Elwood 5566

Bathhouse Intimacy – Fathers and Sons

Podcast 82

I never really enjoy writing about some of the intimate moments I observe in bathhouses or even in everyday life as many western readers have a real problem with both the authors of such texts, whom they perceive as a perverts, and with the nature of its content, which they categorise, as ‘gay’ and ‘sickening’.

When fathers and sons are mutually washing each other I don’t like to sit and stare but over the last six months and through discussions with Korean friends I have managed to piece together how this process, which might possibly be defined as a ‘ritual,’ functions. At times of the week, usually the weekend, many fathers and sons visit the bathhouse and while for some the cleaning process is the prime function of the visit, for others it is simply for relaxation. I regularly see fathers and sons who will spend as much time cleaning each other, as I might in the pools and it is not in the least unusual for some to spend well over an hour cleaning either cleaning themselves or, in the case of a father, their son.

The process begins with showering under the stand-up showers and entails much the same as a standard ablution – washing the body, shampooing, shaving and brushing teeth. We have now reached the point at which most westerners would consider themselves clean but which for the majority of Koreans is only the preamble to a meticulous ablution. After the stand up shower some visitors go straight to the sit down shower units while others will spend some time enjoying the various pools and saunas. For younger children, this often means playing while older boys are content to sit with their fathers. Most of my Korean friends will soak and sweat in the various facilities for anything up to several hours, at which point dead skin cells and callouses have absorbed water and are easily removed.

the bathhouse, where ‘skinship’ is taken to the extreme

Between friends, scrubbing each others’ backs is an accepted intimacy and it is not unusual to see peer groups, especially school boys, university students or even monks sat in a line each scrubbing the person in front. Several years ago an advert depicted young boys doing exactly this and attracted some  negative and hostile comments from foreigners living in Korea. Unless you opt for a scrub down by a bathhouse attendant, the scrubbing of backs is probably the most intimate extent to which friendships, even between the closest friends, goes and seems much the same as from son to father. However, from father to son, the level of intimacy is much greater and certainly, into middle adolescence, a boy is often totally passive in this procedure. Indeed, there isn’t much difference between how some fathers clean their sons, and how you might wash a car, care for a baby or invalided person.

The cleaning process reflects a close bond between fathers and sons

The procedure often takes place in silence and begins with the boy bending over and supporting themselves on the ledge that runs under the mirrors so that their father can vigorously scrub their back with an Italy towel progressing down their buttocks, backs of thighs and calves. For anyone who has visited a bathhouse and seen for themselves this type of ritualistic cleaning, the process isn’t brief or cursory. The Italy towel is used with only the smallest amount of soap, not enough to even produce a lather and in a rough enough manner to produce a visible line of dead skins cells. Once an area has been ex-foliated, it is showered after which the Italy towel is again used, this time with a generous amount of soap.

Next, the boy sits down facing his father and puts each leg, in turn, on his father’s thigh and the same process is repeated from the soles of the feet to the thighs. Then the boy sits with his back,  neck or shoulders supported over his father’s knee so that his chest and stomach can be scrubbed. It is not in the least unusual for boys or even their fathers, to hold their genitals to one side while scrubbing the groin. Finally, with head resting on their dad’s thigh, their face is scrubbed even to the extent of cleaning noses and ears. The meticulous process ends with a session under the stand up shower. Sometimes the procedure is organised slightly differently, for example if the boy is not very tall, he might stand for much of the ablution. What is most bizarre for the westerner is the proximity between the face and genitals or backside of another person. Even between friends, if someone is standing and someone sitting, as for example might sometimes be the case when one person is scrubbing another’s back, there is no concern about the distance between the face of one and the genitals of another.

the Italy towel in action

Often the process is performed by a bathhouse attendant and every bathhouse has an area with one or several couches on which you lay for this purpose. I rarely see young children receiving a scrub down but older boys, sometimes unaccompanied and at other times with their fathers, will subject themselves to this ritual. A scrub down from an attendant is every bit as intimate, and for the westerner, invasive, as the one between fathers and sons. Koreans are so used to the cleaning ritual, they subconsciously place their limbs in the required position or require only the briefest prompt, for westerners however, the process is awkward and the body, unaccustomed to the procedure, is antagonistic to the attendant’s manipulation. And yes! They do hold your ‘bits’ to one side as they’re scrubbing. However, the experience is invigorating as well as liberating.

Clearly, father-son, as well as mother-daughter bathhouse rituals are an integral expression of ‘skinship’ and undoubtedly provide the most extreme example of intimacy between individuals in a platonic setting. On several occasions I have witnessed a father bathing his severely mentally and physically disabled son and much that was sad and tragic in the procedure was nullified by the close bond they clearly shared. But it is also possible to see such parent-child intimacy as one aspect of a broader cycle and sons can often be seen tending their aged fathers in the exact reversal of the father-son ritual.

Koreans do not carry the same cultural baggage as regards the body as many westerners either in terms of prudery or propriety and appear much less  judgmental about the bodies’ of other people. I recently read a very interesting article by a Korean grandfather who was approached by  a little girl in a bathhouse who wanted lifting into a hot pool, because she was cold (link). In many other cultures, racked with obsessions which perversify any contact between minor and adult, such intimacy, and many other intimacies observed in a bathhouse setting, are taboo. It would also seem that what is observed between those of the same gender remains private. To discuss or gossip about the body of another person would be highly inappropriate and improper and certainly, between males and females, would constitute a cultural taboo. And one of the greatest Korean attributes, especially when you’re naked and vulnerable, is that they are excellent at complimenting those parts of your body you don’t like. I wouldn’t wish my body on anyone but even naked many Koreans are able to make you feel very good about yourself.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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9 Responses

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  1. shotgunkorea said, on May 27, 2011 at 11:17 am

    When we first came to Korea and met up with my husband’s (then estranged) father and his wife and kids, we were treated to a night at the jimjibang. What’s the quickest way to get to know your new in-laws? Spend time with them naked for two hours.

    I even experienced a massage by one of the scrubbing ladies– you’re right, I had absolutely know idea where to put my limbs. Luckily the massage lady was pretty adroit at manipulating me on the grease covered table, and so for all of my awkwardness, I ended up having a pretty nice time.

    • 林東哲 said, on May 27, 2011 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks for the comments, much appreciated as you are female and even though my man boobs are substantial, I doubt I’ll ever get a glimpse in the female wing.

  2. thesupplanter said, on May 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Great post, Nick.

  3. Brian said, on August 18, 2011 at 3:36 am

    It is through one’s observations (yours, in this case) that a person can begin to understand another culture and at the same time see their own in a new light. Great reporting.

  4. Lovethebate said, on July 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    That’s reall awesome. I was lucky to grow up with a father who was never scared to show physical intimacy. We spent many hours nude together. We had no secrets. Now I’m a father of two boys, seven and ten, and I’m raising them the same way. If you’d like to discuss more, please message me on kik at lovethebate.

  5. Rae Kirk said, on September 19, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    My Sister-in-law is Korean and I havetaken an interest in her culture. There are so many aspects of Korean life that I deeply admire. I enjoyed reading this and it is wonderfully accurate. I’m teaching my children to be as humbled and accepting as I can and wish the rest of America (North) could see the beauty in their lives.
    Thanks for your time.

    • 努江虎 said, on September 21, 2015 at 7:16 am

      Rae, thanks for the positive comments. I returned from Korea only two months ago and re-reading this blog makes me so pine for the comfort, relaxation and sheer pampering of a Korean bathhouse. Good luck. Nick.


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