Subtlety is the name of the game when it comes to cruising at a Korean spa. Eye contact is key. So is making your dick visible, perhaps with a slight adjusting of the region. “It could be interpreted totally innocently, but if the other guy responds by adjusting himself right after you do, that’s kind of a signal to make more obvious ‘adjustments,’” writes one anonymous man in a forum thread.
A Korean spa, after all, isn’t the same thing as a gay bathhouse or a private sex club, which feature coded entries, membership requirements and a more explicit appetite for sex. A Korean spa is a legitimate ethnic business in which individuals, couples and families enter for a small fee, then congregate in a mix of shared and gender-segregated spaces. The former are usually communal dry steam rooms and recreational areas to nap and relax. The latter feature hot tubs and wet saunas, and are designed for full nudity — there are often rules against wearing underwear or bathing trunks.
“They’re almost spiritual,” another man comments about K-spas. “But discretion is the name of the game so follow the rules, yeah? Cruising is amazing, isn’t it? The anonymity of it all. The way your heart races. The risks you take: Am I going to get caught? Am I going to be rejected? How far can I go? It’s all very primal, how we satisfy this carnal pleasure because we can, because we’re men.”
There are about 10 Korean spas in L.A.’s Koreatown, the largest such community in the nation, but many more across Southern California and other U.S. cities with sizable Korean populations. And they’re the subject of new research from Kendall Ota, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose paper “Queer Heterotopias in ‘Straight(ish)’ Spaces: The Case of Korean Spas” was published in August.
The term “queer heterotopia” comes from the scholar and activist Angela Jones. It’s meant to describe spaces that allow people to experiment with sexual identity, desires and expressions in ways that push back against the boundaries of what’s possible in a heteronormative society. Ota’s research digs into how and why men find queer joy in a space designed for heterosexual norms, looking into the experience of the online K-spa cruising community. “There are forms of queer homonormativity, which is essentially these prescriptive, respective, allowable ways of being queer in general society. Whereas queer heterotopias are these rebellious spaces, where we can push back on expectations and explore more. And that’s what K-spas provide for these men,” Ota explains.
I recently spoke to Ota to learn more about why K-spas have become a unique queer space, the tensions and racism within them and what it means to be radically gay in an increasingly tolerant world.
How did you learn about this phenomenon?
I came to know about this particular practice as I was coming to terms with my own sexual identity as a participant in these spaces. I don’t mention that in the article, but I have experience cruising in K-spas as I was coming to terms with being gay and Asian and what all that meant. It was a formative thing for me in terms of my own identity, and it made sense to pursue the project because of that.
I didn’t grow up going to K-spas, but I generally knew what they were. And later, I saw K-spas on cruising websites and Craigslist. Even on Yelp reviews, I noticed some reviews where straight people were mentioning coming across gay men cruising and being shocked and appalled.
Which is kind of funny, because your paper shows how the whole point of cruising in K-spas is that it’s very discreet, no-strings-attached, almost more sensual than about having sex.
It’s this toe-in-the-water kind of thing — and you have reasonable doubt for being there. That’s part of the whole dynamic of cruising in K-spas. I’ve talked to some men who are just starting to experiment with other men, and being in a Korean spa is more of a safe space to them than being like at a bathhouse or cruising any other space, because the expectation of sex isn’t actually there.
The K-spa allows men who aren’t comfortable with fully going all the way, or even just want to watch others. It’s sort of non-committal. It exists in this larger landscape of queer and sexual spaces, and it fulfills a niche for some folks who aren’t comfortable with a gay bathhouse, or the assumption that you’re gay and up for anything.
It’s fascinating that cruising is still policed within the K-spas — you call it the “respectability politics” of the space. You’re not supposed to be obvious or do too much, because it threatens access to K-spas but also changes the “eroticization of discretion.” What do you think of this dynamic?
I think it’s part of a larger existential question that needs to be addressed in queer politics, which is: What is queerness outside of heterosexuality? In the case of K-spas, I talk about how queerness in this space emerges because of heteronormativity. Without heterosexuality as the norm, [cruising in a K-spa] wouldn’t be sexy — it wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be the same if it was allowed, which is why it’s so desirable for men who participate there instead of somewhere like a gay bathhouse. It’s a really weird tension because the liminal nature of sexual activity in these spaces gets used in some problematic ways that ultimately exclude some folks from being able to participate as much as others, too.
Exactly — you talk about sexual racism in K-spa cruising, including how Asian men need to hit different physical standards (“tall,” “square-jawed” or “hung”) to be deemed as attractive as a white cis man. One commenter in your article even notes, “If hamburgers are what people want and you make kimchi, you better fucking learn how to make hamburgers!”
Yeah, Asian men have a particular difficulty in cruising this space, because they’re kind of implicitly associated with it being a [heteronormative] Asian space. And because of that, other gay men can then act like they’re not looking to cruise. They can say they’re not going to attempt to hook up with Asian men because it’s a bigger risk — all to the detriment of Asian men who are trying to cruise in a Korean spa. So in a sense, these tensions reinforce problematic aspects of desire.
I’m not trying to pass off this research as a completely novel thing, because it’s not — there’s a lot of research on gay men’s cruising. What makes it unique is that a Korean spa is a racially marked space. You would think some of the normative racial politics might be subverted or challenged in some way, instead of reinforced. It also adds to a ton of research on the visibility of white cis men in queer spaces, within all sorts of media representation, etc. So while some people do go to Korean spas in hopes of connecting with Asian men specifically, the larger structures of sexual racism are still prevalent here, and that’s not very surprising, unfortunately.
How long has this been going on? Does this culture exist in Korea?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out myself. It’s very probable that these spaces have always existed as these sort of like queer spaces for men to experiment with their sexual desires. I’m wary of suggesting this is a new “queering” of Korean spas. Currently, I’m working on tracking the history of these Korean spa businesses alongside the emergence of gay bathhouses in L.A., looking at the parallels of how gay men used these spaces. But the history has been hard to find.
The key is that for gay and lesbian people, [America] is largely becoming more and more accepting, especially in cities like L.A. where my study is based. So I’ve wondered how the motivations for cruising differ in Korean spas in L.A. versus in Korea, which is not as accepting of queer people. In America, it’s a kind of queer heterotopia — a place that allows you to be discreet but transgressive, recapturing a moment in history when queerness wasn’t as accepted. In Korea, it’s still like that. Perhaps that means gay men use spas differently there, because they don’t have as many options — it’s a necessity rather than this sexy thing it is here.
I did get some funding to go to Korea and continue research. But because of COVID, it’s not something I can pursue at the moment. So I’m looking more at the history here, and how it relates to the culture of gay bathhouses.
You conclude that K-spas are a flawed “queer heterotopia,” largely because they uphold problematic structures like racial hierarchy. How could it be improved?
Angela Jones talks about queer heterotopia as more of an idea than a physical, tangible thing to observe or achieve. So we have to go back to the idea of, what is queerness without heterosexuality? How does it exist outside of that? What I try to allude throughout the article is that the space wouldn’t exist if the respectability politics of hetero culture weren’t there, even though cruising pushes back on that at the same time.
But it still represents all kinds of inequalities that arise in queer spaces — specfiically gay men’s spaces — beyond sexual racism. That’s huge if we’re trying to find an ideal to work toward, but we also have to talk about how the model of gay respectability is being a cis, white, able-bodied, rich man.
We can push the needle toward more total acceptance. I’m thinking specifically about how men I’ve spoken to talk about ideal body types and how they don’t feel welcome in more markedly queer spaces for gay men — because they’re not ripped, they don’t have the “look,” they’re not young enough. All of that is something we can work on, to push toward a better “queer heterotopic” ideal.