What is a bathhouse? Do people actually bathe?

So as I made a comment the other day, “Our library is like a bathhouse…all of these little rooms where people can walk around the hall..” it occurred to me that the majority of my class mates probably had no idea what a bath house really was like.  Sure, they have probably heard of it  in the context of HIV probably referenced to the ones that shut down in San Francisco decades ago, but I don’t think they know the true reality of the current state of bath houses, or that they currently still exist all around the world and contribute to the spread of HIV.

Much to my chagrin, the Spartacus Gay Guide still exists.  This was the same guide I used when I was 20 backpacking around Europe almost a decade ago.  Basically, anywhere in the world you go, you can use either the book (or apparently a iPhone app) to locate gay establishments such as bars, restaurants, and of course “saunas”. Most urban meccas in both the US an abroad (including, Europe and Asia) have at least one such bathhouse.  Houston, where I formally came from boasts 2.  One is part of the “Club Baths” franchise.  The Clubs is generally an upscale franchise, consisting of newly renovated saunas, steam rooms, pools and small rooms (I’ll get to this later). Generally such cities that have two bathhouse will usually have a nicer “upper echelon” one that is clean and somewhat hygienic and contains somewhat more upscale clientele, and a gross one that is filthy, skeezy, where you stick to the floor and it’s not advisable to not wear footwear.

Not all bathhouses are gross.  Some are QUITE deluxe.  The one I went to in Bangkok called “Babylon” was probably one of the nicest in the world with 3 bars, a full service restaurant, gardens, outdoor pools.  So the establishment can range from crab infestations to four star service.

So what exactly is a bathhouse? Wikipedia does a good job explaining to the novice in its article “gay bathhouse” (OOOOH and they even have a photo of the Crew Club in DC right near my house on 14th street. Did you really think the nation’s capital wouldn’t have a bathhouse?) especially in the “etiquette” and “layout” sections.  But for those of you that don’t have the patience to sift through such a gem I’ll get down to it briefly.  Basically most bathhouse operate on a “membership only” basis.  They call themselves “health clubs” and many do have a small (some extremely will equipped) weight area that they purport can be used for exercise (although I’ve generally only ever seen one person working out).  Even if a bathhouse boasts exercise equipment, most people come to a bathhouse to fuck.  There are usually also lockers (see below) communal showers, steam areas, sometimes an indoor or outdoor pool, and usually always small individual rooms, varying from simple with one small bed in a corner and minimal other room, to more deluxe, with a bigger bed, and TV playing porn.

Upon entering, you usually have to pay the “membership fee”.  Such fees can be one time only or you can usually get a 6 month membership if you plan on coming back and “working out” a lot.  You then have the option of purchasing either a “locker” or a “room”.   Both are assigned on an hourly basis, and you usually have about 12 hours or so (varies) in your room or locker.   With either option you are given a towel to change into.  Some more upscale places will also give you temporary footwear. If you buy a “locker” the only place to put your items is in your locker.  You will generally wander the hall, looking for someone to have sex with, either in their room, or in the sauna or some other communal place.  If you have a room you will proceed to your room and can leave your items there. See the photo to the left from the Crew Club for a typical price list.

Generally, paying the extra money for the room allows a client a little more privacy and flexibility with their evening.  They can decide who they want to invite in for sex, how they want to attract people for sex, who they want to have sex with etc.  The cheaper locker option, in my opinion limits flexibility.

Many bathhouses have also been places where gay men go to “party and play” or do drugs such as crystal meth and ecstasy and have sex.  Bathhouses have been known for their association with drugs and drug fueled sex, and still are venues where gay men may go to both seek and use drugs and to have sex.  Of course, such activity can lead to unprotected sex.  I know that any ads that the crew club has advertised in DC gay magazines have featured the phrase “No PNP” meaning “no party and play” i.e. no drug use tolerated.  I know they have also been doing much to crack down on bath house drug use.    However, its next to impossible to enforce these rules, as most bath houses have lax security, and given the nature of the establishments, unless you stick an undercover in the scene, its next to impossible to have someone patrolling private small rooms that patrons have sex in.

Then there’s the question of condom use.  Much like in any other sexual encounter,  condom use is up to the two partners involved.  Of course, drug use will lower inhibitions, and perhaps decrease condom use.  Also, since most of the time sex is anonymous it is likely that HIV status will not be discussed or disclosed during bath house encounters, and partners won’t know their true risk.  However, as a gesture, many bath houses provide condoms in common areas, and do all they can to encourage condom use.  However, what goes on between two consenting adults is something beyond their control.

So yes, technically one can bathe at a bathhouse, but more or less its a euphemism.

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