hunky musclemen showering in bathtub and wet from
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wet in bathroom & sauna
amateur bears soaping up with lathering suds in
tubs and shower stalls
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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
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
* 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
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 caf�
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
* 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
LINKS POSTED IN AUTOMATED LINK AREA
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
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
Youth Suicide Problems - http://www.youth-suicide.com/gay-bisexual/
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 - http://www.virtualcity.com/youthsuicide/index.htm
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 pages.
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 available.
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