“Gurrrrl. I need some dick tonight or else imma die!” This was the text I got from a friend on a recent Saturday night. My amorous friend was openly seeking sexual congress in a lascivious manner. In vulgar parlance? He wanted to get good and fucked. Seems like he had a bad case of what I like to call February Fever, which is like cabin fever, but with horniness involved. Post–St Valentine’s Day Blues adds a layer of pressure to pair off, the winter chill starves us all for warmth, and in true Toronto fashion, we all want a peek under the parka of that cutie on the streetcar. Just like the best way to get over a guy is to get under one, the best way to get warm during winter is to share body heat . . . and we’re lucky that we live in such a sexually open city.
Or do we? Back to my frisky friend. He didn’t want to hit a bar or club, and trolling Craigslist would “only bring out the trolls.” He was late on his cellphone bill, so Grindr and Hornet and Jack’d and Scruff and Growlr were not options. I suggested a visit to one of our city’s finer bathhouses and received a pearl-clutching “No! Omg, how could I? I’m not a freak!” Now, remember this is a person who not five minutes earlier needed a man on pain of death, yet the mere mention of a bathhouse turned him into a shrieking sex-negative prude. It always surprises me to find out how many people out there in our nightscape share a similar view. What is it about openly pursuing sex that makes us all blush? Toronto the Good boasts four bathhouses, a couple of queer-positive sex clubs and a bunch of other places where guys can go to get off, all of them perfectly legal. Why should we be coy about enjoying them? Some of the sluttiest (said with love, gentlemen) guys I know are the ones who are most anti-bathhouse, imagining them to be dens of homeless people, drugs and disease, reeking of shame; so, in the name of “research” I convinced my friend to go. He begged me to tag along to one of the bigger bathhouses, where he was greeted by name and was asked if he wanted his usual locker preference. Busted!
There is a weird, wonderful, horrible-sexy “Orpheus in the Underworld” feeling once you enter. It’s like being in a casino: impossible to tell the time, easy to get lost and no way to tell what’s going on in the outside world. After very quickly losing my friend down a dark hallway, I determined to chat (and only chat!) with a few strangers throughout the night, even though an odd code of silence reigns. Looks, sounds and touching stand in for words here. It’s a social-justice warrior’s ultimate nightmare: consent is more often implied than explicitly given, and one person I talked to said, “If I really want a guy, I’ll say no. It makes him work harder to get me, and it’s hot to be chased a bit before giving in.” If you see a celebrity or someone you know or work with (and I’ve seen all the above at bathhouses), it’s de rigueur to pretend that you don’t know each other. Talking, if it must be done, happens in low voices and whispers, à la the library.
There are free condoms and safe-sex info everywhere, and it mystifies me that some people think having sex at a bathhouse is any more or less dangerous than meeting a guy at a bar or online. Most bathhouses also take a hard stance on open drug use on the premises, but as one out-of-country repeat visitor said, “This is my first time being here sober. Weird.” They are also strangely democratic places: although there is some worshipping of worked-out bodies, there’s also a Dionysian element of openly enjoying whatever kind of guy you like. Looking around at who is pairing off with whom gives lie to the idea that gay men go after only versions of themselves: “traditionally” attractive guys get with those who aren’t, guys who may struggle to get picked up in a bar suddenly find themselves being worshipped mid-orgy, and all manner of age, racial and “type” pairings happen. Whether it’s twink with bear (the slim, lithe twink said to me, “And no, I don’t have daddy issues; I just like how bellies feel!”), football-gear fetishist with senior citizen, bookish nerd with crossdresser, or someone who isn’t easily classified, everyone either finds someone to like or is that someone getting liked. Sure you run into the occasional meaner-than-necessary rejection or attitude problem, but welcome to life! Brush it off and chill in the sauna.
I never did find my friend again that night, but every single person I talked to expressed a need for connection. Sometimes it was a fun need and sometimes it was a sad need, but connecting with another human being is something we should never feel shame around. Until the weather gets warm again, if you find yourself needing to get rid of your February Fever, shake off the shame and don a white towel — you’re guaranteed to find someone to connect with.