold female bathhouses.

Since 1999, the Toronto Women's Bathhouse Committee has been holding Pussy Palace events in an effort to create casual sexual spaces for women and transfolk. And Montreal has started organizing sex parties for the same population as well, according to Xtra.ca.

As for Halifax, SheDogs hopes that with more younger women attending, they will be around to help organize events if the others get too busy or move away.

Haywood says, "It is a really neat sort of social and sexual experiment that's been happening, and I hope it continues for awhile."

 

Comments on this story are now closed

good job, emilie bourque!

Posted by carlatta | Feb 15, 2022

This is a fine piece of journalism. An important event covered in a fair and respectful manner. Well done Ms. Bourque!

Posted by Michael Connors Jackman | Feb 15, 2022

Excellent work Em! We are all so proud of you for tackling this sensitive but important story. Your article is very tasteful and your eye for detail makes it an interesting read. Well done!

Posted by Sydnee Bryant | Feb 17, 2022

that was a good read. thanks emilie:)

Posted by Kaya | Feb 27, 2022