Gay 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. 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" nights.
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 showers, lockers and small private rooms. Unlike at brothels, many bathhouses are membership only and 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. 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 though a tradition of public baths dates back to the 6th century BC and there are many ancient records of homosexual activity in Greece.
Gay men have been using bathhouses for sex since at least 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 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 Florence, Italy, in 1492 there was a purge against the "vice of sodomy". The places used for homosexual acts were known to be taverns, baths and casini (sheds or houses used for illicit sex and gambling). The Eight of Watch (the city's leading criminal court) issued several decrees associated with sodomy and on April 11, 1492 they warned the managers of bathhouses to keep out "suspect boys" on penalty of a fine. In the short period from April 1492 to February 1494 they convicted 44 men for homosexual relations not involving violence or aggravating circumstances.
In France the first recorded police raid on a Parisian bathhouse was in 1876 in the Bains de Gymnase on the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière when six men aged 14 to 22 were prosecuted for an offense against public decency and the manager and two employees for facilitating pederasty.
1903 New York
In the United States on February 21 1903, New York police conducted the first recorded raid on a gay bathhouse, the Ariston Hotel Baths. 26 men were arrested and 12 brought to trial on sodomy charges; 7 men received sentences ranging from 4 to 20 years in prison.
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 "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). 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.
In London, the Jermyn Street Turkish Bath became a favorite spot (opened in 1857 under David Urquhart's direction and survived until the 1970s). 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.
In the 1950s the Bermondsey Turkish Baths were rated by Kenneth Williams as "quite fabulous" in his diaries. |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 "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 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, 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.
In Sydney, Australia, the first gay steam bath was opened in 1967, the Bondi Junction Steam Baths at 109 Oxford Street. From 1972 through to 1977 the following gay steam baths opened: ''Ken's Karate Klasses'' (nicknamed KKK) which is still trading in 2008 and 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, Australia, the first gay bathhouse to be opened was Steamworks in Latrobe Street, Melbourne in 1979 (still open in 2008).
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. Being identified in such a sauna was still viewed by the press as scandalous; 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.
By then, though, gay bathhouses (or saunas, as they are more commonly known there) were present in most large cities in Australia and New Zealand. 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".
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 publicly.
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.
Many bathhouses are open twenty-four hours. There is typically a single customer entrance and exit. After paying at the main wicket, 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, as well as 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.
Sexual encounters at bathhouses are frequently, but not always, anonymous. They sometimes lead to relationships, but most 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.
In many bathhouses the customer has a choice between renting a room or a locker, often for fixed periods of up to twelve 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 their limitations:
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 places (see inset Babylonia entrance). 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.
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 (see inset Sailor's advert featuring Wet 'n' Wild and Cabins & Cruisey areas). Some even still prefer the baths to internet sites such as gay.com because they feel as if they can see what they get.
On being buzzed in, the customer receives a towel and the key for his room or locker. 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:
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; such a space 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. Barefeet 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.
The customer undresses; storing his clothing in the locker provided, and is then free to wander throughout the public areas of the bathhouse, which may include:
In the 1970s bathhouses began to install "fantasy environments" which recreated erotic situations that were illegal or dangerous:
Many bathhouses have small shops selling such items as food and drinks, 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 reflexology.
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 or join in sexual activity that is already occurring. In these situations, a partially open door often means that observation from outside the room is desired, but entry into the room is not wanted. A door that is completely open however, usually signifies that anyone is welcome to join in the activity inside the room. In all situations, it is considered poor etiquette to simply walk into a room without some form of invitation by the occupant. 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 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 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.
Some establishments allow or 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. Some forbid sex in pools for hygiene reasons. Customers are usually free to watch others masturbating or having sex in public areas, and also to join in, providing none of the participants objects.
From the mid-1980s onwards 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.
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 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 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 premises.
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 countries straight and gay bathhouses are used by rent boys to find customers by offering massage services, the "complete service" is often used as a euphemism for sex.
Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981
On February 5 1981, 150 police raided four gay bathhouses in Toronto, Ontario: the Club Baths, the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, the Richmond Street Health Emporium, and The Barracks. The Richmond Health Emporium was so badly damaged in the raid that it never reopened. Nicknamed Operation Soap, the raid resulted in the arrests of 268 men who were charged as found-ins ("found in a bawdy house") and 19 others who were charged as "keepers of a common bawdy house". There was an immediate and angry response from both the gay and lesbian community and others who condemned the raids as unconstitutional, and over 3000 people gathered in downtown streets in protest. Over 1400 people joined the "Right to Privacy Committee" to set up a defense campaign for those charged in the raids and to organize a second demonstration which took place on February 20, and included over 4000 people who gathered at Queen's Park and marched to Metro Toronto Police's 52 Division (9). See 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids for more information.
Raid on Pussy Palace
In 2000, Toronto police raided Pussy Palace, a women's night at a bathhouse called Club Toronto. Police, almost all of them male, entered the establishment and walked around, taking the names and addresses of some 10 women. The raid caused much anger.
Canadian filmmaker and actor Sky Gilbert argued that the women had a right to privacy and the police had violated that right: "What happened at Club Toronto last Friday night is that these women were raped; not physically, but morally, emotionally and spiritually. They had established a haven - a safe, private space to explore their sexuality (which is still held in contempt by most of society) - and these police officers violated it."
Raid on Goliath's
In December 2002, Calgary police raided ''Goliath's'', one of the city's oldest baths, resulting in charges against 19 men. Fifteen men were arrested in the raid. Thirteen customers were charged as "found-ins" (found in a common bawdy house without a legal excuse) and two staff members were charged with the more serious offense of keeping a common bawdy house. The customers faced up to two years in prison. In addition, the owners of the bathhouse and a third staff member were later charged with keeping a common bawdy house. The Canadian media declined to publish the names of the men.
At issue is the bawdy house section of the Criminal Code, a law that was created in Victorian times to regulate prostitution. The code defines a bawdy house as a place where prostitution and/or indecent acts occur. Lawyers for the defense argued that since police were not alleging any prostitution took place at Goliath's, they were thus arguing that gay sex was by definition indecent.
On May 27 2004, a judge ruled that the police had reasonable justification to raid Goliath's. Defense lawyers countered that none of the anonymous information the police acted upon - for example that live sex shows were being staged and drugs sold on the premises - featured in the charges made against the seventeen men. They also pointed out that the police failed to call in the force's gay community liaison officer.
Goliath's reopened a little more than a month after the raid and remains open.
In November 2004, the Crown stayed the found-in charge against the last remaining patron, saying it was no longer in the public interest to pursue the case. The case against the owners and managers of Goliath's, however, was expected to come to trial in February of 2005, with the defendants having to prove that the activity that the police allegedly witnessed at Goliath's was not indecent.
Terry Haldane, the only "found-in" patron who was actively fighting the charge against him, accused the Crown of dropping the charge because Haldane and his lawyers had given notice of their plan to challenge the bawdy house law all the way to the Supreme Court. Haldane has stated that he will continue his fight, though he will now have to mount a new legal challenge.
In February 2005, all remaining charges in the case were dropped. The court cited a lack of community support and evidence (from a poll) that the community supported the existence of gay bathhouses by a small margin.
Raid on Hamilton's Warehouse Spa
On 3 August 2004, ''Hamilton's Warehouse Spa and Bath'' was "inspected" by a task force of officers from the police, public health, the city's building and licensing department, the fire department and the alcohol and gaming commission. Two men were arrested and charged with committing indecent acts.
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. In 1978 a group of police officers raided the Liberty Baths in 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.
The following year the New York City Health Department ordered that city's gay bathhouses closed; as an unintended consequence, heterosexual sex clubs such as the notorious 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 the newly-approved law.
The American writer Truman Capote (1924-1984) was a regular at the baths in the 1970s and in particular the sauna at West 58th Street.
American precisionist painter Charles Demuth (1883-1935) used the Lafayette Baths as his favourite haunt. His 1918 homoerotic self portrait set in a Turkish Bathhouse is likely to be set there.
The American composer Charles Griffes (1884-1920) wrote in his diaries about his gay life including 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.
The influential 20th century French Philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) visited bathhouses in California in the 1970s. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1984.
The first openly gay British footballer Justin Fashanu (1961-1998) spent his last night in Chariots Roman Spa. His suicide was due to press reports that the US authorities were planning to extradite him and charge him with sexual assault (there was in fact no warrant). His suicide note claimed that the sexual encounter had been consensual and that the youth contacted police only after Fashanu refused to pay him blackmail.
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.
The Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) was known to frequent the baths in New York
Singer Bette Midler is well-known for getting her start at the famous Continental Baths in New York City 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.
Other famous performers who appeared at the Continental include Melba Moore, Labelle, Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, The Manhattan Transfer, John Davidson, and Wayland Flowers.
Journal articles and theses
Newspaper and magazine articles
This article is based on "Gay bathhouse" from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org). It is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licencse. In the Wikipedia you can find a list of the authors by visiting the following address: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gay+bathhouse&action=history