Rub a dub dub
By Gabriel Rotello
– The Advocate, June 11, 1996
PROBABLY WRITE A THESIS on how mandatory showers after high
school gym class shaped gay male life. Scratch the surface of
many a pumped-up gym bunny, and chances are, you'll find skinny
teenager trying to overcome some primal shower-room shame. Do
the same for a bath house habitue, and you're likely to find
somebody trying to reenact forbidden, foamy, Freudian scenes. One
friend says he used to think of group showers as a form of water
torture, and he's puzzled why today, years later, they're a
major theme of his very vivid fantasy life. Some puzzle. Paging
So the queer
nation received earthshaking news in April when The New York
Times revealed that showering after gym class has gone the way
of disco and the dodo bird. "A generation ago," the Times
reported, "most schools mandated showers," but in the past few
year the practice "has become virtually extinct."
It is now so
obsolete that "some schools are considering removing showers
because they are not used." At one Midwestern school, boys are
so uptight about getting naked with one another that they
actually get their parents to drive them home to shower in
privacy, then drive them back to school. Those who don't have
such indulgent parents risk stinking all day. "You just cake on
the deodorant," said one 16-year-old, "and hope you're not going
to smell too bad."
mentioned three possible reasons for this hygienic revolution.
One is a heightened sense of privacy in the '90s, a trend I had
apparently missed. Another is that amid today's relentless
barrage of buffed bods in ads and movies and on TV—a trend I had
most definitely not missed—boys are increasingly insecure about
their body image.
Well, maybe, but
there's a certain chicken and-egg quality to these explanations.
After all, group showers can be a cure for excessive compulsion
about privacy, and anybody who has hung out at a nude beach can
tell you that nothing fixes body insecurity faster than spending
some quality naked time with a lot of other imperfect bodies.
But even assuming
that these factors help explain why kids today think group
showers are "way too strange," they still don't fully explain the
phenomenon the Times was reporting. After all, back when I was
in high school, nobody wanted to take showers either. We had to.
The school and the gym teachers made us. What changed that?
explanation shed a bit more light. "It also seems that a
heightened awareness of sexuality, including the more open
discussion in high schools today about homosexuality, has many
students fretting," the Times went on to say. "Concern about the
presence of gay students was mentioned several times as a reason
not to shower.” In other words, now that kids and teachers have
been made aware that "gays are everywhere,” including gym
classes, it's way too weird to force Johnny to get naked with
guys who might desire him sexually.
This is not the
first time the intersection of homosexuality, naked guys, and
shower rooms has made the news. The gays-in-the-military debate
was one lone riff on shower anxiety. Heterosexual males would be
driven into murderous rage, we were told, at the possibility of
being looked at in "that way" by queers. Nobody ever talked
about gay people's shower anxiety - the fear that one stray
glance might get you killed. People seemed more likely to think
that gays are incredibly lucky to be able to shower with people
they may sexually desire.
Well, in a less
uptight world, that might be one of the real perks of queerdom,
but I asked around, and it seems that most say men's memories of
high school shower rooms were more torture chamber than garden
of earthly delights. Aside from the hostile macho atmosphere and
the mortal danger of an unscheduled erection, there was the
weird, torturous dichotomy of it all – the fact that in the
midst of erotic super-abundance, one was not allowed even to
look. If one judges by the amount of gay porn devoted to
locker-room images, this has left its mark. We were placed in
close proximity to the naked forbidden, then made to understand
that even an errant peek would bring utter social death. What
could be more... fraught?
So in that sense
the demise of the shower room may be a boon for gay kids, who
are now being spared this morbid clash of the erotic and the
traumatic. But I can't help thinking that it also represents a
failure. Gay historians tell us that increased awareness of
homosexuality in this century helped create a sort of iron
curtain between gay and straight. As more men came to think that
even the slightest interest in other men marked them as queer,
they came increasingly to shun affection and physical contact.
This seems like a further example. Instead of working to get rid
of their neuroses, straight people work to get rid of either the
homosexuals (as in the military) or the situations in which
homosexuals might make them uncomfortable (as in the showers).
The fact that in this case the price they pay is walking around
all day sweaty and stinking and caked with mud is testament to
the depth of their anxiety.
Then again perhaps
we shouldn't make too much of it. You know how straight people
are. It’s probably just a phase they’re going through.