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I was having yet another five-star-on-a-budget Bangkok lunch, this one in a hospital cafe, of all places, when I heard something that made my jaw drop so far that it nearly landed on my curry chicken and rice. The two French friends of the Belgian Etihad Airways flight attendant from the night before, were telling me about a special Thai massage — a naked Thai massage! — that I just had to experience.

Now, I was willing to try everything twice, and I sometimes welcomed extremely awkward situations because they provided excellent storytelling fodder for perking up stalled conversations. But considering how I had felt about the female massage therapist fingering my private parts from outside my shorts several weeks earlier, I wasn’t so sure that I was ready to take them off for a nude masseur.

That’s not to say I didn’t find the concept intriguing, particularly the beginning, which included a lineup of beautiful Thai guys. You got to choose: short or tall, muscular or lean, top or bottom. (Actually, that last one wasn’t one of the choices, but it did seem to come up in pretty much every conversation in Bangkok involving gay men.) Once you took your pick, the two of you got undressed and hit the shower. After he soaped you up and rinsed you off — an erotic ablution that was included in the rate (1,300 baht for one hour, or about $43) — the pressing and tugging would begin.

At this point in the conversation, I felt like I was listening to a porn storyline even less likely than the ones on the porn DVDs I would win a few months later for coming in first place in Sircuit’s Bear Chest Competition in Melbourne. I tried to wrap my head around the idea of getting a sponge shower by a beautiful naked stranger. What happened if you got aroused? If you grabbed him and started kissing him, did you have to pay extra? Were there condoms on hand just in case you wanted to take your steamy shower to the next level? Who applied for these jobs anyway?!

“At least you know he’s clean,” one of my lunch dates said, and he had a point. But while it certainly would have been better than getting a sponge bath from a cranky overworked nurse, I generally preferred to take a hands-on (my hands!) approach when it came to the washing of my nether regions.

From what I understood, the rest of the massage was pretty standard, except that the person rubbing you down wasn’t wearing any clothing. I don’t know what would have been most uncomfortable: being stretched out on a massage table in the nude, being straddled by a nude masseur or both at the same time.

The happy ending, by the way, was optional.

My lunch dates also told me about a show they had gone to the night before that, um, climaxed with two men actually having sex on a staircase. (Thank God they used condoms, which almost made it sound like live porn and a public service announcement rolled into one.) I’d once witnessed two guys going at it atop the bar in a dive in TriBeCa, and that particular one in eight million stories in the naked city wasn’t one I was in any rush to see again. I wasn’t sure who had it worse in the voyeuristic scenario, the participants or the spectators. I knew some people liked to watch, but I’d never been one of them.

That was probably why I’d never gotten into porn, and ended up giving away most of my porn-prize booty (except for two DVDs, just in case I acquired a taste for it at some point). I didn’t even like to catch myself in the act. It was the reason why I declined an offer to get rich quick by doing porn shortly after I moved to New York City, the reason why I turned down that guy in Cordoba, Argentina, who was willing to pay me for the privilege of sucking (then touching, then simply seeing, when I kept declining) a black penis, and one of the reasons why I never had sex in front of mirrors. There was a mirrored closet next to my bed in Buenos Aires, and I always had to position myself so that I didn’t catch any accidental glimpses. If a videotape had ever surfaced of me in flagrante delicto, I would have gone into hiding for ten years. No joke.

Months after the X-rated brunch, at the encouragement of my Thai friend Tong, I decided to put my inhibitions aside. I checked them at the door and took a front-row seat to watch the onstage talent at Hot Male parading around and baring everything God gave them, which, in some cases, was considerable. (No, it’s not necessarily true what they say about Asian men.) It actually hadn’t taken much arm-pulling when Tong decided that it was time for me to lose my virginity — again. When I told him that I’d already given it up, having seen a male revue in Pattaya the previous summer, he laughed and said, “Not like this one.”

From the moment we walked onto Soi Twilight, ground zero for gay sex shows in the Patpong red-light district, I had a feeling he was going to be right. Sex was in the air, and the stench wasn’t all that appealing. It’s one thing for sex-club personnel to try to entice you inside from a distance, but the ones here were practically mauling us as we wandered down the strip, looking for a show worth checking out.

We settled on Hot Male, where, for the price of one 250 baht drink ($8), you got to watch guys in white briefs with numbers attached sell themselves onstage (one wearing brown cowboy boots, a tuxedo-shirt collar without the shirt and briefs with the bedazzled word sex embroidered at the top, was working so hard to get my bid, I thought he’d jump offstage onto my crotch); near-naked showboys rolling around on the floor, covered in soap; and yet more of them strutting about with their junk hanging out. If you’ve seen 12 condom-covered penises dangling in front of you, you’ve pretty much seen them all, but I’ll never listen to Robbie Williams’s “Supreme” the same way again.

For the main event, two naked guys got onstage and gave us a tutorial on how to practice safe sex while swinging from bars, dangling sideways, hanging upside down and running around a stage. I was astonished by their stamina, their acrobatics and the fact that they were actually doing it. They were taking sex to brand-new heights — literally!

Looking at the bored expression on the face of the “top” and listening to the shrieks of the “bottom,” not sure if he was expressing actual ecstasy or if it was just part of the act, I did the unthinkable: I started to laugh. Not just a giggle, but a loud guffaw from the depths of my belly. It was uncontrollable. Tong joined me. Thankfully, the crowd was too mesmerized by what was happening onstage to notice — or care.

I can’t say that I was bored, but I wasn’t turned on either. Some of the guys in the show were extremely handsome, and every time one of them winked or smiled at me from the stage, I winked and smiled right back. But there was something missing. They couldn’t even get a rise out of me when a few of the showboys standing in the doorway to the bathroom patted my ass and tried to grab my crotch as I made my way downstairs to the loo. I didn’t look back in lust or in anger.

As I watched some of the men in the audience purchase dates for the evening (for 100 baht, or roughly $3, they would sit down beside you and enjoy a drink — your treat, of course), I realized what was missing from sex as a spectator sport, this love for sale: the chase. I live for a good challenge, a feeling of accomplishment, the thrill of pursuit or being pursued. When you walk into a room full of hot males, all for sale, knowing that no one will turn you down if the price is right, there’s simply nothing — or no one — to aspire to. Hot males at Hot Male were a dime a dozen, but for me, not even worth that much.

“Congratulations, Bangkok!” I said to the city as we exited and beelined to DJ Station, where the thrills were more PG-13. “You’ve accomplished the impossible. You’ve made sex totally unsexy.” 

This is an excerpt adapted from Helligar’s forthcoming memoir, Is It True What They Say About Black Men? Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World. A document of his life after New York City as an expat in South America, Australia, Asia and, finally, Africa, the book will be available November 4 on Amazon.

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