by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Gay saunas, more popularly referred to as bathhouses, have been attacked for decades. First they had their closure being called for because of immoral sex acts. Then, during the HIV/AIDS crisis, people thought that if you closed the saunas down (and many of them were closed) then AIDS would go away. And now, in no small part due to the stigma that still exists around HIV/AIDS, the bathhouse has seen its heyday pass. Instead of during its glory days of the New York City Continental bath's with Bathhouse Betty (Bette Midler) when men came (forgive the pun) and went as they pleased, nowadays patrons sometimes enter and exit in a rush, hoping and praying that nobody sees that they were in the place of the damned - doing something completely legal.
Saunas have come under fire again, more recently from a Gay British former soldier who said if LGBT people want equality and respect, Gay saunas should be shut down.
James Wharton, a former army pal of Prince Harry's, has said saunas promote homophobia and undermine gains in equality.
Writing in Winq magazine, he said: 'Sex saunas need to be history. The time has come to close them down.'
He claimed that if Gay men want to be respected and accepted as 'the new normal' the community must stop supporting establishments that encourage promiscuity and sex.
'[Saunas are] thorns in our side that mark our community as different for the wrong reasons,' he said.
'If we don't, we feed the haters and we hand the bigots who remain a vocal minority ammunition with which to attack us.'
'For me as a Gay man, the notion that there exist within our communities a series of places that actively promote the convening of Gay men for participation in sex of shades various and in groups of all sizes rather revolts me - and I've been round the block a few times, believe me,' he said. 'I'm no prude, not even close, but the days when we gathered in clandestine fashion for want of a network or a sexual outlet are surely long gone.'
Wharton referenced a recent case when a man was found dead in a Manchester Gay sauna lying in his own excrement.
(In Seattle, there have been more than a handful of deaths at the local bathhouses, Club Z and Steamworks Seattle (formerly Club Seattle) say authorities, but nothing that caused any real concern.)
Jason Warriner, the clinical director for Terrence Higgins Trust, told The Independent closing saunas could hamper the spreading of safe sex messages while having little impact on behavior.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said using a sauna was an individual's choice - whether they were straight or Gay.
It would be very wrong if the Gay community became proscriptive and moralistic over consenting adult behavior,' he said.
'Plenty of Gay and Bisexual men use saunas without resorting to drugs or unsafe sex. A small minority may act recklessly and that should be challenged but it would be wrong to penalize the majority,' he said.
A backlash that Wharton had not anticipated occurred. He got so much heat for his statements that he ended up writing an Op Ed to defend his words.
'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,' he said. '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.'
He says he is fine with people disagreeing with his opinion of Gay saunas.
'My biggest concern, and that which I hope to bring attention to now, is that of sexual health,' he said.
According to Wharton, the facts are simple:
o The number of people accessing HIV care in London is up 76% in the past 10 years.
o 51% of new HIV cases in London are among men who have sexual contact with other men.
o 22% of people living with HIV in London do not know they are HIV positive, and are, therefore, potentially putting other people's sexual health in danger if they are practicing unsafe sex.
o 42% of people living with HIV in the UK are based in London.
Wharton attributes the statistics to 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 militating against the risks people run,' he said. 'This is vital and I hugely admire the organization for doing it.'
Wharton believes '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, Wharton says he worries about those statistics.
'Saunas and bathhouses emerged at a time when there were few outlets for sexual expression for Gay and Bisexual men,' he said. 'We simply don't need them anymore, 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.'
For the record, Wharton says he is also in support of 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,' he concluded. '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.'
Bisi Alimi, Gay Star News reporter and HIV/AIDS activist doesn't agree with Wharton at all. He wrote an Op Ed of his own, saying in no small way, that Wharton was dead wrong on almost all points of his argument.
A few weeks ago Alimi says he was talking to a friend about going to a Gay sauna. His friend told him 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,' said Alimi. '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,' he explains. 'So when James Wharton wrote an article 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 that sex saunas [in Britain] need to be history. The time has come to close them down.
Alimi says Wharton's 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,' he points out. '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 beings, come in different shades,' he said. '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.'
At the end of the day, Alimi believes that '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,' Alimi admits. 'However, the point Wharton missed 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,' Alimi asks. '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?' he continued. 'What then will make us better than Nigeria and Uganda where sex and relationship between two consenting adults are illegal?'
A few weeks ago, Alimi 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,' Alimi says. '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,' he said. '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,' Alimi says he believes. 'It starts the LGBTI community on a path where we demonize each other, rather than respecting ourselves.'
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