What happens at a gay bathhouse?
Different parts of the world are grappling with the logistics of Covid-19 in different ways, but one of the businesses hit hardest has been gay bathhouses, saunas, and sex-on-premises venues.
Due to the nature of the business and the layout of the premises, it’s difficult for gay bathhouses to comply with social distancing requirements.
What is a gay bathhouse?
Bathhouses – which are also referred to as saunas and sex-on-premises venues – are the venues where guys go to have sexual encounters with other guys.
A sex-on-premises venue can range from the fairly basic – some sort of a space where guys can have sex – to the full spa and steam-room experience inspired by the Ancient Greeks.
Why are bathhouses and saunas impacted by social distance regulations?
Different cities and countries have different rules, and some bathhouses are able to adapt their facilities more easily than others.
The easiest comparison to make is with gyms – businesses with locker-rooms, shared equipment, showers, and steam-rooms – if you’re running a gym, you have to be able to demonstrate that you’re managing the infection risk for people wanting to use your business.
For bathhouses, that means you need to have tight controls over the number of people coming in, you need extra cleaning, and you need to demonstrate that you’re putting in the systems required to meet whatever local guidelines your business needs to follow.
Bathhouses have traditionally been fairly anonymous places. They’re frequented by all sorts of guys – including guys who are closeted or don’t identify as gay. Providing of personal information isn’t generally something that you’d expect to do at a bathhouse.
Another challenge with bathhouses is that they’re generally not the most modern of buildings. They could be situated over a number of floors, they’re generally cramped spaces – designed for bringing guys together not keeping them apart.
The other aspect with bathhouses is that the reason that you’re going there is to get hot and sweaty with other guys. At a gym, you’re going there to work out. In a bathhouse, you’re going there to get naked and have sex with guys you don’t know and will probably never see again.
What’s the history of gay bathhouses?
Bathhouses - or saunas, as they’re generally referred to in the UK – aren’t a new thing. The Ancient Greeks were obviously a big fan, but there’s quite detailed records of bathhouses throughout history. Places such as Florence in 1492, when there was a crackdown on sodomy that was targeted at bathhouses. Also, Paris in 1876, when there was a police raid on a bathhouse and six men – aged 14–22 – were charged with offences against public decency. In New York in 1903, police raided a bathhouse and arrested 26 men – charging a number with the offence of sodomy.
It was the late 1960s and 1970s in the US when gay bathhouses came into their own. This was around the same time as the concept of gay liberation began to build momentum.
While the devastation caused by HIV to the gay community around the world also impacted saunas and bathhouses, sex-on-premises venues continue to play an important part in the lives of many gay men. Even the emergence of location-based hook-up apps hasn’t made saunas redundant - they’re often a preferred meeting point once you’ve connected with someone online.
What type of guys go to a gay bathhouse or sauna?
Honestly, all types of people. From young to old, body-conscious to comfortable. Everyone from proud gay men, to young guys beginning to explore, to guys who need to exercise a bit of discretion. What they’ve all got in common is that they’re looking for sex, for an encounter, for intimacy.
What happens in a gay bathhouse or sauna?
It depends a bit on the facilities offered by the venue, but most places will give you a locker and a towel. You take all your clothes off and put everything in the locker, then wrap the towel around you.
Generally there will be a shower area, a steam room, a hot tub, a dry sauna, and a series of cubicles.
A good starting point is to have a shower first and then get your bearings as to the layout of the venue. Giving yourself a bit of a tour of the venue is also a great way to scope out who else is there.
After your shower, if you’re not sure where to start, head for the hot-tub or the porn room. These are usually good meeting points where other guys will be congregating and looking for action.
You hang out, you wander around, you make conversation. If you connect with a guy, or more than one guy, then you have sex. No one forces you to do anything, no one is forced to do anything.
Why do we need gay bathhouses now we have marriage equality?
Some people seem to have a perception of saunas as representative of a time when being gay was something to be kept hidden, when encounters between guys were illicit and a little bit dangerous. Why do we need saunas now that we have marriage equality? Why do we need saunas now that gay men can create ‘normal’ families like everyone else?
Having great sex is one of the huge advantages of being a gay man. Being able to meet up with other guys and have hassle-free sex is fantastic. Having no-strings sex doesn’t make you a bad person, it just simply helps satisfy the sexual needs that all men have.
Going to a sauna doesn’t have to involve any compromise of whatever committed relationship you’re in – a lot of couples will go to a sauna together, not necessarily to have sex with other people but just to spice things up a bit.
Being a bit sexually adventurous is one of the great things about being gay and sex-on-premises venues are an important part of our community and our identity.
We’re hoping that it will be possible for them to return to business before too long. Like, seriously. We’re missing a solid session at the sauna.