Before coronavirus hit, Chariots in Vauxhall claimed to be “Europe’s largest gay sauna” for men wanting steam, queer camaraderie and a potential subterranean hook-up. But on 26th January, its owners announced that it “will not reopen” after the pandemic and “is currently in the process of liquidation”.
For Chariots regulars, saying goodbye to the multi-room bathhouse – which had its own spa pool, on-site café and lockers for up to 500 guests – was surprisingly emotional. “I once was momentarily in love with a French guy called Thibaud at Chariots,” one customer tweeted. “We lay together in a cubicle on the wipe-clean mat on the floor; the intimacy was so incongruous with the context.”
Chariots in Vauxhall was the last surviving outpost of a gay sauna chain which at its 2005 peak had six branches dotted across London. Chariots in Farringdon made way for the Crossrail in 2010; its Limehouse site was sold to a new owner in 2014 and now operates as Sailors Sauna; then its Shoreditch, Streatham and Waterloo bathhouses were claimed by gentrification in 2016 and 2017. The Waterloo site is now occupied by a boutique hotel which says its decor reflects “an area famed for its pleasures – both genteel and guilty”. Still, it seems unlikely that Chariots’ darkroom and glory holes made it onto the mood board.
Another leading London sauna, Sweatbox in Soho, has sat empty for nearly a year. Sweatbox unveiled an impressive “million-pound makeover” in April 2019 and targeted younger customers through keen pricing – under 25s could come for free on “Hard Up Mondays and Thursdays” – and sharp, relatively progressive marketing. Though Sweatbox’s Instagram is filled with images of gym-fit bodies, its owners deserve credit for featuring a trans man in its 2019 campaign – a definite step in the right direction. Sweatbox has also offered free HIV testing and Hepatitis B vaccination on the premises administered by 56 Dean Street, Soho’s LGBTQ+ health clinic. Co-owner Mark Ford says today: “We closed our doors in March 2020 and will reopen them again as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Losing Chariots is a major blow for London’s queer male community, but gay saunas across the UK have weathered an incredibly testing 12 months. Some have been closed since the UK went into its first lockdown in March 2020; others managed to reopen for brief periods in the autumn and early December with new social distancing guidelines and strict cleaning procedures in place.
“Gay saunas run of the possibility of sex, but whether people actually have sex when they get here is a completely different thing,” says Stephen Gunn of Manticore Spa in Plymouth. Still, Gunn admits that opening his doors in the autumn, though lawful, did involve navigating “a grey area”. “When the government introduced the ‘rule of six’, we could technically have had six people in one of our cabins, but I didn’t want that situation,” he says. “As far as I was concerned, I was happy to open when people could [lawfully] meet together one-on-one – in the same way they could meet someone on Grindr or go to a cruising spot.”
In 2021, gay saunas are faced with the same toxic cocktail of threats as any other LGBTQ venue. Dating apps have reduced their USP as gentrification has made their town and city centre locations more desirable – and now Covid-19 has made them temporarily unviable. But when we talk about saving our vital queer spaces, gay saunas tend to be excluded from the conversation. Nick Batt, owner of Pink Broadway in Southampton, says a local radio station was interested in hearing about his struggle to survive the pandemic as a small business owner until he said he ran a gay sauna. “Then the radio producer just hung up on me, which is discrimination,” he says.
Even within the LGBTQ community, gay saunas have a lingering image problem. They’re sometimes maligned as “seedy”, “intimidating” and “full of creepy old men”. In 2016, gay magazine Attitude published an op-ed titled: “Perhaps the time has come for gay saunas to close – and that’s fine.”
Paul Town, manager of The Locker Room in South London, says it is reductive to pigeonhole all gay saunas as “expensive knocking shops”. Town says his sauna is “almost like a social club” for his punters, who range in age from 25 to 80. “When we reopened in October, the number of people who came up to me and said, ‘Thank God you’re open again, I’ve really missed this place’ was incredible,” he says. When one regular didn’t return in the first couple of weeks, Town even knocked on his door to check he was OK. “He’d been having chemotherapy and needed to self-isolate, but said he was missing the place, too. I like to think that’s because we’ve created a real sense of community here,” Town says.
Clearly, gay saunas exist so that men have can sex with men in a space that isn’t their home, a hotel or a cruising spot. Since I started visiting gay saunas a decade ago, I’ve seen steam room orgies, group jack-off sessions in the showers and men waiting expectantly in large leather slings. But these hedonistic images don’t tell the whole story. I’ve also seen men reading magazines on sun loungers and discussing politics in the jacuzzi. In my experience, gay saunas are sexy, sex-positive spaces where not everyone ends up having sex.
“Nobody ever talks about the lonely older gay man,” says Pink Broadway’s Nick Batt. “Maybe their partner’s passed away and they want some company, but they don’t feel like they belong in the [gay] bars because you’re invisible in those places if you’re over 40.” Batt also says his sauna provides a safe space for gay and bi men who aren’t out. “I’d say up to 70 per cent of our customers don’t live what you’d call a ‘gay lifestyle’,” he says. “I’ve had customers come up to me and say: ‘My mum died yesterday and she never knew I was gay.’ And in that circumstance, I like to think we can provide a bit of counselling.”
Gay saunas like London’s Pleasuredrome, which pre-Covid opened 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, can also become a refuge for vulnerable and homeless young men. Dean, a 25-year-old queer man from London, says he made his first visits to gay saunas around seven years ago “out of sheer necessity”.
“When I was 18, I found myself unexpectedly homeless and on the odd night where there wasn’t a roof to sleep under, saunas were a relatively affordable way to get indoors for a few hours, find somewhere to rest, and more importantly socialise and feel human again,” he says. “For so much of that period I was simply exhausted and working multiple jobs to keep things moving, so a sauna offered time to unwind, talk, flirt, fuck and feel some semblance of normality again.”
Dean admits that gay saunas were “in no way an idyllic sanctuary” and says he sometimes felt scared sleeping in such a sexualised environment. But at the same time, he feels grateful for the way they connected him with other members of the queer male community. “Saunas were hugely instrumental in my coming out process – they were like an induction into this world which I didn’t have access to before,” he says.
Other young gay and bi men visit saunas because they offer relatively hassle-free hook-ups. At best, dating app conversations involve a lot of negotiation to determine who’s “into” what in the bedroom; at worst, they can be hotbeds for body-shaming and discrimination. In 2018, Grindr had to change its community guidelines to prevent users from experiencing abuse on the basis of race, body shape or gender expression.
Tom, a 23-year-old gay man from Edinburgh, says that pre-Covid he popped into gay saunas once every couple of months because it felt “slightly kinky and different and exciting”. He also says they offer a better social mix than many queer venues. Whereas the mainstream LGBTQ scene “favours cis, white, affluent gay guys, you see a different side to the community at saunas – people you wouldn’t see in bars”. Jack, a 25-year-old gay man from Plymouth, says he would normally visit his local sauna once a week simply to “chill out and have fun” while “meeting new and different people”.
Though no sauna owner knows yet when they’ll be able to reopen, their confident customers will return once it’s safe to do so. Pink Broadway’s Nick Batt says that when saunas in London had to close abruptly in December, men were making the 70-mile journey to Southampton to visit his premises instead. “We’ve got a good working relationship with our local council and the police, and the NHS supplies all our condoms free of charge,” he says. “We’re a real part of the community and I really think it’s time for more people to acknowledge that.”