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March 4, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Emperor’s New Clothes

A right royal foray into wellington’s men’s bathhouse and sauna.

My sojourn into Emperor’s Bathhouse began, as the best stories often do, with a cock-up on my part. I fucked up the timing for an advanced screening of The Master at Lighthouse on Cuba and arrived too late. Turned away, I grumbled my way to the nearest bar for a consolatory beer; that this bar happened to be Emperor’s Bathhouse was an alignment of the planets. I shot the shit with the owner outside and discovered it generally opens its doors as a gay bathhouse—a place where gay men can comfortably engage in casual, safe sex with others. “Tonight’s a little different though,” he said with a smile, “It’s S&M night.” Somehow, I was offered entry and a tour and quite frankly it was too good an opportunity to pass up. All those Louis Theroux documentaries would not be in vain! It was time to expand mah mo’fucking horizons.

Just afterwards, we were joined by a tall, articulate fellow with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He soon revealed that he was, in fact, three people; or three different personalities to be precise, dependent on his mood. I gently inquired as to his hobbies. “I’m a Dom,” he said without compunction. His particular sexual kinks included spanking, bloodplay and vampirism (“But not in a Twilight way,” he stressed with a sheepish laugh). Soon, our conversation was interrupted by someone inside—his presence was requested for a threesome. “I’ll be there in a sec,” he replied, disposed of his cig, shook my hand, and left to the untold allure of the second-storey.

Inside, Emperor’s Bathhouse is astoundingly spacious. It offers a well-lit, cavernous front room—a lobby of sorts —with seats, nibbles and a well-stocked bar where a large amount of affable people were congregated, drinks in hand. Further in, however, is where the magic happens. The lighting grows dim and moody as we approach a spa pool. In it are an assortment of naked bodies—tattooed, tanned, fair, hairy, waxed, growers, show-ers, fat, thin, old, young, middling. The only commonality between these bodies is the ease with which their owners display them. Adjacent to the spa is a locker room, and opposite is a steam-room. The owner motions to some stairs and I dutifully follow.

The rooms upstairs are where sexual congress occurs. On a typical night, only males would be allowed to venture to the upper level (though I was assured by staff that the venue is Trans* friendly; the definition of ‘male’ relies on self-identification, not anatomy). Tonight, however, is an S&M-themed night, and there are males and females present. First I am shown the porn room, at the centre of which is a large television showing professionally-shot gay porn. We walk past closed doors where shrieks of pleasure periodically emit, and open doors where people’s doings are visible. In one, someone is performing enthusiastic cunnilingus on a partner while someone watches transfixed from the doorway. The sound of lapping spills out into the hallway. In another, a Dom and a Sub are playing. The purposely dim, sensual lighting is such that every act is partially obscured, almost as though you’re watching through a fog. Finally, I am led to a room with a crucifix-like device, a cage and a set of stocks. The crucifix is in use: someone is being flogged from behind, an androgynous voice moaning softly as each stroke makes its mark. Even with the poor lighting the red marks and welts are visible; it looks as though their bottom is blushing.

I notice on my way back that the woman who just minutes ago had been receiving cunnilingus and the Sub I had spied through the door were inished with their sessions and idly chatting in the hallway. I attempted to ingratiate myself into their conversation and gauged etiquette. What does it mean, I asked, if the doors are open? What is the protocol here? Luckily they’re both very friendly, and instead of telling me to sod off they answer my bizarre inquiries. “If the doors are open, either people don’t mind or they get a kick out of you watching,” one says. “Just don’t go into the room,” says the other, “or you’ll be told to fuck off.” Then, the Sub chortles. “You’ve seen me naked!” she exclaims. “You’ll have to go downstairs and apologise to my Dom.” I can feel myself blushing like a bandit. “Just make sure you don’t look him in the eye or he’ll kick your ass.” Here, I utter a squeak of terror before the other one starts laughing, not cruelly: “Don’t worry. She’s fucking bullshitting you mate.”

S&M (or BDSM: Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) is an umbrella term that encompasses a pretty vast spectrum of sexual activity, from light spanking and handcuffs to branding and body-cutting. Recent depictions in films such as Secretary and especially the bestselling Fifty Shades trilogy have triggered a kind of reserved interest in the subject, but have also fed into misconceptions. S&M is widely considered potentially dangerous and pain-focused, and that practitioners of it are psychologically abnormal in some way (i.e their fetish stems from some childhood incident). The reality is at once simpler and more complex. Research into the topic has demonstrated that 70-80 per cent of people who engage in S&M activities also willingly engage in traditional intercourse as well; it has also demonstrated that more pleasure than pain is received by the sub, and that ‘pain’ and ‘dominance’ are often inflicted symbolically. Symbolically and artificially, that is—there is not necessarily a conscious underlying power imbalance in the relationship of two proponents. And—especially interestingly—consent is built into the very framework of S&M in the form of safewords and ensuring partner’s comfort.

Where things get tricky is when you open up S&M’s place in broader societal imbalances. For example, shit gets problematic when you consider the way females and homosexuals are regulated and marginalized by societal norms. Some feminists argue that any desires to be a sub are a manifestation of internalized misogyny and homophobia, and it’s a fucking knotty point to untangle. However, it’s pretty patronizing to tell someone what they should and shouldn’t want sexually, and going back to the nature/nurture debate is always going to result in ambiguity. For many people, fetishes occur from a very young age, long before the people involved are conscious of societal strictures. In the face of these conflicting views, this reporter throws up his hands in confusion and offers two solutions: 1. Sometimes, you have to make the most of the hand you’re given and 2. What people do with their bodies and consenting partners is none of anyone’s fucking business, let alone mine. That Emperor’s Bathhouse offers a venue that accepts and celebrates fringe orientations and desires here in Wellington is, in my mind, pretty fucking cool.

I briefly talked to a jovial-looking man at the bar on my way out, whose eyes crinkled when he smiled. I asked him how long he’d been engaged in the lifestyle. “I’ve been [active in the BDSM community] for two years now,” he said with a cheeky grin; then, suddenly, his face fell and he looked down at his drink. “How long have I wanted to be? Most of my life.”

Philip McSweeney


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