Anyone who's read Tales of the City knows that San Francisco's hip SoMa neighborhood was once the gritty epicenter of the city's gay bathhouse scene. Streets that are today lined with overpriced condos and upscale coffee houses used to feature a variety of spas whose main attractions were color TVs, sun decks, gyms, poolside cafes, and “buddy nights"—steamy, anonymous sex was just a bonus.
Ritch Street Health Club (aka Ritch Street Baths), The 21st Street Baths and the notorious Club Bath on 8th and Howard offered gay men an environment to cruise free of harassment. Discreet buildings on the fringe of the city center—which SoMa was at that time—made the industrial hood an ideal setting for sexual adventures.
Flyers advertising bathhouses were definitely suggestive, but a rule of the bygone era was that sexuality should remain ambiguous—humor, innuendo, slang, and code words were the language of rendezvous. Speculation without confirmation was a saving grace. Just ask George Michael.
The first national AIDS clinic in the country was established in San Francisco in 1982. Physicians in the Bay Area began noting connections between men infected with HIV and men who visited bathhouses. Shortly after, something like a bathhouse panic emerged, and within a few years the city's health department had shuttered all such establishments. This was seen by many gay men in San Francisco as a needless crackdown on the community, and a decision motivated more by fear and misunderstanding than public safety.
The closures in San Francisco didn’t mean that bathhouses disappeared across the country. Today, Flex Spa in Los Angeles, East Side Club in New York, Denver Swim Club in Denver, and Midtown Spa in Milwaukee are still going strong. Spartacus Sauna Guide offers a full directory of bathhouses nationwide, as well as info on their various amenities.
Still, the once booming bathhouse culture is endangered.
In the late 1970's, there were nearly 200 gay bathhouses in cities across the U.S., but by 1990 the total had dropped to 90. Today, there is a total of 70. Peter D. Sykes, owner of The Hollywood Spa in Los Angeles, which closed in April of this year, muses, "Bathhouses were like dirty bookstores and parks: a venue to meet people. Today, you can go to the supermarket."
The clientele of today's bathhouses are generally older men, many of whom remember the heyday of the original bathhouse scene in the '70's. AIDS and the subsequent closure of these businesses permanently stigmatized bathhouses as unsafe, unsanitary places. Young gay men today can simply jump on Grindr and save time, money, and travel. The thrill of public sex may be gone, but in its place arose the thrill of an instantaneous, made-to-order hookup culture.
In 2012, bathhouse owners nationwide launched The North American Bathhouse Association (NABA) to brainstorm best practices for marketing and operations. In order to entice a younger clientele, some bathhouses offer staggering discounts for 18-20 year old males. For example, Los Angeles' Melrose Spa offers free Tuesday admission for men age 18 to 25. And many bathhouses offer free condoms as a means to promote safe sex. The Flex Spa chain has even installed a vending machine at their L.A. location that dispense free HIV testing kits. Manufactured by Orasure and usually sold for $46, these kits are underwritten by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Spa owners also hope to entice a younger generation by creating a hookup space that isn’t as intimate as your own home or as awkward as a stranger's home. Why struggle to find somewhere discreet to meet when a clean bathhouse offering free condoms is right around the corner?
On the itinerary for NABA’s 2014 annual conference: details about the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative; a greeting by bathhouse owner and icon Chuck Renslow; a screening of Continental Baths, a new documentary film by Malcolm Ingram; sessions about "Who is Our Customer?" and “Converting our separate businesses into one giant REIT [real estate investment trust].” It seems the bathhouse culture won’t being going anywhere without a fight to keep it alive.