I Worked in a Gay Bathhouse. Here’s What I Learned.
Due to certain life transitions — a move to Portland, a divorce — I found myself very unemployed. And there was such a gap in my professional life that no one responded to my applications. So a friend, tired of asking about the job search and paying for my drinks, said, “I know someplace that’s hiring.” He texted me the link. I was at first shocked that he’d sent me a job listing for a local gay bathhouse, but I accepted it as a challenge.
Shockingly, they hired me.
Here are 10 things that I learned from working at a gay bathhouse:
1. Your friends will have very different reactions.
I’ve only been on the West Coast for two years. Friends from Philly, with whom I was raised, laughed off my new job. Reactions from gay friends from further back east were mixed. My Portland friends just wanted me to have a job. Every response, though, was priceless.
“I swear, you only get jobs you can write about,” said one Philly bestie. “A good job doesn’t have to make great content.”
My Bostonian bestie was appropriately puritanical. “You need work. Just don’t get too involved.” He believes the West Coast is nothing but vice, and the length of coastline from San Diego through Seattle are Babylons of iniquity.
“Fantastic,” said the New York bestie. “Think what material you’ll get. Tell me all about it! Are the guys hot? Anyone ever corner you and …” (To answer that question, employees aren’t allowed to use the club right away. There’s a probation period. Also, under no circumstances are you to engage with guests beyond light, slightly risqué banter.)
But an older, very wise friend of mine, active in his church, had the most erudite response: “It’s a ministry. You’re working to bring carnal joy into people’s lives.”
2. You’ll have to learn who deserves the truth … and who deserves a white lie.
“Where are you working?” mother asked.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you?”
“No. You said it was part-time,” she said. “You had to take any job.”
I responded quickly, “I’m working at a gym.” I had worked at a gym in Philly.
“A very exclusive all-male gym,” a San Francisco friend said about the exchange. “You’re not really lying. There are showers and lockers, and you spend a lot of time folding towels. People get a workout.”
So that’s the story I told non-queers and others who might be judgy of my newfound employment. For potential future employers, I didn’t know what to say. Could I tell them the truth? No. I claimed a lot of freelancing.
3. Gloves become your new best friends.
When hired at a gay bathhouse, it’s typically for a front desk job, much like people who check memberships at the gym. But you’ll also have to clean. At the bathhouse, duties are shared by everyone, regardless of seniority.
I remember my first freak out.
In the private rooms — some of you know what these look like — there’s always a trash can. One time I was collecting trash when — boom! (I swear it made a sound) — a used condom fell onto the mattress, out pouring the remains of one man’s passion. A lot of passion. I screamed, and another employee quickly turned into the room.
“Your first one?” he asked.
“Cheer up, buttercup. There’s gonna be plenty more.”
He was right.
You’re not issued gloves just because of bodily fluids, though that’s part of it. The main reason for gloves is the hospital-grade cleaners used, which are fairly harsh when used repeatedly.
4. Working in a gay bathhouse is a workout.
In a gay bathhouse you’ll be tasked with bringing dirty towels to the laundry, then flipping them into the dryer. Of course you’ll have to roll or fold them. It’s a nice little upper-body workout due to the repetition.
You’re also on your feet a lot. That Fitbit or health app on your phone will record several miles a day. Then there’s carrying buckets of water to mop floors and disinfect club-issued sandals.
Steamrooms must be cleaned multiple times each day. A few times each week, a really thorough cleaning happens. Grates are removed, and these are heavy. Then you scrub everything, also a workout.
Then, of course, there are mattresses. They’re generally twin mattresses, but clubs often have higher-end rooms with larger ones. These need to be wiped down, on both sides. If you’re doing six to eight of these flips each shift, you’re sure to see your pecs and upper arms grow.
5. You’re best not to approach patrons of the gay bathhouse in public.
Sure, you’ll strike up chats with regulars. They may want to know everything about you. But if you see them out, it’s best not to shout “Hey, someone got pounded pretty hard last night! We could hear ya from the front desk!”
I spend a lot of time in gay businesses (read: bars) and I knew to approach patrons only if they flashed a smile that indicated I knew his secret. We were complicit, and seeing me out and about was kinda exciting to them. They bought me drinks, they respected my position and — at least not within earshot — they didn’t tell others, “Oh yeah, I know Sebbie from the bathhouse.” Instead, I was described as a “bar friend.”
But I also experienced exactly the opposite. One guy’s eyes popped out of his head upon recognizing me. He moved down the bar quite a bit, but I wasn’t offended. He was always very nice to me at work, so to make him feel comfortable I moved outside.
6. Yes, you will “see things.”
“I bet you see lots of action,” said a rather sex-positive guy while we were on a casual date.
“Oh, you know I do,” I responded.
After a month of working in a gay bathhouse, I was desensitized. The Oh my God, that’s so fucking hot! or Oh, shit, I didn’t think you could do that with a zucchini! was fun in the beginning, but soon you walk around without turning your head towards the constant moaning.
Servers often say they can’t look at food after work. It’s like that.
The most you really see is porn. You’re constantly cleaning video areas, and people leave TVs on when they check out. Eventually you lose your interest to watch, and instead, you’ll critique. Who decorated that room, his grandmother? This gets you thinking. That poor grandmother. She goes to Florida for the winter but lets her wayward grandson stay at her house. Now here he is, renting the place out to a porn producer, 69ing on the loveseat, right in front of the Christmas tree.
7. In a gay bathhouse, you’ll find yourself using the phrase “Sir, I’m working” quite a bit.
Like servants, in a gay bathhouse you’re to be seen and not heard. You’re there to work. But you get lurkers. Perhaps they linger too long at the front desk, and you sort of know they’ll approach you. On one of my first shifts — a slow weekday afternoon — I pulled out my spray bottle and cleaning cloth and went to spray the frame around the gloryhole. All of a sudden, a rather large phallus was presented to me. While I was admittedly flattered, I didn’t know what to say, so I looked up. This cock’s owner was smiling down at me from above.
“Sir, I’m working,” was my droll response, but it worked. He removed his engorged member from its uncomfortable distance to my face.
8. Patrons sometimes hold you accountable for the fact they didn’t get off.
At one time, bathhouses were primarily for bathing. Only in the last century did running water become standard in homes across the economic spectrum. If you worked in a coal mine, chances are at least once a week you’d go to the local bathhouse and clean up.
Of course, bathhouses have since become almost exclusively a venue for men to congregate with sex in mind. Some men, though, really do come to unwind. Some are straight and comfortable enough to brush off advances. These guys want to visit the sauna, get in, get out and get home. Of course, the overwhelming majority want to get in, get off, get out and get home.
“Unfulfilled” gay bathhouse patrons will sometimes berate you. They made an “investment of time and money,” and dammit they haven’t “had the full experience.” This is usually delivered by angry, naked men, their brows furrowed above flaccid, disappointed penises.
“It’s not our job to get you off,” you remind them. “That’s your responsibility.”
9. There will be hazing.
Whenever gay men get together, there are always well-intentioned barbs. In the gay bathhouse we were always accusing each other of being older than we were, being more sexually active than we admitted or being less sexually active than we claimed. But given that you’re working in a closed, confined space with your colleagues, the hazing, jokey insults and “good-natured barbs” are never-ending.
You’re around sexual activity all the time, which can be overwhelming and a little empowering. But, more than that, there’s often a lingering fear that you’re being judged by everyone else for your job. That means having to be “on” all the time. You’ll have to be quick with the wit, and you’ll have to learn how to respond to each colleague — and frequent patrons — on a person-to-person level.
This — more so than flipping a dozen mattresses on a busy day, or dealing with leaky condoms — will be the hardest part of your job.
10. It’s not only “horny old men” who patronize the gay bathhouse.
As a college kid in New York, we were warned against bathhouses. They were described as places for drug addicts, or guys brimming with STIs. Things have changed so much. With people now becoming aware that non-detectable HIV-positive guys cannot transmit the virus — and with many gay men electing to take PrEP — the range of clients at the gay bathhouse is diverse. You encounter college guys as often as you do retirees.
Also, bathhouses often work with local queer health organizations that come in and offer free, on-the-spot testing and results. Some guys are more likely to get tested in totally anonymous situations, or in spaces that provide non-judgmental support and counseling.
I’ve met many Europeans who come to the gay bathhouse to make connections since they might not have local friends. As long as they don’t stay past allotted hours — based upon local hotel tax laws — they can easily come in to catch some sleep and have a shower before their 5 a.m. flight. These tourists check in, close their door, put on headphones and sleep. You call them a cab for the airport, and they leave wearing a tie.
I no longer work in a gay bathhouse, but it was an experience I’ll never forget. I don’t advise against it, especially if you’re a creative guy who picks up freelance work. If you can’t stand constant barbing from co-workers, or you’re uncomfortable working in a sexually charged environment, maybe it’s not for you.
Once, after I’d left my position at the gay bathhouse, I bumped into one of its regular patrons. When he asked if I wanted to go back to his place for a bit, I couldn’t help but respond, “Sure, sir, I’m not working.”
Have you been to a gay bathhouse before? Were you surprised by anything on this list?
This story was originally published on August 19, 2017.