It's no surprise that people have sex in gym changing rooms. You're already undressed, you're slick with sweat – a look generously described as "sexy" – and the endorphins generated from planking for 45 straight minutes could feasibly put you in the mood for more strenuous physical activity.
Members of the Virgin Active health club in Barbican, London were made explicitly aware of this on the 5th of August, when they were sent an email informing them that management had heard "reports of incidents linked to individuals [sic] inappropriate behaviour, specific to the male locker room facilities". Members were warned that "going forward… undercover police officers will be present in the male locker room and they will take any appropriate reaction should the need arise".
However, a spokesperson for City of London police has since told Buzzfeed they've sent no undercover officers into Virgin Active's Barbican branch – or any other gym in the City. This is hardly surprising, given that the Sexual Offences Act 2003 prohibits all forms of sexual activity in public toilets, but has nothing to say about cruising in other locations.
Under the Public Order Act 1986, anyone who has sex in public can theoretically be charged if the police have enough evidence to convince a court that the activity was witnessed by a third party, or highly likely to have been witnessed by a third party. But even back in 2008, police guidelines essentially advised officers to turn a blind eye unless someone actually complained.
Virgin Active's response to "inappropriate behaviour" in the Barbican branch's male locker room wasn't just misguided. it was also strangely slow off the mark. Harry, a regular there, says it's well known as a gay men's cruising spot, but adds that hook-ups actually "used to be much more common than they are now".
Squirt.org, a website that lists places where "men meet other men for sex, cruising, hook-ups, dating, fun and friendship", gives Virgin Active's Barbican location a four-star rating and offers this handy description: "Massive gym, with loads of facilities, and after you've done all your hard work you get some pleasure in the steam rooms etc."
Virgin Active's Barbican branch is not a one-off. Squirt.org lists 17 gyms in London which have a reputation for being cruisey, 22 in Manchester, 13 in Cardiff, 14 in Birmingham and dozens more all over the UK.
"Gym fun", as one guy I speak to calls it, is simply a modern form of gay men "cruising" for sex in public, a phenomenon that dates back to the 17th century. Famously, George Michael was arrested for cruising in a public loo in Los Angeles in April of 1998, an incident that essentially "outed" him as a gay man. Later that year, he sent up the scandal in his "Outside" music video, and said in 2004: "I felt that lightening the stigma around cruising was the most immediately beneficial thing I could do."
But why does cruising in gym locker rooms remain popular at a time when hook-up apps have made it easier than ever for gay men to arrange an anonymous "NSA" (no strings attached) sexual encounter?
Carl, a gay guy from London who's had "gym fun" in his health club's showers, says that sheer practicality is a factor. "Guys at the gym tend to be attractive and have nice bodies because they take care of themselves," he says. "I guess there's also the convenience: rather than [bothering to] browse Grindr, there's someone attractive nearby, and you know what they actually look like. Dating apps are almost always full of very flattering pics that don't match reality."
Carl says that, for him, the risk of being caught is more off-putting than exciting. "There's something hot about being in a public place," he admits, "but mostly I get paranoid about someone walking in rather than turned on by it." He also says guys who cruise in gyms "can be really up themselves" and admits he sometimes feels "paranoid" about getting rejected.
"One time I was in the sauna and this hot muscular guy kept looking at me and moving his towel up so I could see more of him," he recalls. "When I came out the sauna he was in the end cubicle, sort of half out the shower, and made motions for me to join him. We did, and started jerking off together, and he basically came super-fast on me and then left. I felt shit – like I wasn't worth enough for him to help me come, or whatever."
Dan, another young gay guy who's fooled around in his gym locker room, says he thinks it's "probably more common than people think", but adds: "I went to various gyms for years and never really noticed anything. But then I moved to a more expensive, 'elite' gym in central London, and in my first session there I got cruised."
How does the cruising actually work? "It mainly starts with looks getting exchanged in the sauna," says Dan. "And then at some point someone starts stroking their leg and maybe stroking underneath their towels. Then it gets a bit more open and brazen, and usually you go to a shower cubicle together at that point. It can be quite exciting to begin with, 'cause of the anticipation – are they looking at you or aren't they? But then sometimes you'll get interrupted by someone else joining you in the sauna and have to stop what you're doing because you're not alone anymore."
Dan also reckons that something as mundane as locker room floor plans can dictate which gyms become cruising spots and which don't: "If there's any part of the sauna which isn't visible through the door, that makes a huge difference. Any hidden or slightly discreet corners can be exploited to the max."
It goes without saying that not all gay men approve of cruising – in gym locker rooms, or elsewhere. Tim, who says he sees "aggressive cruising" in the locker room at his local public swimming pool at least once a week, thinks it's become a problematic form of behaviour.
"It's always nice to be hit on, and I do understand the culture of cruising and how it can be a turn-on, but the advances aren't always going to be welcomed or consented to," he says. "Plus, it kind of adds to a lack of dignity in the workplace for the staff. So I don't think it can really be put into a sex-positive 2019 attitude. Gay saunas offer that experience in a more friendly and reciprocal environment, so there's not really any excuse for getting your dick out in a locker room."
Tim also says it shows a lack of respect to fellow gym-goers, adding: "When I tell straight friends about it they're really shocked and say they'd hate to see it."
But Jack, who says he began cruising at his school swimming pool as a teenager, says he still thinks there's "something refreshing" and even "spiritually cleansing" about it.
His response to the Virgin Active email is pretty withering: "I find it really naff when places try to eradicate cruising by having [a staff member] constantly mopping, or putting in 'Wild West’ saloon-type cubicles that simultaneously take away the communal showering while offering no real privacy. I'll never understand why puritanical life is considered something righteous and worthy of protection, yet sex is deemed wrong and to be condemned to a private time and place. Fancying people, flirting and fucking is natural."
Whatever you think about gym locker room cruising, it's a form of hook-up that's unlikely to die out any time soon. Virgin Active's recent email doesn't seem to have rattled Barbican's cruising contingent. Harry, a regular there, says: "I got cruised in the locker room just the other week."