Dim lighting, corridors lined with doors, dark alcoves from which groans emanate, sauna benches covered in nude male bodies, streams of men wearing nothing but a towel, staring, silent.
Ah the bathhouse. A cornerstone of gay culture. A remnant of a time when most homes didn’t have indoor plumbing, taken over by gay men living in rooming houses to which they couldn’t take their illicit affairs. This institution has proven remarkably resilient – police raids, AIDS, mainstreaming of gay culture, and dating apps have still not managed to lead to their demise. And yet for a young man, emerging into the gay community, these places can be a bit baffling at first. There seems to be a code, nothing written down but something that’s followed by bathhouse clientele. Here is some bathhouse etiquette advice.
Clothing. When you first check in to the bathhouse, the attendant will give you towel. Yep, this is for you to wear. However, it isn’t mandatory. You’re welcome to stroll around completely naked. You’re also welcome to wear your own clothing – but do not wear street clothes. Maybe it’s that jockstrap that shows off bubble butt, or a pair of short shorts barely covering your bulging cock, or maybe it’s some football shorts for those into the sporty fetish. Just make sure whatever you’re wearing looks sexy and can come off easily.
Footwear. Most men go around barefoot, depending on the cleanliness of the facility. However, some guys are a little squeamish about foot fungus, particularly in areas such as the sauna or in the darkened rooms where questionable fluids cover the ground. A pair of clean flip flops are acceptable. Street shoes are not – don’t be bringing the dirt from the sidewalk into what is supposed to be a bathing facility.
Condoms. Bathhouses usually have a plentiful supply of condoms located throughout the facility and you’ll usually be given a couple when you check in. Having said that, most facilities don’t require you to use them and many guys choose not to. Bathhouses are not usually the space to have conversations about HIV status, testing dates, and past behaviour. So if you’re concerned about acquiring an STI, you’ll be better off just insisting on condoms.
Scents. There are plenty of showers available if you smell a little funky. But please, don’t wear strong colognes or perfumes. Many people are sensitive to them and the smell can permeate the saunas, getting carried by the vapours and stinging people’s eyes and throats. So leave them at home and just have a good shower when you get there.
Talking. You will notice that people talk very little at the bathhouse. Occassionally there’ll be a group of friends hanging out together talking or two guys who have just fucked getting to know one another. But for the most part, the cruising is done in silence. It’s not exactly a social space, that’s what bars are for. And hearing someone speak can be a turn off when really all you’re interested in is a guy’s body. This makes other forms of communication essential – touching, looking, etc.
The look. Since no one’s talking, the other form of communication besides touching is facial expressions. If someone is interested, they’ll generally try to make eye contact and maybe even give a little smile, perhaps slowing down as they pass you. Similarly, if someone is avoiding eye contact with you, it generally means they aren’t interested. If a guy looks at you and you’re interested, slow your strut down and give the guy a little smile. Even if you keep on walking past one another, now you know he’s interested and you can be a little less coy next time you pass.
Touching. In most spaces, randomly touching someone is a big no no. However, due to the lack of oral communication, touch is usually how you signal interest. So don’t be offended if a guy touches your arm or butt or even your cock. Likewise, don’t be afraid to signal your interest in a similar fashion. However, take the hint – if a guy shakes his head at you that he’s not interested, leave it at that and don’t touch him any further. If a guy touches you and you’re not interested, simply shake your head or give a polite “no thank you.” If the guy doesn’t take the hint, don’t be afraid to be a bit more assertive.
Keys. You’ll get a set of keys upon checking in – either for your room or for your locker. Sometimes they’re on a safety pin you can attach to your towel, other times it’s on an elastic band to put on your wrist or arm. If you’re a bottom, put it on your right side. If you’re a top, put it on your left side. That’s not a strict rule though so don’t assume everyone is following that code.
Bottoming-topping. That’s the tricky part – figuring out who wants to top and who wants to bottom. Besides the keys, or perhaps a leather wrist band, it’s difficult to tell at first. Usually, if a guy grabs your butt, he’s looking to top you. If he grabs your cock, he’s looking for you to top him. If that’s not what you’re interested in, you can either signal it to him by touching what part of him you’re interested in. Or, you can break silence just a little and enquire.
Dark rooms. If you want some really anonymous sex, this is where you head to. There will usually be a group of guys in there, groping, sucking, and even fucking. This is where communication gets tricky and relies solely on touch. If someone is spreading their ass cheeks, you can be assured they want a fuck. And don’t expect guys to be using condoms in the dark room – nobody can even tell if someone is wearing one so you can be certain that most guys in there are doing it bare.
Watching. If you start getting touchy feely, or even more, in public, chances are people are going to watch. That’s their right, especially in the common areas. So if you get a little creeped out by that, make sure you have a room or find one of the little stalls to go into. Of course, some guys go because they like getting watched – so feel free to get your ass ploughed on a bench for everyone to see.