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James Wharton responds to backlash over closing gay saunas

James Wharton responds to backlash over closing gay saunas

My argument that gay saunas should be shut down, first published by Winq magazine, has generated a massive argument today.

I find it unfathomable that people do not comprehend the danger associated with engaging in sexual activity with strangers, often under the influence of alcohol and drugs – saunas are major culprits for all three of these risk factors.

In saying this I’m not judging people on what they do sexually. That’s entirely their own business. But I am concerned they are not sufficiently aware of the dangers they face and am worried, as a gay man myself, about our collective health.

And I’m fine with people disagreeing with my opinion of gay saunas. What more could a columnist want but for to raise debate on a subject of contention? However, I feel a large part of the argument I was making is now being overlooked.

My biggest concern, and that which I hope to bring attention to now, is that of sexual health.

The facts are simple:

  • The number of people accessing HIV care in London is up 76% in the past 10 years.
  • 51% of new HIV cases in London are among men who have sexual contact with other men.
  • 22% of people living with HIV in London do not know they are HIV positive, and are therefore potentially putting other peoples sexual health in danger if they are practising unsafe sex.
  • 42% of people living with HIV in the UK are based in London.

These are the statistics from the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health organization. As they have pointed out, in their response to my article, they do lots of excellent work via saunas in mitigating against the risks people run. This is vital and I hugely admire the organization for doing it.

But those statistics from THT show there is a massive problem despite these fantastic efforts.

We should be moving towards eradicating and overcoming HIV, what’s really happening is actually the opposite. When will we wake up to this?

You are statistically more likely to catch HIV if you are a gay man living in London. THT’s own statistics underline this, and as a gay man, I worry about this.

Saunas and bathhouses emerged at a time when there were few outlets for sexual expression for gay and bisexual men. We simply don’t need them any more, and as a place for sex, they surely send the wrong message to the outside world, not least because of the sexual health impact they have. As such, I do believe they give powerful ammunition to anti-gay haters.

And, for the record, I also support the closure of straight saunas.

If we want to address the spread and effects of HIV within the LGBTI community, complacency is not an option. We have to acknowledge we are simply more at risk and therefore need to evaluate what we do, and try to address how we can start to defeat it. At the moment, we are simply not doing this enough.