high school showers


by Gabriel Rotello

The Advocate - June 11, 1996

SOMEBODY COULD 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 Dr. Jung.

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."

The article 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?

The third 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.