On a recent Saturday night in one of Los Angeles’ few remaining bathhouses, the crowd was pretty sparse.
“At about 10:30, when I got there, there were maybe less than a dozen guys, total, at least that I saw. Most of us were older, a couple younger dudes walking around with jockstraps on, maybe looking for daddies, maybe looking for drugs, I don’t know.”
So says “Alex,” a 51-year old gay man who tells us that he “used to go to the bathhouse a lot” when he was in his thirties, but now only goes “about 4 or 5 times a year.”
“I used to have a lot of fun, God yes. But there were drugs involved and it got really messy for me, so I stopped going for a while. I figured I was too old for it anyway. Then suddenly it seemed like daddies became a thing, so I decided to try my luck.”
He laughs, “I wasn’t as successful as I used to be, but it was fun enough to get me wanting to come back, every now and then.”
On the evening of his latest visit, “Alex” told us that things picked up later in the evening, “around closing time” for the nearby bars, and that he was able to “get what I came for and get the hell home.” That’s not always the case, though; he admits that over the last year or so, he’s noticed a definite drop in the numbers on his occasional bathhouse forays. “There just aren’t as many guys, and the ones who stopped coming are mostly the younger ones.”
His observations reveal a common thread in the narratives of the men who spoke anonymously to the Blade about their bathhouse experiences. “Bathhouse culture” is still out there, but it’s become a pale shadow of its glory days, when New York’s Continental Baths boasted entertainment from a young Bette Midler as a diversion to enjoy while waiting for the next towel-clad “Mr. Right Now” to come sauntering in. In that era, even the much-humbler clubs that dotted major cities around the country were cultural hubs for a community for whom sexual freedom required anonymity.
The reasons behind the decline of this once-revered institution are generally assumed to be one or a combination of a few basic factors.
“It was different before AIDS,” says “Tom,” 54. “Bathhouses just seem sketchy since that.”
“Ramon,” 43, says, “It used to be heaven, but the drugs have really killed it for me. Half the guys are high, or looking to get high, and they’re not there for sex at all.”
“Kevin,” 48, offers the most commonly held opinion. “It’s the apps, obviously. These kids figure, why should they go out and pay $50 or more and not even know what they’re gonna have to choose from when they can find somebody to scratch that itch without even leaving home?’”
While these men may hold varying opinions about the cause, the effect is clear to all of them: younger men are staying away from bathhouses in droves.
Jim Anzide refers to this phenomenon as the “death of the bathhouse.” Anzide, who works with The Lavender Effect, says he recognizes that – for younger gay, queer, and questioning men in the age of Grindr and Scruff – the loss of this particular cultural institution may not mean very much, but he also asserts that there’s a whole hidden history behind it, even just within this city, that should be remembered and preserved.
“Even before California was a state, there were people here,” Anzide says. “They were here for the gold rush, they were here as lumberjacks – there were all these men travelling around the country, and they needed places to bathe and sleep.”
To satisfy the demand, entrepreneurs came up with idea of a bathhouse. The original concept was that only women would be allowed to use it during the day, and only men in evening – which meant that the men could stay overnight.
“Men outnumbered the women by huge margin, and urges needed to be fulfilled,” Anzide says. “Things happened.”
As the state developed, the need grew for such facilities in densely populated areas; in Los Angeles, where the city declined to open public bathhouses, the entrepreneurs stepped in again, and the privately-run baths they opened eventually evolved to become havens for closeted gay men in search of anonymous playmates. One such club, located on 4th St. in DTLA with the eyebrow-raising name of “The Klyt,” closed its doors for the last time only last year; it was rumored that Rock Hudson once had his own key to the back door.
It was this environment which awaited today’s gay elders when they were first introduced to the secret world of the bathhouse in their younger days. “It was scary,” says Anzide, “but it was like a secret haven, where you could go and just hook up with whoever you wanted, and there was no connection – you just go in anonymously, have this, have that, and get out.”
Such places served an important role in the community, providing a safe space where gay men could freely explore their sexuality and meet the need for intimate human connection that was often hard to find in their daily lives. At the peak of their popularity, Anzide tells us, in gay hubs like Silver Lake, “it was like Starbucks, there was one on every other corner.”
“Then AIDS happened,” he continues, “and everybody scaled back, because everybody was afraid.”
Gradually, as more information became known about the virus and treatments began to be available, gay men started to reach out for the physical intimacy that was beginning to seem possible again, and the bathhouse culture started to revive. “There was a re-introduction of that world,” says Anzide, “not as wild as it was before, but because there was a need for connection again, a need for intimacy, and anonymity – and that was very important to the culture.”
Just as the bathhouse seemed to be back, however, another plague hit.
“Adam,” a former manager at one of LA’s most popular clubs who spoke to the Blade anonymously, remembers what it was like when the meth epidemic was surging through the culture during his tenure in the mid 2000s. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “I 86’d about 600 people for drug abuse during my last ten years at the club. It was very hard to deal with.”
Drugs had always been a part of bathhouse culture, but this was different. People were dying of overdoses in the clubs, and transmission rates for HIV and other STDs skyrocketed as users of meth and other drugs grew careless about condoms.
Still, “Adam,” suggests meth may have been a convenient excuse, rather than the reason, for the disappearance of the bathhouse, which he claims has been at least partly due to harassment by public officials.
“The meth is part of the culture,” he says. “It’s not just in the bathhouses, it’s in the whole community and they bring it in with them. But the health department, the city, the police – they just don’t like the idea of men having sex with men, and so they find every reason they can to fine you, to make you jump through hoops. My single biggest headache running the club was dealing with the politics around it.”
Though he says he was “never a bathhouse guy” himself, “Adam” says he grew to appreciate them during his stint within the industry, and he laments the idea of their loss. “I came to realize how important it was for so many men in the gay community – the ones who have no social circle, who are older, who may be overweight, who feel intimidated. There are a lot of gay men that just think of them as whorehouses, they’re really against them, but there’s a really huge chunk of the community that appreciate them being there.”
Echoing that sentiment is “Greg,” who says he is in a “happily committed but open” relationship and prefers the bathhouse experience to using hookup apps because, as he puts it, “a cock in your hand at the bathhouse is worth two online.” At 57, he says he feels like his “shelf life has run out” on Grindr, Scruff and the like.
“It’s a lot of work,” he says. “You can spend your fucking life on an app with people,” he elaborates, “and wonder if they’re going to hook up, or not, or just endlessly swap pictures, or you can just go to the baths and take care of business.”
Like “Alex,” “Greg” says he ran afoul of drugs in his younger years. Now sober, he says the lingering presence of meth is still an issue for him in the bathhouses.
“There’s always that conversation, you know, the whispered ‘You party?’ But I’ve had some of the best sex I’ve had in a long time, and the reality is that there I find younger guys there – and I mean younger to me, in their thirties or forties – who are great sex partners.”
“Jorge,” who at 37 just barely makes the cut for being a millennial, says “I truly believe that bath houses are somewhat a rite of passage within the LGBT community. I was introduced to them in my early twenties and once I discovered them, I would not leave. Everything was new to me, I didn’t know how to pick up on certain signals or what the proper etiquette was, but going to the bathhouse, with time I did learn.”
Though he says he would “encourage any guy to check a bathhouse at least once” in order to “truly appreciate the old way of cruising someone face to face,” it’s telling that “Jorge” says he hasn’t been to a bathhouse in “about three years.”
For Anzide, the drift of the younger generations away from bathhouses makes perfect sense.
“Kids don’t need them today. Their elders lived in a time when they had to hide themselves in the shadows, and the bathhouses were safe, private and anonymous. Today there’s no shame or very little, and they certainly don’t need the “bathing” part of either – they can say ‘come over, we’ll jump in the shower after.’
There’s a culture gap between the older and younger generations, too, he says. While many older gay men embrace the Tom of Finland motto of “keeping the ‘sex’ in ‘homosexual,’ in the new millennium there’s more of an emphasis toward love, home, and family, and many younger members of the gay community, knowing only what they’ve heard about the darker aspects of the experience and lacking the fond nostalgia of first-hand memory, attach a stigma to bathhouse culture that they have no imperative to overcome.
“Men of the older generation are at a loss how to deal with that,” he says, “but for the younger gays, it’s just the way it is.”
The attitude taken by many older men over the disappearance of one of the touchstones of their youth tends to be one of wistful resignation. Cultural historian and author Kirk Frederick sums it up succinctly with his comment, “I was a twenty-something in the ‘70s, but I visited bathhouses only occasionally. Still, I lament their loss, not just as a viable hook-up option but as a social gathering place. The advent of the digital age may have provided us with the ease of online cruising, but it seems to have made the personal touch superfluous.”
Still, as Anzide is eager to remind us, it would be unwise to count the bathhouse as being down and out forever.
“Don’t get me wrong, the bathhouse will come back,” Anzide insists. “It will be a different thing than what we saw, but that need will come back, that need for connection, and physical presence – to see you, and feel you, and taste you… I can’t get that through my phone.”