Photo by Mary Anne Carter.
Ever since a teenage summer spent devouring John Rechy novels (City of Night, Numbers, etc) I have completely romanticized the world of gay cruising. At an age when I sort of actually expected to run into the Ramones circa 1977 just wandering the East Village, I enjoyed a moment of hope when I learned women’s bathhouses exist.
My first visit to one was unexpected. I felt a wave of terror, looking at photos of scantily clad massage therapists on the doors of Olympia spa, convinced my mom had accidentally taken us the last place anyone (well, most people) would want to go with their moms. But the therapists wore little clothing because they do physical labor in a room full of hot steam. My most erotic experiences there were a few pointed looks from a muscular naked butch woman whose crew cut shone from the sauna.
I’ve heard the Hot House gets interesting, but while an excellent spa, it’s definitely no women’s Steamworks.
I once took a date to the Bridge to Nowhere (RIP) in the Arboretum on a summer evening. As we dangled our legs off the abandoned stretch of freeway, drinking whiskey gingers from paper cups, my companion, fairly new to town, mentioned the dozens of shirtless men walking their dogs or casually entering and exiting the bushes. “This is a huge cruising spot,” I explained. This turned into a conversation about how terribly hot we both find the idea of cruising, a sort of adult game of hide-and-seek whose prizes are orgasms. We decided to pretend we didn’t know each other.
I sat in a tree and she strolled up and looked at me. “Can I come up?” she said. “Why don’t I come down.” We had giddy, adrenaline-spiked sex in the tall grass under the tree until we noticed a group of men within eyeshot. Two guys emerged from a stand of cattails, buttoning their shirts. We moved to a secluded spot where I pressed her against a freeway piling. It wasn’t long before we were approached by a slender, nattily dressed man with glasses. My date was facing the piling, and I have an angular body for a woman, so when I turned to the visitor, he was flustered. The glasses probably didn’t do anything to lessen the surprise of boobs. “Oh, excuse me!” He said, “I’m sorry, enjoy your evening.” He disappeared into the bushes. We did—this adventure was followed by victory shots and various fried things at the Unicorn. It was a date I’ll always remember fondly.
It wasn’t the real thing, though. A women’s cruising spot would have been heaven for between-girlfriends sluttiness. I don’t know the explanation for the lack of women’s bathhouses and sex cattails—it could be cultural, or it could be something about the biology of female sexuality. The source of the appeal of bathhouses and underpasses to me may be the same as the geometry of my body, facial hair thick enough to require maintenance, and lifelong masculine identification.
Beyond (possibly) gender-related reasons, though, I love the glamor of cruising, resulting from its existence as an expression of sexuality entirely outside of the religious, patriarchal, and economic systems that imprison accepted modes of sexual expression. Like most glamor, cruising’s glamor has dark roots—its secrecy was once (and still is, in many places outside this idyllic Netherlands of America) necessary for the livelihood of those who participated. For many lonely hunters it was (and is) the only source of fulfilling sexual experiences when public displays of same-sex affection, let alone relationships, were/are met with discrimination, imprisonment, and violence. I think we can agree it’s a good thing that, in the age of same-sex marriage and Grindr, bathhouses seem to be going out of style. Two people with the same junk can have a relationship as emotionally and sexually fulfilling as two with the opposite, and they can even have a big state-sanctioned party where their friends cheer when they mush cake on each other and their grandmas drink too much rosé.
But fleeting encounters are so discouraged by American culture that even in Seattle their particular romance is undervalued. When all of your time on earth with a person is spent at a single party (or the alley near a party, or in the parking lot at a show) and that time includes a moment of complete vulnerability, your experience of them is gloriously distilled. I’ll be forever thrilled and intrigued by the existence of an entire culture devoted to this moment of distillation, that I will never know.