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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.
The January CDC report also found that incidents of male rectal gonorrhea -- a good barometer of condom usage and future HIV rates -- are rising in San Francisco, after a long period of decline. And having gonorrhea makes one even more susceptible to HIV infection.
"The initial HIV explosion in the early 1980s was the result of lots of unprotected sex, lots of partners, and an epidemic of gonorrhea," says the Stop AIDS Project's Robert Perez. "We want to prevent that same recipe from replicating itself again."
The Stop AIDS Project, however, has not taken a stand on the bathhouse issue. Perez says the group hopes to maintain discussion, and not alienate segments of the gay community.
Perez also says the latest data on unprotected sex, while "disturbing," is a far cry from the trends of nearly two decades ago that sparked the AIDS crisis. "Yes, rectal gonorrhea cases are increasing, and that's not good," he says. "But we're talking 200 cases predicted this year, compared to 5,000 per year in the early 1980s."
Among the men in this year's CDC survey who admitted having unprotected anal sex with multiple partners, 68 percent said they did not know the HIV status of all their partners. That statistic in particular commands the attention of health officials, especially since the city's latest HIV consensus report indicates that one in three gay men living in San Francisco is thought to be HIV-positive.
"That's troubling," Perez says. "The one time you might slip up and not wear a condom in San Francisco, chances are it's going to be with someone who is HIV-positive."
Though the survey data indicates that most risky activity takes place at home, Katz says continuing to ban private rooms in bathhouses will at least help prevent "slip-ups" in sex establishments under the Health Department's watch.
"A profit-making business, where people come to meet others and have sex, has the responsibility to the community to ensure the highest standards that people are having safe sex," Katz says. "Our rules only apply to businesses. Individuals can have unsafe sex in their home and are free to invite others over for unsafe sex."
Increasingly, that is precisely what is happening within select circles. Bay Area health officials say they are worried about the recent development of underground networks of private sex parties, some of which are exclusively "barebacking" events, where men only engage in unprotected anal sex. HIV status is not always announced. Some parties are limited to only HIV-positive or -negative men, while others play sexual Russian roulette, with everyone's status kept secret.
Berkeley's HIV/AIDS program director, Leroy Blea, says he is far more concerned about barebacking parties than what may go on in the private bathhouse rooms that his city allows. At a city-approved bathhouse, Blea says, there is at least a chance to educate patrons.
"People will find a way to have unsafe sex if they want to, whether there are doors at a bathhouse or not," Blea says. "What we need to do is empower individuals to make healthy decisions. At a bathhouse, I can target a group of people I normally couldn't reach."
In San Francisco, both Carrazza and ACT UP's Pasquarelli tout bathhouses as ideal places to push the safe-sex message.
Katz agrees. "Are sex clubs good places to educate and inform? Absolutely they are," he says. "But I believe maintaining a peer norm of no unsafe sex in the clubs strengthens that message."
At sex clubs like Eros, patrons can get free, anonymous HIV testing and counseling. At each bunk bed there is a basket of condoms, and a soap dispenser filled with lubricant is an arm's length away. There are also signs that post lesser-known safe-sex tips, like not brushing your teeth four to eight hours prior to engaging in oral sex so that tender or bleeding gums won't help promote HIV transmission.
For Carrazza, having private rooms is about creating a more desirable space for socializing, in addition to recreational sex.
In San Francisco's sex clubs now, there is little or no talking. Loud music plays as men silently cruise each other for sex. While Eros has a bathhouse feel -- and some space for conversation -- with its steam room, sauna, and a small lounge area, other clubs offer much less. Men wear street clothes and wander through dimly lit mazes of wooden panels set up in large warehouse spaces. There are cubbyholes and stalls for stand-up sex.
The Power Exchange, a four-story sex club that caters to both straight and gay crowds, tries to make up for the lack of privacy with creatively themed areas on different floors. There are S/M rooms in a basement "dungeon," while other rooms are decorated for role-playing fantasies, like the medieval King Arthur's Court complete with throne. In the gay area, a Disney-like "enchanted forest" offers fake trees lining a winding trail, lit with fluorescent black light. A campground of dome tents along the way affords semiprivacy, but the zippered doors are removed.
Carrazza complains that the sex clubs cannot compare to bathhouses in other major cities like Los Angeles, where the establishments often are full spas with gyms, lounges, pools, hot tubs -- even theme restaurants -- as well as private rooms, with televisions. Carrazza also argues that bathhouses are important because they provide secure outlets for sexual encounters among closeted men, or those who do not live alone.
But the protest efforts by Carrazza, ACT UP, and others don't seem likely to bring back traditional bathhouses to San Francisco any time soon.
Dana Van Gorder, who works for Katz as the city's coordinator of lesbian and gay health services and is also openly gay, admits frequenting San Francisco's sex clubs from time to time for his own recreation. "I value them and enjoy them," Van Gorder says. "You can have a lot of fun there, with a relative degree of confidence it will be a safe experience."
But Van Gorder says he believes private rooms would provide too much temptation for unsafe activity, and he draws the line there. "That doesn't seem like an unreasonable rule," he says. "How much are we really sacrificing? There are already plenty of sex clubs in this city that cater to a wide range of tastes and flavors."
Van Gorder argues that the recent bathhouse protests have been frivolous. "They [activists] can go on about the seminal role of bathhouses in gay culture," he says. "But there still is an ongoing AIDS epidemic, and I think there is a little denial going on."
Suarez, of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, tends to agree. "The bathhouse debate is a sideshow," he says. "There are a lot of real issues that require real attention other than being able to have sex behind a closed door versus a dark corner.