To Sauna Or Not To Sauna?

The sauna, or a heated room wherein one can sit and sweat for health and therapeutic purposes, has become well-known in Western health clubs and spas, though it originated in Baltic, Scandinavian, and Slavic cultures. Each region has local variations: some saunas are wet and humid while others are bone-dry; some feature bundles of birch branches that you can use to massage yourself; and in some places, attendees leap into icy lakes or roll around in the snow in order to stimulate blood flow between sessions in the heated room.

This all sounds good, right? But would you enter a sauna with the opposite sex when everyone was nude?

I did. But I’m probably one of the few Americans to learn about the Estonian custom of “mixed sauna” (referring to mixing the genders), shrug, and then say “sure.”

The sauna in Estonian culture fulfills numerous important functions. It is considered healthy to engage in sauna every so often, and it is a place where people build and repair their social networks. Practically every house, and many apartments, will contain a sauna. In the old days, women gave birth in saunas, since it was easy to obtain hot water for sterilizing surfaces, and sick people often spent time in the sauna to get better.

And, strange as it might sound to Westerners, people hang out in the sauna regardless of mixed gender nudity. It’s just not something that registers. When I chatted with my Estonian friends about sauna practices, they agreed that being naked in the sauna wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t a sexual thing; nobody would try to flirt with you in the sauna. There were times when it was considered polite to let the women enter the sauna first while the men sat in the common room drinking beer, and then the groups would switch, but I got the impression that this was so each group could good-naturedly gossip about the other.

I actually thought it was very cool to have one arena where gender just wasn’t a big deal and people could relax in their own skins regardless of who was around them. And even in saunas where the men and women went in separate groups, people tended to be pretty chill about when they held up or dropped their towels; in this context, nudity just wasn’t that important.

Would you consider doing a mixed sauna? Or is going nude too far a leap for you?

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.