Mark Ford and Jason Woodson are the couple behind London’s sexiest gay gym and sauna, Sweatbox. They met the year before they designed and built the business. Now, after three years of running Sweatbox, several near nervous breakdowns and a few sticky moments, they find that, miraculously, they are still together. QXMEN wanted to find out the secret of their success…
QXMEN: So, how did you guys meet?
Jason: We met through an ex boyfriend of mine who had become an occasional fuck buddy of Mark’s. He would tell me all these stories of what he got up to with Mark and it sounded hot. Then one time he suggested a threesome and I thought ‘yeah why not’.
Mark: So this guy – we shall call him Shayne – was getting all excited setting up a meet. But when the day came, he didn’t show up. So I suggested to Jason that twosomes can be fun too and one thing led to another. Then when Shayne found out he blew his top – apparently we had ruined everything… Though not from where I’m standing.
Jason: And we haven’t heard from him since.
Mark: Which is a shame in a way, as he would have made ideal sandwich filling….
So you weren’t exactly sexual innocents when you met?
Mark: (laughs) No!
Jason: I was! I knew the names of everyone I slept with before I met you!
Mark: Do Gaydar profiles count as names?
Jason: No dear.
Mark: Well yes, I guess I’d been around the block a fair few times more. One of the reasons I decided to open a sauna was that I had already done so much… erm… market research on them.
So, tell us the story of Sweatbox… Had either of you ever worked in a gym or sauna before?
Mark: Nope, nothing like it. I was a television producer – I ran a company called Rapido TV and made shows like Eurotrash and The Girlie Show. Jason worked at the British Museum and was working freelance as a designer and photographer.
Jason: I’d never even been to a sauna before. When we were researching the idea Mark took me on a whistle-stop tour of saunas in London and Europe. Some of the ones in Germany were amazing – great facilities and really hot boys… Maybe I’m biased – I love German boys.
Mark: We couldn’t figure it out. London has the best, most thriving gay scene in Europe, if not the world, and yet very few of those hot guys we’d see out and about in Soho ended up in a sauna – possibly because it was still seen as something shameful… So we thought we’d open up the first European style sauna – right in the heart of Soho and aimed directly at the gay scene, out, proud and totally shameless!
Jason: Oh, and then we went to a gym AND sauna in Paris and it was absolutely heaving with hot guys and was just the best place we’d ever been to! It’s called Gym-Sauna-Louvre, and I thoroughly recommend it. And anyway, that’s when we knew we’d found our
special ingredient – a gym.
Mark: Without a doubt, what makes Sweatbox so different from other saunas is the gym. But not for the reasons that people tend to think. Certainly we have more than our fair share of gym-fit studs, but we’re not some elitist muscle club – we have guys of all shapes and sizes and no one feels uncomfortable. And that’s because we’re a members club as well as a sauna. Our gym members all become friends – with each other and with staff – so the whole place feels a lot friendlier than most saunas where people tend to sit in silence.
Jason: It can be really fun here. It feels kind of like a home away from home… I’ve made loads of friends here.
Mark: Ah. Yes. A lot of people ask that… Well I’m not saying we haven’t had a few wobbly moments, but we have a clear set of rules within our relationship that we’re pretty good at sticking to.
Jason: The rules do change depending how we’re feeling (i.e. how cute he is!) but they only change if we both want them to change.
Mark: I guess you could say we’re open to temptation by negotiation.
Jason: But the absolute rule is that we don’t play with guys we meet at Sweatbox… It’s just too messy mixing work and play.
Mark: Which in some respects is a total bummer because we’ve worked so hard to build up this palace of temptation and we’re the only ones who can’t be tempted! It can be a bit ‘kid in a candy store’ sometimes.
Jason: Or bull in a china shop in your case…
Mark: But it can still be fun for us in other ways. Just walking through the building and catching that special eye contact of a guy and knowing that you could’ve nailed him if you’d wanted to does wonders for one’s self-esteem… Mind you, I think the fact that we work here seems to make us extra tempting.
Jason: I think you get an extra 10 points for bagging a member of staff.
Mark: I have five tips, which I offer up, tongue in cheek… be it mine or somebody else’s:
1. Wear your towel around your hips, not around your tummy. Worn right (as low as possible) our microfiber wraps are really sexy – they package you up in all the right places. But whether it’s one of our wraps or a towel, worn across your belly button, it looks like a giant nappy. Not sexy. Unless ‘adult babies’ are your thing, of course.
2. Swagger like you own the place. Most guys rate you before you’ve even opened your mouth and a confident walk – as opposed to a mousy mince – speaks volumes. And a good swagger can be temptingly pendulous downstairs.
3. Be a winker not a wanker. Less is more. A cheeky wink and a dirty smile can be a lot sexier than a pervy leer and a desperate tug.
4. Drop the sulky skulking and try talking to people. Saunas can be sexy and cruisey, but they can also be great places to meet new friends. All the regulars and staff at Sweatbox are very friendly and fun. I like to feel that we’re the least intimidating sauna in London.
5. Busy is not always better. This is probably the most important tip, but the hardest one to convince people about. The most asked question at reception is, “Is it busy?” We call them the Busy Bodies. Their assumption is that if it’s busy then they’re more likely to pull. But that’s not always case. Let me explain through the numerical science of gayness…
On a good day, I’m a 7. I’m happy with my lot, but I tend to be attracted to 9’s. I say 9’s because 10’s are always too busy looking at themselves in the mirror to be any fun, and 8’s have all got married and moved to Brighton before their looks collapse.
I’ve been remarkably lucky in my life in that I’ve bagged more than my fair share of 9’s. And the secret of my success is I never go to places when they’re busy. When it’s busy all the 9’s are looking at other 9’s. When it’s quiet a 9 will be more likely to notice a 7. Especially if he’s winking and swaggering like a 9.
“Just walking through the building and catching that special eye contact with a guy, and knowing that you could’ve nailed him if you’d wanted to, does wonders for one’s self-esteem.”
So now that Sweatbox is a big success, what new plans do you guys have?
Mark: Well, we’ve just bought a little cottage on the Brighton seafront and we hope to spend our weekends there… I shall be taking up knitting and Jason will be perfecting his cake-baking skills.
Jason: Because that’s what you do in Brighton isn’t it? You go there to escape the London carnality?
Mark: Also we want to progress a bunch of art projects we’ve been working on. Jason’s been working on a photography series called Gross Indecency which is a series of 144 (a gross) photos of naked guys of all shapes and sizes. It’s really good and nearly finished, but it’s taken him fucking ages!
Jason: You’d think in a sauna full of naked guys I could get it done in a week but the moment I walk around with my camera everyone gets shy! So if anyone wants to pose for me – for art! – please get in contact.
Mark: And we’re about to start working on two new projects, Vampire Boys, a coffee table book tapping into the darker side of male predatory sexuality with a True Blood twist, and Bound, an exploration of the beauty and artistry of rope bondage.
Jason: We’re still recruiting for models for both so anyone interested, get in contact at my website below.
• Like all good digital narcissists of the modern age, Mark and Jason each have their own website… In fact, it’s the only time in which they’re apart! www.markvford.com, www.jasoncwoodson.com, www.sweatboxsoho.com
• pic © Jason C Woodson