In 2010, Judy Kaye pooled together $800,000 in savings and loans to open her dream business: an upscale sex club, one focused on prioritizing women. Then a 43-year-old mother of three with an MBA in marketing from Queen's University, she was working a retail job selling IT solutions at the time.
In her private life, Kaye and her husband, Richard, were frequent visitors to sex clubs both at home and abroad. In the Greater Toronto Area, they'd go to places such as Etobicoke's Club M4 or Mississauga's X Club when they could, which wasn't as often as they'd like.
"As parents, one of the challenges was the fact that most of them were only open Friday, Saturday night, at 10 p.m." says Kaye, stylish in an acid-green blazer and velvet boots that lace up over the knee. "We always said, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was a place open in the daytime?'" Now there is: Seven years after Kaye and her partners imagined their own club, Toronto's Oasis Aqualounge is a thriving destination for people of all ages.
Like many would-be entrepreneurs, Kaye spent ages daydreaming about what her ideal club would look like, incorporating elements she liked from various places she and Richard visited during their travels. She got to talking about her ideas with Jana Rodriguez, her children's swimming instructor and a former Olympic windsurfer from the Czech Republic.
The two wanted to refute the public conception of sex clubs as "dark, dingy and seedy," as Kaye puts it, imagining a place that was clean, bright and inviting, a place where people could feel safe and welcome to explore. Rodriguez had her own reference points from the spas and bathhouses of Europe.
The potential business partners had been talking for about two years when, in 2010, a former bathhouse known as Club Toronto on Mutual Street became available for sale. It's a storied venue: In 1981, during the Toronto bathhouse raids, it was one of four gay bathhouses stormed by police, the site of mass arrests. In 2000, it was the location of the Pussy Palace raids, when a group of women were targeted and harassed by male police officers. Kaye and her partners were aware of the history, and thought it was the perfect place to open their own safe space for people with marginalized sexualities.
Kaye and her husband joined with Rodriguez and a fourth partner (who is no longer involved) to pool their personal finances. They avoided trying for a bank loan because they knew their business venture was an unusual one. Instead, they sought funding from family and friends: Asking her parents for a loan, Kaye says, was a difficult conversation.
"It was very challenging to explain what Oasis was," she says. "It's a unique business, and not one we could say, 'Look over there, it's working great for these people.' My family was really betting on me, and not on the business itself, to be honest with you."
In April of 2010, the group took over the space and named it Oasis Aqualounge. All four held on to their day jobs while spending their free time revitalizing the space, hiring interior designer Robin DeGroot to give the old club a facelift while preserving its history. At one point, DeGroot ordered the painters scraping an old bathroom to stop what they were doing. "They uncovered all these different colours of paint they were scraping. He said, 'Leave it. We're working with this,'" Kaye says. "This is the history of a home in these layers of paint."
By the end of November that year, Oasis was open for business. The final layout includes a heated outdoor pool (open year-round, a holdover from the bathhouse days), a hot tub, dance floor, several bars, a ballroom and a dungeon. The top floor is divided into multiple open-concept rooms: one recreates the back of a Volkswagen van, another has a large black vinyl bed. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, it was home to no fewer than three couples fornicating.
Initially, the club was only open Thursday to Saturday and daytime Sunday, with Kaye and her partners shouldering most of the work. Soon, the University of Toronto's Sexual Education Centre threw a one-time student event that proved so popular it became a weekly Monday night party called Sass After Class. More people got in touch with ideas for events, from fetish parties to sex-education nights. Now Oasis hosts eight events a week, and is only closed twice a year: Christmas Day, and one day in the summer for maintenance work.
With a busier schedule came the need for a staff. Most of the people who work at Oasis were regulars seeking work. There is a special pool staff who shows up after hours, making sure everything is clean and up to code. The floor staff undergoes gender-sensitivity training and safety training. Safety and consent are integral themes of any successful sex club and Oasis has a strict "ask once" policy to cut down on harassment and unwanted touching. Anyone who breaks these policies is automatically kicked out, though Kaye says this happens less than most people assume.
"People drink far less at Oasis than they do elsewhere because alcohol affects performance," she says, adding that most of their revenue comes from door prices, rather than drink sales. "Sure, every bar has its troubles. We've got security. But for the most part, people come to Oasis because they're lovers. They're not fighters."
Oasis must operate as a private club, meaning every person who enters must automatically register as a member and in doing so, must agree to follow the venue's rules. Unlike many of the clubs in the United States, however, Oasis doesn't record people's identification; visitors are free to make up a user name.
There are regular women- and trans-only nights, and single men are only allowed to attend certain days of the week. Though these nights are well attended, they aren't necessarily financially successful, even though single men are charged a much higher admission rate (which changes by day and event) than women and trans folks. Yet this is all part of an integral part of building Oasis's brand.
"There were many bathhouses already in Toronto focused on men's sexuality," Kaye says. "We wanted to be something focused on women's sexuality." The owners talked extensively with women before opening about what would make them comfortable; the difference in price points is aimed at balancing the ratio of visitors' genders.
"I understand that [men's bathhouses] do well, but I could not serve that market," Kaye says. "We initially found it quite challenging to build a market for a woman-focused bathhouse, but we have a unique offering. People come from a wide area to experience it."
After six years in business, Oasis has yet to make back its original investment, but Kaye says she is optimistic, and that growth has increased 20 per cent in the past two years. Kaye says there are currently 20,000 subscribers to the club's weekly newsletter, which also gives guests the opportunity to provide direct feedback.
"There was a woman last week who said, 'You could have told me you were here!'" she says with a laugh. "'I've missed six years of fun.'"