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USA ╗ New York ╗ Manhattan

Also see New York and Fire Island

Bathhouse History in New York City

In the 1980's, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the majority of bathhouses in New York City were forced to close by the health department. The owner of the St. Marks Baths had tried for a number of years to reopen his bathhouse by arguing that the closure constituted an invasion of the patrons' right to privacy and freedom of association. The courts, however, questioned whether the patrons' constitutional rights were truly infringed by the closure, observing that sexual activity in a commercial establishment was not "protected." The city prevailed and bathhouses were not allowed to reopen.

From the mid-1980's to the mid-1990's over half of the bathhouses in the United States were closed. Ironically, it was only in the very liberal gay Meccas of San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles were the closures were mandatory. Everywhere else, bathhouses closed due to market forces.

Slowly, bathhouses are beginning to make a comeback, but not in Manhattan or San Francisco. The main reason is more than likely economic: bathhouses take up a lot of square footage and the price of real estate in these two cities is some of the most expensive in the world. Also, cities have become more savvy about how municipal codes are written [the codes that govern how business can be conducted] and they are placing more and more hoops and hurdles in front of anyone attempting to establish a "sexual encounter business."

Legendary Baths of New York #1
Legendary Baths of New York #2
The Continental Baths & Mt. Morris Baths
Bathhouse Addict: The Continental Baths

Also see the New York Times and Gay City News articles at the bottom of this page.

The Sex Scene in New York

The sex scene in New York can be  broken down into the following categories:

  • The two Manhattan bathhouses

  • Adult bookstores with peep-shows & video cabins

  • "Private parties" & sex clubs

  • Gay bars with cruising and "backrooms"

New York Bathhouses

Currently, Manhattan has only two bathhouses: The East Side Club and the West Side Club. They are rather small as big-city bathhouses go but they are big enough to get the job done. They may be owned by the same company but the "membership" you have to buy [$15.00 on top of the cost of a room or locker] is not transferable from one club to the other.

In terms of which club is "better" than the other there is no clear winner. They are both about the same size.

The advantages of the East Side Club is it has a small sauna and steam room; the West Side Club has neither. The East Side Club is on 3 floors; the West Side Club has only 1 floor [2 floors only on weekends]. The East Side Club has 2 shower rooms; the West Side Club only one.

The big advantage the West Side Club has over the East Side Club is that the private rooms are laid out in a very simple grid pattern that makes it very easy to cruise all of the rooms and not "miss" anything. The East Side Club rooms are laid out in a very complicated maze of blind alleys and dead-ends that makes cruising the rooms difficult. If all you want is to rent a room and have the guys come to you then the West Side Club should be your choice because if you go to the East Side Club then you may get stuck in one of those dead-end rooms that would require you to cruise the hallways and lure Mr. Right back to your room.

If you want to be guaranteed of having a place to do it if you find Mr. Right then YOU MUST RENT A ROOM. Because of the strict business codes in New York City it is unlawful to have sex "in public" and these two bathhouses do not have anyplace [other than the private rooms] for two guys to get it on. That is, no adult theaters, no orgy rooms and no hidden nooks and crannies. While your webmaster [Towel Boy] was at the East Side Club they even had a fully clothed "guard" cruising the place to be sure no one did anything in the steam room or hallways. It was very clear that sex "in public" was not tolerated.

The only place in the East Side Club where two guys could possibly do it is in three small "telephone booth" size rooms or in one of the two fully enclosed bathrooms [I am sure they try to discourage guys from doing this]. The West Side Club did not even have these token areas. There is no place in the West Side Club [other than the private rooms] to do it. So if you get cheap and only get a locker and then meet Mr. Right and he only has a locker then you will be hard pressed to find a place to do it.

In terms of the "type" of clientele the West Side Club is more likely to have the "8th Ave. Boys" [pretty with attitude] while the East Side Club is more likely to have the "Business Suits."

At both clubs, once you pay your fee and enter the security door you have to wait at the check-in window to be escorted by an attendant to your locker or private room. This service is especially useful at the East Side Club where a tourist could be lost for days searching for his room.

Upper East Side
East Side Club
227 East 56th Street 6th Floor
Midtown Between 2nd & 3rd Ave.
212 753 2222 or 212 888 1884
24 Hours. Lockers 53 Rooms 70

East 56th Street is the same street that Trump Tower [at 5th Ave.] is on. Once you reach the address of 227 [between 2nd & 3rd Ave.] there are 3 different doorways that have the "227" address number. You want to go into the one that simply has the elevator in it. There is a small "waiting" room and elevator doors -- that's it. On the elevator button-menu you will see "6th Floor: East Side Club." Don't be shy. Although it doesn't look very inviting, once you step off of the elevator it is a typical bathhouse setup. First time: $15 membership plus $15 locker = $30 entry fee [more if you want a room]. Prices higher on weekends.

  • Small steam room & dry sauna
  • Two 4--man shower rooms
  • Very small locker room
  • 3 floors
  • Small "break" room with couch & TV
  • 3 "telephone booth" free rooms
  • Private rooms laid out in a very confusing rat--maze of dead--ends
West Side Club
27 West 20th Street, 2nd Floor
Between 5th & 6th Avenues
212 691 2700
Located at the corner of 20th Street and 6th Ave. right behind an old abandoned [and quite spooky] church. When you reach "27" there will be several doorways with the address "27." You want to go in the one that has the "white marble" entryway. If you look at the back wall you will see a big sign that says "West Side Club: 2nd Floor." Don't use the elevator. Just walk up the stairs and go in the door at the top. Once you open the door you will be in familiar bathhouse territory. First time: $15 membership plus $15 locker = $30 entry fee [more if you want a room]. Prices higher on weekends.
West Side Club uses one floor during the week, but opens another floor, which is downstairs, during weekends or other peak periods.  During the non-peak periods, the stairways leading to this other floor is roped off.
  • No steam room or sauna
  • Large locker room
  • One 4--man group shower
  • Excellent music system
  • Good number of rooms laid out in a very simple grid pattern [ideal for cruising]
East Village
Russian & Turkish Baths
268 East 10th St [Between 1st Ave. & Ave. "A"]
New York, NY
This is an "old style" bathhouse. It is co-ed [men & women together]. Shorts must be worn at all times when it is co-ed. But it is "men only" Sundays from 7:30am - 2:00pm. This is not the place for sexual activity, but provides an interesting steam/sauna experience.

Adult bookstores with peep-shows:

There are adult bookstores every two blocks or so in Manhattan. Many have rooms full of video cabins that play adult movies. Some bookstores have "male rooms" that are just for gay guys and show only gay porn and may have glory holes or "buddy-booths." A buddy-booth may be big enough for two people or may have a glass partition where two guys can see each other in neighboring booths. Some have guards posted to see that only one guy enters each cabin or to be sure there is no hanky-panky in the hallways. Some have a "cover charge" of $10.00 or so to enter the "male room" and may be more tolerant of hanky-panky. In short, each place is different and you may need to experiment to find the right one for you. The bookstores listed below are only a small sample. A listing of adult bookstores can also be found in the classifieds of HX Magazine.

Les Hommes
217--B West 80th Street 2nd Floor
Between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Video Booth Heaven
277C West 22nd Street
Chelsea hot spot with video cabins
Exquisite Video
East 14th Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues
Glory holes and "buddy booths"
DVD Explosion
Corner of 31st & 8th Streets
Glory holes and video booths
Blue Door Video
87 First Ave. Between 5th & 6th Streets
Open 7/24 gay movie theater
Big screen TV's & private booths
Vishara Video
797 8th Avenue Between 48 & 49th Streets
Buddy booths and glory holes
$10 admission to "private men's club"
Vihan's DVD Palace
592 8th Ave. between 38 & 39th Streets
$10 admission to "private men's club"

Private Parties & Sex Clubs

New York has dozens of organized "private parties" or "private clubs" that cater to every conceivable fetish. Bears, feet, piss, interracial, hung, bodybuilders, leather: you name it. A complete listing of these clubs can be found in HX Magazine which is given away free at bars and other gay hangouts. It is also distributed in sidewalk newspaper boxes. You must usually call a phone number or email someone to find out the location of the party. These parties are also likely to have admission restrictions such as "black men only," "hung men only," or "in-shape guys only." In the back of the magazine look in the classifieds under "private clubs."

HX Magazine [website does not list the clubs]

This is a partial list of the "private parties" listed in HX Magazine [those with websites].
New York Jacks
All Male Party
Bear Hunt NYC
Poz 4 Poz [HIV]
Foot Friends
Golden Boys [piss]
Grab Ass
Hot Nude Yoga
Jacks of Color
NY Bondage Club
Society of Spankers
Stalone NYC
Touch [Massage party]
Trouble Party
Gay Male S&M Activist
332 Bleecker Street
212 727 9878
Leather fetish group
El Mirage [Sex Club]
253 East Houston
This facility was CLOSED by the NYC health department.
Serena Bar & Lounge
222 West 23rd Street
Under the Chelsea Hotel
Massage parties Monday & Tuesdays
Tables open to everyone

Gay Bars & Cruising

The sheer number and diversity of gay bars in Manhattan is too much to list here. The place to find the bar to suit you is Next Magazine [free]. It has a complete listing of all the bars and breaks them down neighborhood by neighborhood. It describes the clientele of each bar as well as the events on each night of the week. The map in the staple-fold of the magazine is handy for locating the bar of your choice and the number "8" after the bar's name indicates "late night cruising."
Next Magazine [website does not list bars]

A good place to start your adventures might be the intersection of 2nd Ave. & 2nd Street where there are 3 cruise bars within a short distance of each other.
The Urge
33 Second Ave. [at 2nd Street]
The Cock
29 Second Ave.
The Boiler Room
86 East 4th Street [at 2nd Ave.]
Chelsea [Bed & Breakfast]
Colonial House Inn
318 West 22nd Street
20 Room B&B with clothing optional sundeck in Chelsea
Greenwich & Chelsea [Hotel]
Chelsea Pines Inn
317 West 14th Street between 8th & 9th Ave.
Charming 22 room inn located between Chelsea and Greenwich Village. All gay.
  • Forest Park [The footpath parallel to Park Lane South beginning at Metropolitan Avenue, best at night]
  • Roosevelt Avenue [Woodside, between 69th & 79th Streets]
  • The Ramble [In Central Park]
Museum of Sex
233 Fifth Ave at 27th Street
Forget the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan. What you want is The Museum of Sex!
The "museum" is comprised of three rooms: the ground floor displays various kink/fetishes such as foot worship, baby regression and leather boots. The top floor has a room chronicling the history of blue movies [this is the most popular room]. The third room shows various art photos and an abundance of mechanical dildo devices many of which look more like instruments of torture.
I would not call this a "serious" museum. It has a kind of "Ripley's Believe it or Not" quality to it. It is almost all heterosexual with only token gay exhibits [despite the advertising which would lead you to believe otherwise].
The gift shops at some museums [like the Morgan and the Whitney] are often more interesting than the museums themselves. But even the gift shop here is a big disappointment with very little to interest gay men.

For general gay tourist information:

New York Q News .com

The news articles below chronicle the problems gay bathhouses have had in New York City

Four New York Bathhouses Still Operate Under City's Program of Inspections [Article from the New York Times]

Published: May 3, 1987

LEAD: More than a year after New York City closed several homosexual bathhouses because of ''unsafe'' sexual practices that it said occurred in them, four others remain open, and health officials say they have found no violations to warrant their closing.

More than a year after New York City closed several homosexual bathhouses because of ''unsafe'' sexual practices that it said occurred in them, four others remain open, and health officials say they have found no violations to warrant their closing.

At the same time, however, the officials acknowledge that despite regular inspections, they do not know whether men are practicing safe sex in the privacy of the small rooms of the bathhouses.

In late 1985, health officials said they feared that the baths might increase the spread of AIDS because unsafe sex occurred in them. In December 1985, after provisions were added to the Health Code that defined anal or oral sex as ''high risk'' sexual activities, health officials closed the New St. Marks bathhouse. In April last year , the Everard Spa, another bathhouse in Manhattan, was closed.

The closing of the New St. Marks baths followed the November closing of the Mineshaft, a bar and club patronized by homosexuals. In January 1985, Plato's Retreat, a club catering to heterosexuals, was closed. ["Plato's Retreat" is the former "Continental Baths."]

"Demonstrated Our Concern"

The baths were closed, according to officials, because of unsafe sex that occurred in such public areas as showers, saunas and lounges. Now, the officials said, the public areas of the baths are inspected, but the private rooms are not.

''We've demonstrated our concern,'' the State Health Commissioner, Dr. David Axelrod, said. His department made unsafe sex a public-health issue.

''We cannot stop someone,'' Dr. Axelrod added. ''Nor do we believe it is the responsibility of government to enter into someone's home. And we view the doors of the private rooms the same way."

''There could be unsafe sex behind the closed doors, but our investigations do not deal with that,'' said Doron L. Gopstein, the city's first assistant corporation counsel, whose office enforces the city's health regulations.

Confidence About Practices

Dr. Axelrod said even though officials did not know what occurred behind the closed doors, he was confident most sex in the bathhouses was now safe.

''Today, many of the baths openly encourage safe-sex practices,'' he said. ''And based on our observations, dangerous sexual activities are no longer being encouraged and, in fact, are not occurring. We believe the remaining bathhouses have acted very responsibly.

''If we felt we could have a major additional impact by the removal of the doors in private rooms, then I think we would do so. But now, we feel we have demonstrated the extent to which public health should go.''

The owners of bathhouses and customers also expressed confidence that the majority of the men at the bathhouses were practicing safe sex.

Lined Up to Pay

The new efforts to discourage unsafe sex, combined with a growing concern about acquired immune deficiency syndrome, have created a far more cautious atmosphere and behavior in the bathhouses than just a few years ago, according to patrons.

And the popularity of the baths is still quite evident.

On a recent Tuesday evening - new membership night - at the East Side Sauna Inc., the most popular and largest bath, at 227 East 56th Street, a line of 20 men waited to pay $10 for a one-year membership, plus $8 for a locker or $10 for a private room that night.

''Several years ago, right after the initial AIDS scare, there was a very big drop in our business,'' the general manager of the club, James Schwartz, said. ''But now it has gone up 20 to 25 percent since last year.''

The other bathhouses are the Wall Street Club, at 1 Maiden Lane; the Northern Men's Sauna, at 33-65 Farrington Street in Flushing, Queens, and the Mount Morris Baths, at 1944 Madison Avenue, near 132d Street in East Harlem, health officials said.

Distribution of Condoms

The baths display large signs forbidding unsafe sex and warning about the dangers of transmitting AIDS through an exchange of body fluids. Some bathhouses, including the Wall Street and East Side Saunas, distribute a printed set of guidelines from the Gay Men's Health Crisis.

The baths also hand out condoms, often in packages that read: ''The contents of this envelope could save your life. Practice safe sex.''

On the recent evening at the East Side Sauna, men were ''cruising'' for partners, as they always have, passing one another silently in the narrow dim halls. After finding a partner, the men often returned to one of the 75 private rooms.

No sexual activity was evident in the halls or such other public places as the sauna, steam room or lounges.

"Lifeguard" on T-Shirts

Although there was once an ''orgy room'' at the sauna, Mr. Schwartz said now there was no group sex.

''It doesn't have to be unsafe when it happens,'' he said. ''But it usually ends up that way - unsafe.''

To enforce the rules, athletically built young men wearing T-shirts that say ''Lifeguard'' walk through the center ''policing the halls,'' in the words of Mr. Schwartz. When the staff finds people breaking the rules, he said, the violators' memberships are revoked. He said that usually occurred several times a week.

The cautious atmosphere and behavior are not problems for most of the patrons, many of the customers said.

''I think it's more enjoyable,'' said Tom, a 28-year-old broker from Manhattan who asked that his last name not be printed. ''Innocence is beginning to take hold again.''

Workshop and Film

Bill, 40, a psychotherapist who asked to remain anonymous, has not been to the baths as a customer in three years. But he recently led a workshop at the East Side Sauna for the Gay Men's Health Crisis.

''There's a very different atmosphere at the baths now,'' he said. ''I felt it was restrained.''

In the middle of the evening, an announcement was made over a loudspeaker advertising a workshop by the health organization and a film on safe sex.

''Most questions center around transmission of the virus,'' the coordinator of AIDS prevention at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, Raymond M. Jacobs, said. ''The film shows how to negotiate safe sex with a partner and how to make safer sex sexually satisfying.''

The film was shown in a small video lounge where pornographic films are shown the rest of the time - films that explicitly show men engaging in anything but safe sex.

Some homosexual leaders said the bathhouses provided an important center for AIDS education and could, in fact, help stem the spread of disease.

''Men who have sex with other men, but who do not call themselves gay,'' Mr. Jacobs said, ''or men who are in the closet or who are very private about their sexual expression, these men tend to frequent bathhouses. But they don't go to gay forums, or buy gay papers, or go to other gay establishments where they might get AIDS-prevention information that could save their lives.''

Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns
[Article from the New York Times]
Published: October 14, 1985

Attendance has declined at the 10 homosexual bathhouses in New York since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, according to the city's Department of Health. But some of the owners report that business remains profitable despite mounting public pressure that the baths be closed.

''I've gone through my own particular moral crisis with this,'' said Bruce Mailman, a homosexual and a Lower East Side real-estate entrepreneur who owns the St. Marks Baths, as well as the Saint, a homosexual discotheque. ''Am I profiting from other people's misery? I don't think so. I think I'm running an establishment that handles itself as well as it can under the circumstances.''

Mr. Mailman reports a 50 percent decline in attendance since 1982, while Jim Schwartz, who describes himself as a minority stockholder at the East Side Sauna, one of the city's smaller bathhouses, said business had declined 25 percent, from nearly 2,000 customers a week to about 1,500.

Neither of the owners was willing to describe his profits in detail but both said that if they were not making money they would close their doors, as five other local bathhouses have done in recent years.

Forums for Education

With nearly 14,000 cases of AIDS reported nationwide, 6,700 in New York, homosexual men are increasingly calling for the closing of the baths, and many are criticizing homosexuals who profit from their operation.

Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Koch are reconsidering their positions that such places, licensed by the city's Health Department, are useful forums for educating homosexuals about the sexual practices that spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which is usually fatal.

''Because the circumstances have changed, because political opinion makes us bad guys, that doesn't mean I'm doing something morally incorrect,'' said Mr. Mailman. ''In my own terms, my behavior is correct and I'll do what I believe as long as I can do it.''

At the St. Marks Baths, for the price of a locker or a room, patrons now get a free condom, enclosed in a package that bears the legend ''the contents of this envelope could save your life.''

Complies With Guidelines

To Mr. Mailman, this is evidence that he runs a ''beautifully maintained facility'' that the city or state should inspect like a restaurant and only close for specific violations.

''I'm tired of the seamy notion of this,'' he said during a recent tour of portions of the St. Marks Baths, at 6 St. Marks Place, off Third Avenue in Greenwich Village. ''It's quite beautiful, expensive and well done.''

According to dozens of men familiar with bathhouses around the city, only the St. Marks and the East Side Sauna, at 227 East 56th Street, between Third and Second Avenues, are currently in compliance with guidelines drafted by a homosexual group called the Coalition for Sexual Responsibility that were recommended to Governor Cuomo by his AIDS Advisory Council as an alternative to closing the bathhouses. Both baths are owned by homosexuals, which is apparently the exception rather than the rule in a business where owners rarely make their identities known.

Michael Callen, a member of the advisory council and a bathhouse patron until he contracted AIDS, gives credit grudgingly to the bathhouses that comply with the guidelines. The guidelines include the distribution of free condoms and so-called safe-sex literature, the use of high levels of chlorine in swimming pools and the availability of lubricants and soap in individual packages or pump-top dispensers.

''They did it with a gun to their heads,'' Mr. Callen said. ''They didn't do it for the clients.''

A Safe-Sex Pledge

Mr. Mailman and Mr. Schwartz said in separate interviews that they might band together with other owners in legal action should the baths be ordered closed, but would not protest the closing of establishments that failed to abide by the guidelines. ''I'm not going to defend their right to be sloppy,'' Mr. Mailman said.

At the St. Marks Baths, patrons also are expected to sign a pledge that they understand and will abide by the safe-sex guidelines, which are largely designed to eliminate the exchange of body fluids during anal intercourse or oral sex, two practices linked to the transmission of AIDS. Patrons and owners say that the vast majority of men are now practicing safe sex, but acknowledge that it is impossible to know for sure what goes on behind the closed doors of the private rooms.

In different ways, both Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Mailman argue that bathhouses are a necessary element of the homosexual lifestyle.

El Mirage Closed [Sex Club]
By: DUNCAN OSBORNE [Article from Gay City News]

Citing violations of a state health code that bars oral, anal, and vaginal sex in businesses, the city on November 15 closed El Mirage, a sex club that has operated at 253 East Houston since 1999.

While the city charged that patrons never used condoms during oral sex, a condom was used in nearly 80 percent of the anal sex encounters and the club's attorney is asking why El Mirage was closed.

"You would think that the city would want to encourage that," said Paul O'Dwyer, the club's lawyer. "You have to question the city's motivation in doing this. This is not the police department going in and closing this place, this is the city department of health. It doesn't reflect well on the health department that they acknowledge that most of the time people were using protection and yet they still insisted on closing them down."

The 35 inspections of the club began in March of this year and the last one occurred in October. A city health department inspector, who operated undercover and was identified only with a badge number in court records, found 228 code violations. Oral sex acts accounted for 190 violations and anal sex acts accounted for 38.

In court records seeking the club's closure, the city reported that condoms were used during 12 of the 38 anal sex acts and never during oral sex. The inspector reported that condoms were not used during six anal sex acts and gave no indication on condom use for the remaining 20 anal sex acts.
In an e-mail, Gay City News asked the health department why it was not specified whether condoms were used for those acts and the department reported that they were used during 18 of those 20, bringing the total anal sex acts with a condom to 30.

"The 18 observations... were with condoms," a department spokesperson wrote. "This information was in inspector's personal notes, but inadvertently wasn't transferred to the inspection report."

The state health code, which was created in 1985 and is enforced by local health departments, bars oral, anal, and vaginal sex, with or without condoms, in commercial establishments. Its intent is to prevent high risk sex in public venues and to give government the means to close places where such sex is occurring.

"Just to be clear, the state sanitary code prohibits sex acts in commercial establishments whether condoms are being used or not so the outcome of their closure would not change based on this," the spokesperson wrote.

AIDS groups have long complained that the code does not distinguish between safe and unsafe sex or between behaviors, such as oral sex, that are viewed as having a lower risk for HIV transmission and others, such as condomless anal and vaginal sex, that are considered high risk.

"The problem is that we have this law," O'Dwyer said. "There is no way around it. The city uses it, frankly, in a manner which is not consistent with the public health."
The club owner, Joel Czarlinsky, is a member of a task force of sex club and bathhouse operators organized by the city health department, O'Dwyer said.

"My clients have consistently worked with the New York City and New York State departments of health and they have had safe sex and other community outreach workers present in order to minimize any type of harm and promote safe sex practices and awareness and education among the people who go there," O'Dwyer said.

The city's law department, which handled the case, was aggressive in its court filings. The owners were "conducting and/or permitting acts dangerous to human life or detrimental to health, such as making its facilities available for the purpose of sexual activities where anal intercourse and fellatio take place."

In seeking a restraining order, the city asked that it be allowed to take several actions "including the use of reasonable force" to close the club and seize its property. O'Dwyer said the city did not take possession of the club membership list.

The city sent a letter to El Mirage on June 5 warning the club to fix the violations, but they continued, the city charged.

"El Mirage exists primarily, if not exclusively, to facilitate and profit from anonymous sexual activity, much of it high risk," the city asserted in court records. That the violations continued "serves as stark proof that the defendants are not capable of monitoring this club."

ęGayCityNews 2007


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