Usually, when a business gets a feature-length profile in the RN&R, be it a record store or a grocery cooperative, that business might experience a bump of new customers visiting the place for the first time or old customers reminded to return to an old haunt. That’s not necessarily the case for Steve’s Bathhouse, which isn’t to say that the aim of this article is to discourage anyone from going there, but only that the increased media attention might make even some loyal customers pause, because privacy is the fundamental service that Steve’s provides.
And it’s a service that’s been provided for 50 years. Originally called Club Baths, the bathhouse is one of the oldest such places in the country, part of a West Coast network of bathhouses where gay and bisexual men could meet one another without fear of prejudice or the false romances of alcohol inebriation. Many bathhouses have been closed down, due to the twin menaces of disease and discrimination, but because of its dogged insistence on safe, healthy sexual practices and Nevada’s live-and-let-live, libertarian attitude about social issues, Steve’s has endured, thrived and become an institution.
“I have been a customer at Steve’s,” says a former regular who no longer lives in the area and prefers to stay anonymous—we’ll just call him Mike. “I started going 20 years ago. …The appeal is no-strings sex. No complications. There’s no ambiguity in terms of why people are there and what they’re there to accomplish.”
Steve’s is open 24 hours, seven days a week. Electronic dance music plays throughout the facility, which is relatively straightforward: lockers and private rooms upstairs, and showers and saunas downstairs. There’s a TV lounge, snack machine and complimentary coffee, as well as more unusual amenities, like an adult video room and glory holes. The ambiance is casual, low lit but not too dark to see, and the place seems as clean and well maintained as a mid-scale hotel.
Steve Daugherty, the eponymous proprietor, is an amiable guy, with a friendly smile, a perfectly coiffed head of gray hair, and a quick, comfortable way of moving and talking. Originally from Modesto, Calif., he was a hair stylist, and when he and his partner broke up and sold their salon, he went to work at a bathhouse in Sacramento, a sister business of Reno’s Club Baths. In 1983, he took over as manager of the Reno location, eventually becoming a co-owner of what officially became known as Steve’s Bathhouse in 1991.
For Daugherty, a big part of the appeal of the bathhouse environment is that it’s alcohol-free. He doesn’t drink and doesn’t like meeting people while they’re drinking.
“I was never one to go to a gay bar,” he says. “If I was good, I want him to know it.”
That said, he doesn’t begrudge or judge anyone the decision to go to a bar.
“I’m more pro-bathhouse than anti-bar,” he says. “We’ve only ever been an option, an alternative. That’s it. That’s all I’ve ever looked at us as. Nowadays, it’s evolved. In the last five or eight years, it’s very different than it used to be. The gay community is getting online. We’ve always been big for bisexuals, now even more so.”
The men that Daugherty describes as bisexual are men who don’t self-identify as homosexuals. Jennifer Howell, sexual health program coordinator for the Washoe County Health Department, describes them as “men who have sex with men.”
“We identify a behavior, not a lifestyle,” she says. “There are a lot of men who have sex with men who do not identify as being gay, bi or whatever. They’re having sex with women as well.”
According to Daugherty, this demographic shift has also affected the bathhouse’s peak business hours. Though it used to be busiest during the graveyard hours, it’s now busier during the day.
“Everyone’s experience is different,” says Mike. “Different people do it different ways. Some people wander around looking for people. Some people stay in their rooms with the door open. Some people stay in their room with the door open and, say, laying on their face, with their butt sticking in the air, just waiting for someone to come by. Some people go to the glory hole. Some people go to the video room and hang out. If it’s during the day, and the sun is shining, and it’s not cold, they’ll go out to the back patio area and suntan.”
“We just offer an option for meeting other people,” Daugherty says. “Some people come here just to watch The Price is Right. Some come here just for company, just to be here. The thing about the bisexual community is they live in that world, so this world is really exotic or whatever. It’s not to me; it’s dull as dirt. But for somebody else, it’s exciting.”
Another demographic that frequents the bathhouse is crossdressers.
“They feel like they don’t fit here and don’t fit there,” he says. “I always felt like they were very misunderstood. Even I don’t understand them, and I’m not going to pretend to. I like that they feel comfortable enough to do that here. I don’t think it’s a sexual thing. I think it’s just that they put their things on, and they feel better.”
For Daugherty, the distinctions among gay, straight and bisexual are somewhat arbitrarily drawn. He sees sexuality as existing on a free-flowing, open-ended continuum.
“Society puts people in a little box,” he says. “I wish there was no longer a box.”
“The goal of being there is to have sex, and what your life is outside of Steve’s doesn’t really matter at the time,” says Mike. “Whether or not you think you’re straight outside Steve’s, or other people think you’re straight outside of Steve’s, has little to do with Steve’s.”
Law of the land
From the outside, Steve’s Bathhouse is fairly nondescript. There are no signs announcing the name of the business. It’s off Keystone Avenue on Second Street, and many Renoites pass it regularly without a second glance. Among residents who are even aware of the business, it’s generally discussed with hushed tones and derisive language—not so much talked about as whispered about. It’s a taboo topic even among the customers who frequent it.
“The funny thing about our community is you can go out and you hear people, and they’re like, oh, that club,” says Daugherty. “But I know that they go here. But they have to pretend that they don’t.”
Daugherty says that when he bumps into customers out in public or in social situations—he’s involved with the charity organization Silver Dollar Court, for example—that they often seem embarrassed or awkward.
“Like I’m going to say something to somebody?” he says. “After all these years, I wouldn’t be able to go to Costco or Savemart without running into somebody. I run into people everywhere I go. I never say hi to them unless they say hi to me. … It’s just the way it is. I get that they want to be prim and proper. Sexuality is private. It’s private stuff, that’s all. And here [at the bathhouse] you do know more than you want to know. You can just walk somewhere and see something you didn’t want to see. And they know I know. They know I hold the world’s biggest secrets.”
Daugherty considers protecting his customer’s privacy a sacred duty. When talking to a reporter, he seems conflicted—torn between his naturally engaging, outgoing personality and his reticence to discuss others’ private affairs. He’s also clearly proud of his business, its consistent advocacy for safe sexual practices, and its ability to endure despite a sometimes hostile social environment, but he believes that part of why the business has been able to succeed is that it has maintained a low community profile. The people who need to know about it, know about it. Increased attention might lead to harassment from the types of zealots who believe that interfering with others’ private affairs is some kind of cosmic mandate.
But nor does he think that his business needs to mask its true nature.
“I don’t think we need to be prettied up,” he says. “I think we are what we are. That’s basically it.”
Over the years, the bathhouse has faced adversity, particularly in the AIDS-fueled homophobia of the 1980s. Daugherty says that back in those days, there were often protesters out front, sometimes praying and proselytizing, sometimes throwing threats or water balloons at customers.
“It’s like Jerry Springer doing shows on skinheads,” says Daugherty. “Don’t ban them. Keep doing shows like that because it shows how ignorant they are. Let them do their deal and just wear them down.”
Back in those days, Daugherty says, local law enforcement was no help against discrimination and harassment. But nowadays, his relationship with local law enforcement is much more amicable.
“That’s evolved,” he says. “I’m not sure we’re become accepted. … But I think they do realize that we offer a service that benefits an element, I guess. … To have survived what it has survived is amazing—even to me. “
“From a disease prevention and health promotion perspective, and a safety perspective, bathhouses offer an important venue for a population that normally has nowhere else to go,” says Howell of the county health department. “It’s good that there’s somewhere for them to go because everyone in society says there’s nowhere. … As other service providers, we really protect it, because if it goes away or if there’s controversy about it, or if any attention is drawn to it, then that can ultimately mean somebody goes out on the street. They could get robbed. Because they’re meeting somebody in a hotel room versus somewhere that if they call for help, somebody’s going to be there.”
“When I was going there 20 years ago … I would say that Steve’s was very important, because, other than the bars—or the parks, god forbid—there wasn’t really a place to meet up with people. Obviously, if you do stuff in the park, it’s possible that you’d get caught and that’s not a good thing. Steve’s was a place that you could go that you didn’t have to worry about getting raided or arrested or anything like that. Now, these days, you’ve got Grindr or Craig’s List or any number of other options. So Steve’s is now less important, I would say, than it used to be, but it’s still terribly convenient. You’re not spending hours and hours online trying to convince someone to have sex with you. … Even with Grindr and Craig’s List and Adam 4 Adam, it’s not uncommon for someone to just say, ‘OK, let’s just meet at Steve’s.’”
Daugherty takes his mission to promote safe sex very seriously, so he says that of all the whispered rumors and misconceptions about his establishment, the one that bothers him the most is the perception that it’s an “AIDS palace.”
“That’s the biggest thing that bothers me,” he says. “There’s no reason for anybody to practice unsafe sex here—none.”
“I have had my stupid times of not practicing safe sex, but none of those times were at Steve’s,” says Mike. “They have the bowls of condoms, and you just grab some on the way to your room. It’s not hard.”
Condoms are readily available throughout the facility, as well as posters, pamphlets and signage promoting safe sex. Additionally, the bathhouse partners with the county to offer free STD testing onsite on a regular basis.
“[Daugherty] has been a long time community partner in prevention efforts,” says Howell. She adds that the bathhouse is a point of contact for a community that might not be willing to go to other venues for testing, like the county or Planned Parenthood or even their own physician, because they don’t want to discuss their sexual activity. The bathhouse isn’t subject to any legally mandated health regulations, so Daugherty’s insistence on safe sex and free STD tests comes from his own willing initiative.
“When I came here, there was an incredible amount of ignorance in the gay community,” he says. “The attitude was that AIDS was only in the big cities, New York and San Francisco. So it was really big for me to promote safe sex. It wasn’t the community. That wasn’t one of their goals yet. But it became a goal.”
Part of Daugherty’s disease prevention and safe sex efforts is a strictly enforced no drugs and alcohol policy. If customers come to the door clearly intoxicated, they’re not allowed in.
“If they’re under the influence, there’s no reason to bring them in,” says Daugherty. “They’re going to bother other people. Even though you can’t control the practice of safe sex, if you’re not allowing people under the influence, they’ll have better judgment.”
Customers have to be at least 18 years old, and are required to give an ID to the front desk before coming in.
“It’s funny how once you have their ID and know who they are, there’s no crimes,” says Daugherty. “So, they’re protected. They have a safe place that they can come and do what it is they do.”
Though many customers come to the bathhouse with an expectation of having sex, it’s not a brothel, and solicitation and prostitution are strictly forbidden. Just visiting the bathhouse is not a guarantee of a sexual encounter.
“You’re not paying for sex,” says Howell. “You’re going for the environment where you can actually meet somebody that you might not be around at any other place in your life.”
She also points out that it’s a more private environment than having sex in a public space, like a park—not to mention significantly more legal—and is safer than inviting a stranger met on the internet into a private residence.
“It’s a contained environment where there’s condoms and this expectation of safer sex everywhere, versus you opening up your home to somebody and you have no idea what’s going to happen,” she says.
The bathhouse exists in a tricky space in the consciousness of the community: On the one hand, sexual health specialists like Howell see it as providing an essential community outlet, but a central part of its service is a high degree of discretion. So, Steve’s Bathhouse is a cornerstone of the community that’s rarely openly acknowledged as existing. And privacy is a foremost concern of many of the customers.
“Once they’re in here, they have no problem,” says Daugherty. “They do worry that I have a registration card … the more you try to explain, the more worried they get. So we tell them not to even think about it. Once people realize that we are that private, their worries go away. They’re just people. We treat them like they’re people, not freaks. We don’t judge.”
“People need options in the community to express themselves how they want to, as long as they’re not infringing on other people’s rights, which in this case they’re not,” says Howell. “Because we as a society put up these barriers, there needs to be a safe haven. A safe haven needs to be there because as much as people may not think things are going on in a community, they are. … These guys would find another way to reach out to who they want to have sex with, and if that integrity is breached, people would find another venue that isn’t safe, that doesn’t protect their confidentiality, that doesn’t offer a place where they have condoms everywhere and promote safer sex. … If that’s a venue that isn’t there anymore or protected, then that safe haven and that point of access for services disappears.”
“I don’t know how it ever survived here, in this little town,” says Daugherty. “The population doesn’t warrant a bathhouse, that’s for sure. They’re usually in heavily populated towns and cities.”
Historically, he credits Reno’s tourism industry with helping business, and though that’s suffered in recent years, the business itself is fairly low overhead. Still, Daugherty thinks the business might be ready for a new evolution, and he’s considering opening it up for a coed night, if only for a night or two a week. There’s nothing definite in the works yet, but he says that sort of evolution is a strong possibility. It’s part of his perspective that human sexuality exists on a fluid continuum. “We’re just sexual people,” he says. “I think everybody’s sexual.”
Howell credits the bathhouse’s unusually long survival in Reno to a similarly tolerant attitude popular among Nevadans.
“This is a very libertarian place,” she says. “Do what you’re going to do, just don’t mess with my life or anything. … Let it be over there, let ’em do what they’re going to do, and as long as it doesn’t bother me, then, oh well.”
“We offer an option,” says Daugherty. “That’s it. It’s a space. Time and space.”