Reflections of a Bathhouse Employee

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An interior of a gay men’s bathhouse in the Mediterranean, picture provided by the author.

SOMETIMES IN LIFE you think you are on a certain type of career path, but then you take one detour to change things up a little, and you end up going in a whole new direction, but in the end that path feels like the one you were supposed to take in the first place.

That’s what happened to me in my late twenties as an administrator for a major architectural firm in North America. To make some extra money for my yearly vacations to Europe, I thought I’d take a parttime job at a local bathhouse on the weekends doing housekeeping and cashier shifts. But within a few months at this part-time job, the architectural firm where I’d worked for years abruptly downsized, and I was one of many people who were let go. Before I knew it, I was managing my first bathhouse and fully intertwined within the way these establishments operate.

You wouldn’t think so, but observing this type of subculture from behind a counter and in the offices gives one a whole new perspective on life. The bathhouse industry, which treats men as the product, can be very raw in more ways than one.

For those that don’t know, a bathhouse is a legal, private sex club for men, set up strategically to help fulfill every desire. The lights are dimmed, the music hypnotic, and even the color schemes are designed to enhance, relax, and recharge your moods. No matter which direction you turn, as part of your job, you will see, hear, and even smell every kind of sexual act possible. It can entice and awaken desires you never knew you had, or completely repulse and disgust you.

For some men, a bathhouse can be a place for those who want to live out a fantasy. For some, that fantasy never happens, but a bathhouse can entice you to think that it might. Either way, whether the fantasy turns into a reality or not, going to a bathhouse can also easily turn into an addiction, because of what it has to offer, whether that may be the possibility of love or a specific sexual act that can’t quite be fulfilled. However, the majority of men who go to bathhouses are there for some entertainment and engagement, as a natural camaraderie is formed, and it’s a chance to get away from the outside world for an hour or even a day.

One of the most interesting things you’ll discover working in a bathhouse is the varying degrees and forms of communication between the customers. Communication cues can range from the very subtle to the very extreme. Everyone is either cruising the place with just a towel wrapped around his waist or just naked. For the customer, this it removes the barrier of being judged by what you are wearing. Although some men state they prefer a specific body type and nationality, when the sexual tension is high in a bathhouse—given the darkness and crowdedness of the communal playroom—anyone can get off with just about anyone.

Barriers between people tend to be taken down a notch or two in a bathhouse. Men are more relaxed when clothing is removed, and more often than not, you see opposites attract. Men roam the myriad of hallways, looking for their next conquest or possibly for the love of their life. Words are not always spoken, as it can be considered intrusive to the ambiance. It’s all about instincts. A certain look can open doors, a glance back is a hello, brushing up against someone as you pass each other can lead to something very quick and intense.

Employees also have their own way of communicating. A knowing glance between employees—about a possible situation that may be arising or an irate customer who may be on the verge of being kicked out and banned for any number of reasons, such as drug dealing or theft—can speak volumes and help each other with safety protocols previously set into place.

For privacy reasons, instead of using a customer’s real name, nicknames are sometimes casually set up between staff members, whether the customer is new or a regular. For example, the chosen name might be “Big Red” for a customer’s red hair, or “Five-Finger Charlie” because of his known fisting skills. It’s an unusual but effective way of bonding with each other and adds to the banter in what can sometimes be a hectic and highly charged atmosphere.

Having worked in the bathhouse world for well over a decade, I will say it has taught me that, although these places are primarily about sex, there are more to these establishments than one might assume. Working at bathhouses has taught me to be more open-minded, more accountable, and better able to see bullshitters from a mile away. (This skill has been very rewarding to how I live now in the South of France and work in the luxury real estate market).

Love them or hate them, bathhouses are a part of the LGBT community, and I feel they will still be around to some extent after this pandemic, because ultimately men, no matter their persona or their app of choice, whether they admit it or not, a certain percentage of men will still need that human contact. These are the places that can provide a safe, private base in which they can choose to be themselves without judgment.

Born in Canada with a mutual love for France for most of his life. Jameson Farn has now resided for an extensive number of years in the Cote d’Azur region close to the Principality of Monaco. For just over the past decade, Jameson has contributed articles for several European and North American online magazines along with his blog, Gay French Riviera, aimed at those in the LGBTQ community that either lives in or are seeking to travel to this region in France.

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