A few weeks ago I was having a chat with my mate about going to a gay sauna. He told me he just went to sauna himself for the first time and loved it. He wanted to know if I had been to one and what my experience was.
The truth is I never have been to one, but that’s not in the least a moralistic decision. I am not a choirboy, I have my flaws, and I wouldn’t judge people who enjoy saunas, it just doesn’t appeal to me.
I have experimented lots in life and I know for sure that just because something doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else. I believe in individual pleasure as long as the person finds fulfillment in whatever he or she is doing.
So when James Wharton wrote an article this week in Winq magazine arguing gay saunas should be shut down, I thought about my friend and the many thousands of gay and bisexual men like him who just want to do what they feel like doing without someone else telling them it’s right or wrong.
Wharton argued: ‘Sex saunas [in Britain] need to be history. The time has come to close them down.’
His argument is based on the premise this country now has equality, including same-sex marriages and many other civil liberties, so there is no need for gay and bi men to go scouting for sex with strangers in saunas.
But I think what we need to make history is the way we gay men look at our community with ‘heterosexual binoculars’. We shouldn’t be living our lives to make anti-gay heterosexuals and newspaper columnists like us – even if such a thing is possible.
Gay men, like all humans, come in different shades. Some of us might like the pleasure of getting a cuddle on a sofa on a Saturday night watching trashy TV with our husband. Others get their pleasure from going to dark rooms and saunas and house sex parties.
It is not for me, or anyone else, to decide what is best for them.
Wharton talked about the problem of drugs in saunas. This is a very big problem and one I have raised a number of times. However, the point Wharton missed in is there are more drugs being used in house parties than in saunas and other gay venues.
In the home, there is no control over drug use. So to stigmatize bathhouses or saunas as the main villains when it comes to drugs and risky sex is misleading.
And what if we were to agree with Wharton and close down all saunas? By the same argument, wouldn’t we have to close sex hookup apps like Grindr and filter dating sites like PlanetRomeo? Would we start to see people who have casual sex as inferior to ‘righteous gays’.
Would the next step be to ask people to get official permits before they can have house parties so risky sex under the influence of drugs and alcohol can be curtailed? What then will make us better than Nigeria and Uganda where sex and relationship between two consenting adults are illegal?
In his reply on Gay Star News to the many comments on his Winq article, Wharton gave HIV data as one of his reasons for calling for the closure of saunas. However, the data he used does not prove a relationship between HIV and saunas.
A few weeks ago, I joined HIV and LGBTI activists from Scotland to stand against the proposition to close down saunas in Scotland due to ‘one person’ who died in the sauna.
Wharton employs the same argument. But I personally find this ‘let’s regulate because someone died’ nanny state approach repulsive.
Obviously people have died in gay saunas of drug overdoses. And obviously I feel for them. But it doesn’t mean all activity in all saunas is dangerous or that we should stop people going to them.
Forcing sexual morality on people, making them feel shameful for their choices and lifestyles, merely drives them underground. It starts the LGBTI community on a path where we demonize each other, rather than respecting ourselves.
As it happens, I know for sure Wharton means well and did not set out to annoy anyone. But he needs to recognize that not all gay men will be like him or want to be like him.
Instead, we should be working together to make our lifestyle choices as safe and pleasurably as they can be, without adding more to the burden of guilt many of us have been forced by society to carry all our lives.