This is a brief post. To be honest I questioned whether I needed to write this. So many people have created a ‘backlash’ to the recent rantings of James Wharton in Winq magazine that I feel I am a bit of a Johnny-cum-lately with this post. But hey, this is an issue that speaks to some of the key issues I’ve been writing about for the past ten years so I thought, ‘oh, why not’.
What does former solider Wharton have to say? Well he thinks we should be closing down the gay saunas in a bid to stop the ‘haters’ and become respectable gay men. The time for skulking around in the dark is over – we can come out into the light and be embraced. It is unsurprising that the Independent ran coverage of this story – and responses to it – using a photo of Wharton getting hitched to his beau. The kind of ‘well-meaning’ but ultimately neo-liberal rhetoric of assimilation that pervades Wharton’s words, while not created by the pro-marriage lobby, has certainly found footing within this group. The basic argument goes “if we are to be accepted by society and ask for the same rights as straight people we need to stop having ‘deviant’ sex in public’.
It was precisely because of this kind of rhetoric that I have been ambivalent about gay marriage. No, let me clarify that – I have been ambivalent about the gay marriage lobby. I am not against gay marriage. If I was then I think this July’s nuptials would be somewhat of a challenge for me. Yes, dear people of the world, he’s putting a ring on it.
I am a staunch supporter of the right for same-sex partners to get married. I am also a staunch supporter of the idea that someone can be married to more than one person at the same time, should all those involved be consenting and know about this. Indeed, the fact that many of those who campaigned for gay marriage did not even consider campaigning for more diverse forms of unions illustrates the rather narrow field of political vision that such advocates tend to have. It also reveals why these folks want to have gay marriage on the book. It is, to my mind, less about equality and more about ‘fitting in’ with the status quo. In doing so, they actually risk making it harder for non-normative forms of relationships (and indeed, those who choose to live as single people) to be accepted and legally recognised.
I am not someone who has frequented saunas much in the past. Indeed, these days, the idea of having sex somewhere that does not feature a bed and 300 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets disturbs me. But I will stand on that front line and campaign for anyone’s right to fuck in any old seedy sauna, or cruising ground or back room until my voice (and my back) give out.
Because I believe in sexual equality. I don’t believe that this should be restricted to men who want to form monogamous relationships (or even occasionally ‘order in’) and want to settle down and get married. Wharton’s rather rudimentary criticism of sauna culture is phobic. It is sex phobic. It is also discriminatory in the same way that being told you had to leave the army if you were gay was discriminatory not so long ago.
And then there’s the hypocrisy! Wharton (and while I am singling him out there are plenty of others I could name here – but shall not) states that he is ‘no prude’ and ‘has been around the block’. This may well have included sex in a (public sex environment (PSE) – he doesn’t say. But now that *he* has found Mr Right he wants us all to clean up our act and play nice with mainstream society. Talk about pulling the ladder up after you!
Of course I am not saying that sex in saunas is a must for every gay boy sowing his seeds. Not at all. But we continue to live in a culture where a boy at Sixth Form college will have his head stoved in if he so much as looks at another boy in ‘that way’. We live in a culture where talking about gay sex remains almost impossible for many teenagers. We continue to struggle to find articulations of queer desire in public. I am not suggesting we rectify this by fucking in the streets (though that is an idea…). I am suggesting that gay saunas are a part of our history and they offer more than just a fleeting fuck for the sad and the lonely (and even if they only offered that, well what is wrong with this). They offer a site of communion. No, not the formal kind – something more ‘phatic’. Something more ephemeral.
I am not suggesting that the sauna is a community centre (though they can sometimes be). Depending on the time of day these can be aggressively sexual spaces of hard looks, discriminatory snubs and testosterone-fuelled desire. But even then there is a sense that ‘we are all here together’. In this space, at this time, we are all just men looking for other men. We are all exploring our desires, each other’s desires, even ourselves. I’ve watched guys in saunas sit and chat to one another, share a cup of coffee, even watch their favourite soap operas together. No, this is not what saunas are necessarily designed for – but that is what some of us use them for.
We can argue whether we need more community spaces outside of the bars and the clubs. We could discuss whether the sauna is acting as a poor substitute for such a community space. But in the meantime, you can can go to the local sauna and, depending on where it is, you can have a fumble, a fuck, a cup of coffee, a chat, an STI test, pick up some condoms, and maybe even catch up on a bit of TV.
So, dear James Wharton, before you next open your mouth and decry the ‘filthy’ behaviours of your queer brothers perhaps you should think about exactly what you are saying and check your politics – and yes, your privilege.