Rub-a-Dub-Dub We Studs in a Tub

Bathhouses Still Steamy in 2012

Photo Erin Sparks

Tall, athletic, handsome, an easy fit for the ‘jock’ label when it comes to gay subcategories, 21-year-old Concordia student “Connor” visits Sauna Oasis in the gay village every couple of weeks with his boyfriend, also a university student.

“It all starts with eye contact,” he said of getting laid at the baths. “If I’m interested, I’ll look back twice to get his attention. Just looking at each other says a lot.

“If there’s a connection, you approach the person and start touching each other. Then one of us will invite the other person to their room, and it happens.”

It’s simple, raw—and hot.

Although Connor’s been cruising Montreal hotspots since the age of 16, he waited until last year to hit the baths for the first time.

“It’s that unknown thing, so I wanted to go experience it and see what it’s like,” he said.

Gay saunas are often thought to harbor clients as old as the institutions themselves—gargoyles of a time long past. But what waits on the other side of the bathhouse doors is surprisingly different than one might expect.

At the same time a gang-bang rages on a few metres away, an older man enjoys an innocent conversation with a stranger over a game of pool. Diversity is everywhere to be found.

For Connor, the guys are a secondary attraction. That may seem odd, but what really stokes his fire is the act of being there in itself—a thrill that the online environment simply cannot provide.

“You’re completely naked in a towel, not hiding behind anything. People are attracted to you for being in your own skin,” he explained. “It’s flattering, obviously.”

This may be, but one has to wonder whether the experience comes at a higher cost than the price of admission. After all, it’s only logical that a den of casual sex would be rampant with disease—a veritable affront to the fight against STIs and HIV. The truth, however, isn’t so cut and dry.

“The biggest problem we’re fighting right now from a public health perspective is bare-backing (sex without a condom), which is making a huge comeback,” said Yale MD student Sakil Chundydyal.

From 2009 to 2010, Chundydyal was an outreach worker in Montreal bathhouses for REZO, a community-based organization that focuses on the health of gay and bisexual men. He provided counseling to bathhouse clients after they were tested for HIV and STIs.

According to Chundydyal, the spread of STIs in bathhouses does not call for special concern, since safe oral sex is rarely practiced in our culture. As such, related infections are spread regardless of whether people are going to bathhouses or not.

Chundydyal said a combination of complete anonymity and a burgeoning “bare-backing community,” comprised of 15- to 30-year-olds, has made bathhouses a playground ripe for the spread of HIV infection.

Without the visceral connection to the deadly reality of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the awareness culture that sprang up as a result, members of this group may not fully understand the potential ramifications of unsafe sexual practices.

This sensation of perceived invincibility, combined with a highly charged erotic environment, is alluring to many. But there are more reasons why people reject the plethora of digital hook-up options in favour of the steamy sauna. “Online culture is sort of hyper-sexualized. I find it to be very judgmental and superficial,” said Chundydyal.

Connor agrees. He says that online, people are all about playing games and lying in order to entertain themselves and get what they want. In the sauna, however, things are very different.

“You’re more real, you’re being yourself, and you can’t play games,” said Chundydyal.

He added that “your barriers for what’s acceptable” change once everyone is out of their fashionable clothing and wearing identical white towels.

Chundydyal remembers a good example of this, when an older bathhouse client once told him, “The very same 21-year-old who [snubs] you at Sky Bar will be sucking your cock at G. I. Joe after the bars close.”

This inclusive environment also makes saunas a safe haven for those who otherwise aren’t accepted in society. New immigrants, for example, who have a difficult time in bars and clubs due to a language barrier, can thrive in the sauna, where little verbal communication is needed.

“If not for the bathhouse, a lot of those people would not have any place to socialize. And in that way, I think [bathhouses still have] a role [today],” said Chundydyal.

And in a world where new technologies are constantly changing fundamental aspects of our daily lives, it is worth remembering that in some cases, the practices of an earlier time offer something that modern innovation does not.