As a sex researcher (yes, it’s a thing!), I get to observe, and work in, some of the most interesting ‘sites of sexual dissidence’ the country has to offer. Yet, the most controversial place, it seems, remains the good old fashioned bathhouse.
Saunas, for those who don’t know, are places where people (there are mixed-sex as well as men-only saunas) go to meet others, relax and sometimes just sleep, but their primary marketed purpose is for men to meet other men for sex.
On any given day, a gentleman will turn up, remove his clothes in the locker room, and wrap his lower half with the customary white towel, provided on entry. I’m now going to explain what they see next, and highlight a particular experience I had, that changed my life forever;
WHAT I SAW IN THE DARK ROOM
I headed through the long white corridors, cold, blue tiling underneath my bare feet, passing the cinema, a faint sound of actors groaning blasted from the surround system, as naked men lay around the vinyl-coated sofas, alternately masturbating or fast asleep, and ended up in the spa, featuring a fabulous hot tub, and steam room – and more importantly, no fellow humans.
I could write an aquatic screenplay on the pleasures I experienced having free reign of a spa – running around like a child splashing in the puddles that lay around the bubbly pool of deliciousness. (Ignoring the biological fact that such deliciousness also contains hair, skin, and I’m sure more than a small splash of semen), and darting in and out of the menthol-scented steam sanctuary.
I am reminded of a visual of me twirling around completely naked in the hot tub – A scene that was captured by the sanctioned CCTV camera, observing the pool for obvious reasons. I am sure security had a wonderful time watching this free of charge Shamu show, without the cruelty of Sea World amusements.
But, at the end of this traditional spa area lies a dimly-lit corridor, lined with doors, leading into small rooms filled with wipe-clean beds. And nothing else.
This would be the less innocent area of the roman health spa.
The sound of groans filled the air, as did the smell of poppers, a strong chemical odour, similar to nail varnish remover.
The sexual behaviour of these venues is fascinating – the structure of hierarchy, the use of body language as sexual signalling and the lack of traditional restrictions leads to one of the most interesting studies of human sexual behaviour.
But, there was one specific incident that sticks out in my mind – as I past the hallway to the room on the end. The infamous dark room.
When I say dark room. I mean dark. So my description of the visuals of this room will be lacking. I – like everyone – went in blind.
It’s a strange sensory experience, nudging past groping hands, and the occasional buttock, to try and feel your way around the room. A sense of placelessness pervades it – You’re somewhere, and yet nowhere. There’s other people, and yet you feel completely alone.
I finally came to a bench in the corner, where I plonked my arse, and left behind all ideas of who I was as a person.
And then the group of men audibly playing together in the corner left the room. Was it something I did?
I was left in a completely silent, dark space, alone. Or so I thought.
I overheard a wet, sloshing sound in the far corner, followed by one of the most bizarre groans I have ever heard. It was a mixture of heightened pleasure, and unimaginable pain.
I remained perfectly still – like prey freezing before it decides whether to fight or flee.
The sounds continued and I just sat there listening in confusion as to what this new soundscape I had happened upon represented.
Then the tears started, a slow quiet sob at first, followed by sniffing and that strange sound children make as they try and stop themselves crying but just can’t hold it in any longer.
He began screaming out and crying in utter agony.
“I shouldn’t be doing this! I SHOULDN’T” he shouted, at his sexual partner, who continued, what sounded like, sucking his cock.
I was baffled more by the fact the guy had carried on fellating this person amidst all the tears and audible distress, than by the screams themselves.
He continued; “I just miss her so much”. Now I am intrigued. Who is she? Why does he miss her?
Finally, the sucking sounds stop, and I hear a second voice enter the room.
“What would she have wanted for you, though?…To be happy?”
“Yeah…” he replied, hesitantly.
“Well, there you go…Are you happy?” stranger two responded, popping the penis back in his mouth.
He immediately began crying out again “This is wrong, I feel so bad”.
At this point I am intrigued – How do they know each other? DO they know each other, or is he just improvising his responses during this casual encounter in order to carry on sucking a penis he is particularly enjoying?
I considered going over and engaging them in a Paxman style interview, but then remembered they didn’t know I was there. Paxman appearing from the darkness with a list of grilling questions is a universal worst nightmare.
At this point, the sexual activity stopped and the guy got up and sat down next to him. They began talking. I, of course, stayed to listen.
Partly, as a duty to my research, but also out of a strange curiosity over this individuals personal crisis – a similar motivating force behind shows like Jeremy Kyle.
He went on to explain that his wife had died. It happened several years ago.
He had been coming to the Sauna, and engaging in (his words) ‘meaningless sex with loads of strangers’ ever since. I disagree with his assessment that the sex was meaningless, or that the men were strangers.
The darkness of this room was symbolic, it enabled him to leave his body – and therefore his identity – for just a moment. In that moment he was able to step away from the more painful aspect of his ‘self’ – his complicated sexuality, just long enough to engage in a blowjob with another man.
His pain was not over the death of his wife – a lady who had died several years prior – and a pain that felt so immediate and based in the present day – but over the guilt he felt about his sexuality. He wanted to be there, on some level, and yet something screamed; “I shouldn’t be doing this!” I know. I heard it with my own ears.
In stopping the sex, this man signalled his motives where about far more than just the physical act of sexual expression. This man wanted to talk, he wanted to express himself, and he wanted to connect with this other man on an emotional level. This is the same drive many young boys express when they first step onto the gay scenes of Soho or Kemptown.
Some people need glitter and sequins to express themselves, others need darkness.
I want everyone to be able to express themselves, sexually and emotionally, with whoever they want. And I want everyone to be happy.
But, I also accept that sexuality is complex, and different people have different needs and different ways of dealing with sexuality.
Sauna’s are sexual sites, and all sexual sites are complex (Nightclubs are also included in this category). Yes, these are places people come to escape, to run away from identity conflicts mixed up in complex pain, but they are also places of exploration, and liberation. For some people, they are the beginning of a healthy, positive journey. In the most tragic cases, they become an outward expression of a prison that already exists in their own mind.
But, one things for sure, there are real people, real relationships, and real pleasures and pains inside those four walls. And that makes them every bit as human as the gay bar or the shopping mall.