A new Channel 4 documentary, Secrets of the Sauna, offers a glimpse at the secretive world of gay saunas, gaining access to an establishment in Nottingham, several of its customers, and the couple who run it, Joe and John. Attitude’s Ben Kelly chatted to John about sauna safety, monogamy, and ‘giving gays a bad name’…
How did you come to open a sauna?
We’d thought about it for a while. We visited gay saunas all over the world, and we felt it was the right time to do something in our home city of Nottingham. We just thought quite a few local saunas weren’t up to scratch, in our opinion, and they got a bit of a seedy image, and we wanted to provide a safe, clean environment where people can meet up, be anonymous, and enjoy themselves.
You say anonymous, but a lot of people are very open about going to the sauna – there’s even a local Conservative councillor who appears in the documentary.
Yeah absolutely. It’s not to say that everybody is like that, and we respect everybody’s individual thoughts and views on that, but we were surprised by the people who did participate in the programme, and how open they were. It’s their life, they enjoy doing what they’re doing, and what’s the harm in that? That’s kind of how we feel too.
You’re in Nottingham, which is far from the gay hubs of London or Manchester, but it’s a very busy sauna isn’t it?
It is. Nottingham has always been a diverse, interesting city. I think the beauty of having the sauna in the city centre is that we don’t just get locals, we get people who come to Nottingham as a city on business, and they pop in on their lunch break, or after they’ve finished work, just to chill out. It’s not as busy, or 24-hour, as London, but it has its moments.
The documentary shows you’re very committed to safe sex, and you supply condoms in every room. Do you also have to keep an eye on drug use?
Yeah, this is something we’re aware of, and take particular care on. I know drugs are a problem in the capital, and there’s been a lot of adverse press about people overdosing and dying in saunas. To a degree, we’re lucky, because we’re not as affected by that. I think it’s more the 24-hour saunas that have that problem more than us. There’s only so much you can do, but we do the best we can with bag checks and stuff like that, and we don’t really have a problem with it.
Do you worry that saunas in general are at risk, along with bars and clubs, now that people meet online more?
Yeah, that’s got a two way thing to it in my opinion. Yes, the likes of Grindr and social media now, without question, does have an effect on numbers coming to the sauna, but the way we look at it is, the safe environment we offer is an ideal meeting place, even for people who hook up on Grindr. It’s somewhere they can come in safety, and be confident that if it turns out not to be to their liking, they can say no and leave. Whereas if they meet anonymously with no one around, that’s probably more dangerous than the environment we’ve created, where we’re overseeing things as well.
Some gay people think that saunas give gay people a bad name – what would you say to those people?
There’s definitely a stigma out there, particularly with the younger people coming out on the scene now who are used to using social media: They still think it’s best for them to do it that way. But when some of those people come and visit for the first time, they are often pleasantly surprised, and think it’s not as bad as they’ve been led to believe. So we try and encourage as many young people to visit as possible.
You run the sauna with your partner, and the documentary actually shows the two of you getting married.
Yes, it was a great opportunity for us to show that; to show that we love each other, and we’re proud of that, and something we never really expressed to our families even. The fact that we were there in that situation, we were just so proud to show the world.
You get married, but rather bravely, you also discuss how you might still have your own individual fun in the sauna. How does that work for you?
We don’t necessarily have fun in the sauna as such. We’ve got close friends that we chill out with in the sauna or the jacuzzi, but as regard us picking up people in our own sauna, it’s something we don’t tend to do. But it has its moments!
The documentary does explore open relationships further with your customer Narvel and his partner Terry.
Well that’s a situation where Narvel has always enjoyed sauna life, since he was a teenager, and he’s been coming to us for years now. Then you’ve got a total contrast with his partner Terry, who is opposed to saunas, but the two of them have kind of agreed to disagree on it. Terry would prefer it if Narvel didn’t go, but he realises that it’s something he gets a kick out of doing, so they accept it together. Whereas Joe and I are both of the same mind, we’ve both visited saunas in the past, so running one is totally normal for us.
Do you think this is an issue that each gay couple has to come to their own agreement on?
Yeah, not all gay couples would agree to meet or frequent a sauna, but there are many couples like ourselves who don’t have a problem with it, and they’re the couples who are most honest with each other. Sadly there are people out there in straight or gay relationships, who come to us in secret, and we in turn respect that, and don’t criticise that. I think it’s sad that that’s their situation, as they have to lie to their partners.
There’s a part where Narvel says he thinks gay saunas exist because there are no women around to say no. Do you think it’s natural for men to want more sex?
I think I do agree with him. Gay men generally are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. But there are straight couples out there who are doing the same thing as what we do in the gay sauna, but they go to swingers parties, and that sort of thing. So there are many heterosexual couples who are also open about having sex with friends and others, but I don’t think it’s as widely talked about.
Secrets of the Sauna airs tonight (March 2) at 10.35pm on Channel 4.