In Print

Books and Articles


Bathhouses, Bette Midler, and the Construction of a Gay Sensibility in the 1970s

Author: Jason James
Date: 03-

Bathhouses, Bette Midler, and the Construction of a Gay Sensibility in the 1970s

Legendary actress and singer Bette Midler is perhaps best known for beginning her career in the early 1970s by performing to an audience of men draped only in white towels in one of New York City’s premier gay bathhouses. She jokes in her 1980 semi-autobiographical memoir A View From a Broad that “whatever I may do in my life, whatever I may achieve, the headline of my obituary in The New York Times will read: ‘BETTE DEAD, Began Career at Continental Baths’” (38-39). While Midler may not wish to be remembered exclusively for this reason, she cannot ignore the fact that she owes a great deal of her success to the unique atmosphere of gay bathhouses and the changes in the sexual mores and attitudes of people that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. The bathhouse itself was a major social force that shaped gay sensibilities in America during this time. Midler was a product of the bathhouse culture, and she in turn became yet another social force that influenced gay insights. This paper will explore the history of public bathhouse space, the elements of gay baths that helped to shape them as a social force, how Bette Midler’s career flourished in that space, and what contribution she made to the gay community that helped mold the ways in which they approached and responded to American society.

The bathhouse became one of the first establishments in the United States tailored exclusively to gay men for the purpose of building a sense of pride in themselves and their sexuality despite historically embedded concepts of homosexuals as perverse, diseased criminals (Bérubé 188). The baths represented “a major success in a century-long struggle to overcome isolation and develop a sense of community…, to gain their right to sexual privacy, to win their right to associate with each other in public, and to create ‘safety zones’ where gay men could be sexual and affectionate with each other with a minimal threat of violence, blackmail, loss of employment, arrest, imprisonment, and humiliation” (Bérubé 188).

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that bathhouses began to evolve into gay institutions. During that time all sexual relations between men were considered illegal and those who partook in those activities were persecuted. Therefore, men stole away to anonymous semi-private public areas such as parks, restrooms, train and subway stations, and YMCAs to have sex despite the dangers of being arrested or even murdered. Many men began to congregate in bathhouses, however, as they were a nice alternative to the streets, offering higher degrees of safety and anonymity. While not exclusively gay, some baths of the 1920s and 1930s began to allow sex in locked cubicles, although they were not safe from intrusions from the police. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s and the advent of the gay liberation that bathhouses catered solely to the social and sexual needs of homosexual men with little or no police interference (Bérubé 189-191).

Samuel Delany, a black gay author who had been accustomed to sexual experiences in public restrooms and inside pitch-black trucks parked on the docks under New York’s West Side Highway, was astonished when he first set foot in the St. Marks bathhouse in 1963 (Scott 397-8). When he walked in, he discovered a wall-to-wall spread of naked men illuminated by dim blue light. It was not so much the space that astonished him, but “rather that the saturation [of libidinous activity] was not only kinesthetic but visible” (qtd. in Scott 397). The fact that patrons of the bathhouses could actually see what was happening inside made them realize that “there was a population…of millions of gay men, and that history had…created for [them] whole galleries of institutions…to accommodate [their] sex” in light of the prevalent interpretation of gay men as “isolated perverts” (qtd. in Scott 397-8).

Gay bathhouses therefore became “erotic oases”—locations considered “physically and socially safe from threats to exposure” where “sexual expressions [were] not only permitted, but openly encouraged” (Tewksbury 79). They were “institutions where gay men were encouraged to appreciate each other,” and where they “learned to prefer sexual partners who were also gay” (Bérubé 195). Until that time, heterosexual men preferred “servicing” straight men in parks and restrooms and generally frowned upon sex with other homosexuals. Modern bathhouses allowed “freedom and homosexual camaraderie” (Bérubé 191) and featured secure facilities that were conducive to physical intimacy, such as steam rooms, swimming pools, and cabins. They became safe havens due to their identification as gay baths and people who were affronted by such behavior therefore did not frequent them. In addition, employees of the baths offered a degree of protection to their clientele from violence and blackmail (Bérubé 191-2).

In light of this, the bathhouses created a fusion of both public and private worlds that was highly influential in shaping not only the behavior but also the culture of gay men at that time. The world of the baths was a private world of sexual relations and interactions exclusively for gay men and was therefore isolated from the general public. Although bathhouses were private spaces where men could feel safe from interference from heterosexual society, within their walls both the private and the public worked hand in hand. They were places in which private sexual encounters were happening all throughout a very public environment where patrons gathered together and socialized with each other (Bérubé 191-2; Chisholm 76; Tewksbury 79). Another way in which the baths fused the public and private was by housing “work, residence, business, and leisure under one roof, employing a staff of maintenance and service workers and offering hospice to any man needing a room for the night” (Chisholm 71). The home, which had been thought of as a private vicinity, became enmeshed with the public worlds of work and leisure. This “convergence of public, private, and ritual space lent the bathhouse an aura of belonging” (Chisholm 73).

Disturbing the distinction between the public and private was central to the experience of eroticism in bathhouses. By merely entering into the world of the baths, patrons were made to strip naked and leave their personal belongings in lockers. A man’s presence in the bathhouse was taken by others as an “indication of one’s sexual availability” (Tewksbury 95). Further evidence of this is in the situational acceptance of touching in semi-public locations such as orgy rooms or steamrooms. It was normal for patrons inside these spaces to touch and be touched by others, whereas that physical contact was more rarely experienced in other communal areas of the bathhouse (Tewksbury 95). Therefore, the baths transformed the body (or, more specifically, the body’s “private” parts) into public property.

As more homosexual men were becoming visible in society during the gay liberation movement, bathhouses (among other gay settings) began to “capitalize on the economic benefits that could be realized by catering to this ‘new’ demographic market” (Tewksbury 77). Bathhouse owners started to realize that their opportunities for profit were expanding and consequently began featuring a slew of different services and luxuries for consumers: cafés, bars, game rooms, video screens showing pornographic films, disco dance floors, game rooms, movie nights, parties on major holidays, voter registration, gymnasium equipment, benefits for gay community drives, the gay free press, safe-sex advertising, and testing for venereal disease (Bérubé 201-3, Chisholm 71-2). Most of these services came with the price of membership to the particular bathhouses that offered them.

With the inclusion of these numerous products and services, the world of the baths began to resemble that of a mall. They were no longer places meant solely for the purpose of sex but also for “shopping”. Consumption was right at the fingertips of bath patrons, offering many of the same services, venues, and 24-hour activities associated with their urban exteriors (Chisholm 74). In many ways, a bathhouse was a one-stop shopping experience: where else, in one central location, could customers work out at the gym, get a massage, grab an espresso, see a movie, and have anonymous sexual relations with other men?

Capitalism is also reflected in a less obvious way at the baths, yet one that is extremely important to consider when looking at how it helps shape gay sensibilities: patrons sought sexual experiences and interactions with others based on anonymity, depersonalization, and objectification (Tewksbury 81). In this vein, the world of the baths gives little regard to the individuality of people. Let’s say, for instance, that two men possess very different characteristics that make them both specific, unique beings. One may be a kind, caring doctor with a house in the Hamptons, the other a pushy lawyer with cheap bridgework. Someone looking for a long-lasting intimate relationship may need to consider those differences carefully in order to choose the right mate. Yet for someone seeking an anonymous sexual encounter in a bathhouse, those distinctive characteristics could mean very little. Essentially, they are overlooked and the individuals are stripped down to their lowest-common denominator (their only shared attribute), which would be a comparable amount of, let’s say, “masculinity.” Therefore, the naked male body becomes an object for consumption, and gay men who cruise in the bathhouses “take on a commodity aura, even if they do not actually present themselves for sale” (Chisholm 76).

While it was primarily the body itself that determined another’s interest in pursuing sexual activity, it’s important to note that all bodies are not the same. Men who “rank[ed] lower in patrons’ eyes in terms of cultural definitions of attractiveness” found themselves at a “disadvantage in finding sexual partners” (Tewksbury 83). Even in an environment with heightened levels of sexual excitement where the importance of physicality seemed to be less important, older or very overweight patrons had limited success in their cruising escapades (Tewksbury 83).
It’s important to keep in mind that even though the male body was seen as an object of desire, having sex with someone did not mean that they were the property of one particular person. It was common for men to have several different partners during the course of just one visit to the baths, which supports the idea expressed earlier that the body becomes public property. Yet everything that was desirable in the bathhouses, “from sex to social status, could be transformed into commodities as fetishes-on-display that held the crowd enthralled even when personal possession was far beyond their reach” (Chisholm 78).


Steve Ostrow, owner of the Continental Baths (where Bette Midler made her debut), was the first to feature live entertainment at a bathhouse. He didn’t want the Continental to be just a place where men could have sex, but “a very full living cycle, a total environment…and after you’ve been here for twenty-four hours, you want to be entertained. I do” (Baker 48; Spada 20). After seeing Midler perform at Bud Friedman’s Improvisation nightclub in 1970, Ostrow hired her to perform two cabaret-style shows a week at the Continental for $50.

She would burst onto the stage at the Continental Baths “looking like a 1940s thrift shop gone insane,” sing pop standards from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and tell off-color jokes and stories between numbers (Gold 31). Midler’s audiences were conditioned to the excessiveness the baths provided, which is perhaps why they welcomed her wild performances. As Ace Collins states in his Midler biography, “she was so overstated that she almost looked like a man doing impressions of a woman” (29).

Midler progressively made her act sharper and more flamboyant because she realized that in order to win over an audience in a bathhouse she would have to be more appealing than sex itself (Baker 56; Spada 26). Out of this desperation her stage persona, “The Divine Miss M,” was born. “I was playing to people who are always on the outside looking in…[Miss M is] just a fantasy, but she’s useful at showing people what that outsider’s perspective is” (Bego 41). By presenting a fantasy to an audience amidst a socially constructed one in the baths, Midler was successful in capturing both their attention and their hearts. Yet while Miss M’s stage world was rather outrageous, her antics were tempered by a very real and very deep appreciation for the music she sang, which made Midler all the more accessible to her audiences (Gold 31).

Another aspect of Midler that made her so affable to the gay community was the fact that she, being a Jewish woman who grew up in an all-Samoan neighborhood in Hawaii, had been subject to the same types of oppression and prejudice that the men in the baths were. She was an outsider who was constantly mocked for her unconventional looks. “I just kept trying to be like everyone else, but on me nothing worked. One day I just decided to be myself” (Mair 48). It was this optimism that she brought to her audiences. She was happy being “this freak who sings in the tubs,” and the tubs were happy to have her.

Midler credits the gay bathhouse community for catapulting her to stardom. “[They] treated me with more respect than I deserved. I was able to take chances on that stage I could not have taken anywhere else. Ironically, I was freed from fear by people who, at the time, were ruled by fear” (Midler 39). Midler was one of the first heterosexual performers to relate to these men on such a personal level. “By doing so, she was telling them it was okay to be themselves, that they weren’t wicked sinners who would be struck down by hell fire” (Spada 23).

The intimacy present between Midler and her audience brings to mind one of the phenomena born out of gay culture: the “fag hag.” Dawne Moon defines the term as a slang expression denoting a (typically) straight woman who is extensively in the company of and relates best to homosexual men, almost to the point of infatuation. Indeed, Midler fits the prototype of a fag hag. She was extremely close with a gay man named Bill Hennessy, who was highly influential to her career at the Continental Baths. Midler’s first performances there consisted of depressing torch songs that didn’t go over well with audiences, so Hennessy encouraged her to be as daring and outrageous onstage as possible. He worked tirelessly choosing songs, writing jokes, and choreographing her movements. Midler thought so highly of him that what ended up on the stage of the Continental was essentially Hennessy himself, “with [Midler’s] insight and her perception in mind. Her talent” (Baker 44-45). Midler basically became the female embodiment of a gay man. As Hennessy once stated, “Bette has always admired me… She liked who I was, and she took whatever she could from me” (qtd. in Baker 46). What she did take was a repertoire that consisted of material that was flamboyant and highly eccentric and jokes that centered on gay issues.

It was not only the fag hag that experienced feelings of admiration, at least not in the case of Bette Midler. Dawne Moon says that it’s not uncommon for women to be fully accepted as members of a particular gay community, and Midler certainly was accepted and admired by the men at the Continental Baths. In fact, it was she that brought gayness to the world under the guise of a straight woman. By appearing on television shows like The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show, Midler was bringing gay sensibilities into the conscious of heterosexual society. Evidence of this is in the fact that straight couples would line up outside the Baths for the opportunity to get in to see her perform (Mair 52).
As comedienne Margaret Cho states in her one-woman show I’m the One That I Want, “Fag hags are the backbone of the gay community. Without us, you're nothing.” Indeed, homosexuality was once seen as a “repressed desire, made to seem invisible, abnormal, and silenced by a ‘society’ that legislates heterosexuality as the only normal practice” (Scott 400). Yet homosexual desire cannot be repressed completely, so it invents institutions (like bathhouses and, consequently, Bette Midler) to accommodate itself. As Joan W. Scott puts it, “These institutions are unacknowledged but not invisible; indeed, it is the possibility that they can be seen that threatens order and ultimately overcomes repression” (400). What Bette Midler did for the gay community was to make gayness visible. She made room for it in straight America, and by doing so made people recognize that homosexuals actually existed; therefore, this visibility was helping to broaden the erotic horizons of both homosexual and heterosexual people. This gave gay liberationists more leverage in their movement towards “the complete sexual liberation for all people” (D’Emilio 234, emphasis mine). Midler made the world a more welcoming place for gay people and created a “coming out” of sorts for gay culture in a straight society. It can be argued that television shows like Will & Grace and films such as The Object of My Affection may never have existed if it weren’t for Bette Midler.

The mass appeal for gay bathhouses grew until the mid-1980s when baths came under scrutiny from public health officials for promoting alleged “unhealthy sexual practices” that contributed to the spread of HIV and AIDS. Many baths closed down or were destroyed, and some were converted for use in alternative ways. While bathhouses still exist today, they do not hold the amount of public allure they once did (Chisholm 70; Tewksbury 78).
In conclusion, there were many elements of bathhouses that made them a very large social force and contributed to the formation of a gay sensibility during the 1970s. Among these elements are the fusion of the public and private worlds, the treatment of individuals as commodities, and the capitalistic ventures of bathhouse owners to create clean, aesthetically attractive facilities where gay men were allowed to be themselves in lieu of the poor public image that plagued their lives. And out of this world of excess, Bette Midler’s professional career was born. The gay community shaped her into an international phenomenon, and she herself became a strong social force in the gay liberation movement by presenting gay sensibilities to mass audiences across the nation. In so doing she challenged the notions of heterosexual society and posed a threat to its place as the dominant norm in America, giving gay people a leg-up on their quest to liberate not just their own sexuality but the sexuality of all.

Works Cited

Baker, Rob. Bette Midler. Great Britain: Hodder and Staughton, 1979.

Bego, Mark. Bette Midler: Outrageously Divine. New York: Signet, 1987.

Bérubé, Allan. “The History of Gay Bathhouses.” Policing Public Sex. Eds. Dangerous Fellows. Boston: South End Press, 1996. 187-220.

Chisholm, Dianne. “The Traffic in Free Love and Other Crises: Space, Pace, Sex and Shock in the City of Late Modernity.” Parallax 5.3 (1999): 69 – 89.

Cho, Margaret, perf. I’m the One That I Want. Dir. Lionel Coleman. 2000. DVD. Fox Lorber, 2001.

Collins, Ace. Bette Midler. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940 – 1970. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Gold, Shanti. “Divinity: Bette of the Baths.” Daily News 14 June 2004, final ed.: 31.

Mair, George. Bette: An Intimate Biography of Bette Midler. New York: Carol Publishing, 1995.

Midler, Bette. A View from a Broad. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Moon, Dawne. “Insult and Inclusion: The Term ‘Fag Hag’ and Gay Male Community.” Social Forces 74.2 (Dec. 1995): n. pag. Academic Search Premier Database. 8 Dec. 2004.

Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” The Lesbian & Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 397-401.

Spada, James. The Divine Bette Midler. New York: McMillan, 1984.

Tewksbury, Richard. “Bathhouse Intercourse: Structural and Behavioral Aspects of an Erotic Oasis.” Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal 23 (2002): 75 – 112.