Gay bathhouses in the US (typically known as saunas in the UK) face an uncertain future due to the rise of online ‘hook-up’ apps, reports suggest.
Bathhouses thrived in the 70s as alternative, safe venues for gay men to meet. By the 90s the number of bathhouses had dropped significantly as LGBT+ liberation movements allowed queer men to meet and socialise publicly.
Dennis Holding, 75, who runs a bathhouse in Miami, Florida suggests: ‘The acceptance of gay men has changed the whole world. It’s taken away the need to sneak into back-alley places.’
Public bathhouses were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century to encourage hygiene in more impoverished communities. By the 50s, the need for public bathing facilities had diminished, and the establishments became popular as underground social scenes for gay and bisexual men.
As the popularity of the bathhouses soared, venues famously hosted cabaret shows. Notable performers in the 70s included Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Labelle. As well as creating vibrant entertainment circuits, the success of bathhouse entertainment would ultimately become attributed to their downfall. One New York bathhouse regular says of the diminishing attendance: ‘We finally got fed up with those silly-assed, campy shows. All those straight people in our bathhouse made us feel like we were part of the décor and that we were there for their amusement.’
The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s would eventually see gay bathhouses stigmatised and accused of encouraging promiscuity, and saunas again saw their patronage decline.
The increase in public acceptance, gay bars, online dating and, most significantly, mobile gay hook-up apps has been linked to the decline in bathhouses in recent years.
‘Bathhouses were […] a venue to meet people,’ says Peter Sykes, owner of North Hollywood Spa, ‘Today, you can go to the supermarket.’