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Gay Bathhouses Across America Threatened By Lowered Attendance, Outdated Public Opinion

70sBathhouseOriginally conceived as important bastions of sanitation in urban centers, American bathhouses became meccas for gay hook-up culture and entertainment in the 1960s and 70s. At that time, nearly 200 bathhouses were open around the country; now only 70 remain, and owners are scrambling to alter their image and attract youthful crowds of a new generation.

ABC News reports:

"Bathhouses were like dirty bookstores and parks: a venue to meet people," said Sykes, who still owns the smaller North Hollywood Spa. "Today, you can go to the supermarket..."

Privately run, gay-owned bathhouses proliferated in the 1970s, offering a haven for gay and bisexual men to meet. Clubs like New York City's Continental bathhouse and Los Angeles' 8709 Club saw a steady stream of patrons...

Amid the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, bathhouses were vilified for enabling promiscuity and helping spread the disease, and many either closed voluntarily or by legal pressure. Those that remained were stigmatized, and now many younger gays see them as anachronisms.

BathIn an effort to regain appeal, many bathhouses offer cheap admission prices for the younger set and amenities beyond the standard towel. Ohio's Cleveland-based Flex Spa, for example, contains luxury hotel rooms and nightclub venues; as such, it has become a fixture of gay culture beyond its sexual and social connotation, serving as the location for the Gay Games and the city's gay pride parade.

[Flex Spas CEO Todd] Saporito said more progressive views on homosexuality aren't evenly spread across the country, underscoring the need for modern bathhouses in some areas. Still, he takes nothing for granted, regardless of the location.

"Bathhouses at some level will go extinct if you don't offer something more than a towel," Saporito said.

And there is community, safe sex, and companionship to be found as well.

"You're either hooking up online or you are here, or you go to bars in West Hollywood, get drunk and hook up," said [22-year-old Brett] Sparks, acknowledging that although the bathhouse crowd skews older, it's not as risky as going home with a stranger. "Here it's a safer environment — there's condoms and other protection."

Here's hoping that bathhouses overcome the stigma and become important communal fixtures once more.

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  1. The sooner this relic dies out, the better.

    Posted by: Sam | Aug 27, 2014 11:18:15 AM

  2. I'm still holding out that hook-up ads in the back of dirty magazines will make a comeback.

    Posted by: crispy | Aug 27, 2014 11:28:38 AM

  3. It takes a rebel in the gay culture to not be promiscuous. I've never understood why safe sex didn't include monogamy. In my opinion this kind of life leads to low self esteem. I think gay men are growing up realizing they do not have to fit into this stereotype and discovering they can actually fit into a traditional relationship and be very happy.

    Posted by: SLH | Aug 27, 2014 11:34:56 AM

  4. Flex in Cleveland is the exception. Flex in Atlanta appears to be the skeezy anachronism that everyone thinks it is. Why would you hope that these become "important communal fixtures"? What's wrong with a bookstore, a bar, or even an online community? Bathhouses will likely never go away completely, but I seriously doubt they will all suddenly become respectable and legit. But I won't stand in their way if they do...

    Posted by: ColinATL | Aug 27, 2014 11:36:17 AM

  5. "Here's hoping that bathhouses overcome the stigma and become important communal fixtures once more."


    Posted by: John | Aug 27, 2014 11:40:18 AM

  6. "It takes a rebel in the gay culture to not be promiscuous"

    No it doesn't. But if telling yourself that makes you feel better than do what you need to do. if you need to insist that people having different/more sex than you must have low self esteem, again...if you need to tell yourself that to feel better, go right ahead. won't make it true, though. people have different approaches to sex and their own sexuality - but SLH, your brand of projection is just that: projection.

    Time and Place - they're simply not as relevant now. There will remain sex-parties and the like - but we're living in a world where more and more of us simply don't, and won't, *HIDE*. that's the biggest game changer.

    safer-sex can include monogamy, just as unsafe-sex can include monogamy - just ask anyone got who HIV, or another STI, from their supposedly-monogamous partner.

    @Crispy - the death of an elderly fella in my friend's apt meant his unit was gutted out, and all belongings put in boxes on the street. COPIOUS amounts of vintage porno - blue boy magazines from the mid early-mid 70s. the sheer volume of ads in the Back Pages was staggering - ads for nearly every city, in every state in the Union. And they were heartbreakingly sad. snail-mail hopes at love and companionship - the vast majority of which riddled with the words and terminologies (of course) of those still crippled by internalized homophobia.

    there are fewer now, for the same reason there are fewer baths in operation: nothing to do with so-called morality or "traditional values/relationships" - everything to do with the glorious exploding onto the streets of the liberation movements. more and more progress means more and more people who don't need Secret Outlets to be gay in. that's the change.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 27, 2014 11:45:37 AM

  7. 8709...ahhh, I remember it well! That, and Studio One and Cabaret/After Dark. Those were the days!

    Posted by: Martin | Aug 27, 2014 11:55:36 AM

  8. Bath houses still serve important positive social functions where they exist. I addition to offering discreet places for closeted men to meet other men, they are also frequently contact points for public health outreach and education, testing for HIV and other STIs. As noted above, they are safer than many bars: I've never seen violence or aggression in one.

    The disregard for bath houses and their patrons seems to come from younger men whose outlook is formed by some knowledge of the AIDS horrors and the supposedly easier access to sex available from online sources. Some of it originates (understandably) with older men who actually lived through the worst years of the plague. Part of it comes from those who think monogamy and heteronormative behaviors--usually assumed to be in fact as pure and stable as the propaganda Puritans present it--are the only ways to go. Not all of us want to be monogamous, coupled or enfolded more deeply within the American sexual behavior standards.

    Posted by: gregorybrown | Aug 27, 2014 11:56:22 AM

  9. "It takes a rebel in the gay culture to not be promiscuous."
    100% false.

    the issue is not with promiscuity, not traditional anything, no so called morals. it's that more and more and more people don't need a "secret outlet" to be gay - embracement of sexuality, and publicly identifying as gay, means there's simply less of a need for a Gay Sex Speakeasy.

    Sex parties will continue to run. Those who choose an adventurous sexual life will find outlets - but we're no longer hiding in the dark. Well, some of us aren't. This is simply about the glorious exploding into the streets that the last few decades of liberation have done.

    there are fewer baths in operation for the exact same reason that there are fewer "photo-less back-page personal ads" - more and more of us are coming out, without shame and fear, and don't need a discreet and secret avenue in which to meet guys.

    as for "important communal fixtures" - there's an element to that that i don't disagree with, a way. i don't dig sex-shaming: many of us do, in fact, bond with our gay brothers on a sexual level. i don't do meaningless empty sex - i look at my friends and the reality is that a lot of them are guys i initially met over otherwise sexual circumstances. thing is - before we "hooked up" we exchanged more than just "basic stats" - some of us don't wanna sleep with a republican with racist preferences and a mind that doesn't enjoy literature - we all hook up differently, and we all have a different approach to sex AND our sexuality. lovers become friends, hookups become lovers and more, and the glorious spherical overlap with friend and lover becomes a combination.

    my rambling point? i've actually made some of my most beloved and trusted friends at venues that, to the pearl clutchers, must seem overtly sleazy and seedy. truly, though, they weren't - they were simply a place for like-minded guys to get together. and get together we did. for more than just a quick meaningless shag. NOW - this wasn't a BathHouse environment, per se, but i have a problem with this neutering of ourselves, and the faux-piety in some people who seem to have such disdain for the sexual lives of others.
    some of us connect sexually before we enter into our new roles as Lifelong Friends - and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 27, 2014 11:57:49 AM

  10. I'm not anti-bathhouse, but "here's hoping"?

    Here's hoping cars are just a fad and horse-drawn carriages make a comeback.

    Here's hoping I can find a really cool new 8-track tape player.

    Here's hoping Pia Zadora is the number one box office attraction in 2015.

    I don't want bathhouses to completely disappear, but if they do that's not a bad thing, that's just life.

    Posted by: oncemorewithfeeling | Aug 27, 2014 11:58:21 AM

  11. Saunas are a ways from being extinct in Montréal--there are a number still running. But, in general, as with gay bars and bookstores, the times have changed, as have the ways of meeting people. When you have way more channels, there tend to be way less viewers for each one.

    For those seeing a hookup, there are apps for that that didn't exist not so long ago. But I don't really get those who wouldn't think twice about meeting strangers on Grindr but who consider bathhouses unsafe and dirty. Compared to what? A stranger's apartment?

    There's already a lot more pressure on young people to assimilate and bathhouses aren't really part of that picture. Though after a night on the town, men will still find themselves there at 2am. And for some older guys, they're a better alternative than youth-centric apps.

    Posted by: Ernie | Aug 27, 2014 12:01:26 PM

  12. edit- forgive the repost, site was acting funny.

    ONCEMOREWITHFEELING - i am HOLDING OUT for that Pia Zadora revival!!!

    i just showed some of my BabyGays Butterfly, The Lonely Lady, and Voyage of the Rock Aliens. the poor dears didn't know what hit them. "BETTER THAN SHOWGIRLS" was the final declaration.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 27, 2014 12:02:41 PM

  13. "Here's hoping that bathhouses overcome the stigma and become important communal fixtures once more."

    Wait, what?

    Posted by: Nat | Aug 27, 2014 12:03:55 PM

  14. Love the bathhouses in Dallas. Always fun.

    Posted by: Ted | Aug 27, 2014 12:05:54 PM

  15. Here's hoping towleroad overcomes the stigma of terrible writing/boring subjects/mindless viewpoints and becomes an important communal fixture once more.

    Where the hell is Andy Towle?! His blog has gone so far downhill it isn't worth reading anymore. I'm abandoning this blog for Joe My God.

    Posted by: peterparker | Aug 27, 2014 12:11:04 PM

  16. This breaks my heart, not.

    Posted by: Jay | Aug 27, 2014 12:14:00 PM

  17. Bath houses were never my thing (I'm too cheap to spend money). I loved the great out doors (a part of Fairmount Park that we called "Gay Acres"). But think that the bath houses have their place. As long as there are safe sex procedures available--well, it's all right with me.

    I have an acquaintance who is a world traveler. The first thing he checks out before he goes abroad are the locations of the Gay bathouses (Bang Kok, Sydney, London, Paris, Brussels, Rio, etc). I never criticize him even though he claims he wants a long-time relationship with someone. I wouldn't know what to criticize him with.

    It's Gay diversity, ya'll.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Aug 27, 2014 12:22:00 PM

  18. @Little Kiwi: Very well said. Articulate, indeed!

    Posted by: Jack | Aug 27, 2014 12:36:52 PM

  19. The only bathhouses I've ever been to are the ones in Japan, where you go with your friends, your co-workers or your grandparents, go to the male or female side respectively, get naked and then have pleasant conversation while going through a cleansing and relaxation ritual that leaves you feeling refreshed, and then meet your opposite-sex friends or family members on the other side of the door for a cold beer or sake.

    From everything I have heard about the very different type of bathhouse referenced in the article, nobody talks to or meets each other, people pretend like they don't know any friends they might see there, and drunk and high people (many of whom are too ashamed of being gay to actually meet other gay people in public) are often engaging in risks to themselves and to strangers that they would, when sober, have normally avoided.
    I know guys who, in "real life," will say, "Before we do anything, I carry the herpes virus which I caught at a bathhouse from a guy who didn't warn me; do you still want to do this?" But in a bathhouse where nobody says anything, that same guys engages in things he's ashamed of the next morning, having observed the "no talking / no discussion about risks" unwritten rule.

    "Here's hoping...." What???
    Finding "community" and "companionship??" No thanks, Joseph Ehrman- Dupre, I find community and companionship with people I can communicate with in a thoughtful and respectful way, and in a healthier venue.

    Posted by: GregV | Aug 27, 2014 12:37:50 PM

  20. @SLH -- You said, "I've never understood why safe sex didn't include monogamy." I don't understand why you think that it doesn't. I'm glad you said this was "IMO" because that's what it is: your opinion. Do you wanna know what leads to low self esteem? Disenfranchisement, rejection, bullying and the lack of love and support. While I'm sure that some people are promiscuous due to low self esteem, many others like sexual intimacy, and aren't interested in a committed relationship. It's that simple.

    I've been with my partner for more than two decades in a monogamous relationship. That was our choice. Neither one of us were what one would call promiscuous before we met, but it wasn't because we were rebels. We're just not wired that way.

    You said, "I've never understood why safe sex didn't include monogamy." I don't understand why you think that it doesn't.

    Posted by: Gigi | Aug 27, 2014 12:40:19 PM

  21. although, GregV, to be *fair* - you do readily admit that you have zero experience with them. So.......with all due respect, the only opinion one is entitled to is an informed one. And you admit off the bat you have zero personal experience regarding these things. So.... I mean, I'm not a bath-house guy, but i have frequented sex parties. And not only was there conversations, but like i said - i ended up meeting some guys who became my best most loved friends. And, for what it's worth, my boyfriend.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 27, 2014 12:43:00 PM

  22. "Here's hoping that bathhouses overcome the stigma and become important communal fixtures once more."

    The fact that someone could write that with no apparent trace of irony disturbs me.

    Posted by: Profe Sancho Panza | Aug 27, 2014 12:43:38 PM

  23. In my experience, bathhouses have about the right reputation. Almost all of them are fairly seedy sex gyms (I say that in a non pejorative way) - where all the amenities like weights and espresso machines get very limited use. They serve their function... I'm not sure they need to be any more "legitimate" or culturally relevant or whatever it is this article seems to hope they become. For a majority of their users, bath houses are sources for casual sex (again, non pejorative). When geo-location services and apps like Grindr turn every cellphone into a casual sex diving rod, the bathhouse loses customers. I see this as progress.

    Posted by: kipp | Aug 27, 2014 12:49:39 PM

  24. (they also provide for a cheap place for a COUPLE to have sex, if they wanna have a little outside-the-home adventure. cough cough cough)

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 27, 2014 12:53:03 PM

  25. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought that "Here's hoping..." line was the laziest, most inexplicable sentence ever published by Towleroad.

    Posted by: crispy | Aug 27, 2014 12:53:30 PM

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