As London’s biggest gay sauna gets ready to close its door for good, Dylan Jones examines their place in modern life and asks whether their slow demise is inevitable in a changing gay world.
These days, going to saunas is looked down on a bit. In the past, saunas have been disparaged for being sleazy, or dirty. But now it’s more just because they’re uncool. They don’t hold the clandestine, seedy appeal they once did. Now, if I told a friend I’d been to a sauna the night before, they’d probably make a face, say “oh” and then continue eating their smashed avocado on artisan rye bread.
This is something that’s changed in the last few years. Back before Grindr ejaculated itself into everyone’s consciences, it wasn’t unheard of to stumble over to Shoreditch Chariots if you hadn’t managed to pluck a conquest out of East London’s sea of Aztec print t-shirts and fashion degrees.
I went with friends, not exactly regularly, but it was a fun and cheeky diversion once in a while. A couple of us would sit in the jacuzzi, unashamedly drunk, while the other might slink off to a booth with a backing dancer named Jared. Then we’d all have a good laugh about it on the nightbus home. We used to take a bit of joy in the silly debauchery of it all.
It also wasn’t all about sex. I once got chatting to a monosyllabic Scandinavian photographer, who was lovely, but totally nonsexual. We exchanged contact details and he later helped me on a shoot for a fashion magazine I was working for at the time.
Now it’s all changed. I haven’t been to a sauna for about a year, and the last time I did, it was full of rather lonely characters wandering through a wordless mephedrone mist. Pretty much all the sex I saw going on was unprotected, and people weren’t even bothering to hide their bottles of G. The numbers were also telling; it was a Saturday night I think, and there were only ten or eleven people there. A poor show for a sex club in one of the gayest cities in the world.
It’s yet another example of how chems and Grindr have been a major game changer. I haven’t exactly done detailed market research (unless you count Jared the backing dancer), but I’m fairly confident in saying that Grindr is responsible for the demise of gay saunas. Because saunas were often where you went if you were in the closet, or if you hadn’t pulled on a night out. And now Grindr fills both those holes, so to speak, much more quickly and efficiently. And cheaply! Entry into saunas is at least £15 a pop, and people can’t afford that these days.
The imminent closure of Shoreditch Chariots, the biggest gay sauna in London, probably heralds the beginning of the end for this steamy, salacious past time. And people are asking whether it’s a good or bad thing.
In some ways, and for some people, saunas still have their place. It’s very easy for us urban creatives in their early twenties, spinning around The Glory with a drag queen, to forget all about them, and very quickly. But for some men, they’re an escape. From tough jobs or difficult, perhaps abusive home lives. And it’s an escape that won’t be there much longer.
That said, there are potentially harmful aspects of saunas, like their increasingly unapologetic facilitation of drug use, and the fact that they’re undeniably a hotbed of STIs. I’ve had gonorrhoea twice, both times immediately after going to a sauna. Maybe it’s the moist atmosphere or something. That, or the unprotected sex.
Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a THING. One of the joys of living on a big urban gay scene is that it’s constantly in flux and we’re constantly kept on our toes. I found a lot of the dialogue about the recent closures of venues on the scene tedious for the same reason: Many of them closed because it was simply time for them to close. And as a result, new and exciting things popped up in their place.
Perhaps the time has come for saunas to close. And that’s fine! Who knows, maybe in a few years, Grindr will be usurped by pheromone-wafting microchips. We’ll see! It’s all very exciting.
Dylan Jones is a London-based journalist and sex and scene correspondent for QX magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dylanbjones.
8 important figures from gay history you might not have known
‘First Dates’ star Daniel May injured in violent homophobic attack