Bathhouses And Beyond: A Brief History Of Gay Cruising

Gay men are nothing if not determined. Especially when it comes to getting laid. From bathhouses to public parks to wash rooms to Grindr, we’ve always managed to find creative ways to hookup.

Cruising has been a popular pastime for generations of gay men. The all-knowing Wikipedia defines it as “walking or driving about a locality in search of a sex partner, usually of the anonymous, casual, one-time variety.” Some define it as “just another Saturday night.”

Scroll down for a brief history of methods used by gay men to meet one another, and how those methods have evolved over the years.



Bathhouses became a popular hangout for gay men in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when homosexual acts were still illegal. They provided a discreet place for guys to enjoy the company of one another, although there was always the threat of a police raid.

On February 21, 1903, NYPD conducted the first recorded raid on a gay bathhouse in the basement of the Ariston Hotel at the corner Broadway and 55th Street in New York City. 26 men were arrested and 12 brought to trial on sodomy charges.

Despite the threat of raids, by the 1950s, gay bathhouses were popping up all across the country, and by the late 1960s and early 1970s, many had become staple institutions within the gay community.

After the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, the use of bathhouses sharply declined. In 1985, the New York City Health Department ordered that all of the city’s gay bathhouses be closed. Today, there are still a handful in existence, though they no longer draw the large crowds they once did.



It’s no surprise the modern gay rights movement was born in a gay bar. For decades, gay men have used bars and clubs as their primary places for coming together. The venues provided an atmosphere where they were free to express themselves and their sexualities without consequence.

Bars that catered to gay clientele rose up around the same time gay bathhouses did — 0ne of New York’s first gay-friendly bars was Slide, which first opened its doors in 1890 — but they didn’t flourish until after prohibition, and even then, they were often nondescript places that relied on word of mouth promotion.

The gay bar scene really took off after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when gay men and women refused to keep living in the shadows of society. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s gay watering holes were the premier places to find your Mr. Right Now. (And hear the latest Donna Summer or Madonna song.)

Today, the practice of going to the club to handpick a hookup continues, though it’s not quite as popular as it was 10 or 20 years ago thanks, in part, to a little thing we call the World Wide Web.


Chat rooms

The technological developments of the 1990’s revolutionized how gay men met each other. The internet — more specifically, chat rooms — provided an opportunity for them to connect without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes (or the privacy of their teenaged bedrooms).

Scanners and USB cords made uploading pictures possible. (Though dial-up internet made downloading them a chore.) And instant messaging meant you didn’t have to give out your actual phone number. Then, of course, there was the advent of cybersex — the safest kind of sex there is — which allowed a guy to be as filthy as he wanted without ever getting underdressed and whilst hiding behind the anonymity of a cleverly-crafted screen name.



For men seeking more than cybersex, or who simply didn’t want to spent their Saturday night twiddling their thumbs in an online chat room, there was Craigslist. The free classifieds website launched in 1996 and quickly became an online destination for gay men to arrange hookups via email. The personals section continues to allow for postings that are for “strictly platonic,” “dating/romance,” and “casual encounters,” though everyone knows these are just code words for the same thing: sex.




And then there were apps.

Hookup apps like Grindr and SCRUFF are the modern day equivalent to the online chat rooms of the 1990s, only they are far more sophisticated, not to mention immediate. They allow users to pinpoint potential paramours by exact location. Gone are the days of waiting around for an hour for the guy you’ve been chatting with to drive over to your apartment. Now you can narrow down your search to gentlemen within a 50-foot radius of you, which is not only immediately gratifying, but also a major time saver.


BONUS: Gay cruises

Gay cruises take cruising to a whole new (and literal) level. There’s no shortage of luxury cruise lines that cater to the gay crowd, offering seafaring adventures all over the world. And, honestly, we’re not surprised. Hundreds of men who are sexually attracted to other men. In swimsuits. Stuck on a boat. Whoever came up with that idea is a genius.

Related stories:

Nude Pic Etiquette: Five Tasteful Tips To Photographing Your Junk

The Queerty Guide To Hooking Up Online

Midsummer Night Flings: Six Tips To Taking Up A Gay Lover This August

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  • Tackle

    I’m surprised that the mens shower, sauna, and steam rooms at gyms were left out.

  • lykeitiz

    Once again, bathhouses being dismissed as past their prime. Let’s see….men in towels, private rooms, ID required (psycho-prevention), plus you’re seeing the real thing, not some 10-year old (or completely fake) profile pic, …. and no risk of arrest. But the best part…if the trick doesn’t work out, there are plenty more in the hallway.

    I think we need to re-think this….

  • QJ201

    Completely missing subsection on websites, oh the irony.

  • MarionPaige

    Adult Movie Theaters were also essentially gay sex hookup places (gay and straight theaters). Some of the gay adult theaters doubled as strip clubs.

    No doubt back in ancient times, the GYM was an all male place for all things physical.

  • o.codone

    Outside cruising has always been my favorite. Back in the day Riverside Park (NYC) just below 96th street was filled with gay guys every evening. Every type of guy, some semi-dangerous, of many colors, each wanting something different. I had uncountable hook-ups there and remember many of them exactly as they went down. Hot, hot, hot. Those were the days. The scene is gone now, with the advent of AIDS. Sadly the street hustlers are gone too. I loved that sleazy sub-culture. I’ve done all of the methods discussed in the article as well, but there’s nothing like standing on a street corner, lighting up a smoke, chatting up a boy.

  • tazz602

    Who wrote this? Some 20-something who has no clue about the real history of gay cruising? There is so much left out of this that it doesn’t even deserve to occupy space much less that title. T-Rooms, parks, cruisy alleys near known gay bars and bathhouses, adult bookstores, glory holes that could be anywhere from Macy’s to K-Mart, just to name a few. Next time try talking to some of the older men sitting in the bar in the afternoon, THEY have the stories!!

  • vive

    @lykeitiz, also, in a bathhouse you can usually hook up with someone hot in a half hour or less, instead of having to spend all day on Grindr trying to plan something with the 90% of flakes on there, bathhouses are safer than letting people into your house or going to a stranger’s house, no need to launder your sheets after, impromptu threesomes or groups are easy to stumble into, you can hook up with several guys in one evening, opportunities for participation and voyeurism are legion, there are gloryhole areas and slings for those who are into that kind of thing, etc., etc.

    And finally, in cities where they still have nice bathhouses (e.g., Toronto), you can meet some really nice handsome and normal guys in bathhouses, for friendship and dating, much more easily than in bars.

  • wpewen

    There is a comic element to this discussion also, now days, a weird one.
    In 1970’s lots of guys went to the baths, but didn’t always go back. If you wanted to really get into it, there were/are sex clubs, and all the other shit (now Grnder, Gorger, etc.) There were always ethical questions looming in the background (besides the very real health stuff even BEFORE AIDS).
    A big one I remember from late 70’s California was WHY ARE WE DOING THIS? The whole notion of sex as fast food. I myself was kinda a little ruffian, not uptight, careful about disease. But glad I had my older “counterculture” friends looking with some astonishment at the absolute consumerism of where gay culture sexually was headed. I think even if I was younger I’d be put off by Grinder. Sure, you can have THAT. Seems a problem with what I’m observing with some younger gay men.
    They seem like the ultimate consumers.

  • crowebobby

    And the oldest gay cruising area on earth: the Colosseum in Rome at night.

  • TVC 15

    @lykeitiz:@vive: Thank you! It’s true. Hooray for practicality.

  • vive

    @wpewen, I was wondering, what is the difference between a bathhouse and a sex club? Aren’t they basically the same thing?

  • Stache99

    @vive: Sex clubs you just wear your clothes vs bathhouses and just wearing a towel.

  • wpewen

    vive:In reply, bathhouses generally have all kind of water stuff-jacuzzis, steam rooms, sauna, showers. Private rooms, towels mandatory to cover up, some ammenities like weight, ets.

    Sex clubs built to resemble a warehouse-no bare feet, street clothes, kink, feish sex, no wash-up, ittle if any privacy. Basically pretty rough and ready, used to watch for fem guys to keep them out. Not much conversation or stuff like dancing. Pissing, some s/m. Scruffy is an understatement.

  • barkomatic

    The article says Grindr as a time saver but I find it to be the opposite. You can chat for a very long time before you *might* meet someone. If they are actually as they appear in the profile you’re lucky. I still find gay bars to be the fastest, most efficient way to meet someone–plus there’s liquor.

    • Stache99

      @barkomatic: I’ve found that alcohol past a certain point usually makes the sex less the desirable even though people are more then willing to engage in it. Some people can go out and keep it together but most are way past that point by the time it’s time to go home. I’m just way over the sloppy drunk sex thing.


    Um… Fire Island Pines dunes, yo!

  • vive

    @Stache99, @wpewen, thanks, so I have only been to bathhouses in the U.S. and Canada, even though some called themselves sex clubs. I learn something new every day!

  • vive

    @barkomatic, precisely, Grindr is extremely inefficient in my experience compared to the alternatives. But unfortunately Grindr is also sucking the life out of many of the alternatives by killing attendance. A generation of people are growing up who think this inefficiency and low quality experience is normal. So unless you live in a place without any alternatives, Grindr is making things worse in every way.

  • wpewen

    Hey boys, as an aside…
    Also in the 70’s we had things like rap groups-not to be confused with rap music at all. Rap groups covered all kinds of turf. Gay men’s rap groups would often be free form, like much of culture then, talk and socialize, no Aber.& Fitch, fag hags, just we guys of different ages saying hi, not getting loaded, not comparing gym bods….Some hot lays, not difficult to do. At 19 had one of my first Daddies, an ex-Navy guy at the Santa Monica Gay Men’s Rap Group.
    No app, and I got to actually meet the guy!

  • MarionPaige

    Some twenty-something hot shot will come up with an airbnb type app that essentially recreates the bathhouse and it will be all the rage. It is always funny to imagine what “kids” think of bathhouse scenes in movies, there was one in The Normal Heart. The scene in The Normal Heart where the one character didn’t remember meeting and having sex with Matt Bomer’s characther in a bath was funny.

  • kevininbuffalo

    @tazz602: You have to understand that for Queerty writers history means the week before last.
    Here in Buffalo we had a great bath “Morgan’s.” Closed down long ago. But in the 70’s and 80’s it was always busy. Weekends you were lucky to get a room. Big orgy room. Tiny sauna. Ah, memories!

  • The Center for Sexual Justice

    Gay bars, bath houses, cruising sites, websites, apps: these are all places that queer people are routinely entrapped or arrested unjustly by law enforcement. This still happens! Don’t be appeased. For more info on how queer people have been criminalized throughout history as well as today, look at this:

    “How the Criminalization of the Queer Community Affects Us All”


  • BadSeed

    @vive: I guess you didn’t see my response when you raised this question — the difference between sex clubs and bathhouses — in another context. (How to take a dick pic or something like that. I thought I’d made it all clear there.) However, nothing is simple, is it? With reference to San Francisco, once a great town for bathhouses, both types of venue operated simultaneously prior to AIDS. The 1984 court order, which abolished sexual privacy in bathhouses (but did not close them longer than 48 hours) by ordering cubicle doors removed and monitoring behavior for conformity with safe sex guidelines, essentially reduced bathhouses to sex clubs with whatever water-based amenities (steam rooms, saunas Jacuzzis, etc.) they might have had prior to the court order. By then, almost all sex venues except “bookstores” had closed anyway for lack of business. One hired legal aid to resist the court order, but caved after a couple of months; the other remained open, operating until 1987 under the rules defined by the court. Fast forward to the late ’90s: unlicensed sex clubs are operating without any water-based amenities and the Health Dept. attempts to control this by demanding that such clubs operate in accordance with the court order disguised as community-generated rules. (Public health folks are very clever.) Meanwhile, one has added a steam room, another installs showers, but there are no private spaces. The Health Dept., in collusion with the city attorney’s office, is ok with this until last year (2013). Then the club with the steam room is suddenly required to get a bathhouse license and the club with showers closes. The health dept. takes the position that the city does not license sex venues and the city attorney says the Police Code (where bathhouse regulations are stipulated) does not permit private spaces, i.e., lockable cubicles, although bathhouses operated for decades with lockable cubicles and still do in Berkeley and San Jose . But stay tuned. This history has not come to an end.

  • wpewen

    The guy speaking for the Center for Social Justice speaks the truth; the cops used to routinely use the sex places as a way to corner guys, particularly if they felt like messing with their reputations. Kind hate to say it, lads, but do what we say, not…
    Meaning I’m still horny as hell but wouldn’t trust the cops anymore that 30 years ago (yeah, probl. could stil reel em in if you like short young looking daddies w/beards ) but even with all this talk about you plce yourself in a victim stance when you go fishing in these joints. “We”did but in the case of myself I was always leery. There are still cops out there who love to victimize people,gay guys are just part of it,
    Think I’d rather be gettin’ Dad’s belt at home.

    • BadSeed

      @wpewen: I think you’re right. You don’t have to be white not to be profiled, gay cops notwithstanding.

  • The Center for Sexual Justice

    @wpewen: The Center for SEXUAL Justice :)

  • wpewen

    Lo Siento Mucho. Sexual, not Social. Oh well, you coulda been less SNAPPY…We didn’t use the word “queer” much either. Reason #582 for me to hang w/ straight guys. Why do some gay dudes have to hard pedal it?

  • EvonCook

    @lykeitiz: Yes, they are still the most wonderful pleasure palaces, BUT due to AIDS hysteria and AIDS hysterics (Larry Kramer among MANY) and gay moralists, not to mention the monogamist marriage crowd’s need to appear “normal” the great ones in NYC and San Fran have all been shut down. The ones that remain are patrolled to death, shaming, stoping and punishing public sex and are really more grim and guilt-ridden than ones in the 50’s and 60’s. Best, if you enjoy really sensual atmosphere and lots of direct action to go abroad! My goodness, Spain has some fabulous ones, even Portugal, Holland is unbelievably fantastic and Italy has a whole new generation of packed sex baths. Germany is absolutely hardcore and almost as finicky as English saunas (although there is a charming dinner club in Belgium). Scandinavia is not to be missed, Prague is HOT. Even Istanbul, Athens, almost anywhere abroad you can still find men who enjoy a liberal, free and very sexual male atmosphere that actually is much more conducive, community oriented, multi-generational with much less attitude and much more opportunity than “modern” apps allow for. By the way, multi-partenr, licentiousness and sexual romping and orgies DO NOT mean you should not be careful and safe! Only idiots and hysterics can’t understand men can be very active, multi partnered and safe too! This is what being gay is all about, not being little faux-heterosexuals in the suburbs with kids!

  • EvonCook

    @o.codone: Ramble in Central Park still has moments of the old days, nice mix of ages and kinds of men, and sex in the bushes. Just don’t be there after 1 A.M.

  • EvonCook

    @tazz602: Thanks! Write you stories for us!

  • EvonCook

    @wpewen: Exactly, so right. They want to select sex dates like women select shoes!!! Wow, it used to be about the sensual experience that connected you to other men, not picking the hottest model pic and whining or jerking over it. Had much sex with guys I would have never spoken to in my group or area or clique who became great friends!

  • lykeitiz

    @EvonCook: Thanks for the info! All good to know. I couldn’t agree more about the attitudes of most people using apps. Your description of Europe’s places sound like Utopia….and what we used to have here, including the more relaxed outlooks!

    @vive: I’ve actually never used Grindr. I’ve always imagined it to be what you and so many others have described….a frustrating waste of time. As for your questions about bathhouses vs sex clubs, @wpewen: could not have explained it better. They are two very different experiences. For my tastes, I usually prefer a bathhouse, but when you want to get your dirty bookstore on, a Sex Club is what you need! :-)

  • gaym50ish

    Ah, for the good old days when you could spend the evening at the Folsom Prison bar on Folsom Street in San Francisco, and at closing go through the side door straight into the Barracks bathhouse.

    When you go to the Ritch Street Baths and maybe run into big-dicked ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. And visit the pitch-black “orgy room” where you had to feel your way around and never saw who you were doing it with.

    When you could go to the Boot Camp bar and work your way into the crowd, pull it out and get it sucked, while the crowd blocked the view of all that was going on in the corner.

    Yes, I know I’m betraying my “50ish” screen name, which is really stretching it, but I have used that handle for a very long time.

  • DarkZephyr

    Looking at the gay cruise pic of those four guys, it reminds me of a game of The Sims 3 where all your male sims look the same. Even the men of color. They all look like manscaped gym body carbon copies of each other.

  • DarkZephyr

    @EvonCook: “not to mention the monogamist marriage crowd’s need to appear “normal””

    I don’t have a need to “appear normal”, I just want to live my life with the man I adore, that’s all. I don’t care if other guys want to hook up at bathhouses or via apps. I met my man on a dating site after all. Dated plenty different guys before he and I fell in love. Its no moral judgement about anyone who would rather remain single and free and sexually active, and its no attempt to kow·tow to the heterosexuals.

  • Clark35

    @CroweBobby-Actually more heterosexual people than LGBT people have sex at the Roman Coliseum.

  • Saint Law

    “And visit the pitch-black orgy room where…you never saw who you were doing it with.”


  • godfreyguy

    I agree with a lot of the comments about how limited this article is. We old timers could tell you young guys a thing or two. I have used all of the techniques mentioned—bars, baths, internet, etc. (although I don’t have the courage to try Craigslist). But I have met some of the most interesting people in the world at large just going about my daily life. I have met guys in fitness clubs, music stores, window shopping, church (yes, some gay people go to church), etc. In fact I met the love of my life when I was a college student taking his class in business administration. Most romantic, he had never acted on his gayness and was 43 years old. One night as we were riding down on the elevator he asked me, “Do you like German food?” I said I did and he suggested a German restaurant he wanted to try and invited me along. That was the beginning of a life long, loving, and passionate relationship that ended when he passed away. Oh, and btw, I am 70 years old and am amazed that a lot of men (some of them young and gorgeous and not gold diggers) still find me attractive. I don’t seem to lack for male companionship which has surprised me because in my youth, you were considered ‘over the hill’ by age 40. Don’t believe it.

  • Jacob23

    Lol! Best propaganda piece ever. All those happy, healthy people romping and grinding through the decades! Loveless sex with hundreds of strangers is rad! Why you’d never know that they suffer rampant depression, anxiety, loneliness, substance abuse, suicidality and have health outcomes comparable to those of the general population in the 19th century. A few million early deaths totally not gonna spoil that party, y’all!

    We look forward to future work from Gremore along the same journalistic lines:

    Slavery – A History of Fun In the Sun!
    War – What Is It Good For? Plenty!
    Cancer – Lose Those Extra Pounds and Slim Down For Summer!

  • vive

    @EvonCook, or Canada. Steamworks in Toronto is an AWESOME bathhouse. Clean, shiny, modern, it has everything, public sex is appreciated, and several play areas with different amenities like gloryholes and a sling. And lots of young hot guys go there almost every night of the week.

    I’ll never forget the West Side Club in NYC – depressing rundown place, and employees yell at you if you so much as leave a cubicle door open. I was like, you must be kidding me! This is New York?

    Here in the Northeast we don’t even have anything in Boston, despite their claiming to be the most liberal city in the U.S. But there are a couple of run-down bathhouses in Providence an hour from Boston. The problem is nobody goes except late Saturday nights, but at least they are permissive with regards to public sex.

  • Toby Ross

    I think that what I loved about the baths was the fact that the white towel made everyone look the same so it left plenty of room to fantasize since the “fabulous outfits” were not paraded as if on a runway queens and businessman looked alike and you could get it on with someone thinking whatever you wanted to think. Also the baths seems to attract a lot of hot closet cases and for a one time thrill it was a fantasy come alive.

  • vive

    @Toby Ross, “Also the baths seems to attract a lot of hot closet cases…”

    They still do – at the local place I sometimes hook up with a really hot married guy. For him it is not just about the sex (he only does extremely safe things, b.t.w.) but also the mental connection. I know people are inevitably going to be judgmental about this, but it is actually a very sweet and loving thing.

  • Kangol

    So much missing here, but then we’re in a different world today.

    Say what you will about bathhouses, but every adult man can enter if he can pay; you can meet a range of men; guys are there for sex first and foremost; most have the basics to ensure safer sex; you won’t be photographed or videotaped by some creep and have it posted online; you see what you’re getting straight off; and once you’re done, you can leave. One of the best inventions since sliced bread.

  • MarionPaige

    @Toby Ross
    “Also the baths seems to attract a lot of hot closet cases and for a one time thrill it was a fantasy come alive.”

    Big Fan of your work, especially Rock N Roll Dreams.

  • Jairo Mendez

    Cuantos Recuerdos Dios Mioooo

  • Carlos Zuniga

    As a teen I read a book called Tearoom Trade, find it is good!

  • Dan Rucks

    That’s my ex!

  • John

    What about dirty book stores and movie houses?

Comments are closed.