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Uncloaking Desire: Experiencing the Gay Sauna

Uncloaking Desire: Experiencing the Gay Sauna

Re-published with permission from The Inkling. Follow the author on Twitter here.

My time at Cambridge is teaching me to analyse everything around me: the unquestioned peculiarity of language, the invisible codes of social behavior, the gross ethics of sexual intercourse, the unwritten laws of friendship… you name it. And as a direct result I’m unavoidably conducting self-psychoanalysis on a compulsively continual basis, unable to say/do/write anything without immediately questioning why I’m saying/doing/writing it. Although it’s a bit obsessive – at times exhausting – I’m learning a lot about myself.

The other day, I performed one of these self-experiments while aimlessly roaming the streets of London: searching for a new experiential plateau to test the limits of my ‘self,’ I impulsively walked into a gay sauna. It’s something which had always caught my curiosity, and there was one in the flesh, right there in front of me.

For those not in the know, a gay sauna is as an underground complex of showers, saunas, steam rooms and sex booths where gay men go to relax and have totally anonymous sex of all sorts. All it costs is 10 quid (only 5 if you’re a student—literally: student discounts at a gay sex institution.) And they’re peppered all around London, you’ve probably walked past them a hundred times without even knowing. When paying my reduced entry free in exchange for a towel and locker key, descending into the den of unbridled sexual promiscuity, I couldn’t quite believe what I was doing. So why did I go down in the first place?

I’m putting it all down to my current academic research. I’ve just written a paper concentrating on the slightly barmy philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, particularly focusing on their post-structural approach to human desire. The most important factor for the pair is that desire is NOT representational: Freud’s Oedipal complex where desire is born out of the will to bed mommy and kill daddy is nothing more than a fictitious theatrical stage, having propelled psychoanalysts – even today – to continually trace manifestations of desire back to the family unit—i.e. “I sleep with dogs because my daddy didn’t love me,” or “I have issues cumming during sex because I was too close with my mother,” blah blah blah. Rather than concentrating on the significance or backlogged source of desire – which for them is totally meaningless to begin with – Deleuze and Guattari instead believe in its actual processes; how it operates on a very real, social scale, avowing that desire does not come from the ‘repressed unconscious,’ say, but just inexplicably exists as a potent, physical force, circulating around society at all times. Unlike for linguistic-psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, where desire is based on the premise of ‘lack’ – i.e. we desire an object or another person because they fulfill a lack within ourselves, a lack stemming from our entry into the world of signifiers and the separation from mommy’s bosom – Deleuze and Guattari persuade that desire is inherently “productive.” There is no lack to begin with. Desire just fuels more desire, which accumulatively fuels more and more. This is how one might explain episodes of Bestiality, say, or orgiastic festivals occurring from the time of Dionysius to the literature of Marquis de Sade.

Having genuinely opened my mind to the remarkable thought of these philosophers, I thought my experience at the sauna would be productively meaningless – just excessive desire for desire’s sake, with no emotional logic to what I was doing. And how wrong I was. I have never been so turned off and un-aroused in the entirety of my human existence. I couldn’t have wanted to have sex any less, actually. I left completely untouched and totally unsatisfied.

And I’ve been trying to work out why. What’s so odd about a sauna is that everyone is already there, naked, ready to have sex. You don’t need to work for it. No flirting is necessary – there’s not even any talking: nothing.  All signifiers of desire are dispensed with for a very literal, non-suggestive-experience. And quite frankly, I missed the suggestion, the sexual politics, the pre-amble that comes before actually going to bed with someone. It’s always nice to wonder what his body will look like once he takes off that top, no? Always makes one giddy to flirt indirectly through a discussion of music or literature before you eventually get to have sex? Every signifier of personality is also chucked away with at the door – the cloak we are so used to wearing everyday, signifying the kind of person we are through choice of clothing, gesture, accessories, idiosyncratic vocabulary etc… is incinerated the second you pick up your towel. Your desire is, in a way, totally ‘uncloaked.’



While for some this is potentially liberating – no longer having to depend on external signifiers to seem or feel attractive – my problem was that I totally missed the cloak; it really is what I find most attractive in someone. And the funny thing is, there were some really very  physicallyattractive men down there, though I couldn’t have been less interested in that context. All the eye contact in the bar, the pseudo-intellectual/pseudo-drunk chats about Kant, the informal drink and more formal dinner…its, well, fun. And entertaining the idea of sex is sometimes just as great or even more so than the phenomenological reality of actually having it. As I argued in my first Inkling article, sex can be oddly corporeal, but that’s a different issue I’m dealing with. On the same topic, however, I personally tend to feel more attractive when in control of my sexual signifiers – using the art of conversation, sartorially configuring my appearance etc., to manipulate how attractive I feel. This may all sound totally contrived, but I genuinely think everyone does it on some level. And I’m not saying I’m not fond of what’s underneath my cloak either. I just think there should be SOME sort of imaginative delay before it completely comes off.

I’m now trying to reconcile why I’m still so fond of the signifier – the implications of Eroticism as opposed to its literal manifestation  when all my reading and research is leading me to believe in the corporeal unashamedness of the physical body and the meaninglessness productivity of desire. I guess it’s because I like to live in a fantasyland sometimes. Playing out my day to day life, I hold on to my signifiers, so I can make myself feel special (this is what Foucault persuades we should all do in his ‘the aesthetics of existence’ theory, which I discuss in article number 2.) I know we’re all pieces of meat fueled by desire – Deleuze and Guattari are OBSESSED with this rather unromantic notion – but (and maybe its because I’m a bit narcissistic/hopelessly optimistic) it’s our cloaks that are personal, and I intend to flap mine about for years to come.

And was I happy or saddened by my experience at the sauna? I’m not sure. I guess it made me realise that I’m made up of more than just meat, and interested in more than just sex. And even if that’s not physically the case, I’m going to hold on to my romantic aspirations of love and desire just that bit longer.

Shit. Have I just watched The Notebook just one too many times? (Don’t answer that.) 

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