One woman’s exploration into the secret world of lesbian bathhouses.
A few years ago, my girlfriend and I settled on a don’t-ask, don’t-tell arrangement for out-of-town flings. But I haven’t slept around. I’ve been too nervous about putting my relationship in jeopardy, and the offers I’ve received have reeked of trouble. I don’t care how many books there are with the word “polyamory” in the title—situations like that where someone isn’t going to get hurt are hard to come by. It’s been easier to enjoy the attention that’s come my way and leave it at that. But one flirtation piqued more than my desire. When I met an acquaintance I’ll call Toni at a conference, we were mutually attracted. I tend to dodge crushes, but this time I found myself in the grip of one. When I saw a funky shirt in the window of a store and fantasized about buying it for Toni, I began to worry. Imagining dressing a woman is much more serious than imagining undressing her. Was something missing in my relationship?
Asking myself this question caused more ripples than I think sleeping with Toni would have. I concluded that I was with the right woman, but the experience made me wonder once again if I was capable of a light extramarital adventure. A bathhouse seemed like the place to find out.
When I arrived, I saw women hanging out on the sidewalk. The hot tub had broken down, and no one was allowed to enter. Instead of discreetly slinking in, I was obliged to chat with the other women, one of whom attempted to ramp up the sexual energy by reading erotic poems out loud. Not her own, thankfully, but a selection by Chrystos.
Eventually, we were let in. I paid the $25 cover charge, and a volunteer handed me a locker key and fluorescent bracelet, which I was told I could offer to someone for a kiss. Then a frowning young woman in a leather bra and a short skirt read a list of rules, concluding with a terse lecture: “Women failed here tonight. They failed to take on the shared responsibility for our environment. The hot tub is broken because no one told a volunteer it was overflowing. We have to give the owner every penny we make tonight for the repair, so if you see a problem, make sure you tell a volunteer.”
Upstairs, I agreed to share my locker with a perky young blonde. As we deposited our handbags, I felt a twitter in my guts. I had been having sex with the same woman for over a decade. Could I do this?
“I wish they served alcohol,” I remarked to my locker mate.
“Do you want a drink? I have rum in my car.”
We headed outside with a third woman in tow. We were all femme, although I didn’t know if these women would characterize themselves that way. I’m 40 and they both turned out to be 25.
Inside the blonde woman’s car, we took turns squirting booze from her water bottle into our mouths. It was cozy; I almost didn’t want to leave. The blonde said she was bisexual and wanted a sexual experience with a woman. “I keep telling guys ‘No’ and then they don’t even want to be my friend. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I go after what I really want?’”
The other woman said, “I’m queer. You could call me bisexual, but that makes my life sound more interesting than it is. Coming here tonight is a big deal for me.”
I asked her if she was here to see a particular woman, a guess that turned out to be correct. Personally, I was a little interested in one of the volunteers—let’s call her Suzanne—whom I knew slightly.
Back at the bathhouse, I ran into Suzanne. Earlier in the day I had asked her about attire, and she made a stern comment about street clothes being inappropriate. Apparently, the rule didn’t apply to her. She was fully dressed, replete with big black boots. She’s trendy and younger than me, neither of which were qualities I tend to go for, but we had shared interests. We began talking and I asked her what she was looking for tonight.
“I’d like to go home and go to bed.”
That didn’t sound promising.
She added, “Well, I know everyone.”
I said, “You don’t know me.”
“I should get back to work.” She dashed away.
I took a deep breath. I had been blown off. Well, I was a big girl. Time to check out other possibilities.
The bathhouse was on two floors, each of which consisted of a hall with rooms on either side. Walking through the space, I noticed the femme to butch ratio of the perhaps 35 women was about 2:1, odds that were not in my favor. Many of the women were attractive but seemed awfully young and devoid of sexual attitude. I didn’t see what I was looking for, namely, a butch who knew what to do with me. A woman who would tell me I looked lovely, and I would tell her she was handsome, but she would say it first.
The atmosphere didn’t help. Women wandered about with towels knotted around their waists, and I felt like I was at the Y. I was wearing swishy black slacks with a black silk camisole and didn’t want to take them off. Not because I was shy or embarrassed about my body—I just feel my nudity should be someone’s reward. But since I was the only woman dressed besides the volunteers, I decided to get partially naked by playing strip Twister. A game was in progress on the lower floor. One woman turned the spinner, calling out combinations in a loud, cheerful voice: “Red, left foot, green, right arm.” Two women contorted their limbs on a plastic sheet. Beside the game, a woman lay with her head buried between another woman’s thighs. These were the only women I saw having sex the entire night, and they registered about as much interest as pet rocks.
Twister was more compelling. Women crowded around the game, shrieking and giggling. I joined in and was soon wearing only a lacy black bra and panties. Another spin and the girl beside me moved into a position that would allow the woman behind her, were she inclined, to perform analingus.
“You better hope you don’t fart,” one woman called out, and everyone laughed.
“Yeah, especially since I had beans for supper,” the woman with the extended posterior quipped.
Fart jokes didn’t let up for another five minutes. Like the woman who’d had beans for dinner, my hands were on the floor and my ass was in the air, on display to the small, rowdy crowd. Did I feel like I was turning anyone on? Hardly. I was reminded of being at Girl Guide camp, when someone opened the door while I was using the outhouse.
Upstairs, one woman was getting a foot massage, another woman was getting a back massage, and a third group sat in a room reading erotica aloud. There was a make-out room, but it was empty. The most popular place was the sauna. As I sat soaking up the heat in my bra and panties, I heard the women, all of whom seemed to know one another, discuss camping trips. The idea of interjecting flirtatious banter seemed ludicrous. Making eye contact wasn’t even possible. When my locker mate came in to ask me to unlock the locker, I followed her out. As she retrieved a water bottle, I asked where the third woman we were drinking with was.
“She took off.”
We hadn’t been here long. Had things gone badly with the woman she was interested in? I asked my locker mate if she’d met anyone.
She shook her head. “How about you?”
“The women aren’t old enough or butch enough.”
“How about the woman you were talking to downstairs?”
“She rejected me.”
My locker mate made a sympathetic moue.
I headed downstairs where I bumped into Suzanne, who greeted me with a big smile. Had I made a mistake? I wasn’t sure, so a little later I decided to let her approach me. I made it easy by watching The L Word in the lounge, which was close to where she was working. In the spring, I had gone to a lesbian club to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and pheromones had flown about like fireflies, little bursts of light in the dark. An attractive couple had started dancing with me, making me the filling in their sandwich. “You two are naughty girls,” I told them after the song ended. The butch had winked at me: “We like it like that.” What makes a night full of sexual heat? I’m not sure; I just knew this wasn’t one. But things started to look up when Suzanne came over and sat beside me.
“Catching up on The L Word?”
“I’m not interested in flogging.” True, but what had turned me off to the flogging demonstration I had just left, was listening to the volunteer expound on the topic with the tone that an elementary school teacher might use to explain the solar system. Everyone else had stayed, probably because it demanded neither participation nor flirtation.
The make-out room was still empty. Suzanne was still dressed. And I was still in my fancy bra and panties. It was, uh, a little distracting. Was she interested or just being friendly? I couldn’t tell. I knew I was having a hard time keeping up my end of the conversation because I wanted to kiss her. But she went back to the booth and came out holding a bicycle helmet.
Shit. She was leaving.
Taking off my bracelet, I handed it to Suzanne. “Seeing as you invited me here, I think you should kiss me.”
“I didn’t invite you. I just gave you information.”
God, she was being literal while I was trying to be arch. I was about to tell her she didn’t have to kiss me when she did. Yet as her tongue slid around my mouth, I wasn’t sure if she wanted to, and I couldn’t relax. But when she slammed me up against a wall and pushed her body into mine, I felt a rush. That grrr feeling, where I want to pounce on a woman, is engendered by how hot she finds me. After a moment, she released me. “Good night.”
“Tease.” The word was out of my mouth before I had time to think. Had I really said that?
It didn’t matter because she was gone.
I dug my stuff out of my locker, dressed, gave my key to my locker mate, and exited. As I headed back to where I was staying, I thought of that gay male disco anthem about loving the one you’re with. If a lesbian had written the song, it would go, “If you can’t be with the one you love, leave the bathhouse in a huff.”
It also occurred to me that I went to the bathhouse because of Toni. Part of me wanted to stomp out those last burning embers of my crush, while another part of me thought that if I had sex with a woman I was less fond of than Toni, I would have a better sense of how to handle things if Toni and I ever did sleep together.
Weirdly, I wound up having sex with my girlfriend less than an hour after getting back from my trip. “For some reason, I’m so horny,” she said, sliding a hand over my back.
Girlfriends are psychic. Lust and affection for another woman might hold my brain hostage for a little while, but it doesn’t necessarily mean much. I think what I’ve learned from all this is that desire isn’t easy to manufacture or contain. Nudity and strip Twister don’t create ardor, and the only thing that will make sex outside my marriage safe is faith in it. But I won’t be bothering with bathhouses.