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In many cultures, bathing in communal bathhouses has been an important social and even religious ritual. In Japan it is the sento, among Yiddish-speaking Jews, the shvitz, and in the Arab world the hammam, all of them centers for socializing across class lines, providing relief from culturally imposed modesty, and a place to get luxuriously clean. By the early 1900s, New York City had built and maintained a network of public bathhouses—many of them resembling Roman temples—in immigrant neighborhoods. Because they are traditionally segregated by gender, bathhouses have also long been associated with same-sex eroticism. It is in this capacity that they have gained most of their notoriety in American culture. Though the increasing availability of indoor plumbing in private houses decreased the need for public baths, the bathhouse remained a mainstay of American gay male culture until the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. One of the most prominent of these venues was the Club Baths chain, a nationwide members-only network that permitted access to facilities across the country. Most of the Club bathhouses offered clean but spartan accommodations (a cubicle with a mattress pad or locker for personal items, and a fresh towel) for about $10 for an eight-hour stay.

Even before the reconstruction of a "gay" identity from the 1960s, the baths had achieved some degree of fame as male-only enclaves: witness the depiction in films of businessmen, spies, or gangsters meeting in a Turkish bath, protected only by a towel around the waist. The Turkish baths of yore were part social club, part night club, and part sex club. They often had areas called "orgy rooms" where immediate and anonymous sex was available. The decade of the 1970s, after the beginning of gay liberation, was the "golden age" of the gay bathhouse. Gay male culture became chic, and these gathering places became celebrity "hot spots." The most famous of them was the Continental Baths on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Bette Midler launched her career singing to an audience of towel-clad men. In the intoxicating years that followed the Stonewall riots of 1969, gay men reveled in their new visibility, with bathhouses emerging as carnal theme parks that became self-contained fantasy worlds for erotic play, though it is not clear how many of the patrons identified themselves as "gay," since the focus was on "men having sex with men," not on socially constructed identities. It was not uncommon for bathhouse patrons to include married "straight" men taking a break from domestic obligations in orgy rooms packed full of writhing bodies, or in private rooms for individual encounters. Gay or straight, customers hoped to find in the baths a passport to intense male pleasure in an environment that fairly throbbed with Dionysian energy. One large bathhouse in San Francisco boasted that it could serve up to eight hundred customers at a time. The St. Marks Baths in New York's East Village attracted customers from around the world with its sleek, modernistic facilities that were a far cry from the dumpy barracks of earlier decades, like the Everard Baths farther uptown, once the site of a church. The Beacon Baths in midtown Manhattan adjoined a cloistered convent, and it has long been rumored that the bathhouse once borrowed fresh towels from the nuns when its supply ran short.

The AIDS epidemic, which claimed gay men as some of its earliest victims, caused many public health officials and frightened patrons to recommend the bathhouses be closed, though others feared that such a move would only force sexual activity underground, beyond the reach of counseling, besides erasing the gains of gay liberation and leading to the repressive eradication of gay culture. The owners of the baths fought the closures, but most of them were shuttered by 1985. By the 1990s, gay baths had re-emerged in many large cities. Some have returned in the guise of the shadowy venues of pre-liberation days; others have re-opened as private sex clubs, taking great precautions to educate customers and enforce rules of safe sex by such means as installing video surveillance cameras and hiring "lifeguards" to monitor sexual activity.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Bayer, Ronald. "AIDS and the Gay Community: Between the Specter and the Promise of Medicine." Social Research. December 1985.

Bolton, Ralph, John Zincke, and Rudolf Mak. "Gay Baths Revisited:An Empirical Analysis." GLQ. Vol. 1, 1994.

Holleran, Andrew. "Steam, Soap, and Sex." The Advocate. October 6, 1992.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On. New York, Penguin, 1988.