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Issue of Health, Not Rights

March 25, 2004

The policy implication of a recent federally funded study, showing 11% of men tested in gay bathhouses in Los Angeles County in 2001 and 2002 to be HIV-positive, should be clear enough: Close the bathhouses.

That decisive step was crucial to San Francisco's successful containment of the nation's first major HIV epidemic, in the early 1980s. After studies identified unprotected sex in the whirlpool baths, saunas and small private rooms of that city's sex clubs as a key HIV infection route, San Francisco leaders shuttered them in 1984. Los Angeles, by contrast, let its bathhouses stay open, passing instead an ordinance requiring sex club owners to provide condoms.

As county health director Jonathan Fielding rightly points out, new avenues for sexual encounters, such as Internet chat rooms where people find partners, solicit sex or learn about sex parties, make the containment of HIV and AIDS much less straightforward than it was in the '80s.

That, however, is no excuse to ignore bathhouses, which, as the Los Angeles County study and others have shown, are a major contributor to the recent rise in HIV infections among gay men nationally. As the county's operations chief, John Schunhoff, recently acknowledged, current L.A. County bathhouse regulations are so weak that they lay out safe-sex rules for only two of the 11 facilities now in operation. The county has not moved to shut down a bathhouse in more than a decade.

The sort of half-measures the county is now considering, such as beefing up enforcement of the law requiring bathhouse patrons to use condoms (wishful thinking and unenforceable), also falls far short of the decisive action the crisis requires. Health officials admit that even if the county mandates tougher enforcement of safe-sex rules in all bathhouses, they don't have enough health officers to do the job.

Worse than that, the study found that 71% of bathhouse customers came specifically to have anonymous sex. More than a third admitted that while in the club they used the types of drugs, such as methamphetamines, that fostered unsafe behavior.

Bathhouse lobbyists claim that closing their facilities would infringe on gay people's civil liberties. "When you start regulating whether or not people can have safe sex," said one, "maybe one day you'll regulate whether people of the same sex can have sex with each other at all."

Nonsense. Public bathhouses aren't a civil right; they're a clear and growing health threat.

As the new study shows, the time has come for Los Angeles to follow San Francisco's lead of 20 years ago. Then, San Francisco health leaders faced a tough battle as some activists fought for the bathhouses as a symbol of gay freedom. But there was no freedom and no pride in bathhouses' becoming a conduit for the spread of a deadly virus that killed thousands of gay men before the world woke up and saw the threat. Los Angeles should not have to relearn that painful lesson.

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