It’s been more than 35 years since the first AIDS case was reported in Canada, but misinformation and stigma continues to surround both HIV and AIDS. A shocking 55% of Canadian millennials aren’t willing to share skin-to-skin touch with a person with HIV/AIDS, according to a study conducted last month by Casey House, Canada’s only hospital dedicated to the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Casey House surveyed more than 1,500 Canadians and found that 22% of millennials believe the virus can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact (it cannot), compared to 16% of 35–44 year-olds and 18% of 45–54 year-olds.
“Because millennials did not live through the initial HIV/AIDS crisis in the ’80s and early ’90s, they feel it’s not as relevant to their lives,” says Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House. “There has been a lack of conversation over the last decade, so they don’t have the education or understanding that say, baby boomers would, which can be dangerous.”
To fight these perceptions and mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Casey House is opening the world’s first HIV-positive spa in Toronto this Friday and Saturday. Called Healing House, the spa will offer free facials and massages, all provided by HIV-positive healers.
“We want all people, whether they understand the notion of touch, or need some education on HIV," says Simons. "We welcome everybody through the door.”
There were 2,402 new cases of HIV reported in Canada last year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, with half of the cases among men who are gay, bisexual, or have sex with men. The federal government has just announced $7.1-million in funding to "support community-based initiatives to prevent infections among gay, bisexual, transgender, Two-Spirit and queer (GBT2Q) men in Canada," according to a press release.
Healing House follows in the footsteps of June’s Eatery, a pop-up HIV-positive restaurant Casey House organized in 2017, following survey results that showed half of Canadians wouldn’t eat food prepared by an HIV-positive cook. Over the course of two days, HIV-positive chefs served dinner to over 300 guests while wearing aprons printed with slogans like “I got HIV from pasta. Said no one ever.”
June’s Eatery was a massive success in terms of generating awareness and getting people out. But a different conversation played out online, where critics of the pop-up showed both a real fear of the virus and prejudice toward people with HIV. “Will never eat there. Sorry. There is no stigma, there is only HIV,” wrote one commenter on a video about the pop-up.
“That’s where we understood we needed to continue the conversation,” says Simons. “So we moved from a restaurant to a touch concept, which is much more intimate and harder-hitting.”
A common sentiment Casey House hears from its clients is that they miss the experience of touch. “When you think about touch and healing, it’s something people with HIV have been discriminated against,” says Muluba, one of Healing House’s 18 staffers.
Muluba, who is 25 years old and prefers not to use her last name, lost her father at 14 and her mother at 19, both to HIV-related complications. “For pretty much 21 years of my life, I was told [not to] tell people,” she says. Muluba decided to go public about her HIV status while she was studying journalism. “I wanted people to be educated about HIV, I wanted my college class to get their HIV tests,” she says. “I can’t say I loved it, but I wanted to do activism.” Taking part in Healing House is an extension of that activism.
Like the other healers, Muluba is not a facialist or massage therapist and was specially trained for the pop-up. Recruiting HIV-positive registered massage therapists proved difficult, says Simons. The RMTs she asked declined, worried that doing so would out them to their employer and jeopardize their job security.
Healing House guests can choose from one of three services: a 10-minute Swedish hand massage, a 20-minute head, neck, and shoulder massage, or a 15-minute mini facial using natural products from the Canadian company Province Apothecary.
You can book an appointment at Healing House online, or walk in at 128 Peter Street in Toronto on November 30 from 12–7 p.m. and December 1 from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. A Province Apothecary custom essential oil, made by HIV-positive individuals, will be sold on site for $20, with all proceeds going to Casey House. It’s a blend of soothing ingredients, including coconut, lavender and carrot oil, and it smells amazing.