After a popular gym in Cape Town recently placed a sign on their sauna door, “No lewd conduct allowed”, I was asked to write about the reasons many gay men cruise and indulge in anonymous, ‘quickie’ sex – sexual interactions that occur in the gym sauna, for example. My initial response was an obvious “because we can” (duh!), but that didn’t go down too well and I was sent off to explore the topic further.
Men are sexual beings
Before we look at gay men specifically, let’s consider all men: I bet that a straight man sweating in the gym sauna with a semi-naked woman sitting beside him would also experience a few carnal thoughts. We’re sexual beings after all, and men are often particularly easily aroused by visual stimulation.
Socialisation plays a role
Our gender-based socialisation also plays a role in this scenario:
1. Imagine a straight bar, pub, shebeen or indeed a gym and know that cruising behaviour (aka flirting in Straightville) is definitely taking place.
2. The straight guys have been socialised to get into the girls’ knickers as soon as possible, while the girls have been socialised to try (or at least to appear to be trying) to keep men out of their knickers for as long as possible.
3. Remove the girls’ energy from the scenario, place two horny men together without the restraints of the girls’ socialisation and suddenly: boom-chaka-boom, we have two parties who have both been programmed to get to home base A.S.A.P.
Exposure and exhibitionism
Gyms provide an ideally rich and fertile space for the build-up of sexual energy – we naturally become increasingly aware of our own bodiliness while also being visually bombarded with images of other bodies. Mirrors, posturing and posing, straining muscles, working bodies, subtle elements of exposure and blatant exhibitionism in the showers conflate with our endorphins to create a ritualised worship of narcissistic bodiliness. And for many men, whether gay or straight, this translates into a complex worship of masculinity.
Gym - a macho environment
The intense interface between straight and gay men in gyms is an interesting phenomenon. Straight, semi-straight and gay men mingle and interact according to gym norms – such as respecting individual’s personal space – and sexual orientation becomes secondary to the task at hand. But for many men who consider themselves straight and yet have homoerotic fantasy content, gyms provide the only opportunity where they can feed their fantasies. They can join in the collective worship of the male body and be naked with other men – in the locker room, the steam room and the showers – in a milieu that is viewed positively by society. It’s all about being healthy and taking care of yourself, right? It’s not about showing off and being physically and sexually affirmed, right? The gym is a macho environment so no-one needs to feel threatened by the often unacknowledged and even unconscious sexually-nuanced games being played out.
Why switch into cruise mode?
I think it’s a universal and simple truth that, like the colour red flags a bull’s attention, most of us are intrigued by naked beef. But why do some of us respond by switching into cruising or quickie mode, especially in a public space where we could be caught?
Gay and bisexual men have an interesting history of engaging in sex in public spaces. Social anthropologists have attempted to explain why gay men have traditionally cruised in places such as parks, railway stations and public toilets, and have documented the development of commercial spaces specifically for man-to-man sex, such as darkrooms and steambaths.
Historically, rampant homoprejudice and society’s denial and condemnation of the realities of man-to-man sex culminated in many gay men marrying women and identifying as heterosexual, but still desiring sex with other men. Invariably they couldn’t bring men home to play – and resorted to clandestinely cruising and playing in public places where they were more likely to meet other kindred spirits. But dark parks, secluded beaches and public toilets often attracted gay bashers, police harassment and the risk of public humiliation, providing an incentive for the establishment of dedicated playrooms such as steambaths and darkrooms.
Talking not required
Interestingly, gay men’s cruising behaviour in public spaces has generally excluded verbal communication. It’s usually all about bodiliness, spatial proximity, posturing, eye contact and sexual tension, with speech often being redundant.
In fact, in many such situations, spoken communication is avoided – have you ever tried striking up a chatty conversation in a darkroom? Speech implies a loss of anonymity and negates the concept of “body as object”. In such situations we desire the beefy body and the attached gonads, not the “person”. And, before the editor wonders where I’m going with this, there are similar protocols around communication and personal space being played out in gyms.
So here’s one hypothesis for an interesting research project: I propose that two horny guys sitting in a sauna at gym are more likely to fidget with each other in situ if there’s no verbal communication between them than if they’ve just had a chat about the weather. Or, if you prefer, the potential for sexual interaction is inversely proportional to the verbal communication taking place. From my experience there isn’t much conversation between guys hanging out in a sauna or a steamroom but perhaps there’s room here for an annual ‘Virgin Active Scholarship in Sexual Psychology’. How’s that for a contradiction in terms?
Not always about lust
Let’s also acknowledge that quickie sex, or even furtive games such as cruising and perving over a really attractive guy, is not always about lust. Cruising fulfils countless functions and a bit of opportunistic sexual fidgeting in a sauna or steamroom can affirm our own desirability and attractiveness.
Cruising affirms our power to attract, to accept and to reject attention from others. It can affirm our masculinity. It can allow us to feel sexually charged and alive. It allows us to experience a risk of possible rejection. It allows men, both straight and gay, an opportunity to flaunt our manhood and to blatantly posture our potential phallic power.
It furthermore provides an ideal opportunity for us to compare our bodies with others, to boost our egos, to feel inspired and to experience a sense of bonding and belonging, through the unspoken acknowledgement of male-to-male interest.
I’m not advocating for lewd behaviour, but let’s be honest – steamrooms and saunas are generally very dull, boring and uncomfortable places so a bit of eye-contact and perving sure help pass the time.
By Glenn de Swardt This article first appeared in The Pink Tongue, Cape Town’s monthly gay newspaper, March 2008.