My morning commute is usually blurry, distracted by the newly constructed Tower building or the Peter Pan skyline of Parliament. I hadn’t noticed it before, so visible under the arches. Next to the entrance of a busy London station, the neon rainbow announcement of a Gay Roman Sauna. I don’t know what jarred me so much about it, the fact it was in such a visible location, or that it was there at all.
I grew up in an area of Spain where a run-down hotel served as a brothel. We would pass it by in the car and someone would make a joke, someone would whisper, someone would giggle. The rest of my perception of sex as a business transaction came from movies. So unless you were Richard Gere, my impression was fat old men paying for something they couldn’t get on their own merits.
My feeling has always been that it is a mercenary act, cold and unfeeling, yet endlessly fascinating. What is deemed the oldest profession in the world is still taboo, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone talk openly about it beyond the bravado of “I do it because I feel like it”. Maybe there is nothing beyond the bravado.
Back to saunas. The thought of that sauna there, so close to the train station, stays in my mind for the rest of the day. I realise I am left with two questions, “why is it there?” and “why does this go on?”.
I have a theory about why certain gay men have sex the way they do, and I don’t have a theory about why the rest of us are permissive about it.
There was a time when gay sex was illegal, and once it was no longer illegal it was still frowned upon. There was a pressure to conform, to get married. There was no internet in those days. I can imagine a building sexual desire coupled with a sense of shame imposed on by society led to men falling into shadows. Here were the days of cruising in woods, in public toilets, and establishments masquerading as “saunas”.
The sad irony being that when these gay men were caught in toilets, in alleys, in the dark, they were branded as monsters, perverts and sexual deviants. A vicious cycle that was driven by necessity turned itself into a subculture. If a monster you brand me, a monster I shall become, and although in Western society there is no longer a need to get married and then nip to your local sauna for a quickie, it seems men still continue to revel in the anonymous sex, the dark rooms and the promiscuity.
The rest of us remain permissive. We see it as an inherent freedom, a part of our culture. Most of us go through at least a phase of sexual experimentation, that tends to conclude with boredom, dissatisfaction or a relationship. Others continue despite the relationship.
I’ve been given one perspective as to why this goes on in gay culture. Apparently, it’s because we’re men, and if women were as sexually minded and allowing as men were, there would be straight saunas too. I find this idea insulting on two levels. Firstly, it makes out that women do not find sex important, that they do not have a capacity to be promiscuous or to have desire. This is not my experience of women, of beings pure and chaste who have to somehow be tricked or lulled into sex. Women can be just as filthy, just as slutty as men, they just don’t talk about it as openly.
The second is that men are somehow walking erect penises, constantly thinking about fucking anything and everything they see, only stopped by the other person saying no. That men in relationships are constantly tempted and dissatisfied, made to “settle down” by women. I don’t find this to be true, for gay, straight or bisexual men. Men have feelings of tenderness, of love. They don’t say yes to every offer of sex that comes their way, they don’t find every wet hole an opportunity.
What about gay men? Is there a pressure to live up to this idea of a devouring sexual appetite, with a triangular hairless body and your ankles by your ears? Can we step away from this or are we caught up in the hype? I remember having boy troubles once and an older gay man advising me against a boyfriend. “After all,” he said, “we gay men are very promiscuous”. It was news to me. I remember thinking maybe I had to try being promiscuous. In retrospect I’m amused by that it was a gay man who got me to believe there may have been something wrong with me.
I needed to throw all this at someone, so I told my boyfriend about my thoughts after being faced with the sauna. All these stray ideas I had, for him to pick up and throw back at me. I concluded with “Why should it still have to be there? Have we not moved on from this?”. His answer was concise and sobering.
“Why can’t it be there?”.
I am still of the belief that it is unhealthy, that it is not an accurate reflection of men or gay culture as a whole. That it makes us a little less credible in the eyes of society. That I wouldn’t want a boy who’s just come out to walk past it and think that is what was expected of him as a gay man. I have no desire to go to one, I don’t see why some clubs have to have dark rooms, and I would find it uncomfortable to go to a club that has one, especially with a significant other. It seems to say “This isn’t just a place to dance and to have a good time”, there’s an underlying consensus that anything goes in there . Ultimately, can you not just fuck at home?
Here’s where my boyfriend steps in, and makes me realise that if we’re going to live and let live then it should be for everyone. I am not responsible for gay culture as a whole, I cannot control it under my worldview. If these places are there, it is because there is a demand for them. So I can live my life the way I choose to, and if I don’t like the idea of saunas nobody is forcing me to go to them. If I don’t like clubs with dark rooms, there are plenty of clubs without them. People who go to these places are still people, they just make different choices. If I really care and worry for all these young people coming out, the only thing I can do is be an example to live by, and part of that includes living my life the best way I know how and not judging everyone else for theirs.
So I had a humbling lesson, but I am still curious. All I have right now is the feeling this is bigger than just an opinions article, and more questions than when I started.
Who goes to these places and why do they go there? Are they open and proud about it or do they hide? How often do they go? Do they see it as an addiction? Are they trying to get out of it? Would they give it all up for love? Do they see everyone else as just conforming? Why don’t they just fuck at home? Do they see it as an integral part of gay culture? Is sexuality defined by sex? Is going to a sauna and paying for a prostitute the same thing? What about online cruising?
I feel like I have a project on my hands, to ask the questions nobody else is asking. I’d like to discuss this in-depth and without judgement. Not just to debate whether it should exist or not, but find out more beyond the belief that it exists because men are mindless sexual animals and it has always been there.
You can find a response to this article, written by Dylan Jones, here.