The power of touch

A pop- up spa with HIV+ mas­sage ther­a­pists at­tempted to con­front stigma

StarMetro Toronto - - DAILY LIFE - Leanne De­lapthe thes­ fash­ion_style

Heal­ing House, the world’s first HIV+ spa pop-up, opened to the pub­lic in Toronto, for free and by ap­point­ment or walk-in, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, timed to co­in­cide with World AIDS day.

Part of Casey House’s # Smash­stigma cam­paign, the pop-up of­fered spa ser­vices — hand or neck/shoul­der mas­sages and a mini fa­cial — per­formed by 12 newly trained heal­ers who are all HIV+.

“We’re ask­ing Cana­di­ans to think about what it means to touch,” said Joanne Si­mons, the CEO of Casey House.

The pop-up was an op­por­tu­nity for in­ter­ac­tive, ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing, de­signed, as Si­mons puts it, to “chal­lenge Cana­di­ans, to open their minds and their hearts and en­gage with us in a dif­fer­ent way of rais­ing aware­ness.”

Shar­ing space with some­one, look­ing into their eyes, talk­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing skin-to-skin con­tact, Si­mons says, is an ef­fec­tive way to show, rather than tell, about the stig­mas peo­ple liv­ing with HIV face.

“The ac­tual ev­i­dence is clear: sci­ence shows that there is no pos­si­ble trans­mis­sion of HIV skin to skin. It is not in saliva. So shar­ing a glass, you can’t trans­mit HIV. Our pop­u­la­tion de­serves the same re­spect and dig­nity and love and com­pas­sion.”

The com­mu­nity out­reach fol­lowed some pretty de­press­ing re­search done by Casey House. The find­ings showed that while 91 per cent of Cana­di­ans be­lieve it is in our na­ture to need pos­i­tive touch, more than half, at 51 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, in­di­cated they weren’t will­ing to share skin-to-skin con­tact with a per­son who has HIV/ AIDS.

It has been more than 20 years since life-sav­ing com­bi­na­tion drug treat­ments have trans­formed the dis­ease from fa­tal to a chronic, man­age­able con­di­tion. The trans­mis­sion rates con­tinue to be high, says Si­mons, as more than 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple will be newly di­ag­nosed glob­ally this year. But the ac­com­pa­ny­ing stigma suf­fered by those af­fected by the dis­ease has not changed, even as our sci­en­tif- ic un­der­stand and treat­ments con­tinue to im­prove.

Hence the slo­gan for the spa: lie down and make your­self un­com­fort­able.


Heal­ing House was part of Casey House’s #Smash­stigma cam­paign and of­fered spa ser­vices, like mas­sages, per­formed by 12 newly trained heal­ers who were all HIV+.

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