Acquired Tastes, XXXII: Bathhouses
As mysterious as a dungeon, as social as a gay bar, as funky as a tea room or dirty movie theatre, and as skeezy as the backroom at your local leather bar – bathhouses have served as a special kind of social/sexual outlet for gay men for generations. They have gone through many changes and weathered the winds of political and social discernment. Yet, they remain a solid institution and part of gay life.
So, let’s slip inside that unmarked door, show our I.D., slide some money through the teller window, hit the locker room, disrobe, wrap a towel around our naked self, and step into the tempting, enticing, inviting and exciting nether world of…
Scope of Activity:
An appreciation of gay bathhouses in all their glory (holes). A celebration/examination of the unique social construct found at such places.
The Official Line:
Gay bathhouses, also known as gay saunas or steam baths are commercial bathhouses for men to have sex with other men. In gay slang in some regions these venues are also known colloquially as "the baths", "the Sauna" or "the tubs".
Not all men who visit gay bathhouses consider themselves gay, regardless of their sexual behavior.
Bathhouses vary considerably in size and amenities—from small establishments with 10 or 20 rooms and a handful of lockers to multi-story saunas with a variety of room styles or sizes and several steam baths, Jacuzzi tubs, and sometimes swimming pools. Most have a steam room (or wet sauna), dry sauna, showers, lockers, and small private rooms.
Many bathhouses are membership only. Unlike brothels, customers pay only for the use of the facilities. Sexual activity, if it occurs, is not provided by staff of the establishment but is between customers, and no money is exchanged. Many gay bathhouses explicitly prohibit or discourage prostitution and ban known prostitutes.
Records of men meeting for sex with other men in bathhouses date back to the 15th century. A tradition of public baths dates back to the 6th century BC and there are many ancient records of homosexual activity in Greece. In the West, gay men have been using bathhouses for sex since at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when homosexual acts were illegal in most Western countries and men who were caught engaging in homosexual acts were often arrested and publicly humiliated. Men began frequenting cruising areas such as bathhouses, public parks, alleys, train and bus stations, movie theaters, public lavatories (cottages or tearooms), and gym changing rooms where they could meet other men for sex. Some bathhouse owners tried to prevent sex between patrons while others, mindful of profits or prepared to risk prosecution, overlooked discreet homosexual activity.
In the 1950s exclusively gay bathhouses began to open in the United States. Though subject to vice raids, these bathhouses were "oasis of homosexual camaraderie" and were, as they remain today, "places where it was safe to be gay", whether or not patrons themselves identified as homosexual. The gay baths offered a much safer alternative to sex in other public places.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, gay bathhouses — now primarily gay-owned and operated — became fully licensed, gay establishments which soon became major gay institutions. These bathhouses served as informal gay meeting places, places where friends could meet and relax. Gay bathhouses frequently threw parties for Pride Day and were usually open on public holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, when some gay men, particularly those who had been rejected by their families due to their sexual orientation, had nowhere to go.
From the mid-1980s onward there was lobbying against gay bathhouses blaming them for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), in particular HIV, and this forced their closure in some jurisdictions. Sociologist Stephen O. Murray, writes that, "there was never any evidence presented that going to bathhouses was a risk-factor for contracting AIDS."
Today, men still use bathhouses as a convenient, safe place to meet other men for sex. In areas where homosexuality is more accepted, safety may no longer be a primary attraction.
Many bathhouses are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There is typically a single customer entrance and exit. After paying at the main entrance, the customer is buzzed through the main door. This system allows establishments to screen potential troublemakers; many bathhouses refuse entry to those who are visibly intoxicated, as well as to be known prostitutes. In some areas, particularly where homosexuality is illegal, considered immoral, or viewed with hostility, this is a necessary safety precaution.
Sexual encounters at bathhouses are frequently, but not always, anonymous. They sometimes lead to relationships, but usually do not. Bathhouses are still used by men who have sex with men and do not identify as gay or bisexual, including those that are closeted or in heterosexual relationships.
Anonymity is always freeing (unless you’re John Travolta – in which case The National Enquirer will be all up inside your ass). For some, bathhouses serve as an opportune place to be someone or something you do not allow yourself to be in ‘the real world’. In the safe haven bathhouses provide one can be a leather dom, a total cum whore, a glory hole cocksucker, a sling pig, a human urinal… anything their deepest, darkest desires wish to express. That’s part of their appeal; bathhouses provide a relatively safe environment for you to get your freeeeek on!
It can also serve as a great place to meet someone for some traditional one-on-one time. They provide a safe and legal means for closeted men to get in touch with their inner homo. Why risk getting nabbed by the local sting at your favorite cruising park or tea room, when, for a few dollars, a safer alternative is available?
The environment also provides you with the proper equipment to explore your inner-whore. Don’t have the room or money to create your own dungeon? Well, many bathhouses can provide you with just the equipment needed. Don’t want strangers coming over to your house to use your private glory hole? Too afraid to play peek-a-boo at the local dirty book store? Then a bathhouse can provide you the relatively-low-risk glory hole you desire.
Then there is the social aspect of the experience. This can go beyond just mere anonymous encounters. Bathhouses are the great melting pot – and I’m not talking about that gay stew brewing in that funky Jacuzzi. In a way, bathhouses are also the great equalizer. Sans clothes, all you have is your body, your looks, your attitude, and your sexual appetites to define you.
People have been known to meet the loves of their lives at the baths. Not often, but it happens. As a relatively looked-down-upon segment of the population, gay men require places to identify as gay. That’s why gay bars exist and are such an important part of our culture. The same is true of bathhouses. True, as society grows-the-fuck-up, gay men are feeling less ostracized, and there are certainly more mainstream gay themed activities and groups to join (choirs, sports teams, political action groups, etc.), but I can’t think of an activity enjoyed by more gay men than sex – so I have a feeling the baths are here to stay.
Don’t approve of them? Then don’t go. We aren’t going to piss all over whatever it is you value, so don’t try to legislate our parade.
Don’t be shy. If you walk away from a bathhouse unsatisfied, it is likely because you came across as unapproachable. Don’t be a wallflower. If you see something you like, or feel like you might want to try – go for it. That said…
Take ‘no’ for an answer. Take a hint. Move on. Be respectful. Being manhandled by someone you already turned down is a major bummer. There’s also nothing worse than being stalked by someone after you have already indicated your disinterest. So do the polite thing and look elsewhere after being told ‘no’. That said…
Be friendly, but honest and forthright. That old troll you just gave the evil eye? He’s a person, too; visiting the bathhouse for the exact same reason you are – he’s horny. So give him a break. Use your words. Treat everybody with respect, even if you think you’re the best piece of ass ever to grace the place (highly doubtful).
Come prepared. Bring your stuff. Make sure your ass is clean. Dirty bottoms quickly get a very bad rep and can ruin a tops evening. Also, these places usually provide you with a towel, a locker and little else. Rarely do they have anything more than vending machines offering soda. Steamworks in Chicago offers lube, condoms, and some other general hygiene items in their vending machines, but they are pretty over-priced. So come prepared with your own little sex kit: lube, wet wipes, Listerine, condoms, mints, poppers, cock rings, et.al. Leave it in your locker and come visit it as needed.
Don’t bring valuables with you. I leave all my important stuff in the trunk of my car. Don’t arrive with a wallet full of cash. Don’t bring anything more than you need. Typically, some quarters for a soda, your I.D., and a single credit card is all you will need. Stash your bling elsewhere. Yes, those lockers have locks on them, but then, you are not the only one with a key.
Don’t plop your ass in the sling. I really advise you to wait and be invited by a top. That way, at least you will get fucked by one dude and not have to slink away embarrassed because no one took you up on your offer. And if maximum spermage is what you’re looking for, other tops are more likely to take a stab at your hole if they see someone else fucking you. Plopping your own ass in that sling – minus top? It makes you look desperate. It also makes it difficult for anyone else to use that sling if your ass is using it as a hammock.
Sometimes less (sexual encounters) is more (satisfying). I used to think that going to all-you-can-eat buffets was fun. But after a point I found them pointless… there is only so much food I can comfortably consume. I always left feeling full of remorse, wishing I hadn’t eaten that last bit of kielbasa. This is true of bathhouse sex, as well. Do you have to finish something you put on your plate? Absolutely not. Walk away, but let them know it’s you, not them.
If you want to get fucked, don’t come fucked up. No drugs. Limited alcohol. If you have to relax before you’re able to have fun, I understand. Have a beer. Have one cocktail. Hell, smoke a tiny, tiny bit of weed before going. But don’t show up sloppy, messy drunk or under the influence of something you can’t handle. First off, they may not let you in. Secondly, even if you do get in, you may not get off. Oh… and meth? Forgettaboutit. If you’re jerking about like a tic-infested mattress, trust me, other people are going to know exactly what’s going on with you and they will steer clear. The other problem with being severely under the influence of drugs or alcohol in this setting? You may end up having things done to you, you do not want done to you. Remain alert. Remain in control of your body.
Don’t assume. Don’t just assume you can join a scene in progress. See that couple over there? Maybe they are a couple. As in, exclusive. Maybe they come to the bathhouse because they get off on being watched. Or for the camaraderie. Don’t try to cop a feel, suck a dick, or fill a hole without at least getting a visual ‘okay’. The same may, or may not, be true of that prime piece of ass sticking in the air. Sure, there are dudes that take all loads, all dicks, and don’t care what they are attached to. But I think you should, again, check-in with the intended object of your erection and get an all-systems-go signal, before risking a nasty rejection. Yeah, people are difficult to read sometimes. Go figure.
Get a feel for the place before diving in. The learning curve, unless you are young, beautiful, muscular, and extremely well hung, can be quite high when first visiting a bathhouse. Every bathhouse has a set of unspoken rules and practices. You would be wise to spend some time observing what happens and how people conduct themselves before going hog wild. Also… get a feel for the landscape – see what the place has to offer in the way of amenities and environments. It’s always great to go with someone who’s already been to a particular bathhouse. They generally will be able to give you the head’s up regarding local customs. Sans that, use your spidey senses, and do a little Jane Goodall-ing.
Don’t dance with the one the brung ya. If you should be lucky enough to have a buddy who will go to a bathhouse with you, make sure you set some ground rules before you go, so no one is disappointed and no one feels inhibited. As with Vegas, what happens at the bathhouse should stay at the bathhouse. When I go with a bud, it is with the explicit understanding that, once we are both comfortable, he is to go off and do his thing, and if he should see me doing my thing, he will politely, and without calling attention to himself, turn around and never mention that nasty ass three-some he saw me doing in the steam room. That said. There’s a good reason one of the rules of etiquette regarding glory hole usage is… thou shalt not peek. Some things… you don’t wanna know!
Experiment, experiment, experiment. Bathhouses are sexual fantasy lands. If you know what you like and know what works for you? Good for you. But like any buffet, on occasion it wouldn’t hurt you, and may just pleasantly surprise you, to try a little something you’ve never tried before. Nothing breaks mid-winter depression or frees one of work-related anxiety like discovering a new kink. Assume that you are in control of yourself and your body at all times and that your limits will be respected – and then, dip that toe – in your mouth, if you’re curious!
I have only visited a handful of bathhouses in my lifetime. And it’s never the ones I have visited that I have regretted. Rather, in retrospect, I realize I really should have been braver/ballsier and dragged my ass to those bathhouses unvisited. When opportunity presents itself, Google map it, grab a cab, and pay the price of admission!
The ones I have visited: Steamworks and Man Country in Chicago. Duluth Family Sauna. And Minneapolis’ best kept secret – The Warehouse (now open on Fridays and Saturdays, 9pm-2am) (despite a certain stupid city ordinance). (And, no, I can’t give out the address. If you want to learn more, just ask around the Minneapolis chat rooms and hook-up sites.)
I could have gone to one in Fort Lauderdale. I could have gone to one in St. Louis. I could have gone to many in L.A. and San Francisco. I never thought to look for them in Boston, Miami, or Seattle when I lived/visited there. Or anyplace in the southwest. I never thought to look for them Honolulu when I lived there, either (I bet there are none).
So, I am not exactly a connoisseur. My adventures at Family Sauna and some of my adventures at The Warehouse are well-documented on this site, just check through my past postings to learn more.
And I have to say, yes, the scuzzier places (Man Country) made me feel like I was walking around naked in an old porn movie theatre. Yeah, that carpet? That’s gross. But you know what? Suck it up. That can also be part of its charm. There’s something off about the Duluth Family Sauna, too, but I find it endearing – like that old troll that still trots out his P.A. ring for everyone to see without provocation.
That said, I have a feeling I can have a reasonable time anyplace there are naked men walking around. And really, shouldn’t we all?
On the other hand, places like Steamworks have it all going on. That is like the Studio 54 of bathhouses, in my rather limited experience. My only regret when it comes to bathhouses? Not getting to stay longer (true, with the exception of Man Country – and if you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.).
I go to The Warehouse about once every three or four months. Sometimes it is for a specific activity – like once I wanted to see what it was like to work a glory hole for a couple of hours. And other times it is simply to scratch an itch and hope that someone will grant me the pleasure of indulging my needs.
My most recent visit? I left feeling like I was the life of the party. You know, sometimes, less is more… and this is even true of the number of men at a bathhouse. The Warehouse is now open Friday and Saturday nights, which means, those that cum on Friday, probably won’t be cumming on Saturday. So, I heard through the grapevine that attendance on the Friday before my most recent visit topped off at around 40 dudes. With that in mind, my expectations were not great. And I was right. There were not a million men there. What was nice about that? I really got some quality time with the ones I did click with. I even got cuddle time, email addresses and cell phone numbers! It was sweet.
Arriving, I stripped down and then hauled out a pair of modified long johns (sans rear – easy access) and my kick ass black work boots. What with my recently acquired (and frequently admired) trimmed beard, bald head, and ever-improving bod, I have to say… I looked good. Yeah, there is plenty of room for improvement, but hey… I know I was doing the best with what I had going on. And I think that attitude is essential to have a good time at the baths.
Entering, I keep in mind something I wrote in my last Acquired Taste entry; that if I saw a Daddy, I was going to go out of my way and make him feel appreciated – not in a pity sex way, but as a kind of gay duty and a way to honor his service to the community. Sure enough, the only other dude there is this rather sweet, older, round bellied bear, sitting on the couch. I like his stash and his furry belly. I take a walk around to see if there is anybody else there and then return and sit down on the couch for a chat. He’s a nice man. His ears stick out, and I can still envision what he must have looked like when he was a tiny lad. As we’re talking, I casually start rubbing his belly, because I do appreciate a nice hard belly. It isn’t long before I am on my knees slurping his big old hard dick. It’s nice. Seven inches and thick. We kiss. He sucks on me a bit, and then suggests we take it to the back room. I excuse myself, get a bottle of water, get rid of my cell phone, and then join him.
The back room is set up, currently (for they change the interior of this place almost every time I go) as a sort of ‘jail’. There is a part of the room with bars, a television playing porno, and a non-working, stand-alone toilet. The other part of the room has this thing that looks like a tool bench. Well, that’s where I work his tool. Soon others are drifting in, and my instinct is to pull of the dude and run. Like what? I’m ashamed to be seen having fun with him? I fight this urge and just sink deeper into my (and hopefully his) bliss. He fucks me for a while, we kiss, I suck him more. Someone comes up behind me and tries to fuck me while I’m sucking him (but the dude is breathing weird and I am not feeling it). Finally Daddy tells me he needs a break. It’s early in the evening and nobody wants to lose his load that soon. I am cool with that, for I really want to move on to someone else, too.
So here are the rest of the highlights:
A very sweet Asian man, who I am pretty sure is many years my junior, takes a liking to me. We end up in a four-poster bed fucking and making out like crazy. He feels so good. Sweet bod. His dick is only like 6.5, but it has a sweet curve and he sure is into me. Great kisser, too.
This hot Hispanic man, who is fully dressed in soccer gear, and has a great body; wide shoulders, tiny waist, enters the picture. I watch him fuck this other dude when he first arrives and really want him to fuck me. I offer up my ass to see if he is willing to switch, but he just fingers me as he continues to fuck the other dude. Cool, I can take a hint. I walk on, amazed at how beautiful his ass looks thrusting in and out. I walk around a bit and get involved in another scene, and I notice the Hispanic guy is watching me, so I put on a bit of a show. I then extradite myself and start to walk away. The Hispanic dude moves past me in a manner that makes me think he wants me to follow him. I do, all the way to the dark room in the basement. He’s laid out on the bed, and tells me to suck his dick. He’s very dom. Verbal. He does poppers the whole time, and I do them on occasion. It is way fun and the dude just keeps getting harder and harder and never cums. I work him for at least 30 minutes (he fucks me for about ten of that). Finally, I come up for air and zoom… in comes another cock sucker to take my place. I’m still entwined with the Hispanic dude when this other dude starts sucking his cock. I figure, oh, well, time to move on.
Much later in the evening, just before I’m thinking of leaving, the Hispanic dude comes and sits beside me on the couch. We end up cuddling for 20 minutes, talking, rubbing on each other. Very sweet. I got a sense he doesn’t kiss men, I respected that limitation. We have a lovely time.
THE HIGHLIGHT of the night? This Irish dude who looks like the Greek God, Pan. I want to photograph him in the woods. He looks like a woodland creature. Seriously cute. Furry as hell. Has the body of a wrestler, and huge arms. He lets me suck his dick and then begs off because he doesn’t want to cum yet. That is cool. I move on. Then about 30 minutes later we pass each other in the hall. His dick is still hard as a rock, and I kind of make a play for it. He pushes my head down on it and I work my magic. When I come up for air, we lip lock for a good five minutes. He’s a lot shorter than me, but built like a brick shithouse. Also, he has one of those Abraham Lincoln-looking beards which makes his round head appear even rounder. He looks vaguely Amish, I guess. Are there Irish Amish?
Anyway, he asks if we can take it downstairs. Turns out, he likes a totally piggy bottom. Sucking pits, swapping spit, eating ass, sucking dick, fucking ass, getting sweaty, making bull sounds… and being watched; it is all on the table and all out of this world. His pits are the best. Great musk.
I end my night picking a wallflower in a pair of designer undies as the recipient of my load. We kiss and pet and I make him suck my dick. Then I fuck him good; on his back and doggy style. Brief, but sperm-worthy. The Hispanic dude watches with a sweet smile on his face.
All told… I played with 13 guys. Yeah, I know, but I was in a slutty, giving/taking mood. I am probably going back this weekend, because the Irish/Amish dude and I have been emailing back and forth, and he will most likely be there. Also, I found his profile on BBRTS. He’s really only into oral (but he fucked me good), looks great in a singlet, and… is bi-sexual! Weird. And cool. And something worth exploring.
My experience with bathhouses is very limited, but I do know one thing: much like Daddies, bathhouses serve an important role in gay life. Bathhouses are that safe haven where we can get in touch with our kink and our community. And who knows? You could fall in love. It happens. If nothing else, maybe you will meet the closet-case of your dreams.
If you haven’t been to one? Give it a try. Sure, they are not for everyone. Nor is every bathhouse the same. So even if you don’t like the first one you visit, but are curious about the experience, I urge you to visit another. If Man Country had been my sole experience? I probably wouldn’t be writing about bathhouses today.
Last recommendation: leave your expectations in your car along with your valuables. Going to a bathhouse is really no different than going to a gay bar. You will only leave bitterly disappointed if you enter with preconceived notions. Allow the experience to become your experience. Don’t force an agenda on something you have little or no control over. You don’t know who may or may not be there. You don’t know what the set-up will be like (unless you do). You don’t know what the general mood is going to be… until it happens. So relax. Be open to the experience. Yes, you are still in control of your body and who touches it. But what you have no control over is the experience and to try to do so will only result in frustration and disappointment on your part.
Bottom-line: to have a great time, make up your mind to have a great time – no matter who walks through those doors, what dick comes sliding your way through that glory hole, or what the carpet looks like.