Words by Stuart Haggas | @GetStuart 
Photography by Chris Jepson: www.chrisjepson.com
Venue: Saunabar, London: www.thesaunabar.co.uk


SAUNA NEWS

Britain’s gay saunas have been taken a beating in the media of late, it seems there's not a month that goes by without at least one negative story surrounding gay saunas, while a gay campaigner is calling for them to be shut down.

In an era of same-sex weddings, openly gay actors, popstars and athletes, and other benchmarks of equality and acceptance, are gay saunas still relevant on Britain’s gay scene – or is it time for them to be consigned to history?

“If saunas were irrelevant, they wouldn’t be so busy every weekend,” says David Stuart of the 56 Dean Street clinic in London’s Soho. “We clearly want the option to have sex with strangers in public venues.”

While it’s said that dating apps and websites like Grindr and Gaydar have had an effect on Britain’s gay scene, with bars becoming less about cruising and more about general socialising, gay saunas appear to have lost little of their virility. But why do gay men use them?

NO STRINGS ATTACHED SEX

Having posed this question to regular sauna users throughout the UK, the majority of answers included two key words: anonymous sex. “Great place for anonymous NSA anything goes sex,” says Mark from York. “One-on-one and groups.”

“They’re social. Convenient. You can enjoy playing with more than one guy at a time, or several guys/groups without being judged,” agrees Jamie from London. “Safer than meeting a random guy on the street, at a cruising area, or in a stranger’s home.”

“Convenient,” says Anthony from Oxford. “Hooking up can be intimidating in a bar.”

“Desperation!” admits Ollie from Brighton.
“I haven’t pulled on a night out and am feeling horny, so end up in a sauna.”

“A greater variety of sexual experiences. Also to meet nice people,” adds Mac from Berkshire. “I’ve made friends in such places and started relationships!”

“Started out as a place to go before I came out,” says Dave from London. “Then I made friends there. Fell in love with a guy I met in there. Became almost a social thing.”

“They’re warmer than cruising outdoors,” explains Glyn from Cardiff. “They are safer – my wallet is in a locker, so less easy to steal. There’s a room if you want to get intimate. There’s usually a cuppa!”

GAY HISTORY

History was made in 2014 when the first legally recognised same-sex weddings took place in England and Wales. It the same time gay campaigner James Wharton caused controversy by writing an article that called for Britain’s gay saunas to close. A former soldier who served alongside Prince Harry in the Household Cavalry, he ignited a furious argument online and in the media after saying that if the gay community wants real equality and respect, then gay saunas must go.

Writing in the launch issue of Winq magazine, he described gay saunas as “thorns in our side that mark our community as different for the wrong reasons,” adding: “Sex saunas need to be history. The time has come to close them down.” 

As well as saying that the mere existence of gay saunas gives haters and bigots a reason not to accept gay men, the article vilified the type of activity that occurs in them. “For me as a gay man, the notion that there exists within our communities a series of places that actively promote the convening of gay men for participation in sex of shades various and in groups of all sizes rather revolts me,” he wrote.

One argument James Wharton made for closing down Britain’s gay saunas was that he believes many gay men become HIV-positive in them, and that men who go to saunas are often high on drugs and alcohol.

Reacting in the Independent newspaper, Peter Tatchell, GMFA’s Matthew Hodson and THT’s Jason Warriner questioned this opinion. There were angry objections online and on Twitter – but others acknowledged that James had made a valid point, and some agreed with him. 

PRO SAUNAS

We asked FS readers who regularly use saunas what they made of this story. 

“No that’s not my experience,” Jim from London tells us. “I think James Wharton hasn’t considered the good that saunas do. For a start they are a place to pick up very useful safer sex info, condoms, lube, etc. They are also a social place.”

“There is no more dangerous activity that goes on in saunas than occurs elsewhere,” says Alex from Birmingham. “I always use condoms, even in group areas, and have rarely had an issue.”

“Completely untrue,” says Jake from Nottingham. “I’ve never seen anyone high on drugs or alcohol. Staff tend to be proactive. As for HIV, there are plenty of condoms – it is the individual’s choice to bareback.”

“I think he’s over-reacting massively, based on his own prejudices,” says John from London. “Of course this happens sometimes, but it’s certainly not the norm. Saunas are controlled spaces, and many saunas have very active programmes promoting safer sex and condom use.”

“Rubbish!” says David from Coventry. “The ones I go to are very chilled, hassle-free places. I’ve never seen drugs used or drunk people. You’ve more likely to see that in clubs with darkrooms. Lads will be lads, and if you close saunas down we will find somewhere else to anonymously fuck – a sauna is safer than Clapham Common!”

“People are not forced to go, nor are they forced to take drugs,” says Stuart from London. “Drug taking is more prevalent in the clubs around Vauxhall.”

“Saunas provide a discreet place to have fun with other guys,” says Jamie from London. “The picture James Wharton has painted is narrow-minded and judgemental. Guys who use saunas are often clued-up about drug use and, in my experience, look out for each other.”

“There are a few guys ‘off their tits’,” admits Mac from Berkshire. “I’ve checked, looked after, sought help for them if required. I think safer sex is just as likely in a sauna as a casual encounter from Grindr, at a cruising ground or a bar pickup.”

 “The saunas I’ve been to are maintained and handled professionally, and don’t let you in when you are too drunk,” says Dave from Birmingham. “Trust me, I’ve tried!”

AGREE OR DISAGREE

Not everyone disagreed with James Wharton’s article: some of the sauna users we spoke to either partly or wholly agreed with his comments.

“I can see his point, as a lot of bareback sex goes on at saunas,” says Tim from Luton. “However people are old enough to go to gay saunas, and therefore old enough to know about safer sex.”

“Very true comment,” says Mark from Manchester. “Many city centre saunas, especially 24-hour ones, do contribute massively to HIV transmission. Sad to say, but a lot of men lose their inhibitions on drink and drugs.”

“It’s true and extreme at the same time,” says Oscar from London. “I personally go for drugs and sleazy sex, but condoms are provided everywhere and people are free to choose.”

“I think James is right but it comes down to personal choice and responsibility,” says Josh from York. “I always bareback, and contracted HIV after doing it bareback with random guys in saunas. But this is the sex I enjoy and desire. Who is anyone to dictate someone else’s sex life?”

“Lots of guys go to saunas more to take drugs than have sex these days,” adds Dave from London. “There’s always loads of mephedrone and G to be bought. I’ve never seen anyone being raped, but I’ve seen lots passed out on G in particular. I’m pretty sure I became HIV-positive in there.”

“Guys can become HIV-positive in any setting where you have sex,” GMFA’s Matthew Hodson acknowledges. “Of course some people have become HIV-positive because of sex they’ve had in saunas, but it’s likely that more gay men have become positive because of sex that they’ve had in the bedroom, as people are less likely to use condoms when they feel emotionally intimate with their partners.”

“Sadly I can’t disagree with some of James Wharton’s claims,” adds David Stuart of 56 Dean Street. “My experience, addressing chemsex trends in a very busy sexual health clinic in the heart of Soho, is that yes, many men do become HIV-positive in them, many are indeed using chems (drugs) in saunas, and I do hear too many stories of non-consensual sex happening there while under the influence of drugs. I’ve no doubt, that in addition to this, many men use the saunas happily and safely.”

COUNTERINTUITIVE

There’s an argument that closing down saunas wouldn’t in fact change the amount of sex and number of sexual partners that some gay men have. Those who enjoy sex with a large number of sexual partners would simply seek this out via other means.

“Ever since they started collecting data on such things, the proportion of gay men who have lots of sexual partners has remained fairly steady,” explains GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “New technologies, or changes in the social and legal environment, may make it easier for men to meet new sexual partners. However it’s always been the case that some men have sex with lots of people – and closing gay saunas wouldn’t stop this from being the case.”

“Gay men have always enjoyed and sought anonymous, quick, easy sex,” agrees David Stuart of 56 Dean Street. “And though many gay men enjoy monogamous relationships, or intimate one-night-stands that include sleepovers and breakfasts together, huge numbers of gay men do seek encounters in public places and sex venues. And though I wish, dearly, that gay men sought intimate sex as frequently as we seek the recreational kind… I’d never go so far as to suggest closing down the saunas. We’d go right back to the public toilets and parks. God forbid. We deserve better than to be having sex in filthy toilets and shrubbery. I think that’s (partly) what I marched in Pride for – a better sex and romantic life, beyond the shameful gutter.”

WHO GOES TO A SAUNA?

The men who go to saunas are often not the same men as you will see in the gay bars and clubs. Data from the Gay Men’s Sex Survey found that high numbers of behaviourally bisexual men and higher proportions of men from ethnic communities where homosexuality is often regarded as less acceptable used saunas.

“This is important because these two groups are less likely to be getting the sexual health information that they need.” says FS editor, Ian Howley. “We have advanced in our rights as gay people but there is still a large number of gay men who, for whatever reason, find it difficult to be themselves. This includes going to bars, clubs or joining social groups. They use saunas to meet with other gay men.” 

Amhair agrees, “I’m not out at home and because of my strong religious upbringing I feel like I may never come out. I can’t go to gay bars in case someone recognises me. The best way I can meet people is to use a sauna or go cruising outdoors. I feel safe in a sauna. It’s a space I can be free and leave my problems at home.” 

Ian adds, “Gay men like Amhair, because of their situation, are less likely to be receiving sexual health information. Saunas supply these men with booklets, condoms, lube, they put up the latest HIV prevention campaigns and even stock this magazine.”  

SEX IN THE SAUNA FACTS

Many of the people who agreed with James and want to close down saunas stated that “it’s the fault of HIV-positive men not caring whether they pass on the infection or not.” Let’s look at some facts:

  •  In 2014, about 3,360 new HIV infections were reported amongst men who have sex with men. 
  •  Of these new infections, about 80% of these came from men having unprotected sex with men who don’t know they have HIV. 
  •  About 16% of gay men, who are HIV-positive, don’t know that they have it. It’s these people who are causing most new infections. 
  •  Gay men, who are HIV-positive and on controlled medication are less likely to pass on HIV. This is because the medication works to control the virus making it difficult to pass on.

“The argument that gay men, who know they are HIV-positive, are carelessly passing on the infection is untrue. The truth is that most new HIV infections, whether it’s in a sauna or not, come from gay men who believe they don’t have HIV,” says FS editor, Ian Howley. He adds, “This is not to say that HIV-positive men, who know their status, are not passing on the infection, it’s just that the common myth that they are reckless or don’t care is wrong. The main thing we need to do to stop new HIV infections is not ‘status shame’ but to educate all gay men on the risks of having unprotected sex, whether they are positive or not.” 

SAUNA SUPPORTING

The fact that some gay men go to saunas to have no strings sex means that organisations like GMFA and clinics like 56 Dean Street can work with saunas to support the sexual health and wellbeing of gay men. “Saunas at least can give organisations who are concerned about reducing sexual harm some opportunity to reach gay men with information about sexual health and HIV prevention, and ensure that condoms and lube are provided,” explains Matthew from GMFA. “It’s harder to do this when people are organising impromptu sex parties in their own home.”

 “The obvious, but important, thing that saunas can do is to ensure that there are plenty of condoms and lube easily accessible wherever you are in the sauna. They can also ensure that staff are trained to be able to provide information to customers if they need it, and can look out for anyone who may be vulnerable,” adds Matthew. “Having posters on display can help remind people to take care of themselves and their sexual partners.”

“Some saunas work hard to look after the health of their clients,” Matthew confirms. “Some even have nights when clients can test for HIV, which means that men who may not regularly test have the opportunity to find out their status.”

When we asked Amhair how he gets his sexual health information, he says “I had my first ever HIV test two month ago. The only reason I took it was because the sauna I go to provided this service. The person who did my HIV test gave me some leaflets, answered my questions and provided me with support. It was a relief to have this.” 


FS SAYS: STOP THE SAUNA SHAMING

The idea that we should shut down gay saunas to improve equality and stop people becoming HIV-positive is simply unrealistic. Saunas have been around for longer than the people who want to see them closed down. They are a part of gay culture, whether you like it or not. 

In the last few years, sauna shaming and gay shaming in general, has become more popular and it’s something we all need to be aware of. Picking on other gay men for the personal choices they make is not only silly but it says more about the person doing the shaming than the people they are talking about. 

If you are truly worried about what goes on in a sauna between other gay men then do something about it. Support gay health organisations like GMFA to get their safer sex messages out there. Telling people that they are bad or wrong does not help them to make good choices about their health. Education is the key to stopping new HIV diagnoses, not sauna-shaming.  

Ian Howley, FS Editor @ianhowley


YOUR SEX IN THE SAUNA GUIDE

Use condoms and lube

Using condoms while having sex is one of the best ways to stop the transmission of HIV. Make sure you use plenty of water-based lube to make sure the condom doesn’t rip during sex. If you’re into long sessions, or engaging in group sex, make sure you change the condom every 30 minutes or so and with every new partner. 

Take breaks

If you are using saunas while drunk or on drugs then it’s best to pace yourself. Make sure you take ‘time-outs’ to gather yourself so you don’t pass out or engage in riskier sex.  

Drink water

Saunas are hot, steamy places. If you have been out drinking before you use them it’s likely that you will already be dehydrated before entering the sauna. Make sure you drink plenty of water because if you pass out while dehydrated this can lead to severe health problems. 

Be in control and know your limits

It’s up to you to have the sex that you want. Never feel pressured into having sex that you don’t want to. If you are high on drugs or have drunk lots of alcohol then it’s likely your decision making will be skewed a bit. The best way stop yourself from engaging in riskier sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs is to know your limits regarding how much you drink or the amount of drugs you take. Be in control.

Look out for others

As much as we’d like to not see people use saunas drunk or high on drugs, it happens. If you see someone passed out in a sauna alert a staff member who will be trained to look after them. A caring attitude towards others could stop someone from engaging in a sex act when they may not be fully aware what they are doing. 

And finally, enjoy yourself

Never let anyone shame you or make you feel guilty because you use a sauna. As long as you play safe, know the facts and are in control then you can do pretty much anything and anyone you like.


IF YOU'VE HAD UNPROTECTED SEX

PEP

We know most gay men use condoms most of the time. But accidents do happen. If you believe that you have put yourself at risk of HIV then PEP is a month long course of tablets, which is available from your nearest GUM clinic or A&E department. PEP can stop you from becoming positive but you need to start taking it as soon as possible and definitely within 72 hours after unprotected sex. For more information on PEP, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/pep.

HIV testing

No matter what type of sex you engage in, it is recommended that all sexually active men test for HIV and STIs at least once a year. If you engage in bareback sex on a frequent basis then you should test every few months. It takes roughly four weeks for HIV to show up in a test. 

In today’s world, someone living with HIV, who is on medication, can have a near normal life expectancy. If you are diagnosed as HIV-positive, the best thing you can do to stop the spread of HIV is to continue taking your medication. A recent study showed that HIV transmission from HIV-positive men with an undetectable viral load is close to zero. 

For more information or to find a GUM clinic, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics.