Rob Buchanan may have used gay saunas in his time, but he’s got mixed feelings about their presence in modern Ireland.
Despite the huge increases in education and promotion of safe sex, the transmission of STIs in Ireland continues to soar among gay men. It seems that improvements in drugs to combat disease, and the corresponding drops in mortality levels, have made us complacent, and even reckless.
One aspect of queer culture that repeatedly comes up in arguments about health, and morality, is the gay sauna. Depending on your perspective saunas are anything from harmless spaces for recreational sex and socialising, to seedy disease-ridden dens of depravity. When my straight mates got over the initial shock and disbelief that such places legally existed, and that I went to them on occasion, there were two main reactions. The first was: “Fair play. If straights had places like that I’d be there every night.” The second was: “You gays really are obsessed with sex, aren’t they?”
Let’s not forget that heterosexual men are hardly paragons of sexual morality. Straight men are just as often adulterers, are promiscuous or users of prostitution.
The real motivator for men to use saunas isn’t just any old sex though – it’s a specific type. Cheap and anonymous, it requires none of the responsibilities of a relationship. The cheap part is easy to pass off, but the need for anonymity and the fear of intimacy are more complex social issues. We can’t ignore the reality that some gay men are addicted to one-night stands and, because of arrested development and/or internalised homophobia, run the risk of never achieving their potential for finding long-term partners.
I’ve no doubt that many of the lads who frequent saunas are happy and fulfilled in their lives. However, on my visits I’ve seen a lot of drunken desperation, sometimes laced with thinly veiled shame and internalised agesim.
Another element in the sauna mix are the so called ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM) – blokes who do not necessarily identify as gay, but like to shag guys now and then. These men are often married or in heterosexual relationships. Due to the stigma attached to this intermediary sexual identity, and its invisibility, MSM rank disproportionately high for both indulging in unprotected sex and also unwittingly carrying STIs. This is in no small part due to them not seeking out the gay men’s health resources, which those who do identify as gay are comparatively better informed about.
There is a social stigma attached to using saunas, which makes people secretive about their attendance, or they use drugs and alcohol before attending, thus leaving themselves open to risky behaviour, which they are ashamed of. It’s a vicious circle.
I used saunas once or twice when I was younger and hadn’t come out. I went again once or twice after splitting up with a partner. Why did I go? Because I was drunk. Because I was lonely. Because I wanted to feel wanted, to be among my own kind, to vent sexual frustration, to make friends. But I didn’t like the way saunas made me feel. On all occasions my self-preserving nature made me practice safe sex, but I didn’t see everyone else doing the same. I worried about disease. I worried that Mr. Right might pass me by and I’d end up cruising the aisles of saunas forever.
Of course there are obvious advantages to saunas. Given that patrons are recorded at the entrance on CCTV, it’s a safer option than cruising outside, which is prone to all sorts of problems.
But in a time when queer lives and loves are no longer hiding in the shadows of Irish society, while concurrently the epidemic of STIs among gay men is increasing at an alarming rate, should we really be combating our loneliness or sexual identity issues with anonymous, risky sex? Is there a better, safer way? Is the gay sauna merely amplifying our isolation and postponing the possibility of forming long-term relationships and families?
I think when it comes to using gay saunas, men need to take a look in the steamy mirror and ask themselves some hard questions.
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