Toronto
6 min

Tubthumping

Sex in the city's bathhouses is a sure thing. Or is it?

STEAMY ENOUNTERS. Bathhouses don't guarantee a good time. Credit: Tony Fong

Another man and I were going good in the steam room at St Marc’s.



He was young and pretty – younger and prettier than me, younger and prettier than the rest of us.



But he was working too hard – either that or I wasn’t working hard enough on him. I started thinking about my finances as a diversionary tactic.



“Slow down,” I told him, banging my wet head on wet tiles.



Johnny-on-the-spot relented momentarily, then regained pace.



“Slow down, man,” I told him again.



I was almost fully off when something tell-tale landed on my chest. I opened my eyes to see the old fucker responsible. He was standing over me.



Goddammit, I thought, you’ve got to ask to do something like that. But I just sort of snickered and looked at the ripe man with me. It didn’t matter so much that he was young and pretty now. My interest was gone. I just wanted to go to sleep.



However, Young And Pretty was just realizing that someone else was going to have to finish him off, and I could feel him watching me while I gathered my towel around myself.



“Thanks,” he spat.



I was stunned by this break in etiquette. It left me searching for an explanation.



Well, he was going too fast anyway.





Reflexes play a big part in how we feel about anonymous sex in the age of AIDS. Especially at the tubs. And such reflex reactions have always caused widening rifts within the community.



One school of thought says nameless nookie (and free condoms) are just fine, while another works to corral gay men into more hetero-friendly behaviour.



Part of the question concerns respectability. The sleaze police within are beginning to root out their own, citing higher moral ground.



In the case of public sex, often enough the claim is that a law has been broken. The message is: Fags can’t go on doing that sort of thing if they want their teeth cleaned for free.



But the debate probably has just as much to do with the personal politics of rejection, acceptance and feelings of guilt.



Still, the desire for easy answers has people trying to clean up the ghetto. Sex spaces are being slowly shut down in a manner that suggests death by a thousand cuts.



Whether that’s true or conspiracy bumf, only the police know for sure – and the coppers are not promising that they won’t be back.





In truth, some tubs are a bit of a mess, which brings us right back to reflexes. Standards vary. St Marc’s, for instance, had a dirty needle problem, which has since been taken care of. As for the two west end baths, particularly the gungy Oak Leaf, the proprietors out there need to be asking themselves some questions.



At the Central Spa, I had to ask for a condom on the way in and that made the clerk a bit skittish. It didn’t help my nerves either.



Inside, there were a couple of porno rooms with beds and leather chairs where I found two naked men in a clinch. We all looked at each other, and christ, I can’t even remember exactly what I saw, but I found myself leaving in a hurry.



The place had a scent that I was not accustomed to tolerating.





Suggestions to close bathhouses are nothing new, especially in the US. In California, for instance, scores of baths were shut down in the name of AIDS prevention in the 1980s.



The pulpy subject matter has become perfect fodder among noir fiction writers, and while the closures are often portrayed as morality plays, author James Robert Baker paints quite another picture.



In his novel Tim And Pete, Baker’s road buddies romanticize the heady ’70s when they happen onto the ruins of what was formerly “the most popular bathhouse in West Hollywood.”



It’s all very nice and Tom Of Finland as they recall line-ups of men in tight Ts and 501s, mass rim jobs, and Crisco kisses. But Baker’s boys talk of the ruined tub differently when their dialogue gets more ’90s. They aim their rage at the dead proprietor.



“‘Yeah. Mister West Hollywood. Talk about scumbags. He kept this place open for years after people knew what was going on.’



“‘I know. I think it sent out the wrong message at a very crucial time.'”



Could be. But there seems to be a growing support to re-open some west coast tubs that were mothballed in the ’80s, despite renewed concerns about barebacking.





I visited the Barracks, an SM style bath, late on a Saturday night. After showering, I was drying my thing when two men came bounding up the stairs laughing. The bars would have been just closing, and I wanted to believe that drinking explained their good humour.



One of the men – tall, slim and very Mr. Clean – was down to his towel quickly.



The other – a little thicker and hairier (as in, he had some) – was lingering awkwardly in his street clothes. He seemed slack-jawed when he said, “I can’t do this.”



“Just get comfortable,” Mr Clean told him. “I’ll catch up to you later.”



And off Mr. Clean went, bouncing downstairs to the sauna or the steam room or the pitch black room or the glory hole. His friend looked around the locker area, then got the fuck out of there.



I turned around to find myself facing a veteran of Sadist practices. I smiled politely.





If Spa Excess has researched this – and I believe it has – it appears that men fancy the notion of sticking their Johnsons through a hole and waiting for service inside dark cubicles which are about the size of a closet.



Excess has several of these spaces near its cellblock area, and it sounded like someone was getting blown in one of those things.



A number of us stood around listening. The man inside, he was getting close. We could hear him snorting on his poppers, then rattling around in toxic bliss.



There were several seconds of silence, then I could hear more rattling. He was trapped in there, unable to find the latch, and he was panicked, scratching at the walls until he finally found the handle. It appeared as though he wasn’t waiting around to reciprocate either.



Further into the third-floor darkness, I happened across another scene already in progress. A young sodomite with bleached-out bangs being strapped in. I wasn’t exactly sure of the term for the apparatus that he was being strapped into, and I didn’t deem it appropriate to ask. It was like a mini pummel horse – the kind of thing you would run, hit a spring board in front of, and then vault over in gymnastics exercises that have been institutionalized by homosexualist infiltrators within the education system.



One key difference was the size (of the pummel horse); another was the restraints (my high school coach didn’t dare).



Bleached Bangs was face down on his stomach, his arms and legs fastened to those of the pummel horse. The man who had strapped him in whispered into his ear. They both giggled. But nobody was laughing when Bleached Bangs’ bottom was slapped.



There was something about the man standing over him as he took his hand back for another slap and another.



Bleached Bangs jerked his head around. More whispers were exchanged, but this time they were frantic, then the free man stormed off.



I thought about untying the boy, then wondered what the hell I was thinking. I couldn’t be sure if it was role play or not. Before long I was thinking about going in and making that guy’s ass red myself, but another man had moved in.



Blonde Bangs’ bottom was whacked again. He was protesting, man. That guy was in a fix – either that or he’d forgotten the safe word.





No doesn’t always mean no at the bathhouse and sometimes the love is tough. It’s about meeting someone for a good time, not a long time, and that’s not always going to be easy for some people to get their hands around.



If mainstream Toronto puts up with the tubs at present, it’s largely because all city baths were raided by police almost 20 years ago. Resistance was so strong that the ensuing backlash is credited with transforming the community into a political powerhouse.



But the future of Toronto’s sex playgrounds – alleys, parks, beaches, washrooms and the rest – depends on how long gay power brokers and city officials can swallow a situation that remains about as legal as smoking grass.



Queers have a trashy, glamorous history of being made into sex criminals. The key difference now is that enemies are operating openly from within, pushing the law and order buttons and standing aside at the loss of sex spaces. Trouble is, the anti-sex league might be better of with the devil they know, because men aren’t going to stop. They never have.





I was walking the maze, waiting for that voice to tell me that it was time to go.



A man about my age was talking on the pay phone. He seemed a little stoned or drunk. Maybe he was just tired. But he was gesturing wildly like the person on the other end could see his gestures.



He seemed to be talking to somebody who was expecting him. It didn’t seem that he was supposed to be there, but he was laughing.



There was something about him that I admired.