Gay former soldier James Wharton: ‘We need to clean up gay saunas’

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Former soldier James Wharton has defended his recent article in Winq magazine about his opposition to gay saunas by saying the venues need to be cleaned up.

Last month he wrote that saunas were “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 m

In an interview today on Gaydio’s breakfast show, Wharton said: “My opinion, in this column, was that I feel saunas should be resigned to history. I made a few reasons for why I believe that, and most of them were that I just don’t see their relevance any more.

“But I also touched upon sexual health and how I feel saunas are counterproductive towards eradicating things like HIV and improving people’s knowledge on sexual health.

“So it went down quite well obviously”, Wharton laughed before adding, “but what more could a columnist want than to ignite a discussion?”

Gaydio presenter Chris Holliday then read out a message from Charles, a listener, who disagreed with Wharton’s article.

Charles said: “It’s a stupid suggestion to ban gay saunas. Not every gay person is interested in a relationship and marriage. It is taking away the liberty of choice for a gay person. We have never heard that heterosexuals ban anything because of this and that. If [saunas] do not suit one person, it will suit another.”

Wharton replied: “You’ve not heard me say the word ‘ban’ at all, ok. I’m not calling for the government to take action on this, I just think as a community we should all look at it and say ‘do we really want this anymore?’”

The former soldier said of the caller: “I think he’s got a valid point, I respect his opinion and … that’s great.”

Gaydio presenter Emma Goswell told Wharton that saunas “wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a need and demand.”

She said: “We live in a capitalist society. If people want to pay their money and go to a sauna and there’s demand for it, it will keep happening won’t it? I can’t see how you can stop it really?”

Wharton replied: “No absolutely but you know this all sparked for me [sic] … when I started to form this opinion, I was reading in the Manchester Evening News about the unfortunate death of a man in a sauna up there in Manchester. And the graphic detail in which they described [how] that man was found … as a gay man I was shocked.

“People think I am this middle class snob who’s not been around the block, believe me I’ve been around the block, I certainly have. And you know I just think maybe we could just clean up the image of these saunas slightly, obviously they are not going to be closed, saunas are not just going to read my column and think ‘oh you know what he’s got a point, let’s all close our businesses’ – that’s never going to happen, but perhaps we could all look at how we could improve them.

Presenter Chris Holliday then asked Wharton: “Is it about regulation then? It is about making sure that they are clean, people are safe, is that an option?”

Wharton replied: “Well, very rightly, people have come out this week and highlighted that they are organisations like Terrence Higgins Trust and GMFA, who are doing the most fantastic job in the world, going into these places and kitting them out with contraceptives and also kitting them out with education, so that people can access information and support which is fantastic.”

He added: “But I do have friends who use saunas, who have spoken to me this week and said ‘you know I go to a sauna all of the time and I often find that there are not condoms available because they have all been used or whatever…there doesn’t seem to be any consistency.”

Wharton continued: “Yeah regulation would be great wouldn’t it? Why can’t we just highlight that? And I brought this out earlier this week that things like HIV are not going away, that is not going away, and if we are going to be realistic about trying to defeat [HIV], then where there are places where there is increased risk, because people put themselves occasionally in dangerous situations, why don’t we actually look at that and think ‘well how can we sort this out?’”

Asked if he was surprised by the reaction to his article, Wharton said: “Not really, what I would say is there’s a lot of people who agree with me and they’ve been very vocal too, but also a lot of people who agree with me who can’t go on record, some people who are high profile don’t want to put themselves in the debate, [I just received] a little message saying ‘I completely agree with you’…but you know this is what it’s all about, I sparked a discussion here and it made the national newspapers, and we’ve got a debate going, this is exactly what I wanted.”