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Some bathhouse owners tried to prevent sex between patrons while others, mindful of profits or prepared to risk prosecution, overlooked discreet homosexual activity.

In Florence, Italy, in 1492 there was a purge against the "vice of sodomy".

Sexual activity, if it occurs, is not provided by staff of the establishment but is between customers, and no money is exchanged.

In the West, gay men have been using bathhouses for sex since at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when homosexual acts were illegal in most Western countries and men who were caught engaging in homosexual acts were often arrested and publicly humiliated.

Men began frequenting cruising areas such as bathhouses, public parks, alleys, train and bus stations, movie theaters, public lavatories (cottages or tearooms), and gym changing rooms where they could meet other men for sex.

are commercial spaces for men to have sex with other men.

In gay slang in some regions these venues are also known colloquially as "the baths," "the sauna" or "the tubs", but they should not be confused with public bathing. Bathhouses offering similar opportunities for sex for women are rare, though some men's bathhouses occasionally have "lesbian" or "women only" nights.

Many bathhouses are, for legal reasons, "membership only", though membership is generally open to any adult who seeks it, usually after paying a small fee.

Unlike brothels, customers pay only for the use of the facilities.

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