Bathhouse

The Most Painful Head I Ever Got in a Gay Bathhouse

Cruising in a sauna isn’t as confusing as it seems — but rejecting an unwanted advance gets complicated when you’re nursing a near-concussion

Welcome to This Could Be Us, a column where writer and award-winning porn star Ty Mitchell riffs on queer culture and past hookups to make lyrically crushing statements and help us all better understand relationships and intimacy.

I’m somewhat averse to sex parties. That, of course, surprises a lot of people. They think if you love sex like I do, you should love a lot of it at once from a lot of people. They imagine a utopia of indiscriminate sexual access, when in fact, during such a gathering, all the delicate negotiation of satisfying consensual sex often gets compounded and crammed into a dark, fleshy room. For some, that’s part of the adventure. For me, it’s overwhelming. I suppose I’m just more of a fast-casual than a buffet-style type of slut.

I do love a sauna, though, as well as a spacious hot tub. And recently, I wound up on a last-minute vacation to close out the decade somewhere warm, vibrant and gay. I had it on good authority that Sunday nights in Mexico City are a great time to check out the gay bathhouse, which is pretty much a sex party but with flip-flops. I decided to try it. If the going got tough, there’d at least be plenty of space to lounge around and sweat by myself.

Whoever designed the place knew what they were doing. I’d never visited an authentic gay bathhouse, only cruise-y steam rooms at gyms I couldn’t afford. So I’d expected something spooky and surreal, having read about them in the works of gay authors like Samuel Delany and Andrew Holleran. In my head, bathhouses belonged to another time predating AIDS, married life and police crackdowns against public sex. Basically, I didn’t expect the whole experience to be so… light.

The bathhouse had three floors to traipse through. A sauna, steam room and showers lined the top floor’s square hallway, while a labyrinthine darkroom sprawled across the second floor. Men feeling either chatty or anxious sipped cocktails in the hot tub or by the bar on the disco-fueled ground floor. I came in the early evening when the place was neither crowded nor dead. Good, I thought, there’s an entirely workable spectrum of people I do and don’t want to fuck.

After a stiff drink and 10 Our Fathers, I embarked nervously upon the darkroom. Yes, I got fucked immediately. Yes, he was preposterously hot. Yes, I wondered what we might name our freshly conceived child. But there’s always something.

Maybe 20 minutes into this scene, Hot Guy is holding me down while somebody I wasn’t even attracted to fucked me on my back. I’d impulsively cruised this other guy before my eyes adjusted to the dark and felt sublimely unbothered about letting him pound into me. I felt a tremendous sense of cosmic balance, as though my self-limiting hang-ups about sex and hotness could be shattered by this ugly guy’s cock.

Then I bonked my head against the black-lacquered brick wall. Too much lube had found its way between my back and the bench, and I was approaching my final form: a Tonya Harding blow-up doll. The voyeur doulas surrounding us quickly attended to me, cupping my head tenderly with a hand while I continued to get anally obliterated. But bodies shifted around, as they’re prone to do, and I bonked my head again — this time, harder. I requested a union five and departed for the bar. 

Once there, I took deep breaths and assessed the extent of the injury over a tequila soda. I was panicking. Had I just so thoroughly front-loaded my bathhouse experience that I concussed myself within the first hour? At least I could say someone literally fucked my brains out.

Lightheaded, I searched for a bottle of water and a warm body to whom I could tell this fantastic joke. When my vision finally cleared, I found myself at a cocktail table chatting up a man with a bright, unnerving smile, a non-tapered crew cut and a disconcerting patience for somebody who couldn’t order water without assistance. He eventually said, “I want to fuck you,” and I realized I’d been flirting. I looked at him closely and tried to convert my gratitude toward him into desire. I wanted to transcend my own standards for sex, eclipsing all measures of attraction with a base, carnal hunger. I reached under his towel to try and activate this impulse, but I felt biochemically repulsed.

For all their orificial openness, spaces like bathhouses are littered with a thousand small rejections, refusals, evasions, heartbreaks and disconnections. I give them. I receive them. I catch a stray whiff of them accreting on the ceilings. We should all say “no” to what we don’t want, but it’s too stressful to tread through in rapid-fire fashion, especially when I know it ought to be a thrill.

On the bright side, I supplanted my anxiety about being concussed with the much lower-stakes stress of fleeing an unwanted sexual advance. The throbbing in my head had largely subsided, and I felt nothing toward the man who’d kept me company in my time of need. However, rather than simply saying, “No, thank you, I was using you as a crutch during a mild panic attack,” I excused myself to go take a shower. 

But after an hour of trying to get my groove back, I began running into him in every room — by the bar, in the sauna and back in the darkroom. He wasn’t exactly following me, but he still wanted a piece. 

Cruising without words usually isn’t as confusing as many men tell themselves it is. You move closer. You tentatively touch a shoulder, chest or leg. You pay attention to whether your temporarily beloved leans in or recoils. Consent still matters here and operates through deniable but obvious cues specific to the obscure erotics of the place and the people gathered in it. In any case, I’ve taken my fair share of recoils, too.

There are so many simple ways to turn somebody down, but I couldn’t bring myself to issue any of them to this man. Instead, I got caught up in all these other considerations: Had I sent mixed messages? Had I been shallow? Had I avoided letting him down? Could I bear his disappointment or resentment if I did now? I didn’t know if I was being a good slut or a bad one. These dilemmas flashed quickly through me before I decided on one thing: I couldn’t think too much about it. 

The bathhouse closed before I could cum, and I wound up in a bottleneck of stragglers paying their bar tab before exiting. My concussion companion was there, still amiable but palpably frustrated. Here on the sidewalk looking up our respective ways home, we each had only ourselves to care for. I said a final, distant farewell to the unhandsome man I’d been evading. With a mason jar’s worth of lube whirlpooling in my colon, I drifted into the night and toward my bed.

For all my triumphs that evening, I still ran into the same old problem of managing misdirected desires. As a queer person, rejection evokes the pain of a lifelong series of humiliations. And as a man, rejection evokes the dismay of a lifelong series of entitlements. I think gay men in particular struggle to parse cruelties from boundaries, from either end of the refusal. At least I do. I want deeply to be desired and respected at the same time. That’s the thing about sex parties, gay bathhouses and any dance hall worth the cover — they’re designed for moving on from what you wanted, whether someone gives it to you or not. 

As for my head? I haven’t had any complaints.