There are hallways, labyrinths, dark alleys. There are young men, old men, sexy men, skinny men, fat men. There are gay men, bisexual men, and certainly a few questioning, terrified men.
There are men on all fours, men with their legs up in the air, men jerking off, men sucking off other men. There are hairy men, hairless men, cut men, uncut men. There’s moaning, light chats, whispers, and the words “let’s go into a cabin.” There are cabins, saunas, slings, blue lights, red lights, green lights, no lights. There’s the smell of soap, sweat and moisture, but mostly, there’s the smell of cum. There are sticky floors and lots and lots of clean towels getting dirty.
There are labyrinthine floors, with hidden corners, glory holes, and piss pits. There are orgy rooms, movie rooms, benches, and even smoking sections. There’s a bar, a pool, and an eternally empty gym. There’s music playing but no one’s listening. There are TV screens around every corner, each with a different porn movie playing in a loop.
I don’t know how I feel about these places. For a long time, saunas and sex clubs have been places of escape for gay men, a place of liberation, where we can give in to our wildest fantasies without being judged or having to endure the consequences.
For many years, gay liberation meant fucking freely, without restrictions, whenever we want. If we could fuck, we could be. Our fucking proved our existence.
But then the 80s happened. And fucking meant dying.
And people stopped going to bathhouses because they were scared or because the bathhouses were closed down.
But then we learned that fucking doesn’t really mean dying. There were ways to fuck that could allow us to prove our existence once again. Bathhouses, saunas, sex clubs, hamams started opening their doors again. And the men came right back: men of all sizes, shapes and colors, throbbing penises in hand(s), fucking, sucking, licking, cumming, moaning, in unison, in perfect harmony, almost poetically.
They are part of our global history, part of our silent movement. They are liberating. Our very own “fuck you” to the homophobic world that surrounds us. They are places that freak out most straight people, yet are so much a part of gay people’s lives.
These places fascinate me.
I’ve been to many sex clubs/hammams/bathhouses/cinemas. In New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Berlin (but never in Beirut for some reason). Sometimes I go because I’m horny. Most of the time I go to observe, to learn. I sit there and look at the ease with which couples, threesomes, or groups form. I sit and am fascinated by how a look, a nod, or a smile can say so much.
I’ve spent hours sitting in a discreet corner observing some of the most fascinating human behavior you can ever witness.
Like when once, in Berlin, I saw a man, in a sling, being fisted. The man fisting him was being very gentle, but the guy being fisted was crying. They were not tears of someone being raped. The guy was clearly willingly offering up his hole, but he was crying. And if that wasn’t surreal enough, by his side, there was another man standing there, holding him, caressing him, reassuring him. It was an explosion of raw sexuality, almost violent, completely willful, with a touch of a strangely motherly affection, all at once.
And then there was the time I met a guy who asked if I wanted to go into a cabin with him. He was cute, so I said yes. He closed the door of the cabin, turned around, and kissed me. He removed my towel, then removed his, then broke down into tears, telling me about his 7-year-old son that he only saw once a month. There I was, naked, in front of a grown man who was also naked, a man I had met 3 minutes earlier, listening to him talking about his entire life, his failed marriage, his fears, his hopes, his relationship with his son, his identity crisis, in a small room, with very little lighting, and a tub of lube in the corner.
There was also the time when, after having fucked each other, a stranger asked me to lie down next to him, and then we cuddled, and he fell asleep playing with my hair. He slept with me in his arms for a good 20 minutes. Then he woke up, kissed me on my forehead, and walked out into oblivion, never to be seen again.
That’s the thing about these places. They are so many things all at once. They are places of rawness, perversion, and hyper-sexualization. They are also places of comfort, of safety, of affirmation and of acceptance. They are places of guilt and regrets, but also of possibilities, happiness, and joy. They are places where people can come face to face (no pun intended, seriously!) with their sexuality, because here, that’s the only thing that people care about. Everyone is here to escape something or in search of something, and chances are, in either case, they will leave happy.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about these places is that they are the great equalizers. When you take off your clothes and place them in your locker, you leave behind almost all social identifiers. There are no social classes, no economic barriers, no religious objections. People come in with no history, no futures, and no judgments. Here, everyone has a chance.
We go to get fucked. We go to get sucked. We go to fulfill our fantasies. We go looking for quick relief. We go looking for comfort. We go to be anonymous. We go because we have needs. We go to be human. We go because we are lonely. We go because we are happy. We go because we can.
We go in search of something. We go in search of something. We go in search of everything.