INTERVIEW | What It’s Really Like In A Gay Sauna
Secrets of the Sauna is an eye-opening new one-off documentary about a gay sauna in Nottingham, run by long-term couple John and Joe. Here, the pair talk about the documentary, getting married on screen, and their unconventional way of making a living.
You guys run a sauna in Nottingham that’s the subject of a new documentary. How did you end up being approached for it?
John: I think someone from Channel 4 came up with the idea, and they came up here and did a pre-interview. They were looking at London, as well, as an option. But they chose to have a provincial one rather than a London one.
What was it that made you say yes?
Joe: It was something different, wasn’t it?
John: We thought it was a great opportunity to show the world that it’s not that bad, what we do behind closed doors. It’s not all seedy.
Joe: Yeah, one thing we wanted to get across was the fact that saunas aren’t all seedy and sleazy. When we set out to create CS2 in Nottingham, our intention was to have somewhere that was clean and safe, where people could actually enjoy the environment. So to be able to convey that was a good thing.
How did you get into the business in the first place?
John: We were just looking for something different to do. We’ve always frequented saunas, and we were aware of the fact that someone had opened one up in Nottingham. But it was in an old derelict building, which is no longer there. We’d been to others around the country which were really nice, and we just felt that Nottingham, our home city, deserved a decent sauna in the town. So that’s what we did. We wanted to get away from the behind-closed-doors, sleazy backstreet location. So we found the city centre premises that we thought were suitable and we got our teeth into it. It was really good fun for six months – builders in, gutting the place, and then they purpose-built it to our needs, really.
What was the experience of filming like?
John: It was good. Towards the end though we did begin to feel that we’d done it all! But overall, we really enjoyed it, didn’t we, Joe?
Joe: And in the middle of that, we were doing our wedding as well.
John: Yeah, to coincide with that, we were organising to get married. It kind of got a bit stressful, doing that as well as filming, and, of course, running the business at the same time.
What did your customers make of it? Did any leave as soon as they saw cameras?
John: Yeah. That added a bit of stress. We’ve always respected the fact that our customers like a bit of privacy that nobody knows they go to our sauna. So a few freaked out as soon as they knew that cameras were going to be here, and we had to put their minds at rest and explain that nobody would be filmed unless they wanted to be. But there were certain customers who took exception to it and stayed away, so that was a bit stressful. We didn’t want it to damage our business.
Do you ever get people who come in thinking it’s a regular sauna?
John: Pretty much not, no. I think most people that visit have probably looked at the website.
Joe: It’s not the kind of building that you just walk past and say “I’ll just pop in there.”
John: It doesn’t even say it’s a sauna. You’ve got to look for it. You’ve got to know where it is and what it is, so most people who come to us know where it is and what it is.
Have you ever had any bad reactions from people who don’t like what you do?
Joe: No, we haven’t.
John: They might do when the programme comes out.
Joe: Yeah, they might do after that. We’ve avoided all of that by being totally discreet.
John: This is kind of opening a can of worms if we’re not careful. We’re prepared for it and excited about it in a way. There’s bound to be the odd negative reaction to the programme, but we hope more so that there’s positive reaction, and it brings people to us as opposed to drives people away.
We live in a world where people can pick each other up and meet for sex using apps. Does that mean the sauna is becoming less relevant?
John: Yeah, that’s a concern.
Joe: People don’t even need to leave their house now to find what they want.
John: But we’ll cross bridge when we come to it. I think there’s always going to be some sort of need for this type of venue. But we are aware of the fact that social media is having an impact.
How busy are you these days? What’s an average day?
John: We’re pretty quiet at the moment, because we’re in the summer period. This is the time, on red hot days like this, when we struggle to actually get people in. Again, that’s why some sort of publicity is better than no publicity.
Joe: Because most of our clients are married men, when it’s the school holidays, daddy can’t come out to play, basically. That really is true.
John: We always get a rush just before the kids are off school.
You got married during the filming of this. What did it mean to you to be able to get married after 30 years together?
John: I think it was a statement, and it was nice for us to be able to make that statement and make it official.
Joe: It was the fact that we can do it now, as well. We never fancied a civil partnership, that wasn’t really our thing. We’ve been happy as we are. But when the law changed, and hay marriage was made legal, it just seemed like the right thing to do. And to be able to do it during the documentary felt like a real opportunity to say very publicly “We’re married, we’re happy, we’re gay, we’re proud.”
John: And it was a statement to our families as well. And some of my cousins didn’t actually know what we do for a living. So it was a bit like inviting them to a gay marriage, and also saying “By the way, we run a gay sauna. And by the way, you’ll be seeing it on Channel 4.” I’ll be interested to see their reaction. I don’t think half of them understood what we do.
Joe: No. “We run a health club!”
How’s married life treating you?
John: I don’t think it’s changed much, has it?
Joe: He’s still on Grindr! [Laughter] Even on our honeymoon, he was on it!
You’ve got an open relationship. Is that an important part of the fact that you work together as a couple?
John: Definitely. We did that from very early on, really. There was an age gap – Joe was 18 or 19, I was 26 or 27, so I’d been playing the field for a while. When I met Joe, I was still in playing the field mode, wasn’t I?
Joe: Yeah. You’ve never got out of it.
John: It just felt like the rational thing to do.
Do you ever get shocked by anything that happens in the sauna?
Joe: Not really. Nothing fazes us anymore. I’ve lost the end of my toilet brush a few times…
What’s the best thing about what you do?
John: It’s just a fun place to run.
Joe: The novelty wears off a little bit, but from day to day, you never know what’s going to happen. You turn up, as we did today, and you don’t know how many people are going to turn up. We don’t know what to expect. And when we first opened, it was even more unexpected. We didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened our doors. Would anyone turn up? And they did. And they’ve carried on turning up ever since.
And the worst?
Joe: Working on a hot, sunny day like this.
John: That’s my worst case scenario as well. I’d rather be on that sun lounger now, you know?