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Bathhouses Once Fought for Survival, Now They Fight for a Place in History

Though politicians and public health officials waged homophobic wars to shut bathhouses down during the AIDS crisis, they never truly killed the hallowed gay spaces. Today, bruised from years of battle, they're trying to stage a comeback

In his 1979 non-fiction book A Day and a Night at the Baths, late gay writer Michael Rumaker described the illicit thrill of spending time inside a gay bathhouse. “Myself, and the other naked men here, were the bare root of hunger and desire,” he wrote. “Here was the possibility to be nourished and enlivened in the blood, heat and heartbeat of others, regardless of who or what we were.”  

It’s a fitting tribute to these steamy establishments, which have long offered shelter and a sense of community to gay guys just looking to fuck in peace. 

This all changed in the early 1980s when a series of so-called “bathhouse battles” swept across the U.S., most notably in New York and San Francisco, both of which were epicenters of the AIDS crisis. These “battles” were mostly legislative — soon after the AIDS crisis hit in 1981, public health professionals were quick to blame “promiscuous” gay men for spreading what was then known as “gay cancer.” As a result, anywhere that allowed queer people to fuck freely was rebranded as a hub of infectious disease — and bathhouses were top of the list. 

Traditionally, bathhouses require guys to pay an entrance fee to step inside. Once over the threshold, they’re asked to strip butt-naked and given only a towel to protect their modesty. They’re then free to explore a labyrinth of pools, saunas, private rooms and “orgy rooms,” which are pretty self-explanatory. 

Unsurprisingly, health officials were eager to crack down on these sanctuaries. In 1984, years of debate came to a head when Mervyn Silverman — New York City’s Public Health Director at the time — ordered the closure of every gay bathhouse within city limits. According to a report published by the New York Times, Silverman claimed bathhouses were “fostering disease and death” by “allowing indiscriminate sexual contacts that could spread AIDS.” In December 1985, the state of New York followed suit

The stigma trickled quickly across the country, pushing bathhouses nationwide into a weird state of legislative limbo. The convoluted rules simply banned fucking in private rooms — if the sex happened out in big, open-plan rooms, venues became “sex clubs” and could therefore technically escape the bathhouse bans.

Although there are no records of these battles sparking notable protests, politicians lashed out verbally at the queer community. New York City Mayor Ed Koch went from being a renowned gay ally — to the extent that mayoral rival Andrew Cuomo described him as a “homo” in a shitty campaign slogan — to describing gay sex as “suicidal” within just a few years. In a 1985 New York Times op-ed, writer Bruce Mailman summarized Koch’s descriptions of bathhouse owners as “vile merchants of death.”

Of course, this wasn’t the first time bathhouses had come under fire. Before gay sex was fully decriminalized across the U.S. in 2003, bathhouses were one of the only places gay men could safely cruise and fuck. As a result, they were subject to regular raids by local police. They were targeted in other countries, too — a violent 1981 raid of a Toronto bathhouse, known historically as “Operation Soap,” basically sparked the country’s gay rights movement. 

But banning bathhouses didn’t stop them from operating. In 1999, San Francisco Weekly interviewed “sex club” owners, describing multi-story hubs of sexual pleasure decorated with baskets of condoms, AIDS education leaflets and hand soap dispensers pumped full of lube. In these clubs, dudes could still slip into a towel, hang out naked and spread their cheeks for willing strangers, as long as they didn’t fuck in private rooms — that would make these venues “bathhouses” in the eyes of the law. HIV activists interviewed for the article noted this backwards logic — all the government had done was remove the option of privacy, inadvertently encouraging sprawling, open-plan orgies instead.

And though all of this comes down to some poorly worded items of legislation, it’s taken decades for these battles to be resolved. San Francisco bathhouses were only allowed to officially reopen earlier this year, and New York had just two gay bathhouses listed in 2019.

Clearly, the reputational damage has been done. In 2014, The Guardian profiled U.S. bathhouse owners desperately trying to snag young customers, who are now inundated with dick pics on apps like Grindr and tend to cruise digitally as opposed to in-person. “The younger generation’s main fear is that [bathhouses] are dark, seedy places,” said TJ Nibbio, executive director of the North American Bathhouse Association, in the article.

This rhetoric was advanced during the battles, and it’s clearly cock-blocking younger queer guys. Bathhouses have desperately tried to rebrand to lure in the younger generation, using digital marketing campaigns, entrance-fee discounts and promotions to make bathhouses “cool” again. In the U.K., gay saunas have long been alive and well — some offer discounted prices for young customers, a conscious effort to capture the attention of a youthful market who’ve never had to cruise in the same way their queer elders did. 

Advancements in HIV medication may mean the disease is no longer a death sentence, but the impact of AIDS stigma is still being felt today. The culture of fear around bathhouse sex clearly still lingers, but these venues are surviving monuments of queer cruising history — and as a result of AIDS panic, they’re packed with condoms and safe-sex guidance. In this sense, bathhouses are arguably safer than random, anonymous Grindr hookups — at least these sexy saunas are built with fucking in mind, and therefore offer plenty of options to keep cruisers protected.

There’s also a coded language in gay bathhouses that offers a totally different experience than apps, and it’s one that’s likely involved in their continued survival. As Rumaker wrote, “My friend told me that if you lay on your back at the baths that meant you wanted to be sucked; if you lay on your stomach that meant you wanted to be fucked. I wondered what would happen if I laid on my side?”

For just a small entrance fee, you could drop your towel and find out.