If you are a dude who enjoys fucking other dudes, I strongly encourage you to go to a bathhouse at least once in your life.
My most memorable bathhouse experience was at this place in London. Descending from the lockers in only a towel and flip-flops, I saw that there were showers next to an endless darkroom labyrinth. I hadn’t even planned on traveling to London, but E.U. visa issues forced me off the continent and into a London bathhouse filled with uncircumcised studs of many ages and colors. Despite London’s stilted old world feel, the offerings at the bathhouse were dynamic and vibrant.
Walking through the darkroom, seeking the gazes of passers-by, I gently brushed away gentle touches on my arm from guys who didn’t interest me. Unfortunately, many guys I liked also averted their glances upon eye contact with me. Still nervous about the prospect of screwing a complete stranger in a darkroom in another country, I considered making a run for it.
Up until that point, I had only heard of things like bathhouses and cruising from older gay mentors who had lived in NYC and S.F. in the 1970s. With sodomy legally outlawed until 2001, gays created saunas and bathhouses to provide somewhere for men to go to the spa, unwind and (hopefully) get some action while there. Alvin Baltrop’s photo collection Under the Piers records public outlaw sodomites cruising Manhattan’s West Side Piers prior to their demolition in the ’80s. But now, with gay hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff, you can privately organize hookups and shop around virtually, never physically interacting with other cruisers in public. Hopefully the placards in the Teagle Men’s Locker Room referencing “inappropriate behavior” are signs that reports of cruising’s demise at Cornell have been greatly exaggerated. And bathhouses, of course, still exist today (like the West Side and East Side Clubs in Manhattan, or Steamworks in Chicago).
At the London bathhouse, as I passed the occasional guy giving a blowjob, empty sex swings and little porno cabins, my appetite for sex kept me primed for the prowl. Finally, about 20 minutes after arriving, I caught the attention of this really hot guy —just tall enough, light brown hair darkened by the red lighting, scruffy face, just hairy enough on his chest and stomach. I made eye contact, and he looked back. I gave myself a little tug through my towel, and he rearranged his towel for me to catch a glimpse of what was on offer. I got close enough to let out a soft but audible “Hello.” And then we gleefully looked for a little sex cabin to get away from the others. No orgy room for me — well, at least not that time.
Among American friends, I don’t usually admit that I’ve gone to (and really enjoyed) bathhouses because of the scarlet letter that some might tack on. Luckily, gay men in Europe of all ages are a bit more accepting of going to the baths. My gay Belgian friend told me that when he came out in high school, his teachers almost immediately asked if he would check out the bathhouse. Obviously I want to avoid claiming that there is some gloriously accepting, pro-sex culture in Europe, since my worst experiences with physically threatening homophobia were in France and Germany.
But the very idea that gay Americans find bathhouses distasteful because of how the Internet has bizarrely “privatized” gay sex only explains things partially. That idea doesn’t account for the troubling cultural irony that safer sex emerged in New York as a queer political intervention during the AIDS epidemic, even though it is unequivocally my European gays who talk more openly about condom use and other forms of harm reduction, regardless of the sexual locale. Whatever model of “culture” you choose, there must be other “cultural” factors at play here.
Honestly, I don’t even remember my bathhouse beau’s name, but he was definitely Australian, on an extended business trip to London. Of course, I only found this out after what seemed like two hours of intense play. It was surprising that this stranger took things slowly, actually communicating with me about where I wanted things to go. It was such a contrast to the hookups that I had found online in the States, where the entire conversation about what we were “into” sexually had taken place beforehand. Maybe the bathhouse setting demands verbal and nonverbal communication that guys from Grindr often forego to just enact whatever they discuss beforehand. Hell, the frat boy closet cases and other horny Cornell Grindr guys could learn a thing or two from my bathhouse stud!
After teasing me with his hands and mouth for a while, he started thrusting himself between my legs from the front and had me almost begging to have him inside me. My Australian stallion definitely met all the criteria of a “masc dom top”— he had the size and knew how to use it (with condoms and lube, of course) — but made sure that his bottom was enjoying the pounding as much as he was. A good bathhouse fuck like this one is bittersweet because the act is ephemeral but the positive memories persist. Since I’ve had good sex like this (in London, Berlin, and elsewhere), my masturbatory fantasies luckily offer real solace … especially when college boys can’t get their shit together to fuck me (let alone have a relationship). Considering that Grindr may ultimately aid the anti-sex agenda to eliminate gay sex in public, I only hope that other guys are not stifled by peculiarly American, puritanical privacy of their own bedrooms.
Boys, get back to the bathhouse!
Fuxxxy Cleopatro is a student at Cornell. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.