In an increasingly digitally connected world, can the gay bathhouse make a comeback? With a little bit of rebranding and refocus, I think it can!
The gay bathhouse played a central role in the gay community for many years. And although many of these years were before my time, I still think there’s a role gay bathhouses can play in our community, even in the age of hook up apps and social media.
Sure, the concept of a gay bathhouse might seem antiquated, heck even irrelevant to a millennial, but surely that’s nothing a little education, information and rebranding can’t change.
The gay bathhouse problem
Today, the gay bathhouse, like so many other venerable gay institutions such as gay bars and nightclubs, seems to be in decline, both in terms of patronage and also in terms of perceived relevance.
The ever increasing presence of the online world into our lives is changing and dramatically reshaping the very ways in which we live our lives. So much of what we used to have to go out for (socialising and sex) is now only a few mouse clicks or screen taps away.
I believe this new world we find ourselves in creates both opportunities (for new businesses, business models and ways of opening up communication and connecting with one another), as well as challenges. Old media, businesses and business models unfortunately don’t have a choice. They have to adapt or die. Literally.
But digital disruption is a pendulum. It swings from one extreme – where everyone loves their newfound digital lives and online spaces, to digital exhaustion and the recognition of the need to detox from our devices and return our focus back to some aspects of our offline lives.
And that’s how the gay bathhouse (and bars and nightclubs) could recapture and create a new sense of identity and relevance for themselves.
The gay bathhouse 2.0
The gay bathhouse needs to be reimagined for the 21st century.
One way to do this (and there are many ways, so please don’t think that what I’m saying is the only way) is to take the essential elements of what inspired and made the gay bathhouse scene in the 1970s so great, and then combine that with any social gaps that exists today, such as people’s lack of actual, real-life face time with each other.
An ode to the past, paired with a contemporary sensibility could possibly work in attracting and appealing to a broad cross section of gay guys – both young and old.
Here are a few concrete, specific ideas:
Rebrand – on digital channels
Some, perhaps even a lot of gay guys have a negative image or association of gay bathhouses. They may think that they’re sleazy places, filled with sex starved guys just looking to grope you. Or they think that they’re dirty places where you can catch a disease just by sitting down.
Gay bathhouses have a role to play in educating and informing the community that these stereotypes aren’t real. And why not do that on social media? And rather than try to tell people how great a gay bathhouse is and can be, why not show them?
A carefully crafted marketing campaign, making heavy use of imagery and video, can showcase and highlight what a gay bathhouse is really like. It can show people that gay bathhouses are more than just sex on premises venues.
You can actually go there to relax, to hang out with others and just socialise or to get a massage or some other spa treatment. People will also be able to see for themselves just how clean and well looked after a venue is.
Bring in more of a day spa feel
Which leads me to my next point. We’re busier, more stressed, anxious and tired than ever. A gay bathhouse could be an urban sanctuary where for an hour (or three), we escape the insanity of our lives and just relax.
A massage, facial, foot rub or any other type of day spa service would be a welcome reprieve for many. The fact that it takes place in an all-male, all-gay venue is a bonus.
Judgement free zones
This may come as a surprise, but gay bathhouses are surprisingly judgement free places. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that wearing a towel acts as a great equaliser. Education, income, social status all disappear and it’s just you and a towel.
In a world where there’s so much pressure to be perfect (and then document our perfect, happy, amazing lives in an Instagrammable way), experiencing no (or at least a lot less) judgement is a great quality gay bathhouses could be selling themselves on.
Do we even need gay bathhouses?
After reading this article, you may still be thinking – but why do all this to bring the bathhouse back? The answer is actually pretty simple – because we need them. Maybe not gay bathhouses specifically, but I believe we still need places that are just for us.
Even as we achieve more equality and the gay rights movement continues to advance, we still lack many of the same opportunities straight people have to just be ourselves.
Yes, the United States has marriage equality, but how many same sex couples do you see walking hand in hand on any given day? Compare that to all the straight couples you see in public. Legal equality and social equality are not one and the same.
In places like gay bathhouses, we can be our honest, authentic selves. In fact, we’re encouraged to be. Which is a great and incredibly rare thing. The sad reality seems to be we still live in a world that’s relatively hostile to us, both in overt and more subtle ways too. Any space that we can create for ourselves to be free needs to be encouraged.
We may find a lot of these spaces online these days (and that’s great), but real world spaces, connections and interactions are important too. Gay bathhouses can give us that. And that’s why I’m hoping the gay bathhouse will make a comeback.