The internet and social acceptance of LGBT community members is forcing owners of gay bathhouses to get creative — or risk going bankrupt.
“The acceptance of gays has changed the whole world,” Dennis Holding, an owner of a Miami-based bathhouse, told Associated Press. “It’s taken away the need to sneak into back-alley places.”
Los Angeles experienced the sharpest decline of bathhouses recently, with two establishments shuttering this year. The Hollywood Spa closed in April and Flex Spa in Silver Lake closed temporarily for the summer due to permitting issues. Cities from San Antonio to San Diego have also seen bathhouses shut down.
Urban bathhouses — which typically include pools, saunas, and steam rooms — have existed since the early 1900s, initially created as hygienic places for low-income people to bathe and shower. That changed in the middle-20th century, when the bathhouses became a place for gay men to meet up, relax, and explore their sexuality. In the late 1970s, there were almost 200 gay bathhouses in the U.S. — New York's Continental Baths, with performances by Bette Midler, being the most famous. By 1990, though, the number had dwindled to about 90, following years of raid and crackdowns amid the AIDS epidemic. The bathhouses were further decimated in the late '90s, when the Internet facilitated easy hook-ups and bathhouses and bars became less of a necessity for meeting fellow gay men.
“[Now] the younger generation’s main fear is that it’s some dark, seedy place,” T.J. Nibbio, the executive director for the North American Bathhouse Association, said.
Some owners realize that gay bathhouses need to up the ante and provide something that can't be found online. “Bathhouses at some level will go extinct if you don’t offer something more than a towel,” Todd Saporito, of Flex Spas, told Pink News. “If we don’t, we feed the haters and we hand the bigots who remain a vocal minority ammunition with which to attack us.”
Bathhouse chain Steamworks recently worked to rebrand themselves by refreshing their logo and website.