When the late gay activist Rick Stokes founded the Steamworks bathhouse chain in Berkeley, California, in 1976, the world was a different place. Though gay saunas were given licences in many North American jurisdictions in the 1960s and ’70s, they were still at risk of community outrage and raids by the police. Men frequented them anyway—there was no internet and many of the other ways to pursue sexual encounters, like blind dates and park cruising, were even riskier.
At the industry’s peak in the 1970s, the United States had nearly 200 bathhouses, according to numbers from gay travel guide Damron. One former chain, Club Baths, operated an estimated 42 locations in the U.S. and Canada. By 1990, fewer than half of America’s bathhouses remained, at least partly because they were unfairly alleged to be hotbeds of unsafe sex during the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic. San Francisco, for example, closed its bathhouses down in 1984 because of fears about the spread of HIV/AIDS. But bathhouses remained an important part of gay male life in many metropolitan cities—Steamworks itself continued to open new locations right into the early 2000s.
In recent years, the decline of bathhouses in many countries has been for more innocuous reasons. Growing public acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality means fewer men have to meet discreetly, while the internet provides more opportunities for dating and hookups with social media and apps like Grindr. At the turn of the century, for example, Toronto had nine bathhouses catering to men who have sex with men. Now only two 24/7 permanent spaces remain—Steamworks and rival Spa Excess—plus one that operates during more limited hours.
In order to survive, bathhouses have to navigate not only the public health issues of our own era, but changing preferences in how gay and bisexual men hook up, as well as evolving expectations of service-industry workers.
A battle between two separate companies, one dominated by the estate of Stokes, who passed away in May 2022, the other dominated by Stokes’s former partner in business and former lover, Ross Moore, has been taking place against this backdrop. A series of complaints filed in the Superior Court of California since 2018 has pitted two companies against each other for control of Steamworks’ five-sauna empire, prompting accusations of misconduct, invasion of privacy and sabotage.
(You can read about the legal dispute here in our companion story.)
As a generation that built trailblazing gay-owned and gay-focused businesses walks off into the sunset, perhaps taking their history and their grudges with them, their heirs have to look for new ways to keep bathhouses profitable.
Bathhouses took a beating during COVID-19 lockdowns
Echoing what was happening in jurisdictions around the world, the province of Ontario’s COVID-19 health measures forced Toronto bathhouses to completely shut down in the spring of 2020. The closures lasted 16 months, beyond when straight swinger clubs were allowed to reopen. Government rent and wage subsidies kept Steamworks Toronto and its rivals alive, but at times the shutdown felt like an existential threat to the management.
“It was rough for everyone,” says Joe Wilkins, general manager of Steamworks Toronto. He started working at the club in December 2018 and was promoted to GM in 2022. He says he was not privy to any details about the legal disputes between the owners of the Steamworks chain, but says management changes following Stokes’s death “led to an internal upheaval that restructured how the clubs are run.”
Mpox scared the community
Even after COVID-19 health measures ended, allowing bathhouses to reopen in July 2021, the pandemic had made many people still leery of casual contact. “There’s still the after-effect of people still not willing to come out to a bathhouse because they’ve been told to avoid touching and close encounters for two or three years now,” says Wilkins.
Then, less than a year after the reopening, mpox hit LGBTQ2S+ communities around the world, putting bathhouses under further scrutiny by public health officials and giving potential customers more reasons to stay away. The painful virus can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, including sexual contact. Last June, when a vaccine started rolling out to at-risk groups in Ontario, particularly sexually active gay and bisexual men, Steamworks Toronto proactively contacted health authorities and turned the club into a makeshift vaccination clinic.
“We were literally the first business and the first industry to have these vaccines available,” Wilkins says.
Bathhouse workers want better working conditions
The post-COVID reopening in the summer of 2021 seemed to have triggered another issue for Steamworks to wrestle with. Amidst complaints about their treatment by bosses and working conditions at the location, and accusations that management wanted to disregard COVID-19 capacity regulations, Steamworks Toronto’s 23 employees unionized, sparking a change in management, with Wilkins taking the wheel. “Our GM was terminated roughly a month after we won, and the remaining managers keep promising that we’ve entered a new chapter with a new team,” states an essay written by an unnamed staff member last April. (A union representative said he did not want to comment for this story, saying the union is currently renegotiating its contract.)
It’s not just the workers who have higher expectations. The customers have, too. When it opened in 2004, the Toronto location impressed customers and even straight people with its trendy design. In an effort to revive this acclaim, Wilkins says the club has brought back the original project manager for the interior design, Brian T. Short, who is now the CEO of Steamworks Toronto, to rethink plumbing, lighting and other design elements. The business is also redoubling efforts to be active in the local LGBTQ2S+ community through partnerships and events.
Since Stokes’s death in May 2022, the Short- and Moore-led Toronto and Seattle Steamworks locations have changed their marketing strategy to make the experience seem more friendly, less sexually charged. Online images of nude men in suggestive or obviously sexual poses have been replaced by innocuous shots of the front doors and fully clothed guys at check-in. The less in-your-face strategy is intended to broaden Steamworks’ potential clientele through social media marketing—and perhaps bypass the censorship and shadow banning of social media platforms.
“We went for something that has content that’s suitable for all ages, or as close to that as we can. That allows us to link to Facebook, Google, Instagram, TikTok, all the major platforms that businesses nowadays have,” Wilkins says. “It also allows us to run paid ad accounts, which is something that we weren’t able to do in the past [with more sexual imagery]. So we’re able to branch out a bit more, advertise a bit more.” (The website for the Berkeley, Seattle and Chicago locations, which are not controlled by Short and Moore, still has risqué imagery.)
Entertainment and socializing as well as sex
In the 1970s, some bathhouses offered mainstream entertainment amidst all the hooking up—Bette Midler famously performed at New York’s Continental Baths. While scheduled entertainment and events never went away completely, they are again becoming more fashionable at the baths. Steamworks Toronto’s main rival, Spa Excess, has from the outset a bar, food service area, slot machines and a toy shop. But the business has recently been partnering more with promoters, DJs and social organizations to use their networks to draw in more customers. Spa Excess general manager Roger Stoddard says many regulars use the space for socializing as much as they do for sex. His club recently upgraded its sound system and light show, and has found huge success with a new monthly event called Rough House—described as “basically a fetish night on steroids”—and a DJ night with go-go boys and drag performers.
At Steamworks Berkeley, Newell says the club has introduced a hip-hop night, a Latin night and a trans night to reflect changing clientele.
Yet, even while trying to keep up with the times, Short maintains that there are basics that bathhouses need to get right.
“I think they don’t need to jump on a bunch of trends, for one thing. I think they need to maintain a steady, consistent core that the community can rely on,” he says. “They don’t need to try and be everything to everybody, they just need to be what they’ve always been—which is a calm, comfortable place for people to hang out, connect and relax, and where there are comfortable, clean and well-maintained facilities.”
There’s a good argument that bathhouses are still a necessary public service. In pricey cities like Toronto—which has a median house price of $1.2 million, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association, and the average rent at more than $1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment—Wilkins says many men can’t afford a safe, private space for sex. That makes bathhouses a crucial component of healthy LGBTQ2S+ communities.
“Sure, people can use Grindr, they can go to someone’s house. But you still have a culture, especially in Toronto, with the housing as it is, where you have three roommates, so you can’t really count on someone’s ability to host, especially downtown,” Wilkins says. “So somewhere like Steamworks or Spa Excess is kind of like a haven. And it always has been.”
Once the trailblazing generation takes its final step back, it will be up to younger entrepreneurs themselves to determine what bathhouses will look like and what role they will play in queer culture.