Off the footpath, through the black-tinted doors, into the scent of chlorine and fresh towels and meeting eyes that hold yours a little longer than usual, blockages in the throat unlock as you enter the liberating space of a gay bathhouse.
Steamy hangouts become the backdrop for conversations free of expectations and hyper-casual sex. It is difficult to have a discussion about dismantling the shame around gay bathhouses considering they already begin from a pretty flawed angle. In an equal world, the conversation wouldn’t even be necessary and they would be as natural as the idea of having kids, owning a house before 30, and sex reveal parties.
This vantage point means that we can use the revival of gay saunas to find some fascinating insights – speckles of one’s own internalised homophobia, packed with the negative space of heteronormative expectations when discussing it with your queer peers. A conversation glued together by the inherent human need for intimacy and genuine connection.
For some context, bathhouses for gay men or lesbians were a cornerstone of culture in the 90s and 00s and were – still are – spaces for people to meet others like them in a safe environment for a drink, catch up or casual sex. Munich and Vienna host the oldest bathhouses reverberating the liberty of their governments having been amongst the first to legalise homosexuality.
But it’s the capital city’s Der Boiler that marks Germany as a monument on the gay sauna map, combining the country’s engineering brilliance with sexual liberation to create one of the world’s hottest and most innovative saunas.
Berlin’s Der Boiler somehow mixes a pool-sized spa, dry and wet sauna rooms, relaxation pods narrated by David Attenborough, a maze of 20 private cabins for free usage, combined with a complete kitchen, restaurant and outside terrace bar. Such seamless integration is designed to keep you there all weekend, and with the diversity of Berlin’s residents, you can see how spa-goers, past and present, jump at that chance.
This is one sauna that has stood strong despite the overwhelming rise of mobile communications that enabled hookup apps, causing a natural drop in the popularity of many bathhouses, replaced by host or travel convenience.
Gay dating and hookup apps have met a prolonged and almost audible need for many queer people around the world who struggle to meet casually in a physical queer space due to proximity or safety concerns. They’re equally loved in global cities, which is a reflection of the age of convenience and businesses catering to every simplification possible. Although ‘loved’ might be an ageing term, general discussions within the hookup app-sphere allude that ‘used’ is a more accurate word to describe many people’s relationship with such apps.
It seems like we’re over the hill of this bell curve, with many abandoning apps altogether post-Covid, favouring an analogue lifestyle around sex and relationships. It’s given a new rise to bathhouse popularity, with existing saunas reversing their trajectory towards collapse, not just surviving the pandemic lockdowns, but growing stronger through them.
During national lockdowns that forced businesses to shut, London’s Pleasuredrome managed to sport a multimillion-pound upgrade and refurbishment. It’s now a completely disabled-accessible venue and has added an enhanced ventilation system, a 20-person spa, and a cinema room – appropriate because, after the re-fit, it feels like you’re lurking through a sci-fi movie set on their premises. Its 24/7 operation has propelled it into its hot–spot status as London’s ultimate late-night meeting place for the queer and non-binary community.
Despite this new found freedom, safety concerns still linger from the 80s when queer communities worked hard to carve their spaces out of a less tolerant society. Even now you’ll be hard pressed to find an entrance that doesn’t ask you to navigate down a dodgy alley or decrypt that the missing sign above a modern door means you’re here.
Dearmoured of clothing and donning only a towel, authenticity and connection can shine – and it’s always impressive how many different forms of self-expression can be curated with the same piece of fabric. There’s a particular amount of ego that is shed in the vulnerability of being removed from our clothing choices. And unsurprisingly so, I’ve also had some of the most enriching conversations and met lifelong friends in this environment – we’ve all heard it before; vulnerability plus a conversation equals fast-tracked intimacy.
The baths allow people to see each other, outside of the restrictive otter, twink and bear groups and those on polar ends of our own demographic. And here in this space, we become the same demographic – all frequenting an environment that feels like our own.
We’re united by our presence in this borderless sauna. A group that is looking for something a little more connected, intimate conversations beyond an endless grid of faces, a short-lived but complete feeling of being in a world that’s built for us, and a way to just have a little fun on a Sunday afternoon. It offers an experience as indefinable as the people that inhabit it.
These shared desires are for a human need that overshadows the care for moulded corners of corridors where steam is mixed with low ventilation and the chance of contracting athlete’s foot.
Now, even in queer circles, talking about bathhouses and your ventures there will likely be met with a wink, chuckle and a grin of pity. Navigating when and with who I share my colourful sauna experiences is a game of reading between the lines, opting only for friends I trust or those that express a desire for further exploration of sex and queer culture. It lives on the outskirts, cast out of the gay mainstream because of a complex matrix of shame – around sex, around non-monogamy and around being someone who takes sex and intimacy to the extremes.
But what is queer culture if not on the extremes, born to stand out?
Protecting queer liberation is about letting us define our world, not out of heteronormative norms but adjacent to it. Bathhouses can’t be replicated for straight people because it relies on same-sex attraction to sustain the openness and freedom inside.
Women-centralised saunas similarly offer a place for queer females to relax and bond in a space free of questioning glances. But, like any good revival, there is work to be done to accommodate more of our peers – some non-binary people may feel at home in a gender-specific sauna, but others find it amplifies their gender dysphoria and strengthens a binary that doesn’t exist for them. While bathhouses work because of the safety in union they offer, this unity can also be built to encompass all queer people because we’re bonded in existing outside of heteronormativity and a shared understanding of what that feels like.
This is why it’s important to untangle shame around gay bathhouses and help those who want to experience them to do so. They’re unique and beautiful and liberating – a little world of our own where not even the smell of poppers threatens the feeling of safety.