Eric Leven

NYC Examines Bathhouse Policy, Suggests Closure

Filed By Eric Leven | January 08, 2008 12:51 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bathhouse, HIV/AIDS, safe sex

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 jerking 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."


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When I read the memo that part stood out to me as well:

T]his is likely to be challenged in court and will cause anger among gay activists and some AIDS service organizations.

Oh, AIDS service organizations will just get angry! Gawsh, I wish they'd keep their irrational emotions to themselves, since they get angry over the strangest things! And it's not like we're supposed to have the same goals as those organizations.... right?

It is frustrating that we live in a country where this is considered HIV prevention but the fed gov't won't fund comprehensive sex ed.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago, for the magazine Positively Aware, about an experience I had in a bathhouse in Bilbao that I just re-posted on LifeLube in light of the Gay City News item. Includes an interesting post-script....

Wanted to share....

Here is the link....

http://lifelube.blogspot.com/2008/01/happy-town-i-met-angel-in-bathhouse-in.html

"It is frustrating that we live in a country where this is considered HIV prevention but the fed gov't won't fund comprehensive sex ed."

Amen, Alex.

Y'know, taking the AIDS/STD issue out of it for a minute, I'm not so sure public sex is such a great idea just in general, regardless of sexuality.

What ever happened to "Get a room"?

Rebecca, what exactly is your main complaint?

Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I think sex is, or should be, an expression of love or at least fondness, between people who at least care about each other. To me, sex in public with strangers cheapens its meaning, and therefore, it's not surprising to me that it often leads to lackadaisical attitudes that precipitate risky behavior.

Personally, I think sex should be personal, and meaningful, and private.

Eric, thanks for this thoughtful post.

Rebecca, did you really just say that sex should be private? Are public expressions of less personal and less meaningful then those held in the private sphere? I would, of course, argue the reverse. On both counts.

Oops, there's a key word missing from my comment. I meant to say:

Rebecca, did you really just say that sex should be private? Are public expressions of *queerness* less personal and less meaningful then those held in the private sphere? I would, of course, argue the reverse. On both counts.

Rebecca, I think that's what people generally do in bathhouses - get a room. But not everyone.

I think what cheapens its value for you might strengthen it for others, and instead of making laws and pronouncements on the subject and assuming that they work for everyone, just accept that people are coming from different places and therefore have different needs and desires.

Oh, well! I think that the city of NY is actually thinking more along your lines than HIV prevention. I just wish they had been more honest!

Rebecca, I think that's what people generally do in bathhouses - get a room. But not everyone.

The only thing I'll say here is that has not been my experience.

*whistles innocently*