I was recently at a meet-the-neighbors cocktail party at my friend’s home in a gentrified swath of the West End when a woman started telling us about how she and her husband were headed to a swingers’ club after the gathering. I expressed enthusiastic fascination, mainly because I’ve always been curious about the heterosexual version of sex clubs, but also because most of the conversations that night centered on home renovation projects.

“Well, everyone walks around in nothing but a towel,” she whispered as if she were exposing for me a forbidden underground world.

My friend and I flashed each other devilish glances and I interjected, “We’re gay. You can skip the basics and get straight to the sex.”

Gay culture has a long and touchy history with sex venues. In their best light, sex clubs and bathhouses are treated as our naughty little secret, but they are most often considered a political liability or public health risk.

In reality, most sex clubs are sexy and shady, exhilarating and sobering, spiritual and dehumanizing, hedonistic and a huge letdown. And, undeniably, they would be the envy of most heterosexual men (if they were aware of them), who can only have wet dreams about venues where a willing, already naked sex partner is around every corner.

FLEX

The neighborhood gathering was on the Friday night of a holiday weekend, and our dirty talk with the kinky housewife left my friend and me tingling for some towel-wearing explorations of our own. We went to the patriarch of Atlanta’s sex play spaces: Flex Bathhouse in Midtown near Georgia Tech.

My friend saved a couple of dollars by renting a locker, while I figured it was worth the extra $10 for a private room for us to be able to “host” any cute guys we came across.

My friend and I disrobed and wrapped our towels around our waists, then took a loop around the hallways of the main floor, passing other towel-clad men and glancing into a few rooms where guys were stroking invitingly or waiting with their asses in the air.

There’s not much romance or small talk at bathhouses, which are almost 3-D versions of chat rooms where guys are likely to flash their manhood and ask if you wanna suck it before they say hello. By the time we made it past the glory hole setup, my friend had exchanged words with someone and whispered to me that he needed the room key, so I continued to the lower level, where about a dozen guys were lounging in the dry sauna and eyeing each other.

I popped my head into the steam room to complete the cycle through Flex, and by the time I made it back to the dry sauna a couple of guys had grown bold enough to commence some action.

It was about 45 minutes of cruising before I had my first connection, which turned into a foursome when my friend needed the room again for his newest conquest.

THE DEN

A hidden gem of gay Atlanta is the “Lunch Session” that The Den hosts five days a week.

While usually hopping during evenings and weekends, The Den also serves a niche of men hungry for a daytime release. The ambiance at The Den is almost perfect for a workday session, as the primary area is a maze of cubicles with mattresses for those who need them.

The Den isn’t for the shy; instead of a towel, patrons are given a washcloth. As at Flex, The Den supplies free condoms, but the latter also provides complimentary lube. Another difference is the clientele, as The Den is a favorite of black and Latino men.

After a few minutes of cruising, I came across a muscle bottom getting drilled while a group of guys watched. I joined the audience, exchanging knowing looks with another guy who was watching as others started to ease his hunger. Eventually, the fellow voyeur and I made our way to the communal dark room, adding our moans to the guttural chorus.

Having patronized sex clubs and bathhouses for 15 years, I know that some nights you leave euphoric and others you leaving saying, “Never again!” In that time, the group sex scene has definitely shifted toward private sex parties, arranged over the internet and via text messages. I’ll always have a soft spot for old-school sex venues, which many in our community view with embarrassment or contempt, but which I celebrate as a primally unique facet of gay culture.

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