Bathhouses date right back to the 15th century and are a part of LBGTQ+ culture that continues to this day (unlike douching with vinegar). Over the years they’ve offered gay men a safe space, sanctuary, while at the same time kickstarting Barry Manilow and (the now problematic) Bette Midler’s careers.
But in this modern age of Grindr, Growlr and gay Buzz Lightyear, I found it hard to imagine who still goes. Why bother even stepping outside when you can order a penis up quicker than you can a pizza? So, I decided to discover what saunas are really like (what’s the towel situation?) speaking to the men who visit (euro for the locker?) and take a look at their 700-year history.
“There’s always a teatime rush,” says Gary the assistant manager of Dublin’s most famous sauna, The Boilerhouse. Opened in 1998 you’ll find it on Crane Lane in a building once owned by Queen Victoria (who’s no doubt spinning in her grave). Complete with Jacuzzis, private rooms and films on tap – though I’m guessing none of the Herbie adventures.
Gary says guys of all different ages visit, they socialise, sometimes grab a sandwich. And there was me thinking it was all just sex. “It’s a very small minded person who would think along those lines.” – Got any ice for that burn, Gary?
“I like the face-to-face of it,” said one Boilerhouse regular I spoke to, “I like to see what I’m getting.”
Before the 20th century homosexuality was illegal almost everywhere, making it hard for men to meet for sex, which is likely how the ease of cruising public bathhouses was first discovered. As far back as 1492 Italian courts warned saunas to keep out ‘suspect men’ during their clampdown on the ‘vice of sodomy’.
I’ll give you a moment to picture a group of big burly Gladiators frolicking in the water.
Meanwhile, Spain’s overtly homophobic Queen Isabel went nuclear and closed every last one - she’s the antisemite who married her own cousin - hypocrite much?
Even at the turn of the century, records showed neighbours, landlords and policeman were looking through keyholes or breaking down doors in a bid to catch gay men having sex. Which was another reason they desperately needed somewhere discreet to meet and avoid arrest.
“It’s the thrill more than anything,” another sauna visitor told me, “It’s exciting, everyone’s there naked in towels.”
Back in 1933, bathhouse owners were shown to be have been telling each other about the ‘fat tip’ a sauna could receive from the ‘patronage of pansies provided their actions do not result in police proceedings’. But raids were common, with undercover policemen fingering those who had propositioned or even engaged with them in sex – talk about going above and beyond in the line of duty.
“You know what you’re getting in a sauna,” says a 30-something graphic designer who calls in on his way home from work. “You pay at reception, get given a towel, then start cruising.”
There can be glory holes, sex swings, and even a coffee bar, you’re also given a key to a locker; wearing it on your left hand shows you’re a top, right a bottom, and neither means you’ve lost your key.
“It’s like a night club without the thumping music,” says Gary, who’s worked at the famous Dublin venue for over 20 years, “there’s something for everyone.”
Another told me, “It lets you be an exhibitionist, but sort of safely…. I like to be watched but I also like to not be arrested.”
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that exclusively gay bathhouses appeared, evolving from discreet out-of-the-way places to modern and fully licensed by the late 1960’s. And gay-only venues make men feel more protected - sadly with hate crimes only increasing in today’s Ireland some men I spoke to said they head to the sauna as much for safety. “You don’t know who you’re meeting off an app, going to their house, they could be anybody.”
The 1970’s saw the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement and bathhouses entering into the mainstream, with Terrence McNally’s farcical play The Ritz, set in a sauna, opening on Broadway and later adapted into a movie, as well every permed housewife singing along to the Village People’s ‘YMCA’.
From my conversations with regulars, it seems that the modern, and I always assumed easier, ways of hooking up are anything but sexy. “Grindr is just too much hassle, it can take forever to find a meet and you know it’s full of time wasters – in a sauna you don’t really have to worry if you’re a bear or a twink, everyone’s there to have fun. And accommodating [for sex] isn’t a worry either.”
“Grindr and Scruff and all of them are just more ways to be rejected,” another told me, “Apps are mostly for fantasists, in a sauna you can be sucking dick or getting fucked within a few minutes.” And who said romance was dead?
The most famous venue in the 1970’s – and probably ever - was the Continental Baths in New York that had the capacity to serve 1,000 men 24 hours a day. The Grecian style sauna welcomed stars like Harvey Milk, Truman Capote and Rock Hudson while the likes of Gloria Gaynor and The Pointer Sisters took to the stage to entertain the scantily clad clientele.
It’s also where Better Midler, accompanied by pianist Barry Manilow in a towel (unclear if he brought his own) earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty, before being spotted and going on to record her first album followed by world superstardom and then questionable tweets about Trans women.
“There’s nothing hornier than going in a sauna, the smell, the men, the sweat, you can’t beat it.” These are not Bette Midler’s words but a man from County Wicklow. “One man bent me over and serviced me like the Irish mechanic that he was.”
“I’ve seen it all over the years,” says Gary the Boilerhouse assistant manager, “One elderly gent came in looking for his top denture.
“We had a lost and found box and I remember there were three different sets in there. And he had to try to work out which one was his …he was brave coming back.”
“We do everything we can to promote safe sex,” added Gary. “We’re our own bouncers as well, so you know we have to be careful who we allow in. Sometimes [if they are denied entry] they stand outside for hours shouting” – with or without teeth I don’t know.
The Continental Baths fell out of fashion in the late 1970’s when straight audiences came to watch the much talked about shows, leaving the gay audiences feeling once again in the minority, not to mention gawked at. This was shortly before the HIV pandemic hit and many bathhouses found themselves an easy target for blame by media and politicians. In 1984 in San Francisco, incredibly strict rules were implemented to limit the spread of HIV - making running a sauna impossible, a ban that was only lifted in January 2021.
“No matter what happens, men will be going until the end of time,” one Boilerhouse visitor philosophically told me, “Because it caters to their most basic of instincts.”
And what’s that? “Getting the shit fucked out of them.” Charming.
And no you don’t need a euro for the locker.