Instead of scrolling through faceless photos on Grindr to find a hook-up, some gays opt for a steamy night out at D.C.’s scintillating bathhouse.
A rite of passage for GW gays, or at the very least a seedy pipe dream circulated through the gay grapevine, Crew Club is D.C.’s only gay bathhouse and sauna. To older gay residents, the bathhouse may be a reminder of the life left behind in a post-AIDS crisis D.C. and a return to the sex-positive aspects of the gay community.
Located at 1321 14th St. NW, Crew Club blends in with the commerce almost too inconspicuously for all the testosterone ready to flood out of the building. The frosted windows allow for discretion alongside real estate offices and cocktail bars. I arrived at about 7 p.m., just as the workday was closing out and bathhouse patrons were coming in.
Upon entering the building, there is a tiny lobby housing only a shut door, a circle porthole and one mustached man in line, who gave me a cursory look after slipping his I.D. through the small window to prove he was at least 18 years old. They value anonymity here, so to pay, you go into another small room with a different employee. There’s no more information given by the employees, but you catch on quickly.
On display were typical items you’d expect for sale, like the appropriately titled “ultra douche,” and poppers, a drug that can make you feel heady and relaxes your muscles during sex. With the locker rental – where I could leave my clothes after I disrobed – and a one-time membership, my total was $18 because Tuesdays are half off.
Afterwards, I was handed a towel and gained access to the first floor, which has a tanning room and gym. Upstairs has the uncensored fun.
When I arrived, no one was working out.
The entrance and large entertainment room has lockers, chairs and a television. Representatives from Whitman Walker, a D.C.-based health center specializing in LGBTQ health, were conducting optional HIV screenings. Lube and condoms were in copious supply spread out around the space. Paintings of nude men line the TV room, which switched between the news and dramas.
But most could not watch TV. My eyes darted everywhere but the screen.
The one sauna room could fit more than 10 people, and through the glass I saw a party developing. Bridging the sauna and steam room doors were a number of showers stalls, which was a relatively tame open space. I headed to the steam room, where most of the cruising – the perusal of anonymous sex – went down. But for some, the space was just a place to relax and unwind.
Wading in mist for five minutes, I began to recognize the passing faces, with each go round their eyes narrowing and becoming more devilish.
I crossed paths with at least 35 different men, ranging from fresh meat in their mid-twenties to virile elderly men. All body types were present, and no hierarchies were evident in the silence. I sat beside a person who looked closer to my age than the other men around us, but he eventually walked off. After five or six minutes ruminating in the steam, I began to wonder what the etiquette of this place is.
I found some luck and was led back to the private rooms, past the urinals, where further into the hallway grainy old pornos play on small TVs. This part of the building has multiple corridors – housing about 60 private booths, with different rates for the Crew rooms or larger Captain rooms.
Walking around might lead you to a stranger beckoning you to come inside. The doors on the booths said only one occupant at a time. At the time I thought, that’s rich.
After a brief exchange it was back to the steam room. I watched the mustached guy I entered with and one other man get serviced on the first bench inside by a third man. Patrons who just stepped in would turn their heads at the action and skid on the wet floor, distracted by the free entertainment. It quickly becomes an obscene amount of eyes on you, when committing to public sex acts.
Turning out of the steam room, I walked into a dark alcove ahead of me that was so dim I couldn’t see where the walls closed in. Inching away from some dark contraption in the middle, I thought I stepped on someone’s foot, only to turn and see three or four men just standing, waiting. An 80s-porno looking man tried playing with my towel and I quickly exited, not wanting to find my fate if I had stayed with the group of lustful men.
I didn’t feel threatened at all, but after a little more than an hour it was my time to leave. My friend later described the room to me as “the one with the sex swing” but in the darkness I couldn’t see it.
As I pulled clothes back onto my sweaty body and left, I was struck by an entirely different sensory experience under the friendly 14th Street storefront lights than I had earlier.
I walked away gleeful and dodged glances, like I just got away with something corrupt and too fun for an average Tuesday evening.