This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The most humans I've ever seen having sex at one time numbers somewhere between six and nine. Once you get enough flesh capsules and mush them up on one vinyl couch, things get confusing, and the memory passages connecting to the time when you learned to count become difficult to access. It's Monday night on Victoria Day weekend at Oasis Aqua Lounge, Toronto's upscale, water-based sex club, and I'm feeling overdressed while sipping bourbon and creeping the tangle of bodies in the next room with detachment.
It's my friend's friend's Uncomfortable Birthday Party, and all weekend I've been helping my pal pick out his costume, from the dress to the clutch, for the little bathhouse rave that could—partially because I'm a great friend, a little because I was flattered to be considered feminine/stylish enough for the task, and mostly because I love birthdays almost as much as I love dedication. And this dude—who is straight, never having ventured into drag beyond letting girls paint his nails once in a while—was nothing if not dedicated.
On Saturday at Value Village, after witnessing a spectacular ditch-bra-from-shopping-basket move that I hope was as funny to any staff who saw it as it was to me, I browsed sunglasses and jewelry while photo texts came in from the changing room. "Too Monty Python" I replied, or, to the winning faux-velvet leopard-print minidress you had when the Spice Girls were a thing, "hott, like John Waters trashy" (we were clearly going basic). Then there were the long-winded explanations about not wanting to look like his mother at the party.
"I'll come by for ten minutes. Maybe. Later." That was what I'd been saying until the budding debutant came over Monday evening to have his makeup done, complaining that most of his friends had bailed on the sex club soiree. He's carrying a long blonde wig my exact hair color—the ash white blonde it took me five years of home bleaching experimentation to achieve—and size 13 red stilettos that he bought at a specialty store on Yonge. With the help of some friends, he'd already learned to walk competently in the shoes, which was shocking and seemed unfair—it took me years to master a four- or five-inch heel.
"You have to come with us. We need a girl in the posse. You're our ticket to get in."
I knew this wasn't true—all cisgender men had to do to get into the party was pay $20, never mind the fact that the "posse" as it stood was to be three guys in drag, two of whom formed a loving couple, and the other looked Divine enough to compensate for his unfortunate heterosexuality. What I'm actually being asked to provide is moral support—more moral support, on top of shopping for a drag ensemble with a straight guy raised in a small town. I relent. My pal keeps pouring me drinks while I trim the synthetic bangs on his new wig, give fishnet advice, and dig out a pair of falsies. "These are going to hurt like a mother coming off," I schadenfreude as I finish gluing on the last lash onto his expansive eyelid and begin lining them with black.
The guy who's birthday it is runs a dungeon in a former coffin factory's basement in Toronto's west end, but we're going to be partying at the place of his regular employment tonight: a multi-floor "upscale adult playground" with a heated pool and a reputation for being kind of unfun. The night, heralded as "An Uncomfortable Birthday Party," is an attempt to "queer up the fucking place to an uncomfortable level."
To enter Oasis, we have to sign up to become members, which appears to be how the club navigates the legalities of running a sex club. Glad to have a guide, I type my name, birthdate, and gender on the screen while the shirtless door guy goes over the club rules: no means no, no touching without permission, no judgement, no sex in the pool. The membership signup doubles as a waiver where I agree that I won't be offended by nudity or live sex acts. It's all pretty professional.
Inside, the club smells innocently poolside-like (chlorine masks all other disinfectants), and though passageways lead in various mysterious ways, the bar is directly to the left of the front entrance, anticipating the anxiety of newbies. Drinks in hand, we meander from the small, sparse dance floor through the locker room past the hot tub to the poolside, and immediately back to the dance floor. I've already seen nearly two dozen people naked, or wearing only towels, which is pretty much how the rest of the night goes. Most naked guests appear not uncomfortable, but at ease—here not to rave, but to fuck. It's a holiday Monday at Oasis.
At the tiny, porn-vid-adorned DJ booth, Sebastian V-c and Peg Zilla redeem the club's foreseeable audio shortcomings with internet-wave house music, and dancing around a barren stripper pole with my misfit posse, a few other queens who showed, and sometimes a one girl in a bikini or another, I begin to feel oddly relaxed, finding myself in a rare place in Toronto: a place where people can come to be silly, or at least a place where I can be. An older guy wearing a towel who's been trying to make eye contact for a while finally asks me to "join him," and I grin and say, "No thanks." He disappears back into the steam. Guided by the club's strict policies, it's one of the least intrusive sexual advances I've ever fielded.
This isn't my first trip to a bathhouse or a bathhouse rave—the first was an all-night rager at Berlin's Kit Kat Club. Aside from the presence of the pool, the party inside Oasis is pretty much the opposite of that massive Euro bash: it's intimate and slow-moving; a lot of guests bailed or opted out. When the birthday guy finally makes an appearance downstairs, naked except for a leather jacket, we all sing, and there's cake. His girlfriend tells my pal that his drag is "passable," and I thank her.
When the subject of exploring other floors is broached I'm eager to see what there is to see. Climbing the metal stairs by the poolside, I realize that my impossibly tall friend has been wearing five inch heels since we left my apartment, and I commend him on the accomplishment, and advise him to walk toe first on the stairs. My stilettos are just as tall, but, like, he's a dude. I'm the best big sister I never had.
Single men aren't allowed alone on the floors upstairs, where it's women and couples only (Oasis actually has a pretty complicated pricing/accessibility chart), where the scene is a little more than what I was prepared for. The lighting is bright, which I assume is a safety thing, and the air is punctuated by female moans. Some naked guys and girls are hanging out and chatting in the hallway at the mouth of the stairs, while immediately in the next room a mass of bodies are piled on a large vinyl couch, moving lazily as a homogeneous blob that I immediately feel I'm not supposed to look at, though the aim of engaging in an orgy in a well lit open space is clearly not privacy. I duck through the room quickly, unsure whether to stare a lot or stare a little.
Across the way, another massive vinyl couch is empty, as is the fully stocked, and cheerily lit, dungeon and the "Shaggin Waggon" (a bed and pillows inside a van adorned with hippy stickers that seems completely out of place but is commendably campy), but in the second bar room a girl is moving upside-down on the stripper pole before the (90 percent curtained) street facing windows while a (90 percent naked) crowd watches and mingles. She's clearly just goofing around and the mood is ultra chill, until I realize there are tiny windows on the wall offering views through one-way mirrors to the couple fucking in the next room. Again, they seem enticingly intimate, shrouded in warm light and red fabric, but ultimately lazy, barely moving at all. No wonder mainstream porn is so silly: (hopefully) pleasurable public sex appears to be the drone music of physical activity. For a moment, I'm the kid at the zoo who expects the animals to be chasing each other and leaping from tree to tree and instead finds them de-licing each others' backs.
I realize I'm far beyond voyeur here: I'm a sex tourist—um, not in the phrase's contemporary definition, but in a much more traditional and, uh, pure way—due to random and untraceable paths of fate, the physical act of sex is one of the least interesting subjects in the world to me. At Oasis, sexual dynamics intrigue me: older dudes wearing towels struggling to make eye contact with women from the bar or poolside over their drinks; a female costume giving my straight, male friend a passport to a world he otherwise would have needed a woman to enter; how, in a space where nakedness is standard, nudity becomes both an equalizer and a divider as clothing is lost as a signifier of possible identity (a no judgment clause is impossible to enforce); or, personally, what is up with my total detachment. Then there is the club's existence at all. Oasis is a type of religiously disinfected, safe space for sex as an interest, hobby, and/or lifestyle to dwell within that I will never truly comprehend or immerse myself in (literally—pool water or otherwise).
I'll never forget the Pasolini-esque sight of at least a half dozen people having sex with each other; I'll never forget feeling the sensations of boredom and mild repulsion in a forward-ish thinking sex club and of wondering what the opposite reaction would be like. The difference between peering in to another world and actually being of that world has rarely been so encapsulated to me.
So, to anyone who opens up the possible/probable uncomfortable corners of their lives to strangers and tourists: thank you, and happy birthday.
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