The host is friendly and gracious. Flaunting short hair and a long body, he stands sandwiched between the building’s frosted-glass, opaque door and a gray flannel curtain that conceals any clue of what to expect inside. From this makeshift vestibule, certain noises can be heard: music, footsteps, the creaking of stairs. But until you pay your “voluntary contribution” of $7, the only visible hint of what you’ll find beyond the barrier is the doorman himself. All he’s wearing is a leather thong.

“Oh good, you’re cute. Come on in,” he says, whisking you inside so he can shut the door again. It’s a good night, he remarks, referring to a sheet of green ledger paper that’s filled with numbers—numbers crossed out, more numbers entered below them. “You’re No. 247,” he says, a promotional lilt to his voice, as if this should be exciting news. “Right now there’s 75 in the downstairs alone. Have you been here before?”

If so, you already know where the lockers are. If not, he shows you: downstairs, at the back end of the dim hallway, a corridor choked by a dozen or so hairy-bellied men who stand fidgeting against the walls. Their profiles peer hopefully through the dim light each time a new face appears. As you move beyond the receiving area and make your way down the stairs, you are—like it or not—the object of rapt attention. You’ll have to move past them and their opportunistic grabs at your thighs, waist, and buttocks to get to the locker room, which is where you’ll find the towels.

Towels, oil, music, low light. All you would expect of a massage club is here.

Except a proper massage.

Nevertheless, the gatherings are billed as “Men’s Massage Parties,” and they take place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in a disused Adams Morgan townhouse, sometimes lasting as long as 12 hours. Until recently, the soirees were publicized only by tiny notices in the Washington Blade; to locate the action, it was necessary to place a phone call and receive a rather elaborate set of instructions. But now the hosts have turned up the volume: These days, on the back of the Blade‘s pink-paper “Lights Out” section, the entrepreneurial MCs of Washington’s only known massage fraternity trumpet their presence with illustrated display ads beckoning the built and beautiful.

“We are a bunch of several hundred amiable men,” the ad states. “We enjoy meeting frequently to give each other massages and spend time together. Attendance at an average party: 63. You could join a group of five and be massaged by four men simultaneously. You could pair off with one other man, or just hang out.”

The club represents a striking departure for Washington’s gay scene. Bathhouses and massage clubs are old news, of course, in San Francisco and New York, where gay men have watched the rise and fall (and, of late, the resurrection) of the Babylon sex-club circuit. Though Washington’s full-nudity dance clubs are renowned in gay circles throughout the East Coast, the city has traditionally harbored only one bona fide bathhouse, a marginal Southeast location where men can meet for no-pretenses sex. But the increasing self-confidence and visibility of the city’s gay community, combined, perhaps, with the striking-down of the District’s sodomy law, has prompted the club’s organizers to ask: “Why not?”

And why not openly? For covert entertainment, this massage club is remarkably overt. While no street address is given (it’s still necessary to telephone first), the ad goes so far as to tout the physical qualities of the average guest: A tender 29 years old, he stands 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 155 pounds, and displays a 41-inch chest and 31-inch waist. The clientele range from teen-agers to seniors, but most attendees, according to the ad, are in their late 20s and early 30s.

But the numbers have clearly been cooked, if indeed the composite customer was studied at all. Judging from the looks of the participants one recent Friday night, few—if any—have been measured and weighed. The fetching profile of the average visitor is part of a larger hoax; massage isn’t the main course here. It’s not even an appetizer. When the towel-clad men touch each other, they’re angling for sex, mostly unsafe sex. The more sensible guest might stick to voyeurism or mutual masturbation. But for the hard-core, what a bore: Why not a three-, four-, or moresome, all disposed to the abandon of a bare blow job or unprotected anal sex, with an audience in the wings?

It would seem that some folks are sick of behaving well. Instead, they’re feeling complacent and immune. And horny: Three deep, men stand and watch an especially active couple or trio. The watchers look as though they hope to get in on the fun, at least until they’re brushed away, a gesture that illustrates the cruelest reality of this“amiable” scene. Guys who hope the cover of darkness will reduce the emphasis on youth, attractiveness, and muscular exaggeration so integral to the bar scene soon discover otherwise: An older man with a sizable savings account between his ribs and waist stands by the wall alone, playing with himself absent-mindedly.

Meanwhile, a strapping young stud in a sleeveless flannel shirt is fulfilling everybody’s fantasy. He’s moving from one penis to the next to the next with his mouth, returning to the first before it dries. When one of his subjects ejaculates, the man giving head doesn’t miss a beat, so to speak, moving along while he who ejaculated bends to hoist his pants—not everybody wears a towel. The ejaculator nudges aside the others, who are oblivious in copulation. Rocks off, he’s out the door.

Yelps of pain, pretended or not, cross the room convincingly, and if you really want a massage, you might be wondering by now what you’ve sacrificed to find one here. Seeing as how you’ve shown up voluntarily, everybody assumes you’re available. At times the eternal sad, soft men approach like orphans, silently begging you to attend them for just a few minutes. Don’t smile—even politely—unless you want action, for such a gesture invites aggressive, persistent claims on your flesh.

When, encouraged by your inaction, a small posse of men in terry cloth closes in on you, a little force is needed to find your way through the crowd and up the stairs. The upper floor offers a bit more safety from sudden unsolicited attacks. The room is big, strewn with mattresses and lit by the static glare of the television. Naked images flit across the screen; the usual porn-movie music grinds like a can opener. There’s no mystery to this room, and no surreptitious groping—surreptitiousness is impossible in this bright light. A couple of naked guys flop around on one of the beds. Three others sit on the couch watching the movie. And someone lies on a corner mattress, snoring.

A few more men hang around the refrigerator, where it’s easy to scan the whole room. Popping beers, they look genuinely relaxed in this setting, as though they never want to leave. Occasionally two men turn to each other and kiss, but most times the embrace springs not from passion but from a sort of “you’ll do” attitude. The older men are obviously used to this type of gathering, which, in a tepid sort of way, recalls the unrestrained liberation of the ’70s. They’ve assimilated the excitement; the thrill is gone. But not the danger—no, the danger is never gone: All of these men, whether too young to be sensible or too old to care, could be giving their lives to be here.

Mel Kennett is the pseudonym of a Washington writer.