I was disappointed to read James Wharton’s article in favour of shutting down gay saunas. There are two primary reasons he gives for this, neither of which I believe has any weight whatsoever.
Firstly, Wharton claims that closing saunas down is beneficial for sexual health reasons, quoting HIV statistics to back this argument up. However, there is no link between the statistics cited in the article and saunas. The fact of the matter is one cannot, and indeed should not try to police consenting sex between two adults, so the best action to take in preventing the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is making sure that condoms and lube are readily available to those who want to use them. By that logic, I cannot see how saunas could do more to combat the spread of STIs.
It seems that the article refuses to acknowledge that people will always have casual and group sex. Were saunas to be closed down, it would still happen just as often as it does now. Many people who engage in casual and group sex take proper precautions and get checked regularly. To tar everyone who uses saunas with the same brush, and to simply assume that the spread of HIV comes about because of those people is nothing more than slut-shaming.
Wharton also claims in his article that, “Saunas and bathhouses emerged at a time when there were few outlets for sexual expression for gay and bisexual men. We simply don’t need them any more”. I don’t believe that this is true. There is still a shortage of queer spaces, especially outside London, which is given an undue level of focus in the article. Were saunas to close, most cities’ queer spaces would be restricted to bars and clubs (this is certainly the case in Leeds, where I live) which is hardly a healthy state of affairs. There are many reasons why gay men would feel like they were excluded from gay bars and clubs, so to remove all other queer spaces would leave many gay men feeling isolated from their communities.
The most objectionable part of Wharton’s article is his claim that saunas “give powerful ammunition to anti-gay haters.” This is one of the most harmful opinions expressed in the article. Speaking personally, I am not in the business of appeasing homophobes by conforming to outdated social norms based on shaming anyone who isn’t monogamous. The moment that gay men choose to alter their sexual behaviour, or erase certain elements of gay culture in order to combat anti-gay sentiment, the homophobes win. It seems to be a trend that so-called ‘gay rights’ campaigners are increasingly concerned not with the rights and welfare of gay men, but instead focus on managing homosexuality like a brand.
Yes, there are problems with gay scenes in many cities. There should be a greater abundance of queer spaces such as art galleries, bookshops or coffee shops, that aren’t focused on sex or booze. And there are also problems with saunas in the UK. There should be separate spaces for socialising and sex. Many saunas only cater to cis men, which is something that seriously needs to be addressed. But the solution isn’t to shut down saunas, and certainly not for the reasons proposed by James Wharton.
Queer culture is so rich and diverse that it seems that many self-appointed spokespeople for the community are no longer relevant. Gay men don’t need people telling them they should conform to heteronormative society out of fear. We need to work together to make changes within and outside of our community in order to achieve equality on our own terms, because otherwise, it isn’t real equality.
Image Susannah Ireland