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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

On Things I've Heard in the Sauna

By Jens Tamang

I find it odd when people sport underwear in the sauna. It’s odd that one would enter with the intention of perspiring freely and then decide to wear something to impede it, creating laundry and discomfort. But this, I doubt, is why people cover themselves. When I see someone in the sauna wearing an undergarment I am quicker to assume that they’re doing it to conceal their genitals, for whatever reason. Of course, to conceal one’s genitals presupposes that someone else wants to look at them in the first place.When it comes to the ethics of “checking out” other bodies in the locker room, my policy is this: to assume that my peers are not voyeurs, to let them know if I feel their behavior suggests otherwise, and to hope that they do the same for me. Unfortunately, I find that my policy pans out successfully, on average, about 20% of the time. For I have found myself in countless situations wherein I have been clearly observed and I have not said anything. But I get over it quickly. The situations that leave me with more unease are those in which I find that I am made to be a voyeur.

Last week, for example, I was sitting in my usual spot when two boys walked in and began discussing the most effective way to trim pubic hair. At first I tried not to eavesdrop, but found that in the quiet of the sauna such a task was impossible. At least, I thought, I can respect their privacy by not glaring at them. But this hope was soon dashed when one of them flipped up their towel and began demonstrating how one performs a testicular self-examination. And this was no isolated incident. The week before I witnessed a boy run his hand over the stomach of another boy, saying “Dude, how do I get abs like that?” to which the other replied, “Protein shakes and medicine balls.” When spectacle confronts me without warning, I find it hard to simply ignore.

There are, of course, those who take pleasure in looking at the male body. Even though I am One of Them, I hesitate to describe the feeling I get from observing these exchanges as “Pleasurable.” “Discomforting” might suffice; for when I am subjected to homoerotic spectacle in the sauna I am made painfully aware that my observation or participation is essentially sexual harassment. The moment a heterosexual male exposes his body in that locker room I am already guilty of lechery.

Whether it be a public sex-act or a car hitting a cat, spontaneous spectacle instantly produces an observer out of people close by. The observer must choose to either bear witness to the spectacle or resist witnessing it. Seeing as the interactions of the Leonard Center boys’ locker room bear remarkable verisimilitude to cheesy gay porn, it might behoove us to ask what observers are being produced, where, and to what ends. I am not trying to argue that Macalester’s locker room antics are “sexy” (quite the opposite, if you want to know), but rather that gay porn probably fetishizes a dynamic that arises the moment a queer body steps foot into a hyper masculine space.
The problem addressed here is not necessarily the spectacle of locker room homoeroticism by itself-the athletic male body is the standard currency of sporting disclosure, constantly on display, at work, being measured and evaluated. Clearly they are no strangers to display. The problem arises when the queer body, or any marginalized body for that matter, is robbed of the opportunity to choose whether or not he will witness something that implicates him in a relationship that carries with it potential institutional punishment.

At the end of the day, the discomfort queer people feel around straight people cannot be explained simply by the privilege of heterosexual male athletes, the privilege to freely display their bodies in spaces Made For Them. My point here is that systemic prejudice is subtle and ubiquitous. True, sometimes bigotry takes the form of an overt hate crime, but it can also take the form of a Speedo, a glance, or a “given” code of “respectful” and obedient conduct. Does this mean that all heterosexual athletes shouldn’t wear a Speedo in the sauna? No. Wear what makes you feel comfortable. Just know that the ability to freely gossip about protein shakes and your dick size comes to you at the expense of our peace of mind. If I traipse into the sauna nude, not thinking anything of it, I will soon realize that there is indeed a protocol for where to look and how to act. I should even be so lucky to step foot in that locker room, seeing as my incurable perversity poses a threat to the Step Forward campaign’s shining stars.

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