We're unfurling the so-called infinite scroll of images—sixty-four hundred and fifty, to be exact—that I've "liked" on Tumblr over the past eight years, trying to decide which ones are worth downloading and which I can forget about. It's the last day of 2018, and my friend Thor and I are riding the 7 train to the end of the line, celebrating my first completed semester of grad school with a trip to Spa Castle, a cheap and popular destination in a remote neighborhood of Queens. We're trading notes on "the Tumblr ban": in early December, the social media platform announced that it would be banning "adult content," which describes most of the content I've sought on Tumblr, and I then felt an unexpected urge to preserve as much of this personal archive as possible before it slipped away. Even before "the purge," as many users call it, officially began two weeks later, I would try to reopen an old post, watch it disappear from my screen without a trace, and receive an error message informing me that I was violating Tumblr's new "community guidelines." Whose community, and whose guidelines? Every time I return to Tumblr, I witness this purge continue to spread in real time, and it haunts me. But what exactly am I losing? I'm not a pornographer or a sex worker whose livelihood depends on outlets like this; all that's at stake for me is my own voyeuristic pleasure. Yet I also see this private loss within a collective grief among queer millennials to whom Tumblr provided a safe and free space for omnivorous sexual exploration. As many critics of the purge have pointed out, wholesale bans on "adult content" can do more harm than good, especially if you have few other resources for discovering the sexual possibilities available to you—and for certain internet users, anything queer is always obscene and never "community-friendly."
Before I knew anything about social media, I browsed a much different space my late uncle Bruce called "the dream room," his name for the main bathroom of his house. "It's where I do all my dreaming," he often said, and I used to assume he meant the long afternoon naps he took in the tub, but I imagine he was also referring to the impressive collection of vintage pinups on the walls, sepia shots of male athletes and soldiers flexing their muscles and holding vigil whenever I needed to relieve myself. I was around ten when the force of these photos fully struck me, and my first thought was: "They're all so beautiful." My second: "They're all probably dead by now."
Was this where my sexual formation began? Maybe not, but perhaps it was the latent origin of my enduring fascination with spirit photography, which is almost as old as photography itself. Starting in the 1860s, you could find a medium claiming to specialize in summoning spirits to sit before the camera. The medium would shoot your portrait and develop it on a glass plate, and in the resulting print a familiar phantom would appear beside you. William H. Mumler became the most famous professional spirit photographer when, in 1869, he created a widely reprinted portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln in which her late husband stands behind her, his hands on her shoulders. Skeptics soon figured out Mumler's tricks, including double exposure, a technique of imposing one image upon another using the same photographic plate. Mumler also frequently used dummies with replaceable heads and dressed his employees in spooky costumes. But when he was tried for fraud, many of Mumler's clients testified in defense of his work, alleging he had indeed shown them the spirits of their loved ones, and the case was dismissed.
By the 1890s, when motion pictures revealed the deceptive power of special effects, many longtime believers began to realize that photographs don't necessarily reflect the truth. But even if the illusions of spirit photography are easy to debunk, similar emotional impulses continue to motivate all kinds of photography. This is one of Susan Sontag's points in her book On Photography, in which she describes the art form as an "inventory of mortality" and claims that the "link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people." And photography's ghostliness becomes especially charged in erotica. Queer theorist Tim Dean notes that "porn is itself an archive—of sex, of fantasy, of desire, of bodies and their actions, and of pleasure. Pornography, at least in its photographic forms, preserves evidence of something that is otherwise transient and ephemeral." At the same time, Dean adds, the very genre of pornography is also "ephemeral and amenable to destruction, no less so by its fans than by the police." As ephemeral forms for ephemeral content, porn and spirit photography aren't so different: both try to recuperate a fleeting experience of intimacy for their intended viewers, however disputable or disreputable the results may be.
I initially turned to porn not to recuperate the past but to discover the varieties of erotic experience I might seek in the future. Though I came out early on, I was a late bloomer sexually, much less knowledgeable than most of my peers assumed. I'll always remember the upward glance of disbelief from the only boyfriend of my adolescence when I asked, since it was his first time as well as mine, how he'd learned to do what he was doing with his mouth. I had plenty of opportunities to practice the skills I was missing, but even when I moved to New York at eighteen, I was still too shy and embarrassed by my inexperience to tell a stranger, "This is what I want to do with your body, this is what I want you to do with mine." I lacked the confidence to articulate my own desires and fantasies, which I solidified by browsing images on a screen, especially photographs. A video gives you a narrative that unfolds in time: as you watch the beginning, middle, and end of a scene, you become an outsider spying on an encounter happening without you. A photograph invites more pensive, introspective viewing, as Roland Barthes has observed: it's an unanswered question, an open invitation to enter the space it depicts. Paradoxically, I've often found these still images more intimate and dynamic than those that move. When I sift through the remains of my Tumblr archive, I can distinctly remember the moment when I first looked at each of these bodies, wanted something from them, and imagined offering whatever they might want from me.
This is one of the appeals of photography, which appears to freeze time, and also one of its risks: it can desensitize you to change and loss, even though images can vanish just as irretrievably as the living, breathing bodies they memorialize. By the time I began looking at the many photographs documenting the ongoing AIDS epidemic, I felt so far removed from the deadliest plague years that I had to shake the impulse to view these images as archival relics. In 1975, photographer Tom Bianchi began snapping Polaroids of young men embracing and dancing on Fire Island, nude or minimally swimsuited, blissfully unaware of what awaits them. In a recent monograph of his work, which I found on Bruce's coffee table, Bianchi writes, "I could not imagine that my Polaroids would so suddenly become a record of a lost world—my box of pictures a mausoleum, too painful to visit. When I reopened the box decades later, I found friends and lovers playing and smiling. Alive again." Later, Thor gave me a copy of Billy Howard's 1989 book Epitaphs for the Living, which includes dozens of portraits of people with AIDS, many of them visibly close to death. After shooting the photographs, Howard asked each subject to send a handwritten note to accompany their portrait. In many of these notes, the subjects tell the story of their illness and thank the friends and family who've taken care of them. Many other subjects had already died by this time, and their survivors contributed notes on their behalf.
Now Thor and I are swapping favorite photos we've rescued from the Tumblr purge, noting the poignant details that aren't necessarily intended to arouse: the faces that remind us of old friends and lovers, the figure one-handedly reading a copy of Barthes's S/Z as if it were smut, the absurdly coy poses that result from trying to stage a candid shot, the sly cropping and lighting that hint at what lies just beyond the frame. As we approach our destination, I confess I've never been to any spas before, though I've heard many stories about them from Bruce, who used to frequent the Continental Baths on the Upper West Side and hear Bette Midler sing, accompanied by Barry Manilow with just a towel covering his waist at the piano. Thor laughs and assures me this will be much different from the old bathhouses of gay lore, most of which closed in the eighties because of concerns about HIV.
I see what he means in the lobby of Spa Castle, where we wait in line among mostly straight couples and families with young children. I watch them part ways after passing the front desk, separately entering the men's and women's locker rooms. Thor explains that the second and third floors hold all kinds of mixed saunas and pools, but on the ground level we'll be in a segregated bath area—totally nude. He adds this last detail with pointed flatness to signal that I should find nothing unusual about this, and I try not to look surprised, since we've known each other for less than a year, and I'm not sure we're ready for the let's-get-naked-in-public stage of our friendship. Nonetheless, I don't hesitate to remove my boots at the entrance to the lockers, and I stow the rest of my clothes and belongings as swiftly and casually as I can.
Thor marches ahead to the baths—I admire the handsome spots and folds on his back, a small surgical scar on his arm—and I stop to use the toilet on my way. Though I know I'm supposed to be naked here, and so is everyone else around me, I somehow feel more acutely embarrassed while standing at the urinal, as if I should have a fig leaf to cover my exposed behind while performing this crude function. I think of artist Tony Just, who in the early nineties visited a number of abandoned "tea rooms," public lavatories where men used to meet up for anonymous sex before the spaces were shut down. Just then scrubbed and sanitized these rooms and photographed their newly immaculate sheen, displaying no evidence of their original squalor or of his janitorial work. These eerily glowing images summon the ghosts of a queer sexual culture that was decimated by AIDS, but they shed an even harsher light on institutional efforts to erase this past. How pristine, I keep thinking as I flush the toilet and wash my hands, wondering what Just might have found among these toilets once upon a time. I check the mirror to make sure I look presentable but rush away when someone notices me preening. Who am I trying to impress here? I try to sweep the question from my mind as I open the door to the baths and read a sign announcing that any kind of inappropriate behavior, including photography, is strictly prohibited.
After a quick shower, I find Thor in one of the hot tubs at the center of the room. Thor squints at my torso as I sit beside him, and I assume he's examining my own surgical scars, but then he grins and compliments my shoulder tattoo, which he's never noticed before. A few men turn their heads, trying to size up what kind of twosome we are. We ignore their scrutiny and meander to the far corner of the baths, where we claim a pair of tile thrones, partly submerged in warm, roiling water, and equipped with push-button jacuzzi jets to massage our flanks.
"I feel like a boneless chicken," Thor says, and we laugh. He sounds less gruff and looks more relaxed than ever, and soon he closes his eyes and drifts into a half-awake reverie.
I've never seen so many naked bodies all in one place. I try not to stare too overtly, but I can't restrain my voyeurism—and aren't we all part-time exhibitionists here anyway? No one seems to mind innocuously looking or being looked at, so I relish my panoramic view of the baths and heed the no-eye-contact code tacitly enforced throughout the city. I scan the crowd and estimate that I must be the only bather between prepuberty and middle age, but soon a trio of willowy twentysomethings come out of the locker room. Two of them head to the sauna, and the third approaches the shower, where I furtively watch his dark ringlets of hair fall into loose, floppy waves. He looks like a long-lost Jonas Brother; in my daydreaming mind, I decide to name him Jasper. He lathers up facing away from me, but I still try not to let my eyes linger too long or too lewdly on his balletic legs—or, more to the point, on his dimpled bottom. He rinses off and turns around to grab his towel, and as soon as I catch a glimpse, it's impossible to ignore his enormous penis. By now it's too late; Jasper has caught me ogling. From the opposite side of the room, I can't decipher his startled face, so I duck underwater until I'm pretty sure he's walked away and rejoined his friends.
When I resurface, I see the three of them enter the steam room. I consider following them in, but before I can make a move, they exit and step in another pool with a heavy waterfall pouring from the ceiling. I float to the other side of the jacuzzi, trying to get a better vantage point without giving myself away, but then of course they move again. You know that scene in Call Me by Your Name when Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer circle a monument in the middle of a piazza, dancing obliquely around admitting their attraction to teach other? That scene makes me cringe, since it captures the tedious logistics of acting on a crush so painfully well. Now I'm silently playing out that laborious chase, all the more thrilling because I've never before practiced the pantomime of cruising. I still can't tell if I'm pursuing Jasper in vain, but eventually I get tired of feigning coyness and shadow him into the steam room.
I can barely see through the thick vapor in the air, which immediately saturates my skin. I lean against the wall by the entrance, where several bathers—including Jasper—wait for a seat on the crowded benches lining the rest of the room. I try to act natural, but I feel restless and clumsy just standing around and sweating, so I squat on the floor, hoping I'll look cooler and calmer there. Beneath the rising cloud of steam, I get a much clearer view, at least of the crotches arrayed on the benches, which are all now at eye level. I see more than one sitter's hand gently graze his neighbor's knee, and I see some of those hands gracefully glide up the thighs, and I see what all these men are waiting around for. Whenever someone else enters, the action pauses until everyone can tell the newcomer isn't a child or a spa staffer, and then it resumes apace. I watch this rhythm start and stop and restart again until a few men, apparently satisfied, vacate the benches, and then Jasper claims a spot in the corner. I don't want to seem overeager, so I hold back for a minute or two before taking the spot to his right. I hold back for another minute or two before rehearsing the gesture I've just witnessed, and then Jasper leads my hand from his knee to where we both want it to go.
Reader, I am no southpaw, but my less dexterous arm rises to the occasion and gets to work. Jasper leans back with his hands behind his head, and I get a good look at the tattoo on the side of his chest, a little heart with cartoonish eyes and a smirking mouth, though in my steam-induced delirium it begins to resemble a mutant strawberry. I try to focus and savor this encounter, but my mind wanders in strange directions as the atmosphere shifts. The thermostat reads 114º. The door keeps opening and closing, and I'm reminded of a vortex, occultists' term for a portal to the spirit world, which they say appears in photographs as a hazy spiral. Taking a cue from my neighbors, I train my gaze straight ahead and keep up my best poker face, as if we all were posing for a daguerreotype, but I steal a few sidelong glances to see if anyone disapproves of what Jasper and I are up to. As I try to read the room through the steam, I think of ectoplasm, the misty or smoky substance that supposedly veils photographs of paranormal phenomena, but then Jasper faintly whimpers and I remember my real hand wrapped around his real cock. The faces of all the men I've ever fantasized about appear in the fog and speak to me in unison.
"It's just a fucking hand-job," they say. "Big deal, kid. We've all been there. This happens all the time, has been happening for centuries. Welcome to the party."
Yes, but it's still my first time touching a total stranger like this, or touching anyone like this in a semipublic space, without the help of any apps or screens, and I feel like I've graduated to the next phase of my queerness. Do all queer people feel late to the party, always chasing after the obscured histories we've missed out on? I couldn't have dreamt of daring this just a month ago, and I wonder now if the death of Tumblr has unleashed the imp of the perverse in me, if I was animated by grief for these communal spaces of queer intimacy that could be extinguished at any moment. Are these other men grieving? Is Jasper? He gasps and pulses and bursts, brushes my hand aside, wipes himself with his towel, and dashes for the door. I pause to feel the mixture of steam and sweat he's left behind on the bench, but before someone else claims Jasper's space, I step outside to look for him. He and his friends have already fled the baths, so I return to the thrones in the corner. Still right where I left him, Thor opens his eyes and asks, "Have fun?"
I began writing this piece as a primarily critical essay on my related interests in both nineteenth-century spirit photography and Tumblr's then-recent porn purge. I then had a chance encounter at a bathhouse that brought these inquiries to life in a more, uh, embodied way. Some related books to check out: Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, Hervé Guibert's Ghost Image, José Esteban Muñoz's Cruising Utopia, Susan Sontag's On Photography, and the anthology Porn Archives (edited by Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, and David Squires).