Let’s say it’s 1976 and I’m 21. I nervously approach a nondescript door and press a buzzer I’ve walked past 50 times before working up the nerve to go in. A sweet young man behind a desk greets me in a softly lit lobby. I can hear the soft sound of a disco beat in the background. Since it’s my first time, he offers a “virgin” discount, presents a lockbox for my valuables, and buzzes me through a second door. Handing me a towel, he leads me to my locker.
Once inside, we pass a swimming pool where 20 or so men splash around or sit on the side chatting and laughing, while others relax in a hot tub nearby. My guide leads me past the showers and into a locker room where I’m greeted by friends with a hug and kiss. I undress, rinse off, and head to the café by the pool for a drink before wandering upstairs to check out the action in a darkly lit maze. My senses are overwhelmed by the sexual energy, but there’s a kind of lightness, a feeling of playfulness. After awhile, I head back to the pool where a glittery drag show has just started. I feel as though I’ve stepped into something more, a clubhouse full of love and joy.
At least that’s what I imagine it was like to visit a bathhouse in the 1970s. I only have descriptions that I’ve read in books or seen in movies, where gay men flocked to cities and neighborhoods twith hedonistic playgrounds, discotheques, and leather bars with backrooms, escaping their hometowns and suburbs. After years of oppression and discrimination, these men had found the freedom to be who and what they’d always dreamed. By the time that I’d found my way to New York in my early 20s, these pleasure palaces had all but disappeared. As a child of the ’70s, I came of age during a time when sex was dangerous, and condoms were non-negotiable, but I still sought out the adventures I thought I’d missed.
In doing so, I’ve checked out a number of sex clubs and bathhouses across the country, and they were much different than I imagined. I visited my first bathhouse in the ’90s when I moved to New York. The entry was harshly lit, and a mean troll behind a plexiglass window barked out prices and rules. Once inside, the smell of bleach and mildew was overwhelming. Obnoxiously loud techno blared out of busted speakers, and zombies wandered the halls searching for sex for hours at a time.
The AIDS epidemic took too great a toll on the lives of gay men. It also shuttered bathhouses in San Francisco, turning sex clubs into dark, empty hallways of shame. Legislation in the 1980s banned “bathhouses” in San Francisco, and the last one shut its doors in 1987. The closest true bathhouse is Steamworks in Berkeley, and only sex clubs like Eros and 442 Natoma exist in S.F. proper. Now that we’ve entered a new era of HIV prevention and treatment and we’re seeing new infection rates decline for the first time in decades, there seems to be a renewed interest in safe spaces for sexual encounters — not just in S.F., but around the country. New spaces have opened, often warehouses or clubs, and private parties are held in homes or hotel rooms.
We are long overdue for the resurgence of bathhouses in the City by the Bay that is still known, globally, as a mecca for LGBTQ people. Imagine walking into a space where friends welcome you affectionately. You find a perch on the edge of the pool to share a story and a laugh. You meet a new friend and decide to head upstairs to a dark corner or maybe a sling for a fuck. Or maybe you’d rather find a room full of men jerking off together. A while later, you wander down to a café for a bite or a drink and settle in to watch a drag show. I don’t know about you, but it sounds like a perfect Sunday afternoon or evening, a brief respite before facing the world again the next week. We are long overdue for a bathhouse revival in San Francisco!