Tuesday, January 8, 2008

NYC Examines Bathhouse Policy, Suggests Closure

An article in Gay City News titled "Examining Bathhouse Policy, NYC Says HIV Infections Up" details NYC's re-examination of bathhouse policy in light of increasing HIV infection rates and suggests either stricter rules and/or complete closure of businesses and parties.

A six page memo was drafted and discusses 4 specific options as to how to enforce stricter policies on bathhouse and sex parties.

1. Continue current policy. Allow bathhouses to operate without inspection in private areas; close (or threaten to close) gay bars and other venues in which sex takes place in public.

2. Continue current policy for bathhouses, but attempt to enforce this policy with sex clubs and "private sex parties." Make greater efforts to close sex clubs and "private se parties" that have fixed locations, regular hours of operation, and charge a fee.

3. Attempt to close all commercial sex venues. Use the Sanitary Code to close all commercial sex venues, including
bathhouses currently in operation.

4. Modify Sanitary Code to permit bathhouses and sex clubs to operate under City regulations designed to promote safe sex. Allow bathhouses to operate under strict safe-sex rules, and allow "private sex parties" to either become permitted bathhouses under these rules or risk closure as in option 2.
The article, released yesterday, has already been making heavy circulation in the gay blogosphere. As it should. Bathhouses and sex parties have always been the menacing scapegoat in increased HIV/STD infection rates but often, in any policy or policing, amounts to nothing more than facade used by state and government officials to prove to the public that they're "doing something."

For more than 10 years now NYC has banned all public sex in bars and clubs and tightened its grip on venues suspected in doing so. But, due to a recent CDC article which informed the public "oops the numbers might have been higher than we all presumed" infection rates haven't changed, yet remain "relatively stable." So is the proof not in the pudding here? Has the policy making and policing for more than 10 years while infection remain the same, year after year, suggest that bathhouses and sex parties may not be to blame?

Maybe it's time we start re-examining how we talk about and teach sex and sex-communication in public. Maybe it's time we say to younger generations, "oh ok, fine! Homosexuality exists and if you happen to be gay or curious here is the absolute safest way to go about it." No, that would be just too darn blasphemous direct. Instead, officials blame, and will continue to blame, places which condone sexual freedom and homosexuality. Some of you might say, "But Eric you're a safe sex activist, wouldn't you agree to looking in every nook and cranny?" To that I'd say yes. But bathhouses have already been revamped under policy. Safe sex and safe sex practice information is found everywhere within these establishments. I'm also living in the reality that in 2008, men know the activity found within bathhouses and those seroconverting there are either seeking out transmission or willfully choosing to not use the tremendous amount of free condoms available. Something they could very well do, and probably more often do, in the privacy of their home or play-spaces.

I have some bathhouse experiences. When living in Los Angeles I ventured out to one or two out of a sense of thrill, boredom or outright horniness and both times I remember receiving, along with my locker key, a number of condoms, lube, and a pamphlet on safe sex and on-site HIV testing and counseling opportunities. As I walked through endless dark hallway after endless dark hallway I took note of the amount of signs discussing safe sex practices and the amount of free condoms everywhere. Now I don't know if I went at the wrong time, or the wrong day, but both times I found minimal attendance and ended up having paid $15 dollars all so I could end up going home and getting off alone.

So city officials want to re-examine bathhouse policy and threaten to shut them down, so be it. Take away another freedom, another right and watch nothing change. Instead, public sex will be pushed to private and attendance on the, easy cum-easy go, easy to be anonymous, websites like Manhunt or Craigslist will heighten. Yet the only difference between bathhouses and websites is that when you enter the anonymous man you've just been chatting with's house, apartment or empty office building, you won't get the free condom, the HIV/STD information, the list of safe sex rules hanging on every wall or the on-site testing. You'll just get yourself and the man, with no information or influence supporting anything to do with safety. After all, even the above article admits, "[T]his is likely to be challenged in court and will cause anger among gay activists and some AIDS service organizations. Many will argue that closing bathhouses will disperse men to other locations where sexual activity may be riskier."


Dennis said...

While I disagree that public sex is either a freedom or a right, I do agree that increased regulation of bathhouses will do precious little to change infection rates. The lion's share of hookups nowadays occur with the use of sites like Manhunt and Craigslist which are infinitely harder to regulate than bathhouses.

I wonder what "other locations where sexual activity may be riskier" the author of the memo is thinking of. In my mind, a hookup at a bathhouse, a hookup on Manhunt, or a hookup in a bar are equally risky because you're having sex with a stranger. Seems like the author is creating a big scary "other" that doesn't exist to make regulation of bathhouses appear more palatable by comparison.

John said...

^ I think the "other locations" in question are bathrooms, parks, bushes, etc. Regardless, every location and situation is a risk if your not playing responsibly.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine that bathhouses are a CAUSE of new infection. Its like a bar is a cause of alcoholism.

I remember friends of mine used to go into the sex clubs in Boston and hand out condoms and pamphlets and they actually often got an angry response from patrons. The response was "how dare you ruin the atmosphere"

Anonymous said...

There are no gay bathhouses in San Francisco, they were closed down years ago. Now you must travel either to Berkeley or San Jose. Last time I was in San Jose, the place was almost empty, the desk attendant was embarrassed and offered me a return pass. I had paid $24 for nothing.

My Place, a SOMA bar which provided an atmosphere for sex for those so inclined was closed by the Health Department and is now a coffee house.
Sex here seems to have gone on-line or meet-ups in BV Park, none of which is as safe as the bath houses. HIV rates among the young are climbing again.

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