It’s 10pm on Tuesday night and I’m lying on a poolside recliner with a towel round my waist. A naked middle-aged man approaches and starts playing with himself. He makes a crude joke about what he could put where, which we both laugh off a little awkwardly. He then saunters on to the steam room. It’s a pretty typical exchange, I suppose, in a leading London sauna for gay and bi guys.
I’m at Pleasuredrome, a cavernous space under a Waterloo railway arch which offers steam rooms, a spa pool, on-site masseurs. There are loads of private pods and a bar area serving drinks and snacks. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It boasts on its website that it’s ‘the only gay venue in the United Kingdom that never closes.’ I walk past the entrance regularly on my way to the gym. There always seems to be guys popping in and out.
But Pleasuredrome’s nearest rival, Chariots at Waterloo, has recently closed for good after Lambeth Council approved plans to turn the site into a hotel. In 2016, redevelopment also claimed Chariots branches in Shoreditch and Streatham. This left what was once London’s biggest gay sauna chain with a single space in Vauxhall. Property developers are a threat to London’s LGBTQ venues generally, as the ongoing battle to save the nearby Royal Vauxhall Tavern attests, but they could be a particular scourge to saunas. After all, now we have dating apps, do we even need spaces like this?
Before my Tuesday night trip to Pleasuredrome, I speak to a range of guys who use saunas with varying degrees of regularity. Carl* is in his twenties and lives in Oxford. He says he visits one “five or six” times a year and “somewhat” prefers the experience to using apps.
Why do people still visit saunas when they could just hook up online?
“I’m a bi guy and sometimes it’s quite nice just to leave all pre-judgement in the locker, relax and have fun,” he explains.
“I’m not hiding anything but sometimes a focused group of guys, collected in one place for the same reason speeds the process up.”
Sometimes it’s quite nice just to leave all pre-judgement in the locker, relax and have fun
Toby, who’s in his thirties and lives in London, tells me he used to frequent saunas for practical reasons.
“When I didn’t live in London, they were somewhere to shower and sleep after being out for the night, before taking the first train back to Essex. Pleasuredrome even did food and tea, which was most welcome.”
Carl reassures me I’ll have fun at Pleasuredrome, but I still enter feeling apprehensive. I’ve been here before, and to the popular Sweatbox sauna off Oxford Street, but never sober and alone. After I strip off in the locker room, I head down to what they call an “encounter area”. It’s not packed, but neither is it empty. There are guys of all ages, from mid-twenties to mid-fifties I’d guess, with different body types and ethnic backgrounds. There are no women or non-binary folks, but it feels like a more varied cross section of gay male life than you see at the average club night.
“I think they’re beneficial and important places for many guys and there’s a reason why they’re still open,” Toby tells me beforehand.
“Like cruising, people will always want to effectively ‘go shopping’ for sex. There’s a thrill factor, especially for guys who don’t readily have the opportunity [to meet other guys] because of where they live, or because they have limited social skills.”
Bars and clubs require high levels of socialising and confidence
“Bars and clubs require high levels of socialising and confidence,” he continues. “That’s less the case with apps, but even then you still have to go through all the chat. Even then the person may not be exactly what they appear to be.
“With saunas, what you see is what you get. If you don’t have the opportunity to meet guys very often, just being semi-naked around other guys can be a thrill in itself.”
But there can be a darker side to sauna experiences…
Pleasuredrome feels clean and well-supervised. Signs specify a strict no-drugs policy, though this sadly hasn’t prevented several reported deaths and collapses on the premises since 2012. Staff patrol regularly with torches. But Kai, a gay guy in his thirties, tells me he had a less pleasant experience at a gay sauna in Blackpool where he grew up.
“It was literally staffed by one man behind a desk which meant the rooms were filthy and there was blood on the toilet floor. It was disgusting.”
Kai says he and husband Tim are “patchy” sauna visitors who avoid going at the weekends “because that’s when you get people high coming out of clubs”.
“We can go many many months without going to one, especially with the advent of dating apps,” he explains. “But different saunas definitely have different vibes. Some are very laid-back. There’s one near us in south London where they even ask for your name when you arrive!
“But actually, all the saunas I can think of have a gathering area where you can just chat if you want.”
I see this happening at Pleasuredrome. There are several pairs of guys just sitting and chatting – maybe after having sex, maybe not. After I’ve relaxed a little I end up making out in the pool with a nice-looking guy. He appears to be his late-twenties. After we spend some time in a private pod upstairs, we have a drink together in the bar. He tells me he moved to London from Colombia seven years ago to train as a surgeon. He doesn’t come to saunas often, but work had been tough today, so he wanted to let off steam.
Still, he says part of him finds the idea of visiting a sauna solely for sex “a bit primitive”. The guys I’d spoken to beforehand had been much more positive about the experience. Carl even calls saunas “the final frontier of the underground gay and bi man”. I’m not sure I agree with either view, but I do know I’m glad places like this are still around. And I think I’ll probably visit Pleasuredrome again.
(*Names have been changed)