Health & science
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|More from Nate Cavalieri|
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With all the steam and dim lighting, I can barely make out the figures of four men across the room, sitting in a row against the wall. I find a place on the bottom row of tiered seating and take long conscious breaths, drawing in dense, humid air that smells sweet from cologne and cedar, and salty from sweat and sex. The tinny dance music seeping in from the hall is intermittently interrupted by the hiss of more steam filling the room. Aside from that, the room is almost silent.
As my pupils dilate, the men in front of me come into hazy focus — on one end, near the corner, is a middle-aged white guy, medium height and build, with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing nothing but a silver chain and a watch. His left hand is occupied in his lap and he’s slowly maneuvering his right hand under a towel wrapped around the young blond to his right. The blond occasionally leans over to murmur things I can’t hear. Next to him is a trimly built, dark-skinned thirtysomething, also masturbating, occasionally glancing at the couple next to him but mostly across at me. To the right of him is a young black man, heavyset with sagging breasts, outfitted with a white towel and a Red Wings cap. His head rests against the wall and he seems to be asleep. It’s still early on a Sunday night at Body Zone.
The meditative quality of the room is comparatively relaxing after an hour of navigating through north central Detroit in the dark, trying to find the nearly unmarked building next to an I-75 overpass, parking in a lot surrounded by chain link and barbed wire and dealing with a suspicious receptionist through thick Plexiglas. A membership was required to get in, $50 for a year. Members have a choice between paying $10 for a locker rental or $20 for a room. The clerk photocopied my ID, handed me the release waivers, took my cash and buzzed me through the thick metal door with unbridled irritation. Once I was in, he reached through another window to hand me the standard necessities for the evening: a membership card, a key to a changing-room locker, a white towel and one latex condom.
The high-security entrance is intimidating, but on the other side of the door the realities of the outside world are starkly absent. A dark hallway leads to a large room with vending machines stocked with a cornucopia of sexual aids — from condoms and lubricant to shrink-wrapped anal beads and nipple clamps. The machine’s bottom row dispenses a curious assortment of rubbery sex toys that bear surreal likenesses to the prizes I dug from cereal boxes as a kid. In the corner of the room sit two lonely looking Nautilus machines — the only furniture that distinguishes the complex as a “health club” and not a “bathhouse.”
I walk past the lounge area, where two guys in towels are relaxing on an overstuffed sofa, watching a rerun of “The Simpsons.” I find the changing room. My dress code options are a towel or nothing at all, so I ditch my clothes and opt for a towel, take a quick shower and start to look around.
Body Zone, the newer and more modern of Detroit’s two gay men’s bathhouses, offers the same amenities found in most gay baths around the country — a labyrinth of hallways lined with small rooms that contain beds. The rooms are available for eight-hour rental. The place also features a steam room, an open shower room, a large hot tub and lounge areas where TVs show either sitcoms or gay pornography.
There is scant conversation. Men looking to hook up communicate almost exclusively through eye contact. I pass men of every shape, age and ethnicity, but no one talks. They sit mutely in the hot tub or the steam room or TV rooms. Some stand in doorways to their rooms, waiting for that special someone to stroll by.
From behind the doors to the private rooms come muffled sounds of sex — moaning, slapping, laughing. The doors to some occupied rooms are left open — a gesture inviting passersby to watch or join in. They allow voyeuristic glimpses of sex at every stage, men touching each other in foreplay, in the heat of oral or anal intercourse, lying together in the afterglow. Most of the men having anal sex wear condoms, but some do not. Of the numerous acts of fellatio that can be seen in the hallways, steam rooms and porn rooms, not a single man is wearing one.
This is my first visit to a bathhouse. During visits to Detroit’s two baths over the next two weeks, I never engage in any sexual activities or interact with patrons as a reporter; I just watch. I see men interact with each other in an environment that presents a head-spinning dichotomy. It’s a space where men are safe, allowed to act on every sexual impulse with no questions asked. It’s also a place where, through no-questions-asked, unprotected oral and anal sex, men might be in danger of killing themselves.
On the most basic level, bathhouses can polarize people as few institutions in our society can. They are monstrous dens of hedonism to some, guarded sanctuaries of sexual expression to others. One person testifies that they kill gay men; another claims that they are safe space for sexual rebirth. They should be boarded up for facilitating the spread of STDs, or they need to remain open as viable avenues for prevention outreach. One voice will pontificate on the importance of maintaining the ultimate privacy of the establishments, and another will insist on informing the public about the lethal dangers they present. Still another will say the dangers are being overstated. If people talk about gay bathhouses it is almost always an issue of black or white.
The debate even extends to the respective owners of Detroit’s two bathhouses, who have an enormous sense of propriety about their establishments. When people start to question what goes on within the doors of one of Detroit’s bathhouses, one owner is quick to point a judgmental finger across town at the other.
What you see taking place inside a bathhouse can be horrifying or beautiful. A bathhouse might be the only place on Earth where you can walk into one room to see emotionless acts of high-risk lust and walk into another to be overwhelmed by a near-utopian sense of equality.
Sexual convenience store
Even though many people, gay and straight, don’t even know the places exist, most of those who do either demonize the baths as dens of risky behavior and disease transmission or champion them as safe havens for the gay community. About the only point everyone can agree on is that the bathhouses are places men go for anonymous sex.
“Bathhouses, first and foremost, are a place for men to have sex,” begins the anonymously written, authoritative guide found at “The Bathhouse Diaries” (www.bathhouseblues.diary-x.com). “It is a sexual playground for men to do whatever they want. A place to get sex 24/7, like a 24-hour convenience store.”
The analogy is apt. Bathhouses exist in every major city in the country, and while few of them are well-known to the straight community, surveys in major cities suggest that at least 30 percent and as many as 60 percent of gay men have visited them.
Detroit public health officials say Body Zone, the area’s most popular sexual convenience store among younger men, gets as many as 1,000 patrons on any given weekend. They have special events to add to the numbers, themed nights and “black out” parties, where almost all of the lights are turned off to encourage more excitement and anonymity.
And that sexual convenience leads to concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, which has increased dramatically in recent years. Antibiotics can cure syphilis, but the infection is more dangerous as a gateway disease. People with syphilis more easily spread and contract the human immunovirus, HIV, which gives rise to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, for which there is no known cure.
Detroit currently holds the dubious title of syphilis capital of America. There are no hard numbers linking Detroit’s syphilis rate to bathhouses; most connections are drawn by scientifically unreliable clinical interviews. Two of the four leading sexual risk behaviors that Michigan’s Department of Community Health says contributes to the spread of syphilis — “sex with unknown partners” and “more than four partners in the last year” — are commonplace within the baths. In other cities, STD scares and these kinds of connections have meant crackdowns on bathhouses. Curbing syphilis in the Detroit area might be simpler if the city’s infection demographics were routine. A strange twist in Detroit’s data finds infection is nearly equal between men and women, and ethnically blind. Other hotbeds of the disease show dominance among gay men and higher infection rates among black men. In Detroit, health statistics show that men who have sex with men are a relatively small part of the syphilis problem. But some experts caution that since men may be reluctant to identify themselves as gay, those numbers are misleadingly low.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that’s transmitted through open sores that develop on the genitals, anus or around the mouth. Its primary and secondary stages bring raw, oozing sores called chancres that can spread to the mouth and hands. These sores break the protective layer of skin, exposing a person’s blood and immune cells and making them susceptible to the spread of HIV. Some health experts believe syphilis increases the probability of HIV transmission from a single sexual encounter by a factor of 10 to 50 by simply increasing the portals for blood and blood byproducts transmission. Most experts agree that a rise in syphilis can lead to a rise in HIV. Because of how long it takes to compile HIV trends, it is unknown now what impact the syphilis increase will have on HIV infections in metro Detroit. If caught early, syphilis is easily cured with penicillin. But as it progresses, symptoms sometimes disappear. People who erroneously think the disease is gone put themselves at risk of permanent neurological and cardiovascular damage. Nobody I see in the corridors of Detroit’s baths has noticeable chancres, but that doesn’t mean some don’t have syphilis.
A few years back, health officials were projecting complete national eradication of syphilis, but instead the disease has rebounded, and all of a sudden Detroit became a syphilis hotbed. In the ’90s, statewide cases dropped below 300. In 2001, there were 428 reported cases of “early” syphilis in the state; 379 of those were in Wayne County.
According to recent data, metro Detroit’s rate of syphilis infection jumped 63 percent among men who have sex with men (MSM) from 2001 to 2002, from 19 to 31 cases. Meanwhile, in Oakland County total cases dipped during the same period from 45 cases to 29. But Oakland County’s MSM cases showed a troubling rise, from 4 to 14, a two-and-a-half fold increase.
When there are spikes in syphilis and STD transmission, some people come to blame bathhouses. Between the Lines, a metro Detroit publication catering to the gay community, linked the syphilis boom to the bathhouses in March — stating that Oakland Country health officials interviewed infected men and found that a “significant number” of them were patrons of Detroit’s two bathhouses. An editorial on the topic in the same issue championed Body Zone for encouraging safe sex and allowing health officials to initiate outreach and education programs; the editorial called on the older of Detroit’s baths, the TNT Health Complex, to do the same. TNT’s owner insists his establishment is doing just that.
For bathhouse patrons and owners, such publicity can spell trouble on the horizon. In New York and California, dramatic STD outbreaks have caused public officials to close baths or restrict the activities of patrons.
Detroit’s chart-topping syphilis stats beg a difficult question: Are bathhouses a health threat to the community? And if they are, what can or should be done?
Mark Peterson, an HIV prevention specialist at the Ferndale chapter of the Midwest Aids Prevention Program (MAPP), is on the front lines of efforts to educate bathhouse patrons about STDs.
“It’s important to look at a lot of venues where public sex could happen,” Peterson says.
He is quick to point out that the baths are only the most obvious target of syphilis-fighting health officials, and that syphilis is also spread by patrons of singles bars — both straight and gay — and myriad other venues where people look for sex.
“They are in our communities,” Peterson says of the bathhouses. “They’re a part of our communities, and each special interest group in our community has a different sense of ownership of them. Within the gay community I’m finding that discussions about what happens at the baths get treated with kid gloves. … It’s treated with some disdain on one part and quiet acquiescence on the other part.”
Mostly, however, the baths are not talked about at all. What happens inside a bathhouse isn’t something that many patrons are eager to talk about.
“People don’t want their business known,” says “Joshua,” a 27-year-old gay activist who agrees to be interviewed on the condition that his real name isn’t used. He lives in metro Detroit, but usually goes to baths in other cities to avoid damaging his reputation.
“Going to bathhouses is perceived by a lot of people who don’t go to bathhouses — and a lot of people who do — as something that is risky, that you don’t want a lot of other gay men that you might want to possibly date to know. People think it is a pretty slutty thing to do,” he says.
By many standards, it might be a pretty slutty thing to do.
Tom Farley, professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, wants to see all bathhouses closed. He made that call in a November 2002 essay in the Washington Monthly, claiming, “on average, bathhouse patrons have had sex with more than 30 different men in the last six months.”
Other studies indicate that patrons have sexual contact with an average of five different men per visit. On the Internet, it isn’t uncommon to find men boasting of sexual contact with dozens of men in a single night.
Those numbers aren’t hard for me to imagine after watching men pop in and out of doors throughout a night at Body Zone like an episode of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”
Even though most statistics show that the vast majority of bathhouse patrons engage in relatively safe sex, some clearly don’t.
Yet the sight of men having unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) in a bathhouse shouldn’t give way to any concrete conclusions. Some men know they have certain STDs and use bathhouses to find infected partners with whom to have unprotected sex. Other couples having unprotected sex are in monogamous relationships; they frequent the baths for the thrill of the sexually charged environment.
When health authorities set up a structure mandating condom use in bathhouses, they run the risk of a backfire.
“If you finger-wag at people about their sexual choices, saying, ‘You have to use a condom every single time,’ it becomes hot for them to not use a condom then,” Joshua says. “It is incredibly natural for a mammal to fuck without a condom. To be honest, I hate fucking with a condom and I try to fuck without a condom as much as possible. I don’t engage in high-risk behavior. I don’t let someone fuck me without a condom, but if I’m going to fuck someone I don’t use a condom. In a bathhouse I would. But I don’t go that often because I’m afraid for me, that I’m more likely to pick up an STD there than if I wasn’t. I know that that is bullshit, but there are other issues there. The guys whose dick I’m sucking could have just been up some guy’s ass five minutes ago. I’ve seen that kind of thing going on.”
Peterson says Joshua’s attitude isn’t uncommon in the day and age of HIV-controlling pharmaceutical cocktails and a new era of laxity toward safe-sex practices, inside and outside the bathhouses.
“You have to put that in the context of the fact we’ve lived with HIV for 20 years,” Peterson says. “People have wrapped themselves in latex, they’ve concerned themselves with that stuff — and they’re getting tired of it.”
Peterson, the health crusader, and Joshua, the bathhouse patron, offer an important key to understanding the parallels between bathhouses and increases in syphilis and HIV infection. A rise in syphilis comes from a rise in higher-risk sex and leads to more HIV infection. Historically, this fact has sent public health officials scrambling for solutions.
Health policies regarding the bathhouses first popped up around the country in the early ’80s. As AIDS decimated her city’s gay population in 1982, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein started the charge to close the baths, even though most men at the time were too scared to go. She succeeded for a while, but in 1984, bathhouse owners sued the city and a court allowed them to reopen with an intricate set of rules: Doors to private rooms were removed, and staff members roamed the facilities to enforce safe sex. In the following years, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago came up with variations on San Francisco’s enforcement policy.
No such legislation was ever enacted in Detroit, and there are no regulations today, even while the city contends with a soaring syphilis rate.
“There are no laws or proposed laws that deal with these places,” explains Sean Kosofsky, policy director of the Detroit chapter of Triangle Foundation, a national gay rights organization. “The health department deals with hygiene issues and things that are public-health-related. Criminal law deals with things like sex in public, sex in private. Laws that regulate public activity are not relevant to private establishments.”
Actually, under Michigan law, sodomy and the broader “gross indecency” are crimes on public or private property. Some state lawmakers are attempting to remove both, which they consider arcane, from the books (“Indecent proposal,” Metro Times, July 9-15).
Kosofsky’s so concerned about the possibilities of police raids and abusive governmental control, he asks Metro Times to withhold the names of Detroit’s bathhouses.
Anyone who thinks that bathhouse regulation would curb the spread of syphilis need only look at one document to learn otherwise. In an exhaustive report titled “Public Policy Regarding Public and Private Space in Gay Bathhouses,” statisticians and doctors at the University of California-San Francisco examined municipal bathhouse policies in four major cities. They concluded, “It appears that city-specific public policies regulating the types of spaces allowed in gay bathhouses have little impact on the prevalence of overall risk behavior engaged in by MSM who visited these bathhouses.”
In simple terms, busting the bathhouses doesn’t do anything to decrease risk.
According to Peterson and other people in public health, no policy is good policy.
“Any time that there is a police raid or a structural intervention that says ‘We’re going to push this down’… it’s like trying to catch mercury, it’s going to go deeper and further out and more hidden,” Peterson says. “If it is more hidden from people like me, we are going to have a hard time getting people the information that they need.”
Crackdowns merely lead to creation of new places where disease might flourish, he says. “The more pressure on this end there is to squash people’s expression, the more venues you have on this [other] end.”
Peterson’s position is a trendy one among health officials. Even if bathhouses are relative hotspots for disease transmission, at least they are easily targeted for educational outreach programs. Besides, closing the baths is costly and controversial — most rational politicians would rather get a root canal.
Peterson is creating a program in conjunction with Detroit Health Department officials to set up free on-site STD testing and educational pamphlets to bathhouse patrons. A similar program has been started by ACCESS, a Dearborn-based Arab community center, which distributes free condoms to the baths.
Even though baths are hardly the only venue for risky MSM sex, the others, referred to as “public cruising areas” (roadside parks, beaches, rest stops, gay bookstores and hidden back rooms of bars) are nearly impossible for condom-dispensing health workers to access.
MAPP’s outreach in bathhouses seems be a logical first step in derailing the runaway syphilis infection rates. But so far, MAPP’s program has only been on-site at Body Zone, and MAPP staff has been there only a few times. They have never been into TNT at all.
“TNT has no contact with any of the AIDS groups.” Craig Covey, MAPP chief executive officer was quoted as saying in the Between the Lines syphilis feature. “To the best of our knowledge they do not provide brochures or anything else to their members.”
Apparently the best of their knowledge isn’t so good. In plain view in the lobby area of TNT there is a wide array of information about STD prevention and safe sex from an assortment of sources, including MAPP itself. The club has had private, on-site testing available for its members for 20 years.
All one has to do is stand in front of one of the club’s urinals to be faced with a large poster expressing the dangers of syphilis. Even though people at MAPP claim that TNT owner Steve Daniels was nearly impossible to contact, Daniels’ home phone number is posted in plain view to patrons at the entrance of the club.
“We refuse to deal with Mr. Covey himself because of his moral concept in life,” Daniels says, explaining that he is in contact with other people at MAPP and a handful of other outreach programs, including ACCESS. “But we do deal with other organizations and that’s none of his business. We will not deal with Covey.”
Covey declined to comment, other than to say that he stood by his comments to Between the Lines.
When I first contact Daniels over the phone to ask some questions about the TNT, I am met with threats of a lawsuit. When I tell him I’m a member of his club, I’m invited to his home.
We walk around the yard of his suburban home, and he tells me about the history of testing programs at TNT, which he has owned a part of since 1979. At 50 years old, Daniels is extremely animated. On the back of his neck he shows me the scar that he got after being stabbed by a potential car thief in the TNT’s parking lot in 1992. It was an incident serious enough to require spinal surgery, and the scar remains as physical reminder of Daniels’ struggle for the privacy and the safety of his patrons.
Anthony Harris, a Detroit Health Department worker who has been stationed on-site at the baths, says, “The places themselves are very receptive to us. They want us to come there. It’s the patrons themselves that aren’t very receptive to us. Our policy is to offer education and [STD] testing. That’s the only policy we have.”
“Having their involvement is a very key role in running a business,” Body Zone owner Paul Devlin says of the Health Department. He claims a close relationship with local health officials, but later admits, “A lot of times, especially in New York and California, [local governments] use the health department as a crutch to try to regulate and try to eliminate” businesses like his.
Devlin himself knows what that’s like. Body Zone was raided in February 2000. When asked why the cops raided, Devlin says simply, “Because they didn’t like what was going on.”
(Detroit police declined to provide any records on any enforcement actions at TNT or Body Zone by press time.)
The enlightenment-not-enforcement policy that many local health officials have adopted just isn’t enough for some people.
“There is this idea that if it weren’t for the baths and parks and places where this kind of thing is tolerated that people would do even crazier or riskier things,” says Dan Savage, editor of the Seattle Stranger alternative newsweekly and sex columnist who is widely published, including in Metro Times. Savage, who’s openly gay, has debated the topic of bathouses with liberals and conservatives alike.
“I sometimes ask myself, ‘If it were straight people carrying on like this and diseases were being passed to straight people in an environment like this — at the rate that gay people are acquiring diseases — would the places be closed down?’ And I think the answer is yes. If lots of straight girls were going to a place and having tons of anonymous sex with men who had diseases and going home with diseases, the health department would shut it down in a heartbeat.”
Yet Detroit’s syphilis reports show that a lot of straight girls are going home with disease. And they are getting it from their straight lovers, boyfriends and husbands, some of whom identify as straight but still visit the bathhouses.
Peterson: “This is Public Health 101. When you have purple fluffies from East Bay who are getting most of a certain cootie, it tells you to go work with purple fluffies in the East Bay. You work on programs that impact them in language that they understand. … What we have in the Detroit area with syphilis is basically not that continuum that we are seeing — it’s men, women, younger, older, straight, MSM, bi. It is hard to put that public health net around it and work specifically that population.”
In fact, according to patrons and health experts, understanding the demographic of men in the Detroit baths is much more difficult than understanding how to reach MSM in more “out” social environments.
“People go to the baths for two reasons,” Joshua says. “They’re closeted, and it’s the only way for them to meet people, or it is in their appetite for random anonymous sex. That is what they prefer; it’s cheaper than a date. Why pay for dinner and a movie when you can go in there and get nine blow jobs and your ass eaten out in a half an hour?”
Next time your boyfriend comes home from some errands looking freshly steamed, it might be cause for concern.
Dr. William J. Woods, a researcher at the Center For AIDS Prevention Studies at University of California-San Francisco, confirms that men claiming to be straight and bi make up a distinct segment of the bathhouse population that defies statistics. Woods was one of the primary authors of the study that looked at public policy as it pertains to the bathhouses, and he has done numerous other bathhouse studies. He’s routinely able to counter opinions about baths with his research data, but conclusions about straight-identifying men elude him. “Most people seem to think that bathhouses seem to attract more of the kind of men who only want to participate in the gay community sexually,” he says.
Peterson admits that men who identify as straight are important in understanding Detroit’s syphilis problem.
“Go to bathhouses, bookstores, any place where men can have sex with men and you will see wedding rings,” Peterson says. “We’ve known that from working with HIV. I’m starting to see … that that might be part of the problem here. How big of a part? I have no idea. I have no data to prove that. They are anthropology questions.”
Even if the question might be anthropological, Savage comes up with the same answers. He says many older gay men “hearken back to a time when you could not be out of the closet, and straight people wanted gay people to only have sex in bathhouses because it allowed you to have sex without compelling you having to come out to have sex. You didn’t have sex in your apartment, you didn’t have relationships, you just went to bathhouses and got release and went back to your straight life. It was a way of controlling where and how gay people expressed themselves and how gay people lived. …
“In a way, a lot of dumb-ass, sex-radical gay people call it the revolution, and what’s actually being communicated is that we don’t care about gay people and gay people are free to harm themselves and die.”
As a public health researcher, Woods tries to communicate something entirely different. With his long work at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, Woods has few peers when it comes to researching and compiling data about bathhouse patrons and their sexual habits. He has published numerous reports about these topics and is preparing a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality to appear later this year, offering personal essays and research about every angle of bathhouse culture.
“You are not doing anything by closing the bathhouses,” Woods says via phone from his San Francisco office. “Does public health not really care about gay men and that’s why the bathhouses remain open? No, I don’t really think so. I think informed public health knows that it’s not the public bathhouses that you have to deal with, it’s the people who go to them.”
Woods says his research has consistently shown that the men who engage in high-risk sex make up a small percentage of the overall bathhouse population, and furthermore that men don’t need the bathhouses to have risky sex. This is the important part: Men who want high-risk sex can find places to have it, and closing bathhouses doesn’t deter them.
“What I think Dan Savage is saying is that if you really care about gay men you will close them down, but there are a lot of guys who go there for whatever their reasons are and it is not to have UAI — they are very careful to not get HIV when they’re there,” Woods asserts. “What about them? To what extent is that not caring about the gay community when the bathhouses are meeting some kind of need of the people who go there, who are the larger majority of people who go there.”
The “ideal” worlds
Both Woods’ and Savage’s comments would probably resonate within the walls of TNT, a “private men’s health club” since 1953. Even though MAPP officials and Between the Lines view TNT as unresponsive to outsiders who encourage safe sex, the TNT staffers seem currently to be encouraging it themselves. STD awareness posters and pamphlets are in plain sight, and condoms are readily available.
On my first night there I’m greeted warmly by the staff and offered a tour by a duo of maintenance men.
TNT is more elaborate than its rival across town. It has a dry sauna, wet sauna, porn rooms, sundeck, weight room, hot tub and indoor Olympic-sized pool.
I buy my TNT membership late on a weeknight, and by the time I get through the registration process it’s nearly 3 a.m. The place is almost empty. I wander into the large, cavernous room that holds the indoor pool, and beyond the glassy water two men are having anal sex on the edge of the hot tub. As I get closer, they notice me but don’t stop. The man in back is wearing a condom.
TNT is more brightly lit than Body Zone. Where Body Zone is decked out with a sleek, Euro styling, TNT’s painted cinderblock walls and older bathroom fixtures give it the feel of a 1950s YMCA. Many would still classify this as a “bathhouse,” but if that definition were exclusively about sex, TNT wouldn’t necessarily qualify. There are posted signs stating that the club prohibits sexual activities, and according to TNT owner Daniels, the staff is told to expel anyone they see having sex.
There are also major differences in the clientele. The men are generally much older (some appearing as old as 80) and mostly white. Instead of light techno over the sound system, TNT offers adult contemporary hit makers like Huey Lewis, the Commodores and, yes, the Village People.
Sex acts occur in the open spaces, but infrequently. Unlike Body Zone, men aren’t just cruising silently looking for partners; patrons are sunbathing nude on the deck, chatting or watching movies. I even saw someone working out.
While sitting in the TV lounge watching X-Men, I tell one older patron that I’m a member of both Detroit baths. “I hear it’s wild over there,” he scoffs in a grandfatherly tone. Other patrons mumble rumors about Body Zone’s “wild parties.”
“What happens at the BZ, it’s their business, not ours,” Daniels states diplomatically.
“You walk in and it’s like ‘Cheers,’” Joshua jokes about TNT. “Everyone knows your name.” Of Body Zone he adds, “This place is not just a bathhouse in Detroit. People who are in the know and are involved in the place see it almost as an institution.”
Just as Joshua sees both places as social institutions that provide necessary, controlled places for men looking to hook up, bathhouse opponents see the effects of the baths as a detriment to advancing acceptance of the gay male lifestyle.
“People in the gay community say, ‘We’ve made lemonade out of this oppressive lemon,’” Savage says. “Or … ‘It’s the revolution. When you are in a bathhouse it’s not about your social status or whatever, everyone is equal and free and there is lots of sex!’ And it is almost impossible to argue with these people because they are nuts. You hear these beautiful odes to what a bathhouse means and symbolizes, and then if you actually go to one it is really sort of desperate and pathetic and depressing. It isn’t this beautiful community of like-minded men who are all equal in their towels. It’s really kind of a scummy environment full of people who are closeted and fucked up about being gay and that’s why they’re there.”
Joshua reluctantly agrees: “Dan is right. In an ideal world people wouldn’t need a place to be discreet.”
On my last visit to TNT, I decide to get some sun. I head out to the deck and choose a chair appropriate for tanning, lose the towel and lay down to relax. Above a string of plastic American flags, the afternoon is clear and breezy. Beside me, naked men read papers, talk quietly and smoke cigarettes. From beyond the tall wooden fence that surrounds the deck, music from an ice cream truck fades in and out of earshot as it circles the block. It has every ounce of lazy normalcy that a person would find on any sundeck, anywhere in the world. It just happens that there are naked men everywhere.
When I start to burn I go inside for a swim and some steam. Finding the wet sauna, I take a seat in the dark and watch as two men face each other, masturbating. After the first man climaxes, he leans over to his partner and kisses him gently on the neck. It is a gesture that displays genuine, loving affection that any person — gay or straight — would find to be touching. Within the steamy security of the small room, the actions of the men at that moment have all of the understanding, acceptance and sexual truthfulness of an “ideal world.” As they leave, the open wooden door brings a rush of cold air and brightness into the room. As one paramour wraps himself in a towel, light from outside catches a gold wedding band. The ideal world seems less so.
Nate Cavalieri is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.