NYC Mulls Closing Bathhouses, Sex Clubs

Via Duncan Osbourne at Gay City News comes word of a six-page internal memo from the NYC Department of Health which explores the city’s options in closing down bathhouses, sex clubs, and commercial sex parties.

After saying for years that new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men are high, but stable, a city health department memo given to Gay City News is asserting that new HIV infections among those men are increasing.

“New York City is now experiencing an increase in syphilis and an increase in HIV infection in men who have sex with men,” Dr. Thomas Farley, a special advisor to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner, wrote in the November 2007 memo.

The six-page memo, titled “Policy Regarding Bathhouses and Other Commercial Sex Venues in New York City,”was drafted for Frieden and explores the options for dealing with sex clubs and bathhouses.

“In view of this increase it is appropriate to re-evaluate New York’s current policies regarding commercial sex venues to see if policy changes could reduce the spread of these infections,” wrote Farley, previously a professor and department chair at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

The memo outlines four possible options for the city:

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.

Using the classified ads of HX Magazine, the city memo notes the following commercial sex operations currently in business (other than bathhouses):

– 26 mentioned regular schedules (ranging from monthly to 3 times per week),
-15 mentioned that the parties were for sexual activity,
– 9 specifically listed entry fees,
– Several described specific features such as showers, saunas, massage tables, and “play areas”
– 12 specified patrons should be Black, Latino, or “men of color” (none specified white).

The memo concludes:

It is possible (but by no means guaranteed) that the Public Health Council may be persuaded to modify the Sanitary Code to allow local health departments to permit sex establishments to operate under local code rules. If this were possible, DOHMH could establish rules that draw the best features of rules from other cities. Included in those rules should be the following:

-Safe sex required
-Mandatory safe sex rules posted
-Patrons required to sign safe sex rules as condition of entry
-No private areas allowed; adequate lighting required
-Bathhouse staff must monitor and maintain log of observations
-Patrons ejected from bathhouse for breaking rules
-Mandatory offering of rapid HIV testing
-Monthly unannounced inspections by health department staff
-Bathhouse must allow health department to survey patrons periodically to evaluate sexual practices.

These rules would not guarantee that condoms are used every time, but if enforced consistently should increase condom use to high levels. These rules would likely be accepted by gay activists and AIDS service organizations, but could be viewed as inappropriate by the general public in the city. Bathhouse owners would resist changes because the loss of private areas will likely lead to a loss in business. The policy change must be accompanied by a commitment to a permanent enforcement mechanism, because if enforcement becomes lax over time it could result in an increased risk of HIV transmission.

Obviously, closing these establishments is not the answer, as the city’s own document notes: “[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.”

If you want to teach gay men to fuck safer, WHERE ELSE to teach them but in the place where they are fucking?