I went through a brief sauna phase. I was in my mid-20s, and it probably lasted all of six months. A visit almost always ensued after a drunken night out and failure to cop off. That powerhouse of steam and sweat was a last ditch attempt to get my rocks off. And truth be told, it was almost always successful: in fact, I had many horny encounters with strangers there. It was sordid, exciting and served its purpose.
The sauna – or the bathroom as it's known in the US – is at an interesting and precarious stage of its life: in the 70s it was in its heyday as a social place for men to meet up and hook up anonymously (and listen to an early Bette Midler if they were lucky): an integral part of LGBT life and history in the States. However, according to latest figures they're heavily on the decline in the US, from over 200 in the 1970s to less than 70 now. And the situation is similar in other parts of the world.
Over the past few decades, as gay men have become more accepted, saunas – which once served a population seeking anonymity
– have suffered: “Bathhouses were like dirty bookstores and parks: a venue to meet people,” says Peter D Sykes, owner of Hollywood Spa, one of the largest bathhouses in Los Angeles, which closed last April. “Today, you can go to the supermarket.”
And more recently there have been moral debates regarding unsafe sex and drug overdoses, with some people labelling saunas as breeding grounds for STIs. Just this month, a guy in London died in hospital after collapsing in a sauna in a suspected drug-related incident.
In the flesh
Fewer customers coupled with a rising rent put an end to four decades for Hollywood Spa. Likewise, the advent of dating through phone apps and the internet could be the nail in the coffin. However, sauna owners – particularly in the US, which has been biggest hit – are fighting back, trying to entice a younger generation to use them with special offers and deals, and they're also turning to social media to reach a younger and fresh audience.
And good for them I reckon: cos when it comes to hooking up – and let's be clear about this, that's what saunas are for – they have plenty of good things going for them, apart from the fact that you always come out with fantastic, rejuvenated skin: bonus! Let's take a look...
The main advantage is that unlike on the net or apps, you can see guys in the flesh, exactly as they are: no need to ask for more pix, no screen to hide behind and therefore no time for disappointment: if someone doesn't float your boat in the steam room you can just hang around for someone who does.
Secondly, being in a public space, saunas are potentially a safer place to meet guys rather than at an apartment: if anybody is hassling you or if you have an incident or accident, there should be other guys or staff members around. Plus, you don't have that awkward moment of when you meet a guy at his place and then don't like the look/sound/smell of him. In the sauna you can turn on your flip-flops and head in the other direction.
A sexy and social space
Aside from a place to blow your nut, saunas can also serve a social purpose; a place to chill out post clubbing, to relax and chat to other guys. Hell, some guys even use it like a hotel and pass out and sleep there if they've partied too hard (careful of this one: you might end up being interfered with during the night).
Lastly, condoms and lube are usually free and readily available. Whether people actually use them in these environments is another question (let's discuss later) but at least they're free... and they damn well should be, because...
FIRST negative point... saunas are BLOODY EXPENSIVE! Of course they must cost a lot to run (rent, staff, making all that steam etc) so that price is passed to the customer, but when you can hook-up online for free, shelling out a wad of cash is a painful price to pay. Many saunas now offer cheap or free entry on certain days or to younger guys to try and attract customers.
The waiting game and wasting time. Another downside! Sometimes you can be flip-flopping around the sauna alleyways (urgh - that noise) for what seems like decades in order to meet a guy you want to get to grips with. The best sauna strategy is to stay in one place for a while rather than walk around: that way you can keep your eye on guys and give 'em a flash of what's underneath your towel if you want to get their attention. If you try and follow a guy around it can become a painful game of hide and seek.
Next point: when you do find a guy, if you want to find a free cabin to get jiggy in you may not always be in luck: a lot of the time they are occupied or the doors are wide open with a view of a guy face down and his arse, er, wide open. What's with that?
Lastly, there's always the danger of slipping over and breaking your bits. Especially if you're worse for wear. All it takes is an empty packet of lube on the floor and you can be arse over tit and in the back of an ambulance before you know it.
Saunas = unsafe sex?
Added to this, there's plenty of moralists arguing that saunas act as a breeding place for STIs with a lot of unprotected sex going on there: some reasoning that as gay men are often under the influence or drink and/or drugs, they are more likely to engage in riskier behaviour and group sex, despite condoms usually being readily available.
Indeed, in the UK (specifically London), there have been many incidents reported in the LGBT press of guys ODing at saunas and being carted off in ambulances or even dying there. And sure, while some may participate in reckless behaviour, there are also plenty of men that act responsibly and do not take drugs or choose unsafe sex. One suggestion could be that sauna staff should check guys for drugs before they enter, but whether that would work in reality is a different matter.
Personally, I think it's down to the individual to take responsibility for their own actions and drug use. Even if drugs were banned in saunas, some gay men will continue use drugs for sex – at nightclubs, in sex parties, or just between two consenting couples. Sure enough, there have been plenty of incidents of guys ODing at club nights, too.
But some people also go as far as saying that saunas help send out the wrong message about gay men to the heterosexual community: by suggesting that gay men need to look for sex in specific venues, it highlights us as different and therefore undoes the progress that has been made in integrating us in society. What do you think? Where do you stand with saunas? Do you visit them or think they are a relic from the past?
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