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A few men wore cock rings, keeping themselves erect. Others took showers and scurried about, like sentinels patrolling their castles or hunters searching for meat in a densely populated wood.
Some moaned, some masturbated. Some hugged and affectionately kissed acquaintances on the cheek. Cozy rooms with doors swung open revealed men lying flat on their stomachs and men touching their nipples. At the very end of a dim corridor, one man performed oral sex on another. In the empty gym downstairs, Anderson Cooper, live on CNN, presided over unused machines.
As the 14th Street NW corridor has transformed over the past two decades, there has remained a scantily clad constant: towelled-up and naked men roaming the Crew Club with their dicks out.
On a recent Tuesday night, when locker and room prices were half off, the gay men’s health spa teemed with butts and bears—the hairy, human kind. Though most patrons appeared to be older than 40, ages ran the gamut. So did races: There was a clear white majority sprinkled with mostly younger black, Latino, and Asian men. Body types ranged from svelte to corpulent.
What these visitors all shared in common was that they were looking to blow off some steam, in more ways than one. Since 1995, the Crew Club has provided gay men a sanctuary to work out, relax, and converse, forming new relationships face-to-face. It’s also allowed them to engage in some wish fulfillment, often of the kinky variety: Sex is a near-guarantee for those who desire it.
“It’s kind of anything you want to make it,” says Maryland resident William, who has frequented the Crew Club since the mid-90s and requested a pseudonym to speak candidly. A 39-year-old who served in the Navy, he adds that “if you want to go in and get a quick fuck or a blowjob, it’s there. If you’re fucked up or tweaked out and don’t want to stay on the streets, you can do what you fancy.” But, William qualifies, “sex is not a requirement; a lot of times you get voyeurs.”
Liquor and smoking are prohibited, but other indulgences come with the territory. An unspoken rule is that if you maintain prolonged eye contact with someone, you’re eager to see what else they’re equipped with. Staring down at your feet—or tilting your head back and closing your eyes—are likely your best bets for minimizing unwanted attention if you’re just trying to be a fly on the wall. You can enjoy the club’s sauna too, or watch the French Open on the massive TV in the lounge.
Even still, this may not prevent you from being groped while at a urinal, or while turning a corner in the steam room, or while sauntering down darkly lit hallways that are flanked on either side by rooms patrons can rent for as little as $13.50 during late, work-week hours. ($27 is the standard rate.) One-time memberships lasting for six hours cost $13, and lockers typically cost about $20. There are three- and six-month memberships as well as recurring special parties (“Cumunion”). Between 65 private rooms and common space, the club can hold nearly 200 people at capacity.
Here is a different kind of pay to play than the one people usually think of when considering D.C. For one thing, the spa hosts naked yoga classes three nights a week.
“‘What happens at the Crew Club stays at the Crew Club’ is a code,” says William, who has also visited gay bathhouses in Florida, California, Seattle, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Chicago. Patrons who recognize each other in public may nod their heads or wave but choose not to talk until they return to the privacy of the club. It isn’t unheard of for D.C. VIPs to show up, either. “If you went in there enough, you’ll find someone: someone on city council or in government, a congressman, a state representative, a nice Republican who hates gay people on TV but is sucking cock in the Crew Club,” William says, declining to offer names.
Another code at the club? “If you say you’re not interested, you’re not interested,” William says.
The business has long made an effort to ensure that any sexual activity on its premises is safe. Condoms are available throughout the building, and Whitman-Walker Health—the nearby clinic that built its brand assisting gay men, many of whom lived with HIV/AIDS or were at the highest risk of contracting the virus and other sexually-transmitted infections—has a regular table in the lounge area, where staff can connect patrons with HIV and STI testing. Crew Club owner David Caldwell Allen, who goes by D.C. Allen, has promoted safe-sex campaigns and donated to the District’s major LGBTQ organizations, including Casa Ruby and the D.C. Center in recent years.
Yet from its earliest days, the Crew Club has had to combat stigma, both from within and outside of the gay community. A few weeks after it opened, The Washington Post ran a front-page article under the headline “Gay Social Club in D.C. Raises Health Concerns,” which described tensions between people who saw no harm in a venue that encouraged protected sex and others who felt that it made the HIV/AIDS epidemic riskier. The Post then published a fiery editorial condemning the club as “nonsense.” “There is plenty of room in this city for new businesses, but not for clubs that are killers,” the paper’s editors wrote. The next month, the Crew Club reached an agreement with the District to ban sex on site. Allen says it has since lapsed. “We enforced it as best we could.”
These days, “because of the internet and people sort of wanting group things, we’re having a bit of a problem keeping it behind closed doors,” the owner says. “But the front door of the club is a closed door also.” That didn’t stop some neighbors from complaining initially, though Allen adds he “had all sorts of help from unexpected places” to change perceptions about the club. At one community meeting, “a Logan Circle resident said, ‘You should just leave this man alone,’” Allen recounts. “‘We haven’t had men in suits around in ages, and he’s suddenly brought them back.’”
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs records show the club has a permit to conduct “health spa sales” until 2019 and another to have a “food vending machine” available until 2018. The former covers “facilities for sport, exercise, training, or therapy or rehabilitation.”
Scrutiny from officials and straight residents aside, queer folk haven’t always looked favorably on the Crew Club and its peer establishments. “Gay people still pass judgment if you go there,” William notes. Despite this, bathhouses emerged as havens for gay men to be themselves, shielded from the discrimination and oppression of heterosexual society.
Now, in the age of hook-up apps like Grindr, Tinder, Scruff, and Hornet, the club offers a sense of community rarely experienced on social media, its proponents say. “Trying to hook up on Grindr can be very shady, very bitchy,” William explains. “When you get off Grindr, you can kind of feel horrible, terrible about yourself. What people say on an app is not what they’ll say to your face.”
Allen says the rise of the internet and on-demand sex has had a counterintuitive effect. “In the past couple of years, we have seen an uptick in business because, basically, I think men are tired of spending hours online,” he says with a chuckle, adding that clubs who are members of the North American Bathhouse Association have reported the same trend. “Some of the clubs have said 5, 6 percent, others have said 10. We’re probably somewhere in between.” Allen’s establishment has also recently seen more patrons in their twenties and thirties. Younger guests arrive as bars approach closing time, William observes, and regulars show up earlier in the night.
“Once you’re a customer in the club, I really think we’ve got you,” Allen says, declining to share how many memberships the business tends to see each year. “The place is clean as a whistle.”
The name is at once a pun on gay “cruising” and “crew cuts,” Allen notes, and it evokes a D.C. “where a lot of different crews were working.” “It had a nice, clean, fresh feel to it,” he says. “I could have called it the ‘Vulcan Black Hole Club,’ but that doesn’t really reflect who we are.”
Centrally located in Logan Circle, the spa draws men from across the region and out-of-towners. Guests walk in the front door, ring a buzzer to get the attention of workers on the other side of a porthole, display IDs, proceed through another door beyond which they pay (with the chance to buy lube, enemas, or poppers—the latter bottles of solvents that people sniff to get a head rush and relax certain muscles during sex). The club operates around the clock. Allen says “it’s logical as hell” when things get busy: in the middle of the day and after work as well as during big LGBTQ events, like Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend and Capital Pride.
This week, the 61-year-old owner flew up from his part-time home in Wilton Manors, Florida—a longtime gay village—to oversee Pride preparations. “We want to be a credit to our community,” Allen says. “We’re putting in snacks and ordering pizza. Just think of it as a sleepover.”
Other gay bathhouses in D.C. have not withstood the test of time. Many that used to be located near where Nationals Park now stands have shuttered, as have old LGBTQ bars. “We’ve acted as a social club for 20 years, and we have always put the customers’ money back into the club,” Allen says. He bought the property in 2003 for $2 million and owns it through an LLC with his husband, Ken Flick. It has another tenant, Asian restaurant Teak Wood, and is now assessed at roughly $4 million with more than 8,000 square feet of prime real estate.
But under a contract brokered in 2016, Allen plans to sell in three years to Douglas Development, which owns the property to the immediate south of the Crew Club, another across the street, and more up 14th. Allen says the club would rent its current space from Douglas, and that he doesn’t intend to step away from the business. He says he may take on a partner or two.
For William, the most memorable times at the Crew Club involved making genuine connections with other men, in contrast with what he sees as the superficiality of hook-up apps and online chatrooms. He recalls talking with an older guy, “a complete stranger,” who’d participated in the Stonewall riots and had become dismayed by the gay community’s “stagnation” in political activism.
“He said we have to step up,” William explains. “We weren’t doing enough. People were starting to forget the lives lost after the [AIDS] cocktail came out. It was really interesting to hear him say that, so I remember that and will always cherish it.” The man died five or six years ago, he says.
Of course, “there were a couple of hot times there,” William adds, shying away from specifics. “Just a good, fun time. It was almost like a dream when it was all said and done. ‘Did that just happen?’”