A collage of four pairs of bodies, all different rainbow colours and body sizes touching and getting intimate, against a backdrop of black.
Illustration: Esme Blegvad

The Dark Room Boom

From big in the 70s to shut down in the 80s, UK queer clubs are now experiencing a new wave of gay sex-positivity.
illustrated by Esme Blegvad

The allure of a dark room lies in its lighting – it should be dark, but not too dark. Ideally, you won't recognise the cashier from your local Tesco Metro, but you will be able to make out a sweaty throng of bodies in positions you'd normally only see on OnlyFans. Dark rooms have been a draw in queer spaces for decades and remain de rigueur in other, friskier parts of Europe. Put it this way: It's a rookie error to wear your best shoes to Berlin’s famously bohemian superclub Berghain, because you'll just have to chuck them away after you leave seven hours later. 


But now, dark rooms are enjoying a long overdue boom in the UK, especially among MSM (men who have sex with men). "Essentially, the reason they're becoming popular again is a supply and demand issue," says Ian Howley, CEO of health and wellbeing charity LGBT HERO. "Gay men want a place where they can have fun, and a dark room in a club can be the perfect place to let go of your inhibitions and be sexually free." 

This new wave of gay sex-positivity is being fuelled partly by post-pandemic carpe diem – we now know there’s no point saving your "any hole's a goal" era until tomorrow – and partly by improved access to HIV prevention drug PrEP. This game-changing pill has been readily available on the NHS in Scotland and Wales since 2017 but has only been "routinely available" on the NHS in England since April 2021. "Many men who regularly attend sex venues and dark rooms are very aware of their sexual health and will most likely be on PrEP or be HIV undetectable," says Howley. "This means dark room users are some of the most sexually responsible people in our community."


Typically, a dark room is located away from the club's entrance and the bustle of the main bar. This way, punters are less likely to cop an eyeful as they order a round of Tequila Rose. It also means you can steel yourself with a shot or two before getting your kit off. A dark room tends to be a fun but functional space where shadowy corners and throbbing music create the right environment for anonymous casual sex with no judgement and minimal chat. It's spontaneous and exciting, but can be brutal. Being rejected on the spot with a cursory shake of the head stings so much harder than being told "sorry not my type" on Grindr.

When dark rooms first became popular in the 60s and 70s, there was an even more pressing need for spaces where anonymous same-sex encounters could take place away from prying eyes. Until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, sex between two men was illegal in England and Wales. Similar legislation decriminalising male homosexuality in Scotland and Northern Ireland wouldn't follow until the early 80s. Cruelly, just as homosexuality was becoming less taboo, the LGBTQ+ community was hit by a devastating health crisis that made casual sex feel like a calculated risk. "During the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s, a lot of LGBTQ+ venues closed their dark rooms in order to help prevent the spread of HIV," Howley explains.

Before this year, there was another "dark room resurgence" in the 00s and 2010s, Howley says, but the long-term future of these spaces has always been pretty precarious. In New York, for example, dark rooms are illegal, which means queer clubs have to be subtle (or utterly brazen) in how they market them. When UK LGBTQ+ venue Eagle London closed its dark room in 2017, owner Mark Oakley blamed dating apps like Grindr for making it less attractive to people looking for casual hook-ups. He also said an "evolution in drug culture" had made it harder to keep the space safe. "You can search all you want, but if someone’s pre-loaded with [libido-enhancing party drug] GHB and they're not 'up' yet, it’s very difficult for your security guards to tell," he told Time Out at the time, meaning if they’re too wasted to enter. 


Two years later, clubs with dark rooms in Manchester's gay village faced a very different threat: Visits from licensing officers claiming that they were breaking the law by allowing men to have sex on the premises. In March 2020, right before the pandemic hit, the situation was resolved when the local council said that fetish nights with dark rooms could continue to operate as "private members' clubs". Now, if you want to visit Manchester's long-running fetish event Club Alert, a space that promises "dark rooms, dancing and debauchery", you'll have to sign up for membership first.

In London, dark rooms are popping up again at buzzy queer club nights including Adonis, which has recently introduced a "femme dark room" separate from its existing dark room for MSM. Roast, a club night held fortnightly in maze-like Angel venue Electrowerkz, views its packed dark room as pivotal to its sexy image. "Roast is a men-only club night for bears, cubs, chubs, chasers, muscle bears, trans men, muscle men and their admirers," co-founder Lerone Clarke-Oliver tells VICE.  "We wanted to create a space centring men that perhaps felt sidelined in mainstream queer culture. We wanted to celebrate Black and brown bodies, as well as beary, big-bodied guys and hairy men."


Joey Knock, a 33-year-old cis gay man from London, goes to clubs with dark rooms once or twice a month, including Roast and Trough. "I feel more sexually confident in a dark room because of the low lighting and the more transactional, anonymous nature of sex," he says. "I also have some back acne, which I can be insecure about, but it doesn't tend to be visible in dark room lighting."

Knock says that, in his experience, "there's actually a higher level of consent and sexual etiquette in dark rooms'' than on regular LGBTQ+ club floors. In a dark room, sexual advances are expected, whereas on a club floor "you can feel harassed by someone while you're just trying to dance". Still, Knock also points out that dark rooms' dim lighting can make it trickier to police your own body. "People will generally catch my eye or brush my hip to get my attention, but some will straight away touch my dick," he says. "As a bottom, there's also the worry of being passed around without you seeing – like, when someone pulls out of you, someone else might enter you straight after without you realising.” 

Roast's co-founder Lerone Clarke-Oliver says his team works hard to maintain safety by stipulating that all tickets must be purchased in advance and refusing entry to anyone who doesn’t have a physical ID. "We encourage dialogue and feedback and enjoy an open communication channel with our guests – they will be listened to if they need to communicate anything to any of us," he adds. Clarke-Oliver also says that, like many sex and kink nights, the club employs a "dedicated welfare officer" who is always on hand. At Roast, their role is "to roam the venue, looking out for anyone who may feel unwell or in need of assistance, paying particular attention to the dark room".


For Chris Royal, a 42-year-old trans man from northern England, clubs with dark rooms like Manchester’s Club Alert and Mancsbound offer a hassle-free alternative to dating apps. "I like to feel desirable and fuck while being watched, and it feels a lot safer than my Grindr hook-ups because there are other people around," says Royal, who asked to use a fake name. He says there’s "less chance of trans panic" from sexual partners in a dark room because "guys often haven't realised I'm trans until partway through, or sometimes don't at all, depending on what we're doing." For him, it’s a relief to enter these spaces knowing "I don't have to have ‘The Chat’ or be fetishised.”

As dark rooms become more popular again, Howley says they don't need to feel overwhelming for first-timers. "Most will have an area that's well lit, so stay in that space until you get your bearings," he advises. He also recommends taking regular water breaks, especially if you've drunk alcohol for Dutch courage, because "dark rooms can get hot and sweaty" very quickly. "But above all, consent matters," he says. "You may be in a sexualised environment, but you still have to consent to any sexual activity and vice versa. Don't do anything you don’t want to and remember it’s a space made for consenting fun."

Howley also points out that the UK's latest dark room boom is still in its infancy. Though Glastonbury’s queer pop-up NYC Downlow has brought dark room culture to the festival scene, it remains entirely absent from Old Compton Street, London's LGBTQ+ heartland. "But if you travel to mainland Europe, you’ll find many bars and clubs offering a dark room as a standard practice," he says. "Here in the UK, we still have a way to go in terms of being as sexually liberated as our queer neighbours." 

Still, if you're a sexually timid person, the dim lighting and anonymity of a dark room could be just the thing to bring out your inner Casanova. After all, in a dark room, anyone can be a dark horse – or rider, if that's the way you like it.