Where Did the Gay Bathhouses Go?
In the movie Spa Night, 18-year-old David embraces his sexuality by cruising the steam room at a local bathhouse. He’s taken the job to provide financial support for his parents. But in the process, he finds some unorthodox support in his coming out journey. The movie, a low-budget marvel that deserved more buzz than it received, was released in 2016. But the idea of the gay bathhouse as a place of sexual exploration is quickly becoming dated.
The definition of bathhouse is simple: a building with baths for communal use. Throw in a few saunas or steam rooms, and you’ve got a party. But gay bathhouses are their own animal. Sure, there’s communal use and all that. But gay bathhouses are about so much more than opening your pores. They’re some of the only sacred spaces in which gay men can truly be themselves, warts and all. Without bathhouses, there’s no gay sexual liberation.
That being said, the last few years have seen a rapid decline in the number of available spaces. Gay bathhouses were once the stuff of the underground. Because the gay sex taking place there was illegal in many states, they had to remain off the radar. But these days, your inability to find one doesn’t mean you aren’t cool enough. It might just be a sign of the times. The gay bathhouse may soon be extinct.
March 2013: A 46-year-old man was found dead in Manchester’s H20 sauna.
June 2014: Philadelphia’s gay community is shell-shocked by two drug-related deaths at local bathhouses, Club Philadelphia and Sansom Street Gym.
March 2015: an otherwise healthy 37-year-old man dropped dead at London’s Pleasuredrome, a 24-hour bathhouse.
The headlines coming out of the gay bathhouse scene read like episodes of Law and Order. Though our community knows the positive side of what bathhouses offer, the stories reaching the general public aren’t so complimentary. The above events are just a sampling of the deaths and injuries taking place around the world. It’s no coincidence that these businesses are starting to disappear.
The negative news and subsequent closures are reminiscent of what happened in the 80s at the height of the AIDS crisis.
October 1985 was a rough month for gay bathhouses. San Francisco Director of Public Health Mervyn Silverman demanded that all locations close. It was a drastic ruling to slow, and possibly stop, the spread of AIDS. Of course, this demonstrated a misunderstanding of how AIDS was spread and of what bathhouses represented to our community. Though the gay community was dealt a blow in California, the legal insertion didn’t stop there.
New York pulled a similar move that same month. New York’s Public Health Council ruled that health officials could shut down bathhouses to stop the spread of AIDS. The move was denounced by the Health Commissioner and even Mayor Koch seemed unconvinced of the ruling’s effectiveness. Yet still, bathhouses remained at the top of the AIDS prevention hit list.
Then, they were linked to the spread of the deadly virus. Now, they’re being tied to illegal drug use and premature death. In both instances, the resulting illness and death wasn’t linked exclusively to the saunas. But once they’ve happened in a gay space, it seems scrutiny reaches an all-time high.
All of us in the community know that sex happens in bathhouses. Thinking of them as nothing more than a spa is like thinking Grindr is just a dating app. We are fully aware of what happens underneath the fog. But it’s more complex than sex.
Gay bathhouses first popped up in the late 19th century. Homosexuality was illegal. So, these spaces were designed for gay men to have sex and spend time with other gay men without fear of persecution. Their sex wasn’t just about pleasure. It was about defiance and pride. According to Queerty, raids were happening as early as 1903. But bathhouses didn’t really hit their stride until the 1950s. In the 70s, they were as common as your neighborhood gay bar. The first threat came during the AIDS crisis. But they hung around for many years. It’s only now that they’re officially dying.
Last February, BuzzFeed chronicled the closing of London’s Chariots Roman Spa. For almost 20 years, the bathhouse served as the ultimate attraction for men who loved sex and brotherhood, and wanted to enjoy both under the same roof. It was to be demolished and replaced with a luxury hotel.
Chariots was a sort of gay bathhouse franchise with locations in Waterloo and Streatham as well. But the brand was plagued by the same tragedies affecting other bathhouses around the globe. A massive fire in 2011. A mysterious death on the premises in 2012. A 2015 death.
The BuzzFeed article described dozens upon dozens of men who lined up for one more go-round during Chariot’s last night of business. They described their memories and the significance of the bathhouse in their lives. But given the series of unfortunate events in recent years, it’s not hard to imagine the general public had a different view. The bittersweet mixture of bad press and cultural impact is what’s leading to the death of the bathhouse as we know it.
An Uncertain Future
Will we end up living in a time where gay bathhouses don’t exist? On one hand, that would be a sign of progress. The steam room was a place of refuge when the world wasn’t so welcoming. Though we’re currently living under an administration that isn’t exactly gay-friendly, we can have sex in the privacy of our own homes without fear of being arrested. With that subtext of freedom, pride, and liberation removed, the bathhouse is reduced to nothing more than an act of exhibitionism. There should be a place for exhibitionists in our community, but the lack of demand combined with the negative press paints a bleak picture for their future.
Dennis Holding, the President of the North American Bathhouse Association, is determined to keep bathhouses thriving. He told VICE he’s going after younger guys with low-cost admission. And he’s marketing bathhouses as the perfect solution for that awkward Grindr hookup. Not sure who can host? The bathhouse can solve that problem!
Flex Spas attempted to reach new patrons by sponsoring Palm Springs’ annual White Party.
Like retailers and big business, bathhouses understand the need to reign in a millennial customer. But is a savvy marketing strategy enough? Is there something bigger at play here?
An article from The Guardian referenced millennials’ fear that bathhouses were dank and unsafe. Their fears are valid given the rash of untimely deaths tied to these spaces. But perhaps reputation isn’t the issue. Sexual liberation is still happening but it’s moved on to apps. Acceptance is at an all-time high. There’s no need to hide now.
If there isn’t a reason to hide, what role does the bathhouse play in gay culture in 2017? It’s a question no one seems able (or ready) to answer. But with recent high-profile closures in Vancouver and Austin, it seems like the answer is clear. Bathhouses want us back cruising and sweating in their tiled walls but the feeling isn’t mutual.