“Can I give you a hand with that?” were the first words the young man made to me in his perfect British accent. He was tall, incredibly dark skinned, and lithe but in that athletic way only men who regularly run or play soccer can be. His body was flawless, with that patch of hair in the middle of his chest denoting he was, in fact, a man, and when he removed his towel, the facts surrounding his being a man were decidedly and enormously to his credit.
“And where are you from?” I responded after telling him to come into my room. Even now, I have a habit of finding out the most banal, but eventually telling and vital to understanding, facts about men I meet under even the most anonymous and purely sexual of circumstances.
“Kenya,” he said. I quickly started wondering whether or not I had enough personal knowledge of Kenya to validate his story. Were they colonized by the British, which would explain his accent? Is he just a crazy person from West Philadelphia who gets high and speaks, as I knew one young man to do, in a British accent for his own amusement or involuntary compulsion? In a few seconds, I stopped my neurotic, thought-based assessments and was distracted by the only reason we both were seemingly in a bathhouse. We said nothing more aside from his incredibly polite, “It was very nice to meet you,” as he left my room, leaving the door wide open and me, out of breath, on my bed.
As I write this, I am in a bathhouse. Last night, I had an amusing and long conversation with a friend of mine at Woody’s in Philadelphia, the flagship gay bar here, and he asked me if I was willing to play wingman for his first foray into the globally popular gay male hobby of going to the bathhouse. While he said he wanted more time before he personally dove in feet first, or up in the air rather, I had already alone decided to take advantage of half price Tuesday at Philadelphia’s only currently operating bathhouse off Rittenhouse Square. After all, it wasn’t like I had planned on doing anything else last night, like building model airplanes, volunteering, or, most annoyingly stereotypical but factually accurate to my personal behavior, watching HGTV. And so, when my friend and I parted ways, he went to his house, I went to the bathhouse, and I let my insecurities stay outside. But, before we parted, he asked me some questions about the practical ins and outs of this quietly popular hobby in gay culture.
Rooms in most bathhouses in my experience are no larger than the square footage of a small storage shed in a suburban backyard. Typically, each room has a light with a dimmer switch, no furniture or decoration aside from high gloss wall paint, tile or parquet flooring, and, more often than not, a single bed built into the floor or wall reminiscent of a submarine’s barracks. Generally, these rooms have a television playing one or several stations of hardcore pornography or a speaker for, naturally, dance music. These rooms usually have keys on small lanyards men can wrap around their ankles or wrists getting rid of the need of pockets and, therefore implicitly, the wearing of any clothing aside from a single towel provided upon check-in.
Originally, these businesses were started as a means to easily launder money. After all, like all cash businesses related to the LGBT community, records were, at one time, non-existent or kept on two sets of books, and revenues somehow always found their way to Irish or Italian organized enterprises. Today, however, these businesses, if run honestly, kept clean, and established on a premise outside of pretense or judgment, are genuinely profitable and a key, but rarely talked about, component of LGBT culture and economy.
Throughout the course of a day or night, dozens of men walk around in their towels, letting their leers and facial expressions communicate their desires, and have sex with each other. In some cases, this sex is tender lovemaking, and in other cases, this sex is as aggressive as it is fulfilling. In both cases, adults are consenting to engage in an activity, knowing full well the possible risks or lack thereof depending on their activity and partner of choice, and, hopefully, engaging in these acts for the right reasons. In the overwhelming majority of bathhouses, condoms are provided at no cost to guests, and guests have every right to use them or not use them. After all, part of being an adult is assessing risk, or lack thereof, and behaving accordingly to still enjoy life.
Often, my writing is misinterpreted, particularly in relation to sex and barebacking. Quite literally, a reader recently implied that I was killing people by arguing against the, now obvious, ineffectual nature condom only campaigns are having on HIV transmission rates and the horrendously stigmatic approach inherent using the words “safe” or “clean” in relation to sex and HIV status. Rather than recognize that I am simply pointing out a reality enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of LGBT folks, these readers are, instead, opting to promote their own particular agenda sustained by decades of conventional wisdom that, while once valuable to counteract a literal plague decimating the gay community, are now outdated as much as they are hurtful. And, rather than understand that I make no point in advocating in favor of a particular activity, that I am merely pointing out the obvious reality of life, nothing more, nothing less, these readers would rather trot me out as the murderer of laughably characterized and non-existent “innocent victims.”
Last night, I engaged in mutually enjoyable and consensual sex in an overtly sexual environment. And, the fact of the matter is that I am the rule, not the exception. Acknowledging this does not condone or promote going to bathhouses; rather, it simply highlights that this goes on, that it is an important reality facing many gay men, and that judging this behavior or somehow insinuating that it is reckless or anything but net positive or neutral toward advancement of our loosely affiliated community is, at best, naive and, at worst, deceptive. In both cases, such criticism is unwarranted, without merit, and, frankly, indicative of the very things that I routinely discredit, including judgmental and stigmatic practices in relation to sexual behavior.
This article first appeared in Josh’s own blog here.