"Rio's may seem like a sexual free-for-all, but, as with all clubs, there are rules, the most important being: 'Ask before you touch.'"
Suzanne Portnoy: The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker
We walk down from Kentish Town tube and stand outside Rio's while I finish my Pret baguette so I don't get hangry. Amber had dinner with her boyfriend, "then he ate my pussy so I'd already be satisfied when I got here!" Oh really? What did he say about you coming? "When I said I was going for a sauna, he told me to have a nice time. Then I said I was going with you and he was like, 'what the fuck is it this time?!'" Amber came with me to Liquid Love, where we rolled around in oil, on a plastic sheet with strangers. Today we are going to a sex sauna.
"Did you bring shampoo or anything to shower with?" she asks, as we try the wrong door in an effort to get in. No. It is naturist night and all I've thought to bring is a bottle of Pinot Grigio to leave behind the bar. It is BYOB (bring-your-own-bottle) and Amber and I have agreed we're getting pissed. She's been sending me GIFs of Bette Davis emptying a martini glass, and Karen off Will & Grace knocking back bottles of vodka.
As I go into the changing room, Amber holds back to peer into the first part of Rio's labyrinth, then panics as she thinks she spots a guy we know. "I can’t go out there! It's Ian! The one who was doing The Knowledge to be a black cab driver!" What? "I had a row with him when he said the earth was flat!" Oh, was that you he fell out with? "I don’t think I was the only one!" I liked Ian. We had some great chats about which hybrid animals would win a hypothetical fight. Having said that, I don't want to do this in front of Ian either. We agree that — towels on — I'll walk through first, and see if it’s him.
So I take a slow stroll through the dimly lit, windowless room where men are lying on sun loungers, cushioned with plastic mattresses. I come out at the bar, where more men are sitting about on stools, with towels wrapped round their waists. It's not him, I say to Amber — there's no one here who looks vaguely like him. "Are you sure?" she says, "I'm certain it's him!" I ask Amber if she should be wearing glasses and she admits she should.
We walk past a couple of Jacuzzis and sit down in a steam room. Within 20 seconds we're surrounded by men. "I do Uber Massage," says one. He's misunderstood a joke Amber's made about Uber offering massages. He now thinks this is a thing and he's trying to convince Amber he's a registered Uber masseur. "I only charge you one or two pounds — if it's good!" Amber looks like Sandra Bullock, if she was animated by the guy who drew Jessica Rabbit. If this clown's on any sort of register, it should be circulated by social services. "So?" he says to Amber. "You want me to give you massage?" Amber looks at me and says, "plunge pool?" Yes!
After stopping by the bar for a white wine re-fill, we get in a Jacuzzi with Cara, a girl we'd got talking to in the locker room. She's in her early 20s and here with her boyfriend Ben, who did the naked bike ride. As regulars, they're amused by the guys following us about. Cara gets the same treatment, and they share their strategy for dealing with it. "I'll say loudly that we're going to the pool," says Cara, "and as soon as they shuffle off in that direction to wait for us, we'll head to the sauna." Cara says she and Ben come because they're local and it's cheap for the two of them. If anything, the sexed-up sad cases are a source of entertainment. Ben tells us there's a regular who pretends to be asleep in the Jacuzzi, then inches closer to the woman next to him, brushing against her as if he doesn't know he's doing it. "So I swapped places with Cara," says Ben, "and when he opened his eyes, he realised he'd been stroking me instead of her — I've never seen anyone jump out of the Jacuzzi so quickly!"
I've heard that sitting in a Jacuzzi makes you shit yourself. I don't know if this is true or what the safe window is, but I don’t want to chance it. We've been in a while, so I suggest we get out.
Back in The Ladies' Locker Room, I tell Amber I wouldn't like to be a man as I'd worry about unwanted erections. Amber argues she would like to be a man, but I can't remember why because, wine. A woman getting changed backs me up by doing a Goddess Squat (as we call it in yoga) and thrusting her pelvis forcefully, she announces, "it's better to be a woman, because when you want your pussy fucked, you get your pussy fucked!" As she's thrusting, she is slapping her pubic bone with her hand. "You. Get. Your. Pussy. Fucked." Amber throws her arms around her and says, "I love you!" Amber loves pretty much everyone today. I think there may be traces of something in the plastic cup she's drinking her wine out of.
Amber and I have not seen this woman in Rio's and yet she's getting changed to go home. We decide she has indeed been getting her, well, you know... in one of Rio's "couple's rooms." They're cubicles filled to the brim with a bed, that's covered by, like, a wipe clean gym mat. We passed several, when we first walked round, with Amber sticking her head in each door, going, "that's not very hot for a steam room?!" Each one was occupied by a man sitting on his own, presumably hoping a woman would join him. Given the ratio of men to women at Rio's, their optimism has little more basis in reality than Paul Nuttall's CV.
The scourge of single men means some guys try to attract a Couple's Room partner in advance. "Sexy big boobs Rio's cumslut companion wanted" says one Craigslist ad, which goes on to clarify, "BBW's are welcome too" - ideally ones who, "love oral and anal creampie." Most ads offer to pay the woman's entry fee, which is generous, considering the £23 cost for a couple is the same as it would be for a guy on his own. The £8 entry fee for a woman by herself reflects the prized status of unattached females, as does the protective attitude of the staff. As Amber and I do breast stroke in the pool, our audience is dispersed by manager Rob, to aggrieved cries of, "I swear we weren't staring!" and, "we weren’t watching them!"
Rob had approached us when we arrived, telling us to let him know if we had any problems. Having worked in casinos, where punters are given free reign to be arseholes, Amber and I are astounded (in a good way) that Rob not only means this, but actually takes a proactive approach. Of course, as soon as his back's turned, the guys continue to follow us about. But as threat levels go, this is on a par with leading a procession of sedated micro-pigs dressed as Teletubbies.
Back in the pool, we're approached by Lianne, another girl in her 20s, who's there with her 30-something boyfriend Tim. Echoing the earlier scenario with Cara and Ben, Tim is introduced after Lianne's made friends with us. I start to suspect there's a bit of a strategy to this, as it soon emerges they're swingers and Tim tells me he sees Rio's as a "gateway."
Looking up from the conversation, I see one of our fans is watching us. He's drawn up a stool, and his towel's dropped open. Cradling his crown jewels in one hand, he makes Jabba the Hutt look like a Men's Fitness model. We make a move to The Big Jacuzzi, where a couple start snogging. Are they deliberately trying to attract attention, I ask Billy, who we met earlier at the bar. Billy had told me he discovered Rio's when he was out one night and missed his last train home. He's been back once a month ever since. He says, "I think they’re trying to attract your attention."
My eyes can't take much more chlorine, and Amber's had enough now too. But we both agree we'll be back next time it's sunny, to drink BYOB wine in the AstroTurf garden out the back. With an assortment of steam rooms, saunas, Jacuzzis and pools – plus the randy regulars for entertainment — eight quid entry's a bargain. While it might look like a shithole off the set of Only Fools and Horses, we both agree, Rio's rocks.
Some names have been changed.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.