Fair warning to readers of this article: It contains mass amounts of sex talk. Specifically, I’ll be discussing gay sex, bathhouses, condoms, and STDs. If this bothers you, maybe you should get over it. Frankly, if the gay community weren’t so afraid to voice these issues, everyone would be a lot better off.
Bathhouses, a part of mainstream gay community since the 1950s, are a place for men to go and have sexual encounters with strangers. Rock Hudson and Truman Capote were infamous for their bathhouse adventures. On a less overtly sexual note, Bette Midler got her start performing as “Bathhouse Betty” in the Continental Baths of Manhattan, catapulting herself into gay icon-hood.
Now a modern underground institution, bathhouses can be found in most metropolitan areas, and they cater to any type of patron — straight or gay, male or female.
I recently visited, for the first time, a gay bathhouse in San Antonio.
Once in the building (whose address I’ll refrain from divulging), I received a key for a locker and a list of rules by which customers must abide or face banishment. These include: no fighting, no drugs or alcohol, and no participating in any foreplay or sex that includes urine or defecation. Management is so determined to keep these rules intact that they got rid of the “glory hole” room (wherein a dividing wall is punctured with holes, through which men give and receive anonymous blow jobs) because customers were using the space to do drugs.
In the locker room, customers are given a towel. They get undressed and put their belongings in a locker. Complete nudity is optional; most of the men keep their underwear and flip-flops on, perhaps to maintain an element of surprise, or due to sanitary concerns. But even in the locker room, you catch a glimpse of sex; I noted one man playing with his penis while talking excitedly to a friend about having sex that night.
Mind you, this isn’t some Queer as Folk imitation, where every man stands 6 feet tall, exudes raw sexual magnetism, and sports a six-pack and a rock-hard dick; these are real people with real flaws. Every pedigree of man can be found in this building, to fit anyone’s taste. Whether your type is younger or older, skinny, muscular or fat, tattooed, white, black or Hispanic, just to name a few variations — he can be found here. I fondly compare the bathhouse to a dog pound, except you pick out your favorite type of man for sex or a blow job, then leave without him after a couple hours of fun.
Walking through this maze of sexual opportunity can be quite startling at first, mostly because every twist of a hallway and turn of the corner brings you to some new scenario: somebody masturbating to pornography on a TV, men engaging in sexual intercourse and moaning “fuck me” in the next room — it’s hard to know what to expect.
While you can rent a private room, many members don’t seem to mind having sex in front of other guests. In one multi-bed room, the moaning of two men having sex seemed to attract other men, who would then watch and masturbate, possibly hoping to join in on their fun. Communication is mostly nonverbal, through touching someone’s arm (or crotch), and eye contact. People here like to get down to business right away.
Jesse Smith (not his real name), 24, has been a member of this bathhouse for the past five years. Although he has been in a committed relationship for almost eight years, he and his partner feel the need to experiment with others.
“At first we did feel like we were cheating, but we sat down and we talked about it,” he says. “We do have an understanding on what we can and cannot do. No kissing, no names; it’s just wham, bam, thank you ma’am.”
Jesse sometimes goes to lounge in the jacuzzi or pool or watch TV. But he admits, “Mostly, I go there to relax and to get laid … it’s a place to de-stress from the world and meet guys. I like meeting new people. Honestly, it’s a lot easier to get laid in a bathhouse. In a club or bar, you’ve got to work for it. At the bathhouse, people are already there, and you know what you’re there for.”
He does get uncomfortable every so often.
“Like when an ugly guy comes to me, somebody bigger than me, somebody nasty, or that smells, or looks like a rapist,” he tells me.
Smith’s met all types at the bathhouse: businessmen, married men, and single horny men who don’t want to sleep with women.
“There are men who go there just to get a blowjob or for a show to jack-off to,” he says. “But, you’re a guy, you’re horny; basically every guy thinks with their dick, instead of their brain.”
Smith says he’s vigilant about protecting himself with condoms, a position supported by the bathhouse. Free condoms are available at the entrance, and lubricant is for sale.
Smith, however, says it is always best to carry condoms with you, just in case. “Not a lot of guys use condoms, and you never know who might have an STD, so it’s best to bring a lot of condoms,” he said. He also suggests going with a friend for safety, one whom you trust and with whom you feel comfortable.
Jill Rips, deputy executive director at the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, says the only reliable way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS or other STDs is not to have anal or vaginal penetrative intercourse. Mutual masturbation and oral sex are some alternatives Rips suggested.
“You should not, however, ejaculate in the mouth,” she asserts. “For the receiver, if they have open sores in their mouth or bleeding gums, it would be preferred not to have oral sex. Also, you should always use a condom.”
When men do have anal intercourse, she said, it is important to use a latex condom and a water-based lubricant to help prevent the condom from tearing due to friction. If you are allergic to latex, try a polyurethane condom instead.
This was my first experience in a bathhouse, and I felt extremely out of my element. Personally, I believe that sex is a lot more intimate and satisfying with a person you care about. But I don’t judge the people who go to bathhouses. People express themselves sexually in different ways. It’s just important to be smart and safe when having sex with anyone, whether you’re gay or straight, whether you indulge in bathhouse fun or not. •