He says he misses the porn videos they used to show upstairs, but now that part of the sauna is closed.
“Yeah,” I say. “Since somebody died in there.”
“You serious?” he says.
“About a month ago,” I say.
We imagine that the body must be decomposing, or that the management just can’t be bothered to clean up the place, or maybe it’s still a crime scene, but there’s no police tape or anything, just a plastic table and a couple of chairs blocking the entrance to the upstairs darkroom and video area.
We’re standing close together in the other upstairs area at Chariots in Shoreditch. We had sex earlier, only minutes after I’d arrived, and only minutes after that I was inside him. It was what I needed. I’d been holed up in my flat for too long without a hug. I needed that connection that comes with being inside another person. He was a good kisser. He complimented me on my fucking skills. I complimented him on his lovely soft hole and his very firm arse-cheeks. He was not my type, but we did everything we did with humour and kindness.
I tell him that earlier this year, for a while, I dated a guy who used to work at one of the other saunas. This guy had told me about the young guy they’d found dead in a cubicle in the morning.
“Twenty-three,” I say. “All of these guys: babies.”
“It’s fucked up,” he says.
His name is Paul. He’s from up North somewhere, maybe Manchester. Eventually we start making out again, this time in the dark room, just standing up, me playing with his arsehole and whispering into his ear that I’m going to rape his arse. He likes that. He moans when I say things like that, encourages me, kisses me, jerks his cock off until he comes.
“Oi, that’s my towel,” I say, thinking: it could have been worse. It could have been all down my leg.
“Take mine,” he says. “It’s still clean.”
We kiss. He says he’ll see me again – “See you again” – and then he leaves.
It was okay. It was kind of nice. I like being desired. I liked being able to turn other guys on. And after he’d gone, I stood for a while watching the men coming and going, wandering in and out of the barely-illuminated darkroom, many of us in our sixties and seventies, but some of us still with the smell of high-school locker-rooms on our skin. Some of us lean against walls and others go down on all fours on the thin black mattress in the middle of the room with our arses in the air, hoping to get fucked by men we’ll never see or speak to, men we won’t have to touch.
Sometimes I look at us and think we’re depraved, that we have been ruined and poisoned by a world that hates us so much, that fears us, that is so full of dread and ignorance that it’s not ashamed to continue debating whether we can get married, whether we can be bishops, whether we can teach in schools, whether we can adopt, whether we can be open about who we love. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Fuck civil partnerships. Civil partnerships are killing us. How fucked up are we that we’ll settle for second best. Second best is as good as shit. Personally, I’m not really interested in getting married, but if two men want to get married let them get married. Not fucking civil-partnershipped. The fucked-up things we agree to and tell ourselves that it’s good. It’s a step in the right direction. Bullshit.
From cradle to grave we are told that we’re nothing. That we’re worthless. That we might as well be dead. To hold onto the belief that we are human beings who deserve to be loved is close to impossible for most of us.
So it’s no surprise that my libido is very soon in a mess, twisted and contorted and whacked out of shape by anger and crazy thoughts of what has become of us.
I have had sex with men who’ve been in the sauna for forty-eight hours. I’ve had sex with guys who were on so much drugs that when I saw them, by chance, at the gym a while later, they had no memory of who I was. I’ve had sex with guys who’ve asked me to sit with them so they didn’t fall asleep and die, or one guy who let me fist him and kept saying “Is that it? Is that it?” as if not even that could make him feel anything.
Most weeks I go to the sauna at least once. I’ve never taken drugs in my life, so I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so off your head that you can’t feel or remember anything. In the days when I drank a lot, I did a few stupid things that could have got me killed. Is that what drugs are like?
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. I think what I want to say is that the radical thing to do would be to care for each other. To really look out for and after each other.
We’re queer and we’re different and we need to be our own family and our own tribe, because no one else really fights for us. Shame on all those people in our families and amongst our friends who dared to get married – and fucking invite us to the wedding – when we couldn’t. And still can’t. Enough of that! Be nice to yourself. It’s actually harder than being nice to others, but be nice to others, too. The only thing that can save us is the knowledge that our stories matter, regardless of what society tells us. As much as I love going to saunas, and as much as they have helped me to love my body and to feel more desired than I ever felt in my twenties, they are a place of silence, a place where people gather so that they won’t have to tell their stories, because if the world had to listen to those stories, to the stories of how we have hated ourselves and harmed ourselves, and the stories of how we have silenced ourselves, and the stories of what we do with each other in the saunas and sex clubs of the world, they would fucking die. And instead we do the dying for them.
It’s up to us to talk about what we do and about who we are. To talk about that with each other. The radical thing would be to make the sauna a place of stories, the way any sweat lodge would be. The most profound moments I’ve had at the sauna have been when men talk to each other, when we laugh and are open and unafraid and there is the absence – as if we could ever forget! – of society’s wish to see us annihilated.
My manifesto would be: Talk to strangers in the sauna. Ask them questions about their lives. Don’t be scared of people. Everyone is scared, and if they’re not scared, they’re psychopaths. Stay away from psychopaths. Stay away from people who are not generous. Stay away from people who make you feel like shit. The best way to know if a person is the kind of person who makes you feel like shit is that they make you feel like shit.
And if you want to be inspired, watch Lana Wachowski make a speech.