Programming Connection

Virgin Bathhouse Tours 

AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT)
Toronto, Ontario

How Does the Program Work?


To achieve its goals, ACT needed to successfully engage a bathhouse and arrange access to its space. Through its ongoing long-term outreach efforts, ACT had already established strong and long-standing relationships with a number of bathhouses in Toronto. Working within this context, the gay men’s program coordinators developed a short proposal for what they hoped to develop and pitched it to local bathhouse owners.

The proposal included the following components:

  • Concise, informative outline of the project
  • Clear explanation of goals and objectives
  • Proposed times and dates
  • Proposed duration of time spent in the bathhouse during each tour
  • Explicit assurance that tours would never be disruptive to patrons
  • List of proposed promotional activities to include the bathhouse name
  • Description of sex-positive nature of project and organization
  • Outline of benefits to business (potential new clients, positive community perception, positive patron experiences, etc.)
  • Acknowledgement of the business’ unique role in enabling social change in ways not possible by community sector alone
  • Friendly reminder of the business’ responsibility to patrons and the community

Engagement and Recruitment

To raise broad awareness about the tours and to reach participants, the Virgin Bathhouse Tours staff developed an ad, which promoted the tour as sexy and fun while clearly indicating it was an educational event and not a “sex party.” ACT promoted the tour on its website, in local gay print publications and in gay venues, bars and bathhouses. Men who were interested in participating were asked to call the ACT program coordinator, who qualified participants and scheduled tour dates.

Workshop Structure

Each Virgin Bathhouse Tour took the form of a three-stage workshop involving the participation of 10 to 15 men.

Stage One:

Facilitators established a safe workshop environment with a 45-minute ice-breaking Q&A session led by one trained staff person and one volunteer. This session provided an opportunity for men to meet each other and ask questions in a neutral space before they toured the potentially intimidating space of the bathhouse. Facilitators also reminded participants at this stage that the tour was not a sex party and that clothing was not optional!

Examples of topics covered:

  • Introduction to bathhouses
  • Brief history of bathhouses
  • Dispelling of bathhouse myths (e.g., “Everyone at the baths has unsafe sex.”)
  • Introduction of HIV and STI information that focused on making safer sex part of fun sex
  • Establishment of ground rules for behaving discreetly and respectfully during the tour

Stage Two:

Participants and facilitators toured two local bathhouses for approximately 45 minutes each. Groups were limited to 15 men, as larger groups were likely to make bathhouse patrons feel intruded upon. Tours were held in the late morning or early afternoon when there were likely to be fewer patrons present, and conversation with participants was conducted primarily in brightly lit common areas of the bathhouses away from patron’s rooms or other areas where men were likely to be engaged in sexual activity.

During the tour, participants visited different areas of each venue, were given quick tips for becoming acclimatized to the environment, talked about STIs (including HIV) and participated in fun and informal role-playing activities related to “cruising” and negotiating safer sex. During the visit, facilitators ensured that participants were respectful of bathhouse patrons.

Examples of topics covered:

  • How to rent a room
  • Where to find condoms and STI information
  • How to introduce condoms and lube in a non-verbal environment
  • How different bathhouses attract different clientele
  • How to become acclimatized to dark spaces
  • How to interpret bathhouse “language” (i.e., closed doors, body language, etc.)
  • How to respectfully manage unwanted advances
  • How to interpret and respond to rejection
  • How to make safer sex part of enjoying the bathhouse experience
  • What kind of drugs might be found in the bathhouse and what are the risks
  • Issues faced by men from different socio-ethnic communities in the bathhouse setting

“When a guy walks into a bathhouse, he might feel like people are rating him on his body—and they often are! This can be challenging to deal with; learning to manage rejection (how to give rejection and how to get it) is not easy. It requires confidence. On a tour it is important to discuss how to be respectful of others and how a rejection to one’s self may not be personal.” –John Maxwell, ACT

Stage Three:

To provide closure to participants, the facilitators and participants returned to the neutral space where the tour began for a 30- to 40-minute debrief to discuss what they liked and did not like about the experience as well as any lingering questions or concerns. Participants were given a Handy Dandy How-To Handbook on “cruising” as a take-away resource. Please see the Program Materials section to download this resource.


ACT partnered with the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples (CSSP) to deliver the tour more effectively to Spanish-speaking men and with Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS) to deliver the tour more effectively to men from East Asian and South East Asian communities. In both cases, the tours were offered in English, facilitated by one staff member from ACT and one from the partnering agency (with simultaneous translation provided in some cases). Both partner organizations actively promoted the program and recruited participants.