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Officially, there have been no bathhouses in San Francisco since 1984, when health officials grappling with the AIDS crisis shut down the places where gay men could don a towel, relax in saunas, cruise for sex, and slip into tiny, private rooms for impromptu trysts.
Yet today, across the street from the Safeway at Church and Market streets, sits a two-story building with mirrored doors housing the Eros club, where gay men can still wear a towel, enjoy a sauna, and cruise for sex.
But Eros is not a bathhouse. Those are, after all, illegal. Instead, it is a "sex club."
What's the difference? The absence of the tiny, private rooms -- often just big enough to accommodate a bed -- that were a hallmark of the original bathhouses. At a half-dozen "sex clubs" across the city, sex must now be had out in the open, so monitors can make sure the patrons are using condoms. As a result, at clubs like Eros, men have sex in one large room filled with bunk beds, where there are often as many gawkers -- and gropers -- as bedmates.
Put off by the carnival atmosphere of today's sex clubs, some gay activists now would like to restore a bit of dignity to the process. They argue that the city's efforts to police safe-sex policies have outlived their usefulness, and are calling on Health Department officials to bring back the traditional bathhouses, and specifically the private rooms.
"The public environment is not conducive to intimacy -- it dehumanizes the sexual experience," says Richard Carrazza, a sex club patron. "Treat people like animals, and they'll behave like animals." Carrazza, 45, remembers the old bathhouses, and feels the privacy they afforded was a bit more "civilized."
Carrazza and other activists, including members of ACT UP, have recently begun agitating for a return to the original bathhouse, protesting at public Health Department meetings and taking their argument directly to Mitch Katz, the city's openly gay health director.
But Katz won't hear of it.
"In order to minimize new HIV cases, congregate sex businesses need to uphold safe-sex rules," Katz says. "That means being able to walk through and see whether or not people are having safe sex."
The dispute is rekindling a long-simmering argument about how far the city should go in trying to compel safe sex among consenting gay men.
When the bathhouses were first shut down in 1984, the closings prompted a contentious uproar among a divided gay community. "It was quite a nasty, visceral debate," recalls Gustavo Suarez, spokesman for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, one of the city's oldest AIDS groups. "There was a lot of ignorance about AIDS back then. People questioned how it was really contracted, and some said closing the baths was about sexual oppression and not a public health measure."
But as knowledge of HIV transmission and the value of protected sex increased, bathhouse owners and AIDS educators formed a "healthy sex" coalition and struck a deal with the Health Department. The owners agreed to follow guidelines that required monitored areas, safe-sex education, and a ban on private rooms. Bathhouse hybrids were allowed to open, and today's sex clubs were born.
Some activists now argue that the restriction on private rooms is no longer needed since "safe sex" has become such an ingrained message within the gay community. A new generation of bathhouses would not cause the same rampant, unprotected behavior as before, they say.
Dave Pasquarelli, an ACT UP member, says San Francisco is backward in its continued ban of private rooms since most other major cities -- even neighbors Berkeley and San Jose -- have large gay bathhouses that allow them.
"We're demanding science that says locked doors increases HIV transmission," Pasquarelli says. "We believe that with locked doors, people are more inclined to have safer sex. They will have the private space to communicate and be intimate with one person away from the pressure outside."
Carrazza argues that the city's position actually encourages more unsafe sex. The lack of private rooms turns sex clubs into giant, open orgies, he explains. In order to ease the inhibitions of having sex in a public setting, he argues, men might feel the need to drink or take drugs before going to a sex club. He says the clouded judgment, coupled with the energy -- and confusion -- surrounding an orgy is a recipe for unsafe sex. "The monitoring is a farce," Carrazza says. "They can't be watching all the time."
Katz contends that keeping the sex out in the open is prudent. But the implied assumption -- that sex behind closed doors will be unsafe -- does not sit well with Carrazza.
"I resent that assumption," he says. "A locked room would not encourage me to have unsafe sex. I have no intention of having unsafe sex anywhere. I don't want to get sick and die, and I don't know anyone else who does, either."
But a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report bolsters Katz's stance. The report showed that the number of gay men practicing unsafe sex in San Francisco is rising. Based on interviews with 21,000 gay men conducted by the Stop AIDS Project, the report found that men who say they "always" use a condom for anal sex declined from 70 percent in 1994 to 61 percent in 1997.