To The Bathhouse…

Continuing our series looking at the issues around gay shame and sexuality.

This week: why are we still so hung up about hanging out in saunas? 

By Patrick Cash


A prevailing attitude amongst the younger gay generation toward the idea of gay saunas seems to be that they are patronised only by the old and lonely, those who look like Ursula’s poor, unfortunate souls. Enter a sauna and it’s a different story. There’s a whole spectrum of flesh, both toned and not so toned, drifting in and out of the steam.

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Yet you just haven’t entered a sauna, you’ve donned a cloak within the gay scene of the Sauna User. What you’ve screamed upon opening that door is: ‘I HAVE A PENIS AND SOMETIMES I LIKE TO USE IT’. And what a naughty so-and-so you are, you big shameless hussy *slaps wrist flirtatiously with towel in the steam room*

Hook-up apps have not hugely dented the saunas’ footfall, indicating that when it comes to sex, sometimes the real physicality of the flesh is more attractive than another identikit gym-honed torso pic.

Gay bathhouses before 1969 acted not only as discreet meeting places for sex but also as primitive loci of community. In the US they had entertainment: Bette Midler began her career singing in the gay bathhouses of New York, as Bathhouse Betty. By all accounts, she was a hoot. But generally saunas were hidden away up back alleys and around the corner.

“Whilst we harbour desire for one another these facilitators helping us to have sex will always go on to exist.”

Because of this underground aspect, saunas become the target of other accusations that attend upon the side less spoken: disease, drugs and prostitution. It would be unwise to deny that these things do not exist in their vicinity, for human appetites often wait upon one another, but still it is not necessarily more likely focused in a bathhouse than elsewhere on the gay scene where men come together for sex.

‘There was never any evidence presented that going to bathhouses was a risk-factor for contracting AIDS,’ wrote the sociologist Stephen O. Murray against lobbying for the closure of saunas in the 1980s. It is true today that certainly all London and UK saunas appear to take protecting the sexual health of their clientele seriously.

Free condom and lube packs are made available, and posters warning of the dangers of HIV and other STI infections can be seen on the walls. Whether people heed this advice and use protection is, as always, their personal choice and responsibility.

Drugs such as mephedrone, G and crystal meth litter the gay scene and their widespread usage amongst gay men is a whole other article, an article I’ve written many times before. But it seems that most saunas are taking active steps again to attempt eliminating their proliferation on the premises. Saunabar in Covent Garden strongly advertises its strict anti-drugs policy.

Sweatbox Soho declares that if a client is found with G on their person its staff members are told to call the police at once. ‘G is killing people,’ says a sign on its lockers. ‘Do you want your friends and family to know you died in a gay sauna? That’s not sexy.’ The use of ‘sexy’ as an adjective in this context is perhaps questionable, but the essential message is clear.

Sex drives us; it is our foremost pleasure and our hardest wiring. Sex is the reason why saunas exist, why there is cruising on Hampstead Heath and a large part of why these polymorphous dating websites and applications we are bathed in have blossomed. Whilst we harbour desire for one another these facilitators helping us to have sex will always go on to exist, although their formats may change and evolve.

So, perhaps we should embrace saunas as an integral part of our culture? When the soldier James Wharton claimed that saunas should be shut down so that we gays can further assimilate; when the play John paints the steamroom as a place of lonely tragedy: both are recycling gay shame. Of course we’re not all sauna users, and we’re not all looking for NSA, but we can all celebrate the enjoyment and freedom of gay sex.

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