or 30 years Rio’s Naturist Spa has been sitting inconspicuously on Kentish Town Road, stoking many a conversation down the local boozers, causing many a neck to crane on the 134 – not to mention turning a fair few monogamous couples into pleasure-seeking swingers.
Whether you’re a regular or a prying averter we know that folks go mad for a Rio’s tale – they are in fact some of our most read online articles. I count myself as one such person: I’ve read through the more sensational first person accounts from those who have worked there, to accounts by regulars who regard Rio’s as a ‘fairly relaxed, casual place,’ with some of the best facilities in town.
Then I stumbled across an article by an ex-manager who was resolutely positive about Rio’s. But halfway through his piece, he chucked in a jarring little anecdote: ‘I remember asking a ladyboy to leave the ladies’ changing room and to change in the men’s,’ he writes, glibly.
I imagined this scenario playing out: a transgender woman, approached, humiliated and dehumanised while minding her own business, getting dressed in the changing room she feels comfortable in, the changing room that aligns with how she identifies and lives her life.
The manager had worked there in the early 2000s and wrote the piece in 2014. I could just about assign this ignorance to a less trans-inclusive past, under the assumption that people – especially those who work in sexually transgressive spaces like naturist spas – do not hold views like this any more and would not enforce such transphobic policies. I forgot about the piece under the (hopeful) assumption that times have changed.
Then, one Monday evening while at Outside Project’s new LGBTQ+ community hub in Camden, I met Poppie, a transgender woman who likes going to Rio’s.
She has been to the spa four times. “I’m not a naturist, I go in a full swimming costume, usually with a t-shirt on top. I’m not a swinger either, I go for the facilities, they are brilliant,” she said, referring to the three steam rooms, two saunas, swimming and plunge pools – oh, and all the free tea and biscuits.
Once visitors pay their entry fee, they can stay for as long as they wish, which is reasonablly priced for men (who pay £23) and very reasonable for women (£8). The pricing difference is part of an attempt to remedy the well-documented discrepancy between male and female visitors to the sauna. Rio’s is a male-dominated space: indeed in the thirty minutes I spent chatting with branch manager Rob in the wood-panelled foyer – it was a Tuesday afternoon at 2pm – four customers came in and two left, all were men, some wore suits with rolling suitcases, others fleeces with Sainsbury’s bags-for-life.
Every time Poppie has visited Rio’s she has, of course, paid £8. However, problems arose on her last visit when she attempted to enter the female changing room.
Swiftly a member of staff approached, informing her that she was not allowed to change in there as “only women are allowed.” Poppie recited a statement that no transgender woman should ever be cornered into saying to a stranger: “But I am a woman.” Dumbfounded, Poppie asked to speak with the manager on duty.
In agreement, the manager asserted that transgender women cannot use the female changing area. Poppie, again, had to assert her gender – a gender she very clearly is – to which the manager asked her to show her ID to prove that she is a woman.
Poppie rightly told them that they had no right to ask her for this, to which she was told that she can use the male changing room – which is open to all, on account of heterosexual couples not wanting to separate during the changing process.
Poppie explained that she does not feel comfortable changing in the male-designated area, to which she was told that old, redundant chestnut: “We have to think about other women and their safety.” Poppie left Rio’s that day and hasn’t been back since, though she would definitely like to.
When I later popped into the sauna to confront them on this, Rob explained that in the past women have complained about having transgender women in “their” changing room.
“I don’t want their men’s bits dangling out in the women’s changing room, in the same room I’m getting dressed in,” is the complaint Rob recalled hearing a handful of times during his almost two decades working at the sauna. These complaints “rarely come up,” he said. “I’d say around two percent of our customers are transgender and most are happy to use the men’s changing room.”
Regardless, imagine this cruel interaction playing out, as women who think they have the authority to define which bodies constitute womanhood and which do not, bully people out of “their” spaces. Then imagine the venue’s staff siding with these bullies.
Rio’s management is trying to keep the female changing room as a safe space, a retreat from the relentless-sounding prying eyes of men who, in one account would ‘pretend to be asleep in the Jacuzzi and then move progressively closer to women as they got in.’ I get it, safe spaces are important.
There is however a difference between a naked man with sexual intent, and a naked transwoman trying to get changed discreetly. Safe spaces for women must include safe-spaces for those who identify as women.
“We will lose customers,” Rob said, somewhat apologetically, as he acknowledged the bind the sauna’s staff feel they are in with this policy. For Rob, the solution is to introduce a third, gender-neutral changing room. While this is a constructive step for non-binary, intersex and gender fluid people, it fails to resolve the transphobia that lies at the root of the problem.
Imagine the custom the sauna could gain if they actively sought to welcome the LGBTQ+ community; if, let’s say, someone approaches a member of staff to spout off a thoughtless complaint about a transwoman, its staff kindly caught the complainant up on current conversations on gender identity.
Rio’s creates a space for alternative modes of expressing sexuality – be it roaming around all day naked, swinging, paying for sex: for all intents and purposes, it is a queer space. And yet here we are, sitting on the wrong side of history, actively excluding transgender women from spaces they need to be granted access to.
As Poppie says: “Rios needs to be LGBTQ+ friendly, it needs a rainbow flag sticker on the door.” Indeed, it has a responsibility to create a suitable environment for its transgender clientele, rather than pander to the transphobias of those who do not respect the bodies, identities and humanity of transgender women.
Main image: Clare Hand
Article amended 6th Feb