Bathhouses, also known
as (gay) saunas or steam baths (and sometimes called, in gay
slang in some regions, "the baths" or "the tubs"), are places
where men can go to have sex with other men. (Note that not all
men who visit such bathhouses consider themselves gay.)
Bathhouses for women are much rarer, though some men's
bathhouses will occasionally have "lesbian" or "women-only"
Bathhouses vary considerably in size and amenities — from small
establishments with ten or twenty 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 even
swimming pools — but nearly all have at least one steam room (or
wet sauna), as well as lockers and small private rooms. Unlike
at brothels, customers pay only for the use of the facilities;
sexual activity, if it occurs, is not provided as a service by
staff of the establishment, but is between customers, and no
money is exchanged. In fact, nearly all gay bathhouses prohibit
or discourage prostitution and ban known prostitutes.
Bathhouses are frequently run twenty-four hours. There is
typically a single customer entrance and exit; the customer can
either rent a room — typically consisting of a locker and a
single bed (though doubles are sometimes available) — or a
locker, for a fixed period, typically from one to twelve hours.
In many (particularly outside the United States), rooms are
freely available to anyone who has entered after purchasing a
locker. After paying, the customer is buzzed through the main
door. This system allows establishments to screen potential
trouble-makers; many bathhouses refuse entry to those who are
visibly intoxicated, or to known prostitutes. In some areas,
particularly where homosexuality is illegal, considered immoral,
or viewed with hostility, this is a necessary safety precaution.
For similar reasons, some bathhouses require the presentation of
identification, though the majority do not.
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 restrict entrance to
men of certain age ranges (apart from the general requirement of
being an adult) or physical types, and even perceived
nationality or race, although in other places this would be
considered illegal discrimination. Some bathhouses hold
occasional "leather", "underwear" or other theme nights.
Layout and typical amenities
On being buzzed in, the customer receives a (usually white)
towel and the key for his room or locker. Many bathhouses also
give free condoms and lubricants. Some establishments require a
piece of identification or an item of value to be left with the
front desk on entry.
Bathhouses are usually dimly lit, and pipe in music via a sound
system. They are usually laid out in a circular fashion, or in
such a way as to allow or encourage customers to wander
throughout the establishment. 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. The heat is kept relatively high.
The customer proceeds to his room or locker where he changes out
of his street clothes and wraps a towel around his waist; most
bathhouses are clothing optional and some encourage total
nudity, but 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 dressed in street clothes. The room or locker
key is usually suspended from an elastic band which can be worn
around the wrist or ankle. The customer is then free to wander
throughout the public areas of the bathhouse, which may include:
* group showers
* steam rooms (sometimes more than one)
* jacuzzi tubs (often located in the steam room)
* dry saunas
* dark rooms
* "glory holes"
* theme rooms or areas
* orgy rooms
* video areas playing pornography
* relaxation areas where non-pornographic movies are shown
* café areas where food and/or drinks are served
* bars or full restaurants (these are relatively unusual)
* tanning booths
* gymnasium facilities
* dance areas
* swimming or lap pools
According to The History of Gay Bathhouses, 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 NYC
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 (1).
Many bathhouses have small shops selling such items as
cigarettes, pornography, sex toys, latex gloves, massage oils
and lubricants, razors and shaving cream, aftershave and
cologne, toothbrushes, hair products, and related items. Some
also sell condoms, shower gel, shampoo and hair conditioner, but
these are usually provided free.
Some bathhouses provide non-sexual services such as massage and
Customers typically divide their time between the
showers/saunas/jacuzzis and the main areas of the establishment.
Customers who have rented rooms may choose to rest there from
time to time, while those who have rented lockers must rest in
the public areas such as the café or lounge.
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 sexual activity that is
already occurring, or to join in. 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 engage in 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. Interested men will
usually look at each other; in this highly sexualized
environment a look is frequently enough to express interest. A
nod signals interest, while looking away or shaking the head is
usually enough to signal a lack of interest, though sometimes
people misunderstand or refuse to take the hint. Such men are
called trolls. In darkened areas of the tubs and in mazes, video
rooms, group sex areas, and the saunas or jacuzzis (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.
Some establishments encourage sex in public areas (albeit
usually excluding the hallways, toilets, cafés, gyms and
lounges) while others do not; in some jurisdictions such
activity is prohibited, and sex must be confined to private
rooms. In such areas individual bathhouses enforce these rules
to varying degrees, often at their own legal risk. Customers are
usually free to watch others masturbating or having sex in
public areas, and also to join in, providing none of the
Gay men have been meeting for sex in bathhouses at least since
the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the West, 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 public parks, alleys, train and bus stations, movie
theaters, public lavatories ("cottages (U.K.)/tearooms (U.S.)")
and gym changing rooms where they could meet other men for sex;
they also frequented bathhouses, or Turkish baths. Some
bathhouse owners tried to prevent sex between patrons while
others, mindful of profits, allowed discreet homosexual activity
Russian poet, novelist and composer Mikhail Kuzmin (1872–1936)
is known to have patronized bathhouses. Some of the bathhouses
in St. Petersburg at the time became known as friendly to gay
men and provided "attendants," who might provide sexual services
for a fee. In his diary, Kuzmin writes of one bathhouse visit:
"the evening I had the urge to go to a bathhouse simply to be
stylish, for the fun of it, for cleanliness."
In the 1950s exclusively gay bathhouses began to open in the
United States. Though subject to vice raids these bathhouses
were "oases 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 '70s, gay bathhouses — now primarily
gay-owned and operated — became fully-licensed, gay
establishments which soon became a major gay institution. These
bathhouses served as informal gay meeting places, places where
friends could meet and relax. Gay bathhouses frequently threw
parties for Pride Day and public holidays such as Thanksgiving
and Christmas, when some gays, particularly those who had been
rejected by their families, had nowhere to go.
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 (4).
Although most bathhouses do not allow customers to leave
temporarily and re-enter, men frequently used bathhouses as a
cheaper alternative to hotels, with the added attraction of the
possibility of sex. This practice continues today.
Gay bathhouses and STDs
Gay bathhouses have been blamed for the spread of sexually
transmitted diseases (STDs), in particular HIV, and this has
forced their closure in some jurisdictions (see Legal issues,
below). There is likely some truth in this claim, at least in
the early days of the epidemic, as condoms were rarely used
between men before the early 1980s, and bathhouses served as a
primary meeting point for same-sex (male) sex partners.
Sociologist and author Stephen O. Murray, however, in his book
American Gay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996),
writes that, "there was never any evidence presented that going
to bathhouses was a risk-factor for contracting AIDS."
On the other hand, David Horowitz, writing in Front Page
Magazine in 1997, claims that the "re-emergence of a
bathhouse-sex club culture that fosters large cohorts of
promiscuous strangers" was responsible for spreading STDs in
urban gay centers. Specifically, he claims that what he calls
"sex clubs" (bathhouses and sex clubs are different types of
establishment; see the Legal issues section for more details)
are responsible for the spread of AIDS:
Cowed by the politically correct activists who have crippled the
battle against AIDS, the media have turned a blind eye to the
rash of new sex clubs and refuse to make the connection that
AIDS is as much a behavioral as a clinical disease(14).
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).
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 (5).
A related issue is that of drug and alcohol consumption. In some
countries, most bathhouses are prohibited from selling alcohol,
but in other countries, such as Japan, they are not. (In Canada,
where some bathhouses serve alcohol, a bathhouse holding a
liquor license may open it up 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 and
cocaine) by their patrons. This is a problem because the use of
drugs and alcohol may make people more likely to engage in
unsafe sex. Intravenous drug users may be more likely to share
needles, considered a very high risk activity, while under the
effects of narcotics. Sex clubs, which have no private areas,
find it easier to regulate consumption of drugs on their
The use of Crystal meth is also known to lead to riskier sexual
behaviour, but since gay Crystal users tend to seek out other
users to engage in sexual activity, they often prefer to make
such arrangements via the Internet; for more information, see
Crystal and sex.
In some areas, 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
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. They point out that
closing bathhouses does not prevent people from engaging in
Gay bathhouses today continue to fill much the same function as
they did historically, although the community aspect has
lessened somewhat in many areas, particularly in Western
countries, with the increasing tendency of gay men to come out
Men still use bathhouses as a convenient, safe place to meet
other men for sex, although in some areas where homosexuality is
more accepted, safety may no longer be a primary attraction.
Certainly bathhouses still offer convenience.
Sexual encounters at bathhouses are frequently, but not always,
anonymous. They sometimes lead to relationships, but often do
not. Bathhouses are still used by men who do not identify as gay
or bisexual, but who have sex with men, as well as by those who
are closeted and/or in heterosexual relationships and by some
men who identify primarily as heterosexual.
The advent of the internet has made it significantly easier to
find lovers and casual sex partners, and some men who used to
frequent the baths may be using internet personals instead.
However, for many men the baths offer other attractions: the
opportunity for group sex or sex with several partners, public
sex, the fantasy areas, convenience and safety, and the use of
steam saunas and jacuzzis and other amenities.
Some men also continue to use the baths as a cheaper alternative
to hotels, despite their limitations:
* They tend to be noisy, with the background cacophony of music,
pornography and the activity of other patrons present 24 hours a
* The rooms tend to be awkwardly small (little more than a
lockable windowless cubicle containing a locker, a simple bed
and a small dustbin) and rather spartan. While a towel and a
bedsheet are normally included, blankets or bedcovers are most
often not provided. Even a simple electrical outlet may or may
not be available in-room.
* They do not provide the comfort, the privacy or anything close
to the fire safety of even the least prestigious hotel or motel
room. On May 25, 1977, for example, a fire broke out at the
Everard Baths in New York City, one of the oldest gay bathhouses
in the U.S. Nine men died and several others were seriously
* Entry and exit to the building is subject to strict control.
Bathhouses are often not identifiable as such from the outside,
though this is by no means always true. While some bathhouses
are clearly marked and well lit, in some cases there is no
marking other than a street address on the door of the
establishment. Bathhouses sometimes display the rainbow flag,
which is commonly flown by businesses to identify themselves as
gay-run or gay-friendly places. Bathhouses commonly advertise
widely in the gay press (for example there are two-page
advertisements in the British scene magazine Boyz for the London
bathhouse Chariots), they also sometimes advertise in mainstream
newspapers and other media. In 2003, for example, Australia
began airing possibly the world's first television
advertisements for a gay bathhouse. Local TV in the city of
Melbourne screened some advertising for Wet, a sauna in
Wellington Street, Collingwood.
Gay Men's Health Crisis - http://www.gmhc.org/index.html
An organization founded in 1981, GMHC offers hands-on support
services in New York City and education and advocacy for
hundreds of thousands nationwide.
The Berkeley Free Clinic - http://www.berkeleyfreeclinic.org/
Community based collectively run clinic, staffed completely by
volunteers. Offers limited medical, dental, and counseling
services, as well as information and referrals.
AIDS meds.com - http://aidsmeds.com/
This HIV+ owned and operated site has easy-to-read guided
treatment lessons, drug information, recent news, community
forums, and drug interactions checker.
Youth Suicide Problems -
A number of facts, articles, links, and resources; many written
from an academic perspective.
Gay Men's Health - http://www.gmhp.demon.co.uk/
Information about this Wiltshire and Swindon organization.
Gay-Bisexual Male Suicide Problems -
The most extensive and comprehensive resources on gay and
bisexual male suicide problems available on the Web.
OzPoz - http://www.ozpoz.org/
Online support, information sharing and discussion for
Australian gay men who are HIV-positive.
Gay Men and HIV/AIDS - http://www.thebody.com/whatis/gaymen.html
Presented by The Body, resources on issues related to men who
have sex with men. Includes topics ranging from bathhouse
closures to dating tips for the HIV positive man.
YoLanda Says .... - http://www.yolandasays.com/
Humorous columns about HIV and AIDS.
POZabilities - http://www.sandiegopozabilities.com/
A social group for HIV+ men in the San Diego area. Details on
activities, events calendar, and photographs.
Hortilad's Place - http://www.hortilad.co.uk/
HIV and AIDS resource and discussion centre. Includes message
board, chat rooms, personal ads, and HIV related links.
xtwkrs.org - http://www.xtwkrs.org/index.php
Information about crystal meth addiction; with a forum, news,
personal stories, and links.
HIV Dating Online - http://www.livingpositive.com/
A free and anonymous way for people with HIV and AIDS to meet
for friendship and dating through personal ads and chat.
Bodywork For Men - http://bodyworkformen.com/
A free site with links to male bodyworkers and masseurs
interested in male clients, a discussion board for
bodywork/massage issues, an exchange board for men seeking to
give or to get bodywork/massage from other men.
Touch For Life - http://www.touchforlife.com
Information about different types of massage. Group for men
interested in massage to contact one another. Massage techniques
and sessions. Fees and biography. Membership required for some
Gay Men Fighting AIDS - http://www.metromate.org.uk/amm/gmfa/
London-based volunteer-led gay men's health organisation which
offers training and support to prevent the spread of AIDS and to
improve the health of HIV positive gay men. Structure, history,
volunteer information, workshop schedule, news releases
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