It is Friday night. Down one alley of a busy shopping and entertainment district of Seoul, young men move through what appear to be closed doors of a dilapidated building. A slow trickle of customers — some dressed in suits, others as hipsters — enter the inconspicuous establishment, seeking to unwind after the weekly grind. Welcome to one of Seoul’s many gay saunas.
The traditional sauna is everywhere in South Korea. They are very much part of the modern South Korean landscape. Parents take their children to bathhouses to get a good scrub and soak. And the dry area is where families can rest, gather, and socialise while sipping a refreshingly cold and sweet beverage, known as sikhye.
But saunas are sometimes more than just places to rest. There one can literally strip down, discarding one’s name, status, and social markers, freeing oneself from people’s gazes or judgement, and becoming just a naked, anonymous body. Whatever strains or pressures life may bring, the sauna can be a place of freedom, as I discovered in one such for gay men.
In Seoul alone, there are approximately twenty such establishments, with others scattered nationwide. Many are not saunas per se, since they actually forgo the sauna component and focus on ‘resting facilities’. They cater to a variety of tastes, depending on one’s preferred age group or physical build. Young, old, “standard”, “bears”, “bulky”, “chubs”. There is a place for everyone.
Having heard about these fabled places in the past and being single and full of curiosity, I eventually mustered the confidence to experience the South Korean gay sauna myself.
Upon entering the dimly lit establishment, one does as they would do in any normal sauna. First, shoes are removed and stored in a locker. Patrons purchase tickets, whereupon they receive several towels and proceed to the changing room. They shower, dry, and wrap large towels around their waists. This is tied in a strategic way as a telltale sign of one’s tendency: “top” or “bottom” — active or passive for those who are curious. Places differ in size and complexity, but overall follow a set layout: a TV room, a series of cubicles that are curtained off, and a communal rest area. The last is where the hunt for meat, or “cruising”, begins.
It is difficult to see people’s faces because the lighting is so dim. That is why men come prepared with old 2G mobile phones, switched on and flipped open, using the pale light to make out people’s faces and towel configurations. The submissive type, often bottoms, will remain on display on the floor as though on sale at a meat market, waiting to be purchased. If a hunter finds a catch that pleases him, he might start to fondle his way down the inert body, under the towel, slowly grabbing, touching and caressing dangly parts, thus making his intentions clear. At this point, the bottom can either choose to accept or reject these advances. If they hit it off, the fun begins.
Few words are ever exchanged inside the sauna. Most are equipped with condoms, lubricant, and even tissues placed at arm’s length. One can decide on how private he wants to be during the intimate act by opting for one of the so-called private rooms or the communal room where everything is on display. Others might join in, resulting in one big orgy. Once the fun is finished, customers go back to the shower, put on their suits or hipster clothing, and discreetly disappear off back into the bustling lights of heterosexual South Korea.
Living in the clothes of a straight office worker, it is hard for me to be honest about my sexuality. I am always on my guard. Will anyone find out my little secret? How will they react if I am outed? Being a foreigner far from home, I think to myself, ‘To heck with it’. Gay South Korean friends think otherwise. Most I know work for South Korean multinationals, or the chaebol, and coming out is unthinkable for them, because the fear of not getting a promotion or outright being fired is real.
Girl talk among my colleagues is often dull and lacking in authenticity. Even if I am in the happiest of relationships, I cannot mutter a single word to colleagues. But I am not alone. Gay South Korean friends repeat the same grievances day in, day out. They tell me how they are encouraged, if not forced, to experience the splendours of girls during regular visits to room salons. These establishments, meant to be private spaces of sexual freedom for heterosexual men, call into question the sexuality of gay employees, who find it humiliating but necessary to pretend to enjoy female flesh. The only consolation is that the embarrassment of not becoming erect in front of female sex workers makes for funny conversations among gay friends during the weekend.
South Korea has come a long way in the last decade for LGBT rights: The country now sports hundreds of bars for the queer community, but still the official message is that a man should be manly, in the most conservative and sometimes deplorable sense, from drooling over pin-ups of sexy K-pop stars to banging prostitutes. The recent news that the Ministry of Education will ban teaching about homosexuality in schools is just another sign of how repressive South Korean society still is toward gay people. We are confined to the Internet, the margins of Seoul’s Itaewon and Jongno districts, and gay saunas.
While some might be disgusted by the idea of places that are designed for anonymous sex, I see no difference between visiting gay saunas and going to South Korea’s ubiquitous room salons and hookers. Gay or straight, we all seek a release.