Who goes to gay saunas?
This week, I was chatting to my friend Ming about saunas. Gay saunas. Sex-on-premises venues where guys go to have encounters with other guys.
I was humble-bragging to Ming about a good sauna experience – I hooked up with a guy that I was really into, it was all easy, everything worked, everything felt good. Ming confessed that he’d never been to a sauna.
“They’re not big here…” explained Ming – he lives in Toronto. “There’s only one, and there’s a lot of stigma attached to going to a sauna. People are very judgey here.”
Sometimes I think saunas get a bad rap - mostly from people who haven’t been to one.
Saunas - or bathhouses, as they’re generally referred to in the US – aren’t a new thing. The Ancient Greeks were obviously a big fan, but there’s quite detailed records of bathhouses throughout history. Places such as Florence in 1492, when there was a crackdown on sodomy that was targeted at bathhouses. Also, Paris in 1876, when there was a police raid on a bathhouse and six men (aged 14–22) were charged with offences against public decency. Then in New York in 1903, police raided a bathhouse and arrested 26 men – charging a number with the offence of sodomy.
It was the late 1960s and 1970s in the US when gay bathhouses came into their own, around the same time as the concept of gay liberation began to build momentum.
While the devastation caused by HIV to the gay community around the world also impacted saunas and bathhouses, sex-on-premises venues continue to play an important part in the lives of many gay men. Even the emergence of location-based hook-up apps hasn’t made saunas redundant - they’re often a preferred meeting point once you’ve connected with someone online.
Who goes to a gay sauna? Honestly, all types of people. From young to old, body-conscious to comfortable. From proud gay men, to young guys beginning to explore, to guys who need to exercise a bit of discretion. What they’ve got in common is that they’re looking for sex, for an encounter, for intimacy.
What happens in a gay sauna? It depends a bit on the facilities offered by the venue, but most places will give you a locker and a towel. You take all your clothes off and put everything in the locker, then wrap the towel around you. Generally there will be a shower area, a steam room, a hot tub, a dry sauna, and a series of cubicles. You hang out, you wander around, you make conversation. If you connect with a guy, or more than one guy, then you have sex. No one forces you to do anything, no one is forced to do anything.
Some people seem to have a perception of saunas as representative of a time when being gay was something to be kept hidden, when encounters between guys were illicit and a little bit dangerous. Why do we need saunas now that we have marriage equality? Why do we need saunas now that gay men can create normal families like everyone else?
Having great sex is one of the huge advantages of being a gay man. Being able to meet up with other guys and have hassle-free sex is fantastic. Having no-strings sex doesn’t make you a bad person, it just simply helps satisfy the sexual need that all men have. Going to a sauna doesn’t have to involve any compromise of whatever committed relationship you’re in – a lot of couples that I know will go to a sauna together, not necessarily to have sex with other people but just to spice things up a bit.
If you’re a gay man who hasn’t been to a sauna or a sex-on-premises venue, then you should give it a try. Being a bit sexually adventurous is one of the great things about being gay.