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Why San Francisco Needs a Gay Bathhouse

Updated: May 20, 2024 08:43
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Bathhouses, a staple in gay communities worldwide, have been absent from San Francisco since 1984.

I made a new friend recently. He just moved here from New York. Having tried to visit the Eagle but finding it closed, he texted me one evening. “Does SF close down at like, 11pm? I’m used to NYC where we don’t even start going out until then.” 

Oh honey. “We’re not like you East Coasters lol. Though I wish we were sometimes. The dearth of late-nite options here is staggering.”

“Wtf? This is a city, isn’t it?”

I’m tired of confronting the fact that, for being a high-profile gay destination, San Francisco is surprisingly prudish.

It’s understandable that my friend was let down by SF’s inherent sleepiness. If only there were a twenty-four-hour destination for him and other gay men to meet and make friends. A bathhouse, also known as a sauna, traditionally steps in for our kind at this point. Because San Francisco is bath-less (and has been since 1984), my buddy walked home and put away his leather gear. 

Navigating SF for the gay transplant is an article for a different day. I want to talk about why San Francisco needs a gay bathhouse. 

No substitute for the real thing

Regarding inventions like Scruff and Grindr, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The apps will never replicate a sorting method so exquisite as chance. 

Gay bathhouses are sex-possible spaces. By passing through the curtain separating the locker room and the interior, you respect the sexualities on display within. In return, they respect yours. Sex isn’t mandatory; consent is imperative. It’s absolutely fine to just use the sauna. Bathhouses are not brothels or sex clubs. What they introduce is the element of spontaneity. 

It’s an unspoken process, the screening that happens before you reach the center of many gay spaces. I know many in various stages of sobriety, meaning bars aren’t always the best option. Many don’t feel male enough, muscular enough, white enough to enjoy themselves in gay bars anyway. Cover for the circuit parties they throw can break $100 or more. 

Bathhouses do more to level the playing field. 

The contact they enable across races, classes, languages, abilities and more is what makes the bathhouse unique. I once had an encounter with a German man who spoke maybe two words of English. We had an incredible time. This is how it came about: a couple glances, a smile or two, that awkward bump into a language barrier, then the ticklish relief of those first few kisses. 

I can’t remember his name, but if you’re reading this, you have a son he looks just like you I had fun and I hope you’re well. Can anyone tell me how to say that in German?

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How have we been getting on without a bathhouse? I certainly wouldn’t say we don’t need one, if you’ll excuse the double negative. How it works now is, if you rub elbows with the right people, you get invited to the afters. Yes, there are spaces in San Francisco for gay men to meet for sex or just to hang out, and no I’m not talking about Eros. Some come perked out with amenities like showers and jacuzzis, others are more rudimentary. These places are fleeting, lasting for a night at most. They’re not bars, clubs or speakeasies. They’re people’s homes. 

The hosts are community benefactors, gays with enough time, space, privacy and resources to throw a party that goes past sunrise. While my Broke Ass has been fortunate enough to get the invite, I do wonder how much trade wanders home unappreciated because they don’t move in these circles. If I won the lottery, I’d open a bathhouse of my own (Insert Punny Name here, e.g. Cox, White Swallow, The Manhole). For now, until a permanent venue comes along, we adapt.

What a bathhouse is

It’s more than a place to get your rocks off. It’s an embassy of sexual politics and identities, local and international. Over sixty bathhouses once operated between the Castro, South of Market, the Tenderloin, and Polk Gulch. Surprisingly, someone in power is pushing for their return to San Francisco. Banned since the dark days of the AIDS crisis, bathhouses were ordered shut to halt the spread of the virus. This has been reversed since medical advancements like PrEP made it possible to move out from under its shadow. A bathhouse is a sign of a healthy gay community.

There’s friends with benefits, then there’s the benefit of friends. I adore my bathhouse buddies, guys that are part of my life because we both showed up on a Tuesday night. For now we cruise spots like Buena Vista Park not just because we like to, but because we have to. Have you ever had sex outdoors? It’s not exactly glamorous. And while a bathhouse won’t completely take gay sex off the streets, it would give the gay community and visitors ground of their own, a center for the sexual liberation we fought/fight for to flourish past two AM. I’d love it if one day I could point to a successful bathhouse and say, “Classic San Francisco,” a great place to make friends.

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Jake Warren

Jake Warren

A Potawatomi nonfiction writer and Tenderloin resident possessing an Indigenous perspective on sexuality and a fascination with etymological nuance. Queer decolonial leftist, cannabis industry affiliate, seasoned raver, and unofficial earthquake authority.