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Gay bathhouses, also known as gay saunas or steam baths, are commercial bathhouses for men to have sex with other men. In gay slang in some regions these venues are also known colloquially as "the baths", "the Sauna" or "the tubs," and should not be confused with public bathing.
Not all men who visit gay bathhouses consider themselves gay, regardless of their sexual behavior. Bathhouses for women are rare, though some men's bathhouses occasionally have "lesbian" or "women only" nights.
Bathhouses vary considerably in size and amenities—from small establishments with 10 or 20 rooms and a handful of lockers to multi-storey saunas with a variety of room styles or sizes and several steam baths, jacuzzi tubs, and sometimes swimming pools. Most have a steam room (or wet sauna), dry sauna, showers, lockers, and small private rooms.
Many bathhouses are membership only. Unlike brothels, customers pay only for the use of the facilities. Sexual activity, if it occurs, is not provided by staff of the establishment but is between customers, and no money is exchanged. Many gay bathhouses explicitly prohibit or discourage prostitution and ban known prostitutes.
Records of men meeting for sex with other men in bathhouses date back to the 15th century. A tradition of public baths dates back to the 6th century BC and there are many ancient records of homosexual activity in Greece. In the West, gay men have been using bathhouses for sex since at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when homosexual acts were illegal in most Western countries and men who were caught engaging in homosexual acts were often arrested and publicly humiliated. Men began frequenting cruising areas such as bathhouses, public parks, alleys, train and bus stations, movie theaters, public lavatories (cottages or tearooms), and gym changing rooms where they could meet other men for sex. Some bathhouse owners tried to prevent sex between patrons while others, mindful of profits or prepared to risk prosecution, overlooked discreet homosexual activity.
In New York City, the Everard (nicknamed the Everhard) was converted from a church to a bathhouse in 1888 and was patronized by gay men before the 1920s and by the 1930s had a reputation as the "classiest, safest, and best known of the baths." It was damaged by fire on May 25, 1977 when nine men died and several others were seriously injured. The Everard closed in 1986. Also popular in the 1910s were the Produce Exchange Baths and the Lafayette Baths (403–405 Lafayette Street, which from 1916 was managed by Ira & George Gershwin). American precisionist painter Charles Demuth used the Lafayette Baths as his favourite haunt. His 1918 homoerotic self-portrait set in a Turkish Bathhouse is likely to have been inspired by it. The Penn Post Baths in a hotel basement (The Penn Post Hotel, 304 West 31st Street) was a popular gay location in the 1920s despite a lack of private rooms and seedy condition.
The American composer Charles Griffes (1884–1920) wrote in his diaries about visits to the New York bathhouses and the YMCA. His biography states: So great was his need to be with boys, that though his home contained two pianos, he chose to practice at an instrument at the Y, and his favorite time was when the players were coming and going from their games.
When a friend with "little experience but great desire" confided his homosexual longings to Charles Griffes in 1916, Griffes took him to the Lafayette so that he could meet other gay men and explore his sexual interests in a supportive environment: the friend was "astounded and fascinated" by what he saw there. The baths also encouraged more advanced forms of sexual experimentation. Griffes himself had had his first encounter with a man interested in sadomasochism at the Lafayette two years earlier (he found the man "interesting" but the experience unappealing), and several men interviewed in the mid-1930s referred to experimenting in the baths and learning of new pleasures.
— George Chauncey, Gay New York 1995
In London, the Savoy Turkish Baths at 92 Jermyn Street became a favorite spot (opening in 1910 and remaining open until September 1975). The journalist A.J. Langguth wrote: ...[The baths at Jermyn Street] represented a twilight arena for elderly men who came to sweat poisons from their systems and youths who came to strike beguiling poses in Turkish towels... although they were closely overseen by attendants, they provided a discreet place to inspect a young man before offering a cup of tea at Lyons. Regulars included Rock Hudson.
Steambaths in the 1930s: The steambaths that had been well known to me were those of East Ham, Greenwich and Bermondsey. In the first two it was frequently possible to indulge in what the Spartacus Guide coyly describes as 'action', but behaviour at all times had to be reasonably cautious. In the Grange Road baths in Bermondsey, however, all restraint could immediately be discarded with the small towels provided to cover your nakedness.
— Anthony Aspinall, Gay Times
In the 1950s exclusively gay bathhouses began to open in the United States. Though subject to vice raids, these bathhouses were "oasis of homosexual camaraderie" and were, as they remain today, "places where it was safe to be gay", whether or not patrons themselves identified as homosexual. The gay baths offered a much safer alternative to sex in other public places.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, gay bathhouses — now primarily gay-owned and operated — became fully licensed, gay establishments which soon became major gay institutions. These bathhouses served as informal gay meeting places, places where friends could meet and relax. Gay bathhouses frequently threw parties for Pride Day and were usually open on public holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, when some gay men, particularly those who had been rejected by their families due to their sexual orientation, had nowhere to go. The American writer Truman Capote was a regular at New York City baths in the 1970s, in particular the sauna at West 58th Street.
Another service offered by the baths was voter registration. In the run-up to the 1980 election, the New St. Mark's Baths in New York City, with the assistance of the League of Women Voters, conducted a voter registration drive on its premises.
In Australia, the first gay steam bath was opened in Sydney in 1967. This was the Bondi Junction Steam Baths at 109 Oxford Street. From 1972 through 1977 the following gay steam baths opened: Ken's Karate Klub (nicknamed "KKK"), now called Ken's at Kensington; No. 253; King Steam; Silhouette American Health Centre; Colt 107 Recreation Centre; Barefoot Boy; and Roman Bath (nicknamed "Roman Ruins"). In Melbourne the first gay bathhouse was Steamworks in La Trobe Street, which opened in 1979 and closed 13 October 2008.
Gay saunas, as they are more commonly known in Australia and New Zealand, were present in most large cities in those countries by the late 1980s. As homosexuality was decriminalised in New Zealand and most Australian states during the 1970s and 1980s, there was no criminal conduct occurring on the premises of such "sex on site venues".
In Britain gay saunas were routinely raided by police up until the end of the 1980s (for example raids in May 1988 on Brownies in Streatham, the owner getting a six-month jail sentence and a £5,000 fine, and the Brooklyn House Hotel sauna in Manchester). By the 1990s, with increasing scrutiny of the costs of such operations (charges of gross indecency in a sauna normally needing the expense of undercover officers), a reduced likelihood of successful prosecution, concerns of being perceived as homophobic, and little public interest in victimless crime, gay saunas became free to operate without the risk of being raided by police. Also, police attitudes meant that they were more willing to turn a blind eye because they preferred such activity to take place in a contained environment rather than outdoors even though users were still committing the homosexual sexual offence of gross indecency, until gross indecency was wiped from the statute books following the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Gay bathhouses today continue to fill a similar function as they did historically. The community aspect has lessened in some territories, particularly those where gay men increasingly tend to come out.
Men still use bathhouses as a convenient, safe place to meet other men for sex. In areas where homosexuality is more accepted, safety may no longer be a primary attraction.
Many bathhouses are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There is typically a single customer entrance and exit. After paying at the main entrance, the customer is buzzed through the main door. This system allows establishments to screen potential troublemakers; many bathhouses refuse entry to those who are visibly intoxicated, as well as known prostitutes. In some areas, particularly where homosexuality is illegal, considered immoral, or viewed with hostility, this is a necessary safety precaution.
Sexual encounters at bathhouses are frequently, but not always, anonymous. They sometimes lead to relationships, but usually do not. Bathhouses are still used by men who have sex with men and do not identify as gay or bisexual, including those that are closeted or in heterosexual relationships.
In many bathhouses the customer has a choice between renting a room or a locker, often for fixed periods of up to 12 hours. A room typically consists of a locker and a single bed (though doubles are sometimes available) with a thin vinyl mat supported on a simple wooden box or frame, an arrangement that facilitates easy cleaning between patrons. In many bathhouses (particularly those outside the United States), some or all of the rooms are freely available to all patrons.
Some men use the baths as a cheaper alternative to hotels, despite the limitations of being potentially crowded public venues with only rudimentary rooms and limited or non-existent pass out privileges.
These guys will actually call me at home or send me e-mails and we will make a date and we will meet at the baths purely because the sling is there and it's easier and we go for a beer afterwards. I use the bathhouse more as an ancient Greek, Roman social centre and also a fucking centre and a fisting centre as well, and there's a lounge where I can sit and relax with a coffee and a cigarette.
— "Peter", Haubrich et al. (2004)
Bathhouses are not always identifiable as such from the outside. Some bathhouses are clearly marked and well lit, others have no marking other than a street address on the door. Bathhouses sometimes display the rainbow flag, which is commonly flown by businesses to identify themselves as gay-run or gay-friendly. Bathhouses commonly advertise widely in the gay press and sometimes advertise in mainstream newspapers and other media. In 2003 Australia began airing possibly the world's first television advertisements for a gay bathhouse when advertisements on commercial television in Melbourne promoted Wet on Wellington, a sauna in Wellington Street, Collingwood.
In many countries, being identified in such a sauna was still viewed by the press as scandalous. In Ireland in November 1994, the Incognito sauna made mainstream press as the gay sauna where a priest had died of a heart attack and two other priests were on hand to help out. Scott Capurro is known for his deliberately provocative comedy material and often refers to gay sexual culture including gay bathhouses.
On being buzzed in, the customer receives a towel and the key for his room or locker. The customer undresses; storing his clothing in the locker provided, and is then free to wander throughout the public areas of the bathhouse, which typically include the amenities of a traditional bathhouse or steambath (Picture from the movie Hamam).
Many bathhouses also provide free condoms and lubricant. Some establishments require a piece of identification or an item of value to be left with the front desk on entry. Homosexualities emphasized the importance of the towel:
Visiting a downtown gay bath was in many ways like revisiting a high-school gym – everyone wearing the same towel, in the same color, on the same part of the body. There was no status consciousness in the social-stratification sense; the towel or loincloth created a sort of equal-status social group.
— an ethnographer, Homosexualities, p239, 1979
Bathhouses are designed with imagery and music to create surroundings that are arousing to the visitors.
Bathhouses are usually dimly lit and play music. They are often laid out in a manner that allows or encourages customers to wander throughout the establishment; a space laid out in this way is often referred to as a "maze". Rooms are usually grouped together, as are lockers. Bathhouses are frequently decorated with posters of nude or semi-nude men, and sometimes explicit depictions of sex. It is not uncommon to see pornographic movies playing on wall-mounted televisions throughout the bathhouse.
Most men typically just wear the towel provided. Some bathhouses are clothing-optional and some encourage total nudity. In some bathhouses nudity is forbidden in the common areas of the establishments. While some men may wear underwear or fetish-wear, in most bathhouses it is unusual for customers to remain fully or even partially dressed in street clothes. Bare feet are customary, though some men prefer to wear flip flops or sandals, mostly for foot protection. The room or locker key is usually suspended from an elastic band which can be worn around the wrist or ankle.
Some bathhouses require customers to purchase yearly memberships and many offer special entry rates to members or to students or other groups. In some countries, bathhouses can restrict entrance to men of certain age ranges (apart from the general requirement of being an adult) or physical types, although in other places this would be considered illegal discrimination. Some bathhouses hold occasional "leather", "underwear", or other theme nights.
In the 1970s bathhouses began to install "fantasy environments" which recreated erotic situations that were illegal or dangerous:
Orgy rooms . . . encouraged group sex, while glory holes recreated (public) toilets, and mazes took the place of bushes and undergrowth (in public parks). Steam rooms and gyms were reminiscent of the cruisy YMCAs, while video rooms recreated the balconies and back rows of movie theaters. A popular Chicago bathhouse called Man‘s Country provided a full-size model of an Everlast truck where visitors could have sex in the cab or in the rear, which served as an orgy room . . . Man's Country also offered a . . . fake prison cell made of rubber bars.
— Eddie Coronado, The history of gay bathhouses
Customers typically divide their time between the showers/saunas/jacuzzis and the main areas of the establishment. Customers who have rented rooms have free access to their room.
Customers who have rooms may leave their room doors open to signal that they are available for sex. An open door can also be an invitation for others to watch or join in sexual activity that is already occurring.
When a room is occupied only by a single person, some men will position themselves to suggest what they might like from someone joining them in the room: those who would like to be penetrated anally ("bottoms") will sometimes lie face down on the bed with the door open, while those who prefer to penetrate others ("tops") or to receive fellatio might lie face up.
In the past, the baths served as community spaces for gay men. Even now, some men choose to go to the baths with their friends (even though they may not necessarily have sex with each other). While many men talk to each other at the baths, even forming long-lasting friendships or relationships, many others do not, preferring, for various reasons, anonymity.
But I’ve been to a sauna recently in New Zealand, where everyone just chatted away, which I found very strange. Um, but you know, that's because I guess it was a smaller city and people generally knew each other.
— "S Alfred", The Social Construction of Sexual Practice, (Richters 2006, PhD Thesis)
In this highly sexualized environment a look or nod is frequently enough to express interest. In darkened areas of the establishment including the mazes, video rooms, group sex areas, and the saunas or hot tubs (but not generally in the showers, toilets, hallways, gyms, café areas, and lounges), men are usually free to touch other patrons; it is expected and usually — but not always — welcomed. A shake of the head, or pushing away the other's hand, means that the attention is not welcomed.
I normally find people with groping don’t go away. You really have to as they
grope your crotch area grab their hand and push it away and there have been times when I’ve had to do that three, two or three or four times before they actually get the message. There's also been times when I actually just had to say to them to fuck off.
— "Richard", The Social Construction of Sexual Practice, (Richters 2006, PhD Thesis)
Some establishments allow or encourage sex in specific group sex areas. In some jurisdictions such activity is prohibited, and sex must be confined to private rooms. Some forbid sex in pools for hygiene reasons. In the United Kingdom, the requirement is often set by the local authority's Environmental Health department.
From the mid-1980s onward there was lobbying against gay bathhouses blaming them for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), in particular HIV, and this forced their closure in some jurisdictions (see Legal issues, below). Sociologist Stephen O. Murray, writes that, "there was never any evidence presented that going to bathhouses was a risk-factor for contracting AIDS."
In some countries, fears about the spread of STDs have prompted the closing of bathhouses—with their private rooms—in favour of sex clubs, in which all sexual activity takes place in the open, and can be observed by monitors whose job it is to enforce safe-sex practices. However, proponents of bathhouses point out that closing these facilities does not prevent people from engaging in unsafe sex.
Neither the claim that bathhouses are responsible for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, nor the claim that they are not, has been conclusively proved, but it is known that STDs are spread via unprotected sex, and as part of their membership agreement, or as a condition of entry, some bathhouses now require customers to affirm in writing that they will only practice safe sex on the premises, and venues frequently provide free condoms, latex gloves, and lubrication (and/or have them available for purchase). In New Zealand and Australia, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation and constituent members of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations provide safe sex information for sex on site venue users.
Some anti-bathhouse activists argue that these measures are not enough, especially given that it is virtually impossible to monitor sexual activity in a bathhouse; however, while they acknowledge that closing gay bathhouses may force some men into unsafe or illegal situations in public parks and lavatories, they point out that they may be less likely to engage in anal or multipartner sex—both of which put participants at risk for contracting STDs—in such situations.
Others counter these claims by pointing out that bathhouses are a major source of safer sex information—they provide pamphlets and post safer sex posters prominently (often on the walls of each room as well as in the common areas), provide free condoms and lubricants, and often require patrons to affirm that they will only have safer sex on the premises. In cities with larger gay populations, STD and HIV testing and counseling may be offered on-site for no charge.
In some countries bathhouses are prohibited from selling alcohol. (In Canada, where some bathhouses serve alcohol, a bathhouse holding a liquor license may be required to submit to liquor inspections, which activists claim are often a pretext for regulating gay sexual activity.) Many bathhouses deny entry to those who are visibly intoxicated but do not—or cannot—regulate the consumption of drugs (typically alcohol, marijuana, poppers, ecstasy, cocaine and crystal meth.) by their patrons. The use of drugs and alcohol may make people more likely to engage in unsafe sex. Sex clubs with no private areas potentially find it easier to regulate consumption of drugs on their premises.
The use of crystal meth is also known to lead to riskier sexual behaviour, but since gay crystal meth users tend to seek out other users to engage in sexual activity, they often prefer to make such arrangements via the internet.
All interviewees were asked whether or not they used condoms, and all with the exception of Fabian, said they used them when having penetrative sex with clients. For fellatio, sometimes they used condoms and sometimes not... For him (Fabian), it was all the same whether he used a condom or not. He also talked about the drugs he had taken, pure alcohol, crack cocaine, and "sometimes I inject, maybe 15 times I've injected, crystal, cocaine and sometimes heroin."
— Interviews with masajistas (masseurs) in a Mexico City gay bathhouse, Peter Aggleton , Men who Sell Sex , 1999
In California the "Consenting Adult Sex Bill", passed in January 1976, made gay bathhouses and the sex that took place within them legal for the first time. During the 1970s, the two most popular gay bathhouses in San Francisco, both located in the SOMA neighborhood, were the Ritch Street Health Club at 330 Ritch St., the interior of which was designed like a Minoan palace, and the The Barracks, a BDSM bathhouse at 72 Hallam near Folsom in which each room was designed to accommodate a different BDSM sexual fantasy. In 1978 a group of police officers raided the Liberty Baths in the Polk Gulch neighborhood of San Francisco and arrested three patrons for "lewd conduct in a public place," but the District Attorney's office soon dropped the charges against them. In 1984, however, fear of AIDS caused the San Francisco Health department, with the support of some gay activists, and against the opposition of other gay activists, to ask the courts to close gay bathhouses in the city. The court, under Judge Roy Wonder, instead issued a court order that limited sexual practices and disallowed renting of private rooms in bathhouses, so that sexual activity could be monitored, as a public health measure. Some of the bathhouses tried to live within the strict rules of this court order, but many of them felt they could not easily do business under the new rules and closed. Eventually, the few remaining actual bathhouses succumbed to either economic pressures or the continuing legal pressures of the city and finally closed. Several sex clubs, which were not officially bathhouses, continued to operate indefinitely and operate to this day, though following strict rules under the court order and city regulations. Bathhouses themselves, however, operate just outside of the city, thus outside of their laws, such as in Berkeley and San Jose.
In 1985, the New York City Health Department ordered that the city's gay bathhouses be closed. As a result, heterosexual sex clubs such as Plato's Retreat had to shut down as well because the city had just passed a gay rights ordinance, and allowing the heterosexual clubs to remain open while closing the gay establishments would have been a violation of that ordinance
Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Berkeley, San Jose, Cleveland, Portland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale are some American cities that have bathhouses in operation.
In March 2008 a series of police raids in gay bathhouses and at gay meeting spots in Beijing have resulted in arrests and bathhouse closures. This included raids on two branches of the Oasis bathhouses, known to be the most popular in Beijing. In 2000, police arrested 37 men in a Guangzhou gay spa on charges of prostitution. Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997.
The German speaking countries have a lot of gay bathhouses ("Schwule Sauna") since homosexuality had been legalized in 1969 (and later). The oldest one are "Vulcan-Sauna in Hanover, another Bathhouse in Cologne, Berlin and Kaiserbruendl in Vienna.
See also Gay Bathhouse in Japan.
In Japan, there were "Sunagawaya" "Takenoya" "Seibuen" in the 1950s. "Oban" "24 Kaikan" "Jin-ya" were built in the 1970s.
Singer Bette Midler is well known for getting her start at the famous Continental Baths in New York City in the early 1970s, where she earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty. It was there, accompanied by pianist Barry Manilow (who, like the bathhouse patrons, sometimes wore only a white towel) that she created her stage persona "the Divine Miss M."
On getting her start in bathhouses, Midler has remarked:
Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I'm still proud of those days [when I got my start singing at the gay bathhouses]. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of 'Bathhouse Betty' with pride.
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