I'm a bath house virgin. I've been near many, stayed next door to one before in Montreal as well as Chicago, but never took the steps to go into one. I've chatted with friends before about their visitations to bath houses, but the conversations did not get too colorful, maybe because I was not too interested and maybe because I didn't want to know about all the penetrating details.
Gareth Johnson has recently done some leg work for us that want to know more about bath houses, but are too shy right now to go into one. Here is his chat with Twitter user and gay bathhouse enthusiast MännerSpa to talk about saunas, men, and sex.
When did you first visit a bathhouse?
I was in my early 20s — it was Steamworks in Chicago. Around the same time I also visited the legendary Man’s Country in Chicago, it’s since closed. I see those visits as being my initiation into the world of the gay bathhouse— one new school, one old school.
Did it live up to your expectations?
Although I thought I knew what I was venturing into, it was still a fairly surprising experience. The ambience and the concept was exactly what I was looking for.
Which have been some of the best bathhouses that you’ve been to?
The Steamworks group in the US are all notable in today’s world of bathhouses. Steam Portland is a privately owned sort of new generation venue that’s well done. I have a tendency to like the small, privately-operated establishments.
In the UK — Pleasuredrome, Chariots, and CS2 in Birmingham, before it closed.
In Germany — Atlantis, and Metropol. Vienna — Kaiserbruendl. Warsaw — Heaven.
What makes a good bathhouse?
Actual spa features are important for some people — being able to get a legitimate massage, or having a gym.
In Europe, it’s common to have refreshments available.
Entertainment is usually something used as a marketing opportunity to get guys in through the door.
The wet areas are important to many men’s fantasies and arousal — sauna, steam room, pools, tubs, and showers.
Private rooms are important for many. Others find a glory hole set-up a draw.
For a lot of people, cleanliness is key. Although there are those men who prefer places that are bit less polished, more rustic, in a raunchy-type of way.
The space needs to also be safe. It can still be a bit clandestine or anonymous but security and safety are key factors.
You also want your sauna to be busy, you need a good number of guys to ensure a congenial atmosphere.
What sort of guys go to a bathhouse?
All sorts. Some bathhouses cater to the Bear/Daddy/DILF demographic. But in my experience, I’ve seen a broad variety of all types of guys at bathhouses.
In the age of Grindr, some people might think that bathhouses are places for just for older or unfit guys, however that’s ill-informed — lots of young and fit guys really enjoy bathhouse encounters.
There’s some cultural differences also. In parts of Europe and Asia, communal bathing and saunas has long been part of everyday life. In Russia they have the Banya, in Germany and Scandinavia they have the sauna, Turkey the hamman, Japan the onsen, and Korea spas are very traditional. That kind of cultural tradition doesn’t exist in the US, so it’s really only in the larger cities where you can now find gay bathhouses.
Is it just all about sex?
Initially, it probably is for most guys. But bathhouses are also an important communal setting — much like the gay bars and clubs have historically been, except that the bathhouse setting offers the added dimension of sex.
I’ve known a number of men over the years who regularly meet at the bathhouse — they bond as friends, and they also have sex in a buddy-type of way.
The HIV epidemic contributed to the closure of a lot of bathhouses, is the golden age of bathhouses over?
The golden age of the 70s may be over but the bathhouse construct isn’t — they’ve evolved.
The whole erotic construct of bathhouses continues to hold appeal, even in these days of the mainstreaming all that is gay. Bathhouses remain rather exclusive and clandestine.
Grindr can hook people up, but it doesn’t offer the setting or ambience of a bathhouse.
What advice or guidance would you give to someone who was thinking of going to a bathhouse for the first time?
- Cash: Some bathhouses are cash only. You will need to pay for entry, and you might want to buy some drinks or snacks while you’re there.
- Footwear: It’s advisable to wear something on your feet. Some bathhouses provide flip-flops, or take your own.
- Lockers: Most bathhouses will provide lockers. If not, a small drawstring gym bag can be a handy way of carrying your valuables.
- Accessories: Most bathhouses will provide lube, but it’s not going to be the best quality. You might want to think about taking your own. Same goes for condoms if you want to use them. Poppers, a cock ring, some toys, or a douche are other things you might want to pack in your gym bag.
- Drugs: Don’t take drugs at a bathhouse, or go to a bathhouse when you’re high. Don’t share drinks with other guys. Don’t get drunk.
- Communication: Saunas and sex-on-premises venues are places where words are kept to a minimum. Apart from dance music being pumped through the venue like elevator music, patrons often rarely speak. Most communication is carried out through body language. If verbal communication is required, keeping it brief is essential.
- Cruising: A stakeout near the entrance to a dark room is a great way to eye before you buy. Once you enter the dark space, always let your fingers do the walking before the rest of the body follows.
- Manners: Don’t be rude when guys you’re not interested in flirt with you. Like you, they’re just there to have a good time. If they flirt — and if they touch or grope— tell them you’re not interested and move on. There’s no need to be mean.
- Boundaries: Walking into a private room with someone may attract the eye of a third party. If you’re not into three-ways or group encounters, this situation can be tricky. The old ‘thanks for the offer, but two’s company’ followed by a wink is a civilized way of handling the situation.
- Six Degrees: Often there’s just a few degrees of separation between gay men in many towns, so the chances of running into your neighbor, boss, or even someone’s dad at a sauna can be quite high. Making eye contact with a simple nod or smile is more than enough acknowledgement. The aura of the clandestine environment is important to the scene.
- Sex: You don’t actually have to have sex. If you don’t want to have sex, you don’t have to. You can also indulge your voyeuristic side and just watch or be watched. If the bathhouse has a pool and gym, as many do, you can swim or workout. Many bathhouses — particularly in South America, Europe, and Asia — also have lounges, video rooms, theatres, video venues, WiFi, massage services, yoga classes, trainers, and even sleeping areas.
Have an open-mind and keep a spirit of adventure. Bathhouses are just bathhouses, nothing more or less. They were once a staple of gay life, and now they’re an evolving part of cruise culture that has changed greatly over the last few years.
The most written-about gay bathhouse was the infamous Everard Baths in New York, which closed in 1985. Some say bathhouses have been replaced by hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff. Others say that today’s queer public milieu of marriage equality and family life has shifted tolerance and publicity away from the hyper-sexual side of gay life, stamping out venues that cater to gay sex. But if you think that gay life has gone tame, visit the annual Black Party in NYC, IML in Chicago, any of the Folsom events, or other like happenings in any number of countries.
After reading Gareth's interview, the bath house scene reminds me of my thoughts before going into my first gay bar. What should I expect? Is it going to be awful? Who else will be there?
Thanks Gareth and MännerSpa for the great insight. Don't forget to check out their own pages.
For those of you that have been to a bath house, did MännerSpa's account ring true?
What did he leave out?
Is it more like this 2011 Doritos Super Bowl commercial?
Content republished with permission from Gareth Johnson. Read more from Gareth Johnson
Originally from Australia, Gareth now lives in London. A non-smoker who loves to laugh, Gareth writes about all aspects of the LGBTQ experiences, with a particular passion for travel, sport, and films.