St. Marc's All Steamed Up
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St. Marc’s All Steamed Up

Photo by emutree.

A few weeks ago, Torontoist learned through top fashion blogger Anita Clarke that St. Marc Spa, one of Toronto’s gay bathhouses, was on Twitter [language not safe for work]. It seemed odd to see a business used to being relatively hush-hush on such a public forum beyond the queer media. Rolyn Chambers, director of St. Marc Spa, says it’s a conscious effort to bring the bathhouses—or, at least, St. Marc Spa—in step with the times, or, as he puts it, “bring it out of the closet.”

Bathhouses don’t have a good reputation, admits Chambers. In fact, when Chambers was first offered a position with St. Marc Spa, he was hesitant. He took a week to think it over and finally agreed only when he figured he could bring something “new and different.”
Historically, previous generations of the queer community were well served by bathhouses, because they provided discreet locations to hook up, away from intolerance and the threat of physical harm. Bathhouses were “created for people who weren’t accepted, on the down-low, in the closet,” says Chambers. Similar to the dark rooms in Berlin, participants could be anonymous, and a communal location meant there was no need to bring someone home, where they could be spotted by neighbours and outed.
But today, with improved tolerance, not to mention technology to meet people online, what is the function of a bathhouse? Chambers says they need to become social centres: “There are people Fridays and Saturdays who come to talk and play pool. There’s other stuff going on [besides sex].”

Rolyn Chambers, director of St. Marc Spa. Photo courtesy of Chambers.

Part of that push for a more communal atmosphere then explains the social media presence: St. Marc Spa is on Twitter and Ning [yeah, this one’s probably not safe for work either]. Chambers admits it started as a marketing ploy, but he soon realized it was a way to share the stories that happen at the bathhouse. “At first, it was all positive [spin],” he notes, “but I wanted it to be more real, more relatable.”
Social media is one of the ways, then, that Chambers is trying to break the perceptions people have of a bathhouse. “People think of [bathhouses] as a last resort”—a space for those who were unsuccessful at the bar or club or for those who are promiscuous—”but, in Europe, people go to the bathhouse first, then the club,” he says. “We have it in reverse.” he says. In essence, Chambers is attempting to shift how Torontonians view intimate encounters towards a more European view.
One demographic Chambers hopes will value such a change is the younger market, those fickle twenty-somethings (or almost-twenty-somethings) who perceive bathhouses as outdated and desperate. As such, St. Marc Spa is hosting an event on Thursday for all students, male or female, in Toronto, in association with queer student groups from each university. It’s a chance to provide a “safe environment just for them and to have a good time,” he says. The event will include an educational focus, he notes, with members from local AIDS and safe sex–awareness groups attending. The bathhouse will also be closed to non-students: “We didn’t want anyone taken advantage of because of the age thing.”
St. Marc Spa will be losing money on the event, a gambit to introduce the bathhouse experience to and make it comfortable for a younger generation. Chambers is proud of the bathhouse, which he calls “clean and fun,” and believes he will be able to “change the young people’s perception.” (A Facebook group for the event already has forty-five attendees.) The event will also provide the students in the city a chance to interact away from a culture that can be overly covetous of youth.
We were given an invite but had to politely decline. On Friday, we’ll be sure to catch up through Twitter the fun that was had—Chambers writes the majority of updates, which have a charmingly gossipy feel to them—and watch the progress as Chambers tries to turn a bathhouse into a home.