Article by Maya Vukovska

Everybody knows, even the Mormons!, that gay bathhouses are not about hygiene, but sex. Ever since they gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, bathhouses have been a blissful haven for gay men to meet, chat, relax, and have safe sex. But history does not start then - because gay bathhouses have been around not for decades but for centuries. Men have been satisfying their carnal needs with one another in steamy bathhouses across various cultures - from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Turkey to Russia, Japan, and Finland…

Before private bathrooms were available in every household, most cultures developed public bathing systems. Apart from its purely hygienic implementation, communal bathing was seen also as a deep, primal, even spiritual ritual that connects people’s minds to their physical bodies. And to the bodies of the others, as was the case with many such establishments. If you want to know more about the communal bathing culture, I suggest that we take а quick trip through the history of this amazing human invention.

The ancients did it best

The ancient Greeks were the first to offer the bathhouse experience to the public. For the first time, poor and rich alike could enjoy cold and steam baths, while sipping wine, eating snacks, and playing knucklebones.
It was the Romans, though, who’d turn communal bathing into a luxurious form of entertainment - some of the baths included not only thermal water pools, but also libraries, lecture halls, and exercise spaces. The baths for public use were kept strictly single-sex, and since men were bathing separately from women, well…one thing led to another. Some of the baths, like the Suburban Baths of Pompeii, operated as brothels, where men could freely engage in oral and group sex.

The Medieval lack of bathing

Roman-style public baths were re-introduced to Europe by crusaders and travelers to the Middle East who brought back stories of luxurious Turkish baths.

Before the horrid bubonic plague hit Europe in 1347 and killed one-third of its population, bathhouses, which were then called “stew houses” (the slag word “stew” meant also “brothel”) served as a place for infidelity, where sex work was common. But because the Medieval physicians believed that hot baths and bathing altogether was to blame for the spreading of the disease, all the bathhouses were shuttered. Thus, Europe became one big stinky place for the next 400 years!

The lavish Victorian bathhouse

The Victorian era (1837 - 1901) saw the renaissance of the bath culture both in England and North America. In the luxurious Turkish-style baths the wealthy and the aristocrats could get massages, haircuts, and all sort of beauty treatments. These baths featured also private rooms for casual sex that was enjoyed by both cis-gender and same-sex gender individuals.

The emergence of the gay bathhouse

Before the early 20th century, homosexuality was illegal everywhere, and it comes as no surprise that gay men cruised at places such as saunas and public baths to look for sexual adventures. Despite the constant threat of legal persecution, the first bathhouses pitching exclusively gay clientele started popping up on the territory of the U.S. in the 1930s. During the next two decades, the activity moved to private establishments, and that’s for the need for public bathrooms significantly declined. However, from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, gay bathhouses came back in vogue, adding facilities such as snack bars, dance floors, and video theaters. The bathrooms with glory holes, and YMCA steam rooms became especially popular. However, many would come to the bathhouse not to have sex, but just to dance, relax, or spend some time in good company.

Finally, the LGBTQ+ community was taking shape.

The new plague

Just as happened over the Black Death in the Middle Ages, the ‘80s experienced a pandemic that would change the image of the bathhouse once again (but not for the last time!). Gay men began dying of a mysterious disease, which was initially called GRID - “gay-related immune deficiency.” In 1984, San Francisco became the first city to start closing down bathhouses. Many other cities followed the example. Even though it became scientifically proven that AIDS would affect anyone, not only gay men, who’d have unprotected sex, the reputation of the bathhouses was already tarnished. Probably forever.

The post-AIDS era

The gay bathhouses that stayed open during and post-AIDS quickly transitioned to something like regular sex clubs with minimal facilities. The customers receive only towels and a key for a locker. Plus condoms and lubricant at request. Nowadays, bathhouses have rooms or hallways designed to facilitate anonymous sex, exhibitionism and voyeurism. They often have a porn TV room and a snack bar where the clients can regain strength between orgasms.

The business was almost killed (for a third time!) during the COVID-19 pandemic, but, just like the mythological Phoenix bird, it survived once again.

Bathhouses are now experiencing a resurgence, and that’s due to the fact that the younger crowd that has missed the 80s and 90s are eager to see a glorious epoch come back.