As more gay men turn to the internet to find sex, where the click of a mouse can see you ordering your ideal sexual partner direct to your door, are saunas becoming obsolete?
Now that you’re just as likely to find romance on the tram or in a cafÃ© as you are in a dark room, are they simply a throwback to a time when homosexuality was something to be hidden?
For those who use them, saunas still provide a valuable outlet for sexual exploration.
Jason, a 24-year-old Fitzroy office worker, frequented saunas regularly during his early 20s, but stopped visiting them a year ago.
-œI started going when I was 19, and it was really hard at first. I used to go and I’d be shaking, because I was so nervous and uncomfortable. That happened the first few times, before I became an absolute pro, he laughed.
-œI saw [saunas] as a means of getting sex and attention. There was some curiosity there as well: there’s a big gay gay world out there, and I wanted to know what it was about.
However, most of Jason’s sauna experiences happened while he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, something he regrets.
-œUltimately, I think I was using saunas destructively. At certain points I’d be too out of it to know whether a condom was used, or I’d not actually use a condom… which I knew was incredibly stupid, but I didn’t have 100 percent self-respect at the time, he recalled.
-œThat being said, I went on dates with two people I’d met at saunas, and I once ended up just talking to a guy in a sauna for hours. So it’s not all just sex. But there is this vibe that’s really masculine and sexual, and it’s really attractive.
Shane is general manager of Wet On Wellington, one of Melbourne’s longest-running and most-frequented saunas.
-œAs someone who came out later in life, it’s good to know I’m working somewhere that can really help people feel good about themselves, especially those men who don’t identify as gay, he told Southern Star.
-œI was married, like many of the guys who come here, so I know there’s a real need for places like this. And I met my partner here three years ago, and we’re still together.
Shane said the team at Wet On Wellington have always strived to make the place a non-threatening environment, partly to allay the inevitable nerves of first-timers.
-œWe’re trying to make this a great recreational experience for gay guys, rather than just somewhere to get your rocks off. If you don’t want to get your gear off, you don’t have to -” you can stay downstairs and swim or have a beer.
Indeed, with a 25-metre lap pool and sunlit courtyard, it’s easy to imagine you’re in a boutique gym, were it not for the presence of a -˜suckatorium’ (yep, it’s exactly what it sounds like).
Shane’s comments are echoed by Dennis, co-owner of Subway, a popular Flinders St sauna that last year underwent a $1.3 million makeover.
-œI think saunas are shifting in regards to why people use them, he said.
-œTraditionally, it was all about coming to have sex, but now, I’d say 25 percent of our customers use the place to socialise, and if they get sex, that’s a bonus. We’re getting a lot of younger people through these days as well.
Perhaps, but Jason’s story seems to be fairly common in the gay experience -” going to saunas while you’re young and unattached, and drifting away from them after the novelty wears off.
But what about the men who consider saunas more than just a youthful phase?
Richard, a 33-year-old graphic designer from Prahran, came to saunas slightly later in life, only visiting his first venue during a trip to Europe four years ago.
-œMy assumptions of saunas were that they were pretty gross, but a friend in Europe took me to one and I had a good experience. After that, I went again and again and again, he said.
He found many of his precon-ceptions about the safety and hygiene of saunas were wrong.
-œYou do encounter the occasional guy who won’t take no for an answer, and who you have to tell to back off. But that’s pretty much the worst of it -” you always feel safe, and you can go to the staff if you have any problems.
-œThey’re generally very clean, which was a worry of mine before I started going. In a dark room, you can’t see that much, so you need to know that there’s not going to be cum all over the ground, he laughed.
Shane from Wet On Wellington agreed that safety and hygiene are the two most important features of a good sauna.
-œWe have a code of conduct up on the wall, and people need to abide by that at all times. It’s also good to let people coming for the first time know what behaviour they could encounter, so they know it’s not acceptable if someone comes on a bit heavy, he explained.
Dennis from Subway Sauna echoed Shane’s sentiments, saying the safety of his customers was his biggest concern.
-œWe work closely with Human Services and the Victorian AIDS Council -” there’s a voluntary code of conduct we’ve signed up to, he said.
-œThings like making sure there are condoms and lube in every room, and that the staff are familiar with questions they might get asked in regards to safe sex, is very important. A nurse comes in once a week if people want to get tested for STIs.
Brian, owner of Prahran cruise club Ten Plus, said for those seeking casual sex, saunas are generally the safest option.
-œGuys are still getting bashed, robbed, murdered and infected at beats. There are no staff, no security, no condoms -” even the beat outreach team have disbanded -” no soap and no hygiene standards at beats, he said.
-œWhen you’re at a sauna or a cruise club, instead of looking over your shoulder to see if you’re about to get bashed, you’ll be looking to see who is about to join you and who’s watching. Isn’t that more of a turn on?
Richard is a regular user of cruise websites, but says he usually prefers saunas.
-œWith saunas, everyone’s there for the one reason. On websites, people can be ambiguous about what they want -“ people say they want a one-night-stand when they really want a relationship, and vice versa. Sometimes you can’t be bothered with all that. -œSometimes you just want to get off.