The future of gay saunas in Thailand now under the microscope

The recent arrest of 60 men — all Thais as far as we know — in Bangkok’s Faros sauna has sparked a new debate over gay baths and retreats.

In fact, the earliest known raid was in fifteenth-century Florence, where 44 men were convicted of the “abominable vice of sodomy in dark spaces.” Some bloggers on Thai social media are currently speaking of disgust and horror in a similar vein.

Thai police were careful this time to avoid moralizing and instead emphasized that chemsex and drug trafficking could be a source of Covid-19 infection. The criminal charges mainly related to violating the state of emergency and violating the legislation on communicable diseases.

Police Colonel Ekkaphop Tanprayoon, who led the raid, emphasized that the main purpose was to protect the health of his officers. He explained that Good Samaritans had informed authorities about nefarious activities that undermined Thailand’s anti-Covid policies.

Bangkok’s gay street, Soi Twilight, was permanently closed in 2019 to make way for massive redevelopment, gay pressure groups agreed.

The Bangkok Rainbow Association, in turn, expressed concern that people may now believe that all gays are promiscuous and disease spreaders. President Nikorn Chimkong said saunas are not just about sexual activity, but also about the human need for social interaction and mingling. Since the Faros raid, police have raided several beach parties and drinking establishments nationally that featured banned alcohol and banned social mixing.

Since the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, gay baths worldwide have fallen into disrepair. In the United States, a puritan country par excellence, the number of gay saunas have fallen from 350 to less than 70 today. In London, Europe’s largest gay sauna, known as Chariots, closed its doors in January 2021 and is now bankrupt. In the years leading up to Covid-19, the biggest reason for the closure was the emergence of websites and hook-up and dating apps such as Scruff and Grindr, which are the traditional hangouts for casual sex such as bars, clubs, saunas, parks and restrooms.

Some say that an understated reason for the closure of many gay hangouts, including saunas, is the process of gentrification. This means that, as rental and purchase prices of real estate in urban centres are soaring, traditional users are forced to leave to make way for expensive high-rise apartments, shopping centres and high-end housing developments. It is certainly true that much of Bangkok’s traditional nightlife, straight and gay, is already geographically dispersed due to the massive downtown demolition or redevelopment projects.

The saunas that have survived so far are very different from the traditional drab shophouses that only offered a towel, a bar of soap and a steam bath, as seen for example in the 1973 film Day of the Jackal.

Faros’ sauna website illustrated the new generation of gay retreats that offer choice and luxury. It promised much more than just steam: a karaoke, a dance hall, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a jacuzzi, two restaurants and even a movie theatre, as well as 50 private rooms and booths. It is now of course closed.

As for the future, there are many points of view. Some say gay saunas provide much-needed safe spaces that hook-up apps can’t. At the other end of the spectrum, it is argued that bathhouses should be closed for public health or moral reasons. Meanwhile, city centres around the world are undergoing massive changes as small businesses relocate, unable to compete in the cash bets. As Prasert of the Rainbow Sky Alliance put it: “Foreign spaces like saunas will survive because people want to mingle with like-minded groups, but there will be far fewer choices after Covid.

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