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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" 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 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
* mazes
* dark rooms
* "glory holes"
* theme rooms or areas
* orgy rooms
* video areas playing pornography
* relaxation areas where non-pornographic movies are shown
* caf� 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 reflexology.


Etiquette

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 caf� 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, caf� 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, caf�s, 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 participants objects.


History

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 (2).

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 (3).

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 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 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 safe-sex practices.

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 unsafe sex.
[edit]

Bathhouses today

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.

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 day.
* 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 injured.
* 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.

 

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