It's mid-afternoon and I'm working a weight machine at a no-frills gym in an aging Toronto shopping center. I'm pumping those five pounds somethin' fierce when I spot him. This particular gem is wearing socks pulled halfway to his knees, sweat-shorts, and a pit-stained yellow t-shirt that clings to his muffin top. He isn't really working out, just half-heartedly doing leg presses while shamelessly watching me.
We are the only people in a small room with 12 weight machines and steps that's set apart from the main gym. I am irritated but ignore him, determined not to let a middle-aged looky-loo ruin my circuit. Suddenly, he's just one machine away, eyeing me and my arm lift with all the subtlety of a cat in heat. I get up to grab the disinfectant and paper towel and before I can return, he's pounced.
"Uh, I still need to clean that," I say.
"Oh no," he says with a grin. "I don't mind."
What a perv, I think as I walk away. He tries—rather pathetically—to make conversation by asking me what my tattoo says, but I answer him curtly over my shoulder and move to the next machine. This has happened before, when a different guy stole my sweaty machine, but it was much more obvious and gross this time.
It's hard not to suspect this guy has some sexual thing about sweat. It's not a super common or well-known fetish—like those for feet, peeing on people, or sniffing dirty panties—but virtually anything can be a fetish, and this one definitely has some members. Obviously, it's no cause for concern when people practice their sweat-interest consensually, but not a lot of women (me especially) want to watch some guy slide around in their sweat after they work out.
"He probably just wanted to get that machine and wasn't bothered by the sweat," friends initially told me after I told them this story, ignoring the weirdness of him needing that particular machine among dozens of free ones, not to mention the fact that he didn't seem to actually be working out. They couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that someone would go out of their way to sit in a puddle of ass sweat.
But this wasn't an isolated incident at my gym.
When my friend's sister started there around a year ago, the three of us delighted in her story of this gross dude who swiped her machine before she could wipe it. I remember thinking it was hilarious. Not so much when I ask her to retell it to me now.
"I already had the paper towels and was going back there, and he was getting ready to park," she said. "Like, [I wanted] to rush back 'cause you can see my butt print. I wonder if that makes it more thrilling to them."
She told him she hadn't wiped it yet. He smiled and said, "Oh, it's OK." But she barged past and wiped it anyway.
"Even though I'm not experiencing it directly, I don't want to know that it's going on," she explained to me.
Soon after my friend started at the same gym, it happened to her, too. This time, the perp was also a "dumpy," overweight, middle-aged white guy, leading me to believe we were hit by the same sweat-fiend.
It wasn't particularly busy that day, and she wasn't on a popular machine, "like the abs one everyone is always trying to get to."
Again, while her back was turned getting the disinfectant and paper towels, the guy nabbed her weight machine.
"I was sort of taken aback and said, 'I was going to wipe that down...'"
"His eyes sort of lit up and he said, 'Oh no, that's ok."
Afterwards she simply walked away feeling "grossed out."
Sufficiently convinced that this was happening with some regularity, I started doing some research and found that a sweat fetish is totally a thing. (Rule 34 definitely applies.)
"More than likely, the sweat is a type of aphrodisiac," said Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and author who is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). According to Kerner, it contributes to the man's arousal "and may even help his workout, believe it or not."
"Sweat is a way of connecting with you," he told VICE. "He may be thinking about you, he may be watching you as you work out. It's possible the pheromones and the sweat could be a turn-on that contributes to arousal."
Kerner pointed out that, because "fetish" is a pretty rigid term that implies someone can only get aroused one way, we can't be sure if the men at the gym have an actual fetish or just a "strong interest."
I upped my gym attendance in the hopes of tracking down my sweat-stealing admirer, but he was nowhere to be found. In the meantime, I took to the dark heart of FetLife, Reddit, and Craigslist looking for people who could help me understand this.
I found Adam, 34, of California, on the "sex" subreddit, where I posted looking for people with a sweat fetish. He likes "women's smell and for them to be dirty and sweaty."
I was kind of surprised to see, via video, that Adam was a young, decent-looking dude I'd probably have fun hanging out with. He's a teacher, which explains his insistence of anonymity.
"Sweat is a counterpoint to the portrayal of women as these perfect, immaculate creatures," Adam wrote me in a message and reiterated over Google Hangout. "It's messy, it smells, it happens involuntarily, and it's embarrassing to a lot of women, so it feels like something more intimate that they're less likely to share."
"In real life, I want to see girls sweaty, dripping, and hot, with that flush look that skin gets, breathing with their mouths open."
Adam doesn't go to the gym but says if he did, he'd "like to sit in the damp heat of their body on some rowing machine or whatever."
To absolutely no one's surprise, the internet is full of opportunities for men (and women) who may want to indulge in a sweat fetish.
Sexysweat.com welcomes users with images of a woman prying her ass cheeks open over a guy's face and a man nose-deep in another lucky lady's armpit.
Video titles like "Smell my ass session," "stinky dusty feet to smell," and "worship my sweaty ass loser!" beckon sweat lovers everywhere to join and experience "more than 100 smelly beddable girls with wet mind-blowing armpits, hot weeping asses and exciting smelling feet."
"There certainly are people that have that fetish," said Rob Peach, a psychotherapist and Clinical Associate on the Board of Examiners in Sex Therapy and Counselling in Ontario (BESTCO).
"It's arousing to them. It turns them on. Full stop," Peach said.
He does find it odd that this one gym in particular would have a higher-than-average concentration of sweat-lovers, though, as the fetish itself is not common. He thinks it could be the same couple of guys making the rounds, and my friends and I each happened to cross paths with them.
It might be that it's a "cheap and cheerful way, and the fact that it's inexpensive has drawn men in," Peach says.
They may also be sweat-stealing at the gym because "they don't have the skills or the relationship or ability to seek it out in their regular sex life in a more overt or consensual way."
James, 46, from Sacramento, CA, responded to a posting I made in FetLife's "Sweat" group titled "Sweaty machines at the gym." James says he only indulges in his sweat fetish in consensual ways.
This means that, rather than seeking out sweat from unsuspecting women, he finds women who are interested in being sweaty with him--having "vigorous" sex or sex in "hot and humid conditions" are particularly fun for him.
For him, sweat means "Being able to have a contact that stays with you after you've broken the contact. It's something I get to take away from you with me."
I don't mind James doing that, because the women are aware, and the women are not me. But the thought of the lardy guy at the gym basking in the feeling of my sweat as something he's taken away with him makes me mildly queasy.
As a self-described sweat fetishist, James says a woman on a machine at the gym "leaves an intimate 'essence' of her vitality on the bench or seat. Touching that sweat is a way of touching her by proxy, and it is relatively safe." He wouldn't seek that out himself because the woman hasn't consented, but he gets why some men might.
It's not hard to see how this sort of behaviour could make a woman feel uncomfortable. As far as I'm concerned, it's no skin off my back if someone wants to indulge in my ass sweat.
But as my friend put it, "I don't want to be watching him sweat in my butt sweat. It's like going into the garbage and grabbing your dirty snotrag after you throw it out."
As for her sister, "It makes me wonder what kinds of other fetishes are being enacted in public settings on women without their consent in kind of a shifty, sneaky way."
Peach can understand why some women would feel uncomfortable.
"[There's] an element of nonconsent. If someone is going to a gym and routinely approaching women and manipulating a situation to get access to their sweat then, yeah, I think that's something that is a community safety issue," he said.
Kerner also acknowledged that for some, sweat is a body fluid they aren't trying to share, and "the idea of somebody sexually indulging in it is kind of sleazy and creepy."
I know I'm constantly watchful at the gym now, and I'm itching to confront these guys next time it happens. It's my damn sweat, and I don't want it going home on some guy's shorts for him to use as he pleases. Sweat-stealers, you've been warned.