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Ritual, Liminality and Transformation: secular spirituality in Sydney's gay bathhouses

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In the twentieth century religion was radically transformed, as the sacred uncoupled from the institutional Churches. This enabled the sacred to be experienced through what were previously 'secular' activities, including sport, rock music, psychoanalysis and sexuality. Individualism and prosperity combined to encourage a focus on personal transformation as the primary religious process. The 1960s also saw calls for self-determination and equality for previously oppressed groups—women, blacks and gays. This paper uses the model of secular ritual and Victor Turner's concept of liminality to investigate the role that the gay bathhouses had in enabling gay men to experience the sacred and to transform themselves. This paper is grounded in empirical research on Sydney's gay bathhouses that sheds light on rites of passage, the role of pleasure and its relationship to religious ecstasy, and the development of a specifically gay askesis (way of becoming). It is also argued that the gay bathhouse is a crucial transformative space for all those men who were its initiates.
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Keywords: Gay bathhouses; Sydney; liminality; ritual; secular spirituality; transformation

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Technology, Sydney,University of Sydney, Australia

Publication date: September 1, 2008

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