Sex and the Triumph
of Consumer Capitalism
I have already referred to the importance of the baths in the male gay world. Let me take one example, a bathhouse in the northern section of Chicago, beyond the Loop and the Gold Coast, in an area where Puerto Rican bars rub shoulders with Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. An inconspicuous two-story building, noticeable only for its lack of windows, it is set in a cul-de-sac off the main road where a policeman stands watch (to protect the gays or the straights?), the Midwest's largest, most luxurious sauna.
But it is not just a bathhouse, for you can eat snacks here, buy leather gear and inscribed T-shirts, even watch live cabaret performances on certain nights (this being a tradition first established by the New York Continental Baths, where Bette Midler launched her career). 1 Most striking is a large disco floor on the top story, surrounded by enormous soft pillows, where men dance clad only in towels, their movements jerky under the strobe lights. In the basement there is a small swimming pool, showers, and steamrooms; the main floor is largely occupied by a maze of small rooms that people hire for eight hours at a time; there is always a door or two open, with men, all-but-naked, lying inside in wait for a temporary partner. The place is strangely quiet, disturbed only by the background noise of disco music from upstairs and the constant, muted plodding of bare feet. Men in bathhouses rarely talk much, and it is quite common for sex to take place without words, let alone names, being exchanged. Yet even the most transitory encounters are part of a heightened eroticism that pervades the building; there is a certain sexual democracy, even camaraderie, that makes the sauna attractive. The willingness to have sex immediately, promiscuously, with people about whom one knows nothing and from whom one demands only physical contact, can be seen as a sort of Whitmanesque democracy, a desire to know and trust other men in a type of brotherhood far removed from the male bonding of rank, hierarchy,