Tubs Perdu: Notes on the Baths

June 24, 1984

It’s a plague, he told me, it’s my worst nightmare come true (he forgot about war). Do you still have sex, I asked him, are you still looking for a lover? I couldn’t tell his answer by his eyes, and hoped he’d be careful.

How can you be “careful” with a disease that’s diffused its communication so cunningly that sexual behavior and identity themselves become the germs? And look what we do, personifying a disease by calling it cunning: that’s medieval, pathetic.

I walk by the St. Mark’s Baths twice a day, to and from work. For years I played an engaging game, trying to predict who on the street would turn abruptly toward those metal doors. The clues? A gym bag; a too rapid, too determined gait; a homing pigeon smile. I never went in; my longish steady relationship made me a door-voyeur. But last year I gave up the guessing game. And last month I noticed something I now consider a great danger. In spite of my rational knowledge that virulent humors and mal-arias don’t exist, my body veers automatically away from those doors.

Have I become a prude? Do my mental lips curl when “promiscuous” passes through them? Yes, they do, just a little. I have no idea whether or not this is new. I’m not going to enter the debate over whether San Francisco Department of Health should have pressured the baths to close. I know the arguments pro and con, but I’m not sure readers who have never seen the baths, never used the baths, could know how to make up their minds.

How do you make up your mind about risk, anyway? “Err on the side of caution and stay out,” on one hand, “sex is more dangerous on the forbidden outside,” on the other? My lover has suggested that I’ll put myself in moral danger if anything I saw draws even one person to the baths who would not otherwise go. I wouldn’t try to do so in any case. I just want to know why “How can they do that now?” is such a short step from “How can they do that at all?” It takes so little to engorge latent cultural erotophobia and sex panic. AIDS has made it respectable and reasonable to fear sex. What I don’t understand is why AIDS pressures me to denature my own sexual past.

I loved the baths. I had, with few exceptions, a wonderful time getting clean and getting sex. Now I’ve spent the last few weeks burning to remember, to recall accurately, how I felt about what I did and have tentatively concluded that AIDS has made this quest, already a dicey proposition, almost impossible. On the process of trying, this is what I discovered.

It was California, 12 or so years ago, and I bathed in the new glow of gay liberation. I leafleted Safeways for the United Farmworkers, protested the bombing of Cambodia, and wore eye makeup when I taught my classes. At night my best friend and I danced with the navy at San Diego’s best bar, and sometimes I could go, by myself or with him, to one of the local gay baths. I don’t recall my first time, though I do remember having to learn the protocol of what It means to leave your door open and where to put the keys. The baths were clean, and one had a small swimming pool. I loved taking my clothes off in a sexually public space; it fulfilled some of the political promise of the time. I recall the too-dark orgy room and the good showers. I don’t remember how much it cost.

At first, my friend and I couldn’t stand how quiet it was, how no one would talk, so we hopped into the chlorinated Jacuzzi and told jokes to each other or anyone who would listen. We asked people their names, what they did (and did in bed, even though they didn’t need a bed here). We weren’t considered pains in the neck, and after a few times more guys started to talk, if only (only?) about sex.

I matched up with an agreeably chunky guy who was amazed at my accent (I had no accent), but just as we started in he said something about dirty greasers, by which he meant Chicanos. I let it go once, but began to wilt. When he advanced to “niggers,” I pulled away and yelled something like: “You racist, who do you think you are, calling people, people you want to fuck, niggers and greasers,” and so on. The place stopped dead because none of the little rooms had ceilings and you could hear every word. The small orgy rooms we were in broke into applause and the guy left the baths. I wished it hadn’t happened; I wanted to have sex.

People have met lovers in the baths, or partners they would see on the outside; but usually the assumption is that good, hot, anonymous sex does not involve personal connection. So what do I make of this? Three small, muscular, delicately featured Southeast Asian men stood by themselves in the orgy room because, probably, no one was attracted to their type or race. They didn’t speak English, though at the moment neither did anyone else. The only unoccupied space was near them so I leaned against the wall. One of them touched me, and I touched back; it was—there’s no better word for this cliché—electrifying. He stroked me, and I felt and stroked him: rock-hard velvet, an experience, when combined with his beaming, sweet smile, as full with personhood as any I can imagine. I don’t recall if he or I came.

What I’m straining to remember is the excitement of the search, the physical flush, the presently unbelievable fact that they—and I—weren’t afraid to do all these things in front of each other. I know I felt disappointed when rejected, depressed if the man in question never called, but these were logical responses. The words over the door to these baths did not read: Obsessive, Inhuman, Self-Destructive, Abandon Hope. No, they did not.

What’s changed? It can’t be only AIDS, or that I’m older; age doesn’t require prudery. The only suggested that makes any sense has come from women. They remind me that men and women understand promiscuity differently. For heterosexual women sleeping around has usually entailed particular risks and the possibility of being exploited, which is why, in analyzing and fighting exploitation, some feminists of that same dozen years ago tried to open up and claim a range of sexual experience. This attempt was desirable not just for itself but because self-determined sex means something to women’s whole lives.

I should have known, it seems so obvious, that “promiscuity” isn’t one ahistorical phenomenon, that its meaning, even the so-called promiscuous behavior itself, changes with—and changes—the ideological color of the time. What must happen, beyond a cure for AIDS, that would enable me to reembody the sex I once enjoyed? What has to change so I could even imagine opening those doors? I can’t say, because I can’t predict history, but I do know almost anything will be better than the political promise of this time. The present always warps the past, but it cannot be allowed to destroy it.

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