Istanbul, Turkey. The attendant flushes me with soapy water on the marble octagon in the center of the hot area, whose domed chamber has holes cut out in the shape of moons and stars to let in sunlight. In other countries, there would be a bathing pool where the platform is. There is no actual bath in the Turkish bath. Despite knowing this, it is still a bit of a letdown when I confirm it with my own eyes, perhaps because it’s the famous Cagaloglu Hamami, built in 1741 near the Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet. The Turkish bath devolved from the great Roman baths, which accommodated up to 3,000 bathers (the Diocletian baths’ swimming pool was the size of a football field), down through the paltrier affairs of the Byzantine era, until the Muslims banned communal immersion in water altogether as unsanitary and capped over the pools. Thereafter, the marble octagon kept on in the Turkish bathhouse as a vestigial relic.
I nostalgically recall the Rudas baths in Budapest, Hungary, built by the Ottomans in 1550, whose octagon-shaped pool conjures up the pre-Muslim Turkish bath. A guidebook at the time of my visit advised tourists they might want to avoid this venue as it was said to be frequented by homosexuals. That would have been just the reason for me to go there. Why object if a bathhouse happens to be popular with gay men? Wouldn’t one expect any sex-segregated establishment to attract some gay men? Wouldn’t it be interesting to mix with them? Perhaps there were relatively few strict gays, who had their own haunts where they could interact more freely, and the majority of the men in these places were fifty shades of the bicurious. I can’t think of a more rarefied atmosphere in which to soak or a more ideal occasion for testing one’s sexual boundaries. Nothing happened on my visit; one needs the luxury of time to read the people around you. The massage itself, in a room with other naked men, was perfunctory. Still, I’d like to go back and explore the scene there again.
My massage at the Cagaloglu is also routine, as well as expensive, being after all on the tourist path. The next day my girlfriend and I pass by a shabbier-looking bath in the spider web of old lanes around Galata, the Cesme Hamami. I am drawn to all such seedy establishments, poorly lit portals to the underworld, busy inside with silent activity, chess games of intimate squalor. Pingping isn’t in the mood, and we also happen to be in the midst of a cold war, not having spoken a word since arriving in Istanbul. We agree to meet at the Galata Tower in an hour and a half.
I am drawn to all such seedy establishments, poorly lit portals to the underworld, busy inside with silent activity, chess games of intimate squalor.
Smaller than the Cagaloglu, the Cesme exudes the same dusky primeval atmosphere. Several bathers lounge about inside. I pan myself with hot water from a marble sink in one of the chambers adjoining the hot area, each with its own mini cupola. A strapping young man enters the chamber and washes himself opposite me. Bathing etiquette requires us to tie a towel over our groin, but he lets an erection pop out. He walks up to grab a bottle of shampoo behind me. My mouth snaps onto his cock. A pair of older men poke their heads into the chamber to watch. The guy wants to dry-fuck me. I’m not into that and he leaves, whereupon the older dudes enter and sit against the wall just inside the chamber. They gesture at me to move over to where the young guy was sitting. I don’t understand what they’re getting at. They play with themselves under their towel and encourage me to do the same. Oh, I see, they want me to jerk off directly facing the entrance so I am visible to those passing outside the chamber to lure them inside for group action, or something like that. The young guy reappears, only to disappear again when he sees the old guys there. They too get up to leave and I’m left alone to make sense of the mysterious goings-on.
The attendant assigned to scrub me down is a burly man with a huge gut. He summons me into the warm area out front, the antechamber to the hot area, also used for massage. I lie prone. More creative than yesterday’s masseur, he works his fingers into my anus and over the shaft of my penis. I have to be face up or it’s not going to work; I can’t cum facing down. But he can’t turn me over without bringing things to a halt, even if he does cover me with the towel. The scene in the small chamber was blatant enough; for an attendant to touch a customer’s genitals must be outrageous. Which of course is precisely why it’s happening—and why a great deal of lore testifies to its happening in the past.
Chicago, USA. I once responded to an ad posted by a man in the Lakeview area who offered free massage to males. Erotic massage was clearly intended, since by not charging money, he couldn’t be busted for prostitution if caught by an undercover cop posing as a customer. It was also his way of meeting hot guys. In case of men who didn’t fit the bill, like myself, he wasted no time and forced me out only minutes into the lackluster backrub, not by telling me to leave, which of course would have been quite rude, but by a far more efficacious method, which was to keep the heat turned down and his apartment cold. This was easy enough to do in the Chicago winter. Without clothes on, it was more than highly unpleasant on the massage table. You see, had I been to his liking, he would have quickly set up a few portable heaters in the room and have it warmed up nice and cozy in minutes.
Then I met Eric. He also had an ad in the gay section of a local zine, for group massage. I was one of three who showed up at his Lakeview flat one evening. He was sitting in the living room with a woman I guessed to be his housemate. Apologizing, he said he was not feeling up to attending to us that night but a male friend was on hand to work with us instead.
“Poor Eric,” the friend sighed after we went into the bedroom. “If only he wasn’t….It’s too bad.”
Massage was not quite what these group sessions were about. We stood naked in a circle and fondled each other’s penises for the next hour. It wasn’t as silly as it sounds but was intended to bring guys with low sexual self-esteem together to bond and feel better about themselves—though only Eric’s mate and myself could get it up. I wanted more action, but we were under instructions not to go hardcore.
Now it’s half a year or so later and I answer an ad placed by a guy named Eric who does house calls and gives men free massages. I don’t make the connection with the previous Eric because I’ve already forgotten about him. But as I peer out my window I recognize the same man as he hauls himself up the steps of my front porch. For Eric is very fat. Obese. I’m not sure “morbidly” obese is the right term, whatever the medical threshold is for that; he’s not so bad that he can’t make it out of the house. On the other hand, he isn’t able to move with quick sprightly steps, like you see the more moderately obese do to give the impression of not being as heavy as they actually are.
Eric is soft-spoken, charming, intelligent, funny, frank, and free of any hidden agendas or annoying mannerisms. He’s also clean-shaven, freshly showered (as he required me to be on the phone), and dresses smartly in shorts and a linen shirt with a dab of cologne. He has to be. Anything less than being immaculately attired and having a perfectly congenial personality, and he wouldn’t stand a chance garnering men to work with.
When we get settled on my queen-size futon, he’s careful not to sit directly on my body. I close my eyes, and his physical magnitude is irrelevant. After turning me face up, he goes to work on my toes, taking each one in his mouth in turn. Appetizers in preparation for the main course. At first he pops only the head of my cock into his mouth, as if it too were a toe, before slurping up the entirety of my erection. He cautions me not to shoot just yet. He’s doing a form of Tantric massage in which it’s crucial to hold back from orgasm so as to send Kundalini energy up the spine, and repeatedly aborts ejaculation by squeezing around the base of my cock. Eventually, he lets me explode in a fountain of cum.
The gentleman leaves a message on my answering machine later that day thanking me for the “intense” encounter and inviting me to join a group massage club he’s organizing—real erotic massage for adepts. The idea sounds enticing but I don’t think I’m ready to jump into that scene fulltime.
Beijing, China. Jianwei, a male friend and Beijing local, claims I need to see another side of city life, and we ride our bikes to the Hanlinyuan or Imperial Academy bathing center in Dongcheng near Dianmen. Upon disrobing in the men’s changing room we enter the packed bath area, where the patrons mill about naked except for a few shy types holding a towel over their groin. Gesturing at the dozen massage tables occupying one part of the room, he says no bathhouse experience is complete without a “cleansing” massage. They are all occupied with men, their cocks variously tumescent. When a table is free I get on and lay back.
The scrub-down is extremely thorough. For easier access the masseur clamps my feet together and spreads my legs back as if changing a baby’s diaper, then works around and in my anus, strokes upward over my balls and finishes off with several pulls along my shaft with the washcloth. He only plies my privates for a few seconds but the soapy caresses are electric and there’s no stopping my erection now. It is duly ignored and soon goes away. To loosen dead skin and invigorate the circulation, he proceeds to aggressively palpate the flesh. The slapping of our bodies in unison echoes in the hard space of the bath area like an African drumming troupe.
Next is the steam bath. Only one other man is in there when I enter. It must be the novelty of witnessing a foreigner in such close quarters because it quickly fills up to capacity. The room is shrouded in steam and I can’t make out any faces. One guy sits flush next to me and looks at my groin. I suspect he’s about to make a move. I suspect the place is gay as well, but as I don’t know how gay or what the etiquette is—I noticed several little boys brought by their fathers in the bath area—I soon grow uneasy and exit the steam bath.
We proceed up to the second-floor resting area, containing two vast rooms with some 200 beds used for temporary napping or overnight sleeping in the 24-hour establishment. The beds angle upward for comfortable viewing of the movie screen at one end of each room. They are without bedding and set close together, with a small side table between every pair of beds for setting drinks. Waiters wander around serving tea and beer. Masseurs here and there are giving foot massages. Jianwei says the place is unusual in not having private rooms with massage girls on hand for sexual services. He relates how once when he was relaxing here a man tried to suck his cock. So it is a gay bathhouse. I wonder if the women’s section is also gay. Jianwei, who claims not to be gay, doesn’t call the bathhouse gay; rather, it’s just an interesting Beijing pastime.
I’m dying to know what goes on in the women’s section and recruit a female grad student of mine, Sha, to be my investigative reporter. She has never been to a bathhouse. In most other bathhouses couples or mixed-sex groups can rent private rooms together, but here we’ll be completely segregated for the duration of our stay. Agreeing to meet down in the lobby at eight in the morning, we head into our respective showers.
Back in the resting area on this second visit, I am more at leisure to study the place. Men are scattered around the two big rooms. A group in their forties are engaged in animated discussion; one has a partial erection. Elsewhere pairs are locked together in embrace, seemingly asleep. One couple is having sex. Behind the movie screen in the larger room is an unlit partition with a row of beds in relative darkness, and it’s there that I place myself. In the bed to my right two men are fucking. The bed to my left goes through several occupants over the course of the fitful night. The immovable pillow is too hard, not to mention the movies blaring away till 4 a.m., and covered with nothing but my towel I get little sleep. Around dawn I find an elderly man next to me, inching his head toward my cock. The anticipation makes me hard and he takes me in his mouth. At 7 a.m., an attendant informs me there’s a woman downstairs waiting for me. I join Sha a few minutes later in the lobby.
“I’m so tired!” she says with a laugh and a sigh, eyes bloodshot. “As soon as I saw those narrow beds, I knew I would never be able to fall asleep. Oh, what a strange experience! I felt so embarrassed. I was the only one there who kept my underwear on.”
“How many women were there?”
“Maybe a hundred.”
“How old were they?”
“All ages. I never saw so many naked women in my life.”
“What did you think of the place?”
“A group of drunken women kept everyone up the whole night with their talking.”
“What did they talk about?”
“Complaining about men.”
I press her on the exact nature of the complaints but she found it all too tedious and failed to pay attention.
One day Jianwei and I are riding our bikes in Chongwenmen and he points out a bathhouse, a nondescript structure called the Dazhong or Popular Bath, rumored to be gay. My torrid curiosity draws me back a few days later, alone. The man at the door rejects me.
“Is it because I’m a foreigner?”
“Go find another bathhouse.”
Another female friend comes to the rescue a few days later. Liping is confident she can get me into the Dazhong. We aren’t sure whether the problem is that I am a perceived threat to them, assuming me to be a journalist, or they think they are a threat to me, the naive foreigner who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. She explains to the doorman I am perfectly aware of what I am getting into. He reluctantly admits me this time, warning us not to stay overnight.
“I love you!” calls out a middle-aged man with bouffant hair and eyeliner as I enter the changing area. In the crowded shower the men gaze.
There are three resting rooms on the second floor, a big mixed-sex one with sixty beds and smaller adjoining rooms for each sex. Unlike the Hanlinyuan, this place isn’t segregated, and we have to put on pajamas before entering the resting area. It’s quite a sight. Men are snuggling together with men and women with women. A few female patrons are careless with their pajama tops and their nipples come free. Two guys draped under a blanket are discreetly fucking in spoon position. Liping later relates she saw women in the shower washing not only each other’s backs (common practice among female strangers in Chinese showers) but also their fronts.
I occupy one of the beds in the main room while waiting for her to join me.
“How are you doing?” asks an attractive woman sitting in the row in front of me.
“Fine. Do you massage?”
“Shh! Keep it down. Sure, I can massage you.”
“Can you wait a few minutes until my friend arrives? She’d like to watch, if you don’t mind.”
“She wants to watch. Don’t worry, she’s very kaifang and really wants to watch me get massaged.”
“She won’t get angry at me?”
“It’s not a problem.”
You have to understand Liping. She has seen everything and is fazed by nothing. One day not long after joining the army at eighteen, she had an accident while manning a garrison and broke a leg. At the infirmary where she was recovering, the male nurse assigned to wash her everyday was thorough enough to include her genitals. Though still a virgin, she loved it. This was followed by accidental impregnation at the hands of her doctor—a potential problem, as sex outside of marriage was not only illegal and severely punished at the time, it could lead to execution, with the Cultural Revolution still going on. It took some pulling of strings to hush the whole thing up and arrange an abortion.
The older generations of Chinese are known to be staunchly conservative and notoriously repressed, yet Liping seemingly came out of nowhere and is one of the most open-minded people I’ve ever met. She has already accompanied me on other bathhouse outings where, as an amateur ethnographer of the female migrant class, she is fond of interviewing the masseuse while I’m getting a handjob, and if the lady is attractive tries to seduce her as well. Ambisexual is perhaps a better word to describe her than bisexual, which implies a politically conscious choice of sexual orientation. She is indifferent to categories and approaches everyone sexually.
The older generations of Chinese are known to be staunchly conservative and notoriously repressed, yet Liping seemingly came out of nowhere.
Liping arrives, and Xinxin, our masseuse, leads us upstairs to a private room with two beds. From the Anhui countryside, she’s twenty-eight, tall and shapely, with elegant eyes and a pallid complexion from too much time spent indoors. She oils up my cock but the handjob isn’t getting anywhere because we are more interested in her. She’s cool about it and takes off her top. We both smack our mouths on her big areolas. She agrees to split the massage between both of us without doubling the fee and is totally comfortable masturbating Liping. Then she offers to fuck me for a reasonable 200 kuai on top of the 200 for the massage. She steps out of her pajama shorts and black lace panties and straddles me but has a hard time easing onto me.
We fuck for about a minute before she pulls out. “You’re too big.”
We like her and want to see her again. Her looks give her more cachet than the run of masseuses. She is also at liberty to hire herself out on a freelance basis and come and go as she pleases. I invite her over to my place another day for a threesome, to which she agrees, for a fee of course.
Back in the resting area, I’m curious about the room adjacent to the main room that’s set aside for men. A sign prohibiting women is posted above the entrance to the room. By contrast, the room reserved for women does not have such a sign prohibiting men. I check out the latter room, observing the unspoken etiquette of leaving the female patrons undisturbed, who all appear to be sleeping anyway.
Actually I’m nervous about entering the males-only zone alone—it doesn’t help that it’s pitch black inside—and procrastinate by heading down to the men’s shower for a dip in the hot-water pool. A garrulous take-charge type in his fifties plops himself next to me, inquires after the size of my penis and begins stroking it. All eyes are on us in the crowded bath area, and I’m self-conscious. He invites me to go upstairs with him. That’s my entrance ticket to the secret chamber.
With the aid of a cigarette lighter, he leads me to a bed inside the room. The flame reveals it to be as large as the main resting room and fully occupied with male patrons, quiet but not asleep. At once a bevy of men cluster around. They are stuck on the idea that foreigners are well endowed and examine me as much out of anatomical as sexual interest. I enjoy the attention, despite being the subject of a science experiment, though it is distracting and my hard-on wilts. Playing the doyen with a cigarette dangling on his lips, the older guy sets down beside me an admiring twenty-year old who asks, “Does he cum just like a Chinese?”
“He wants to take you to a private room on the third floor and make love,” the doyen tells me. “Why don’t we go up?”
The implication is I will have an audience. “I’m afraid I can’t. My female friend is waiting for me out in the main room.”
Sighs of disappointment.
“I’ll come again another night, I promise!”
Back in the main room, a young male hustler starts hitting on me and Liping and agrees to massage us both for 200 kuai. We end up in the same private room we were in earlier with Xinxin. He turns out not to have the slightest idea how to give a massage or sculpt an erection out of me and isn’t interested in me anyway. He doesn’t want to massage Liping either, just wants to fuck her, and without a condom. She’s got wild blood in her and I warn her not to do it. This awkward country boy who can’t be more than twenty thereupon affects shame.
There’s a knock on the door and a middle-aged man looks in. “Take them to Room 1,” he tells the boy. “I’ll join you there in a minute.”
I’m not sure what that’s all about but we go into Room 1. The boy now wants double the money, claiming he offered to massage us for 200 each, and he wants the money right now, not down at the cashier in the morning. Which means he’s not gainfully employed by the bathhouse. This is confirmed when the other man returns and reveals himself to be the manager. “Now, get out of here!” he orders the boy. “You’re not supposed to be selling yourself here and I could have you busted.”
“What about my money?”
“You’ll get it. Now, you two had better stay in this room for the rest of the night so you’ll be safe and out of trouble.” And then to Liping, “I’ll be right back. I’d like to give you a massage, if you don’t mind.”
He soon returns and begins to rub her down. I’m on the other bed. He is clearly not interested in me. Mumbling an apology, he removes her panties and goes down on her. He also wants to fuck her but she requests a condom. He leaves the room to go fetch one and is back in a flash, thrusting her legs up over his shoulders and fucking her missionary style, and it’s over in minutes.
It is now close to dawn and we try to catch a little sleep. All the beds in these places are too hard and I’ve never succeeded in falling asleep on one. Down at the cashier a few hours later, we are charged the 400 for the boy and 200 for Xinxin. A peaceful bike ride back to campus along Pinganli. Despite the degrading experience with the manager, Liping is in good spirits, as she always is.
* * *