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Bathhouses Not Sex Venues, Suit Says

Owners fight L.A. County over new rules aimed at providing more oversight of businesses that allow high-risk activities.

March 12, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Underwear "always optional" here, boasts one ad, offering three floors of pleasure, the hottest men and erotic theme nights.

Another ad in the Los Angeles gay magazine Frontiers features a bare-chested worker, his utility belt bulging with condoms, with the logo, "play safe--condoms are always FREE." And in a third, a muscular man wearing nothing but a baseball cap and underwear rests his hand in a provocative manner.

Whatever these self-described bathhouses and sex clubs are, their owners want you to know that they are definitely not the sort of "commercial sex venues" that the county is targeting for increased oversight.

We "are not commercial sex venues at all," nine gay bathhouses and sex clubs said in a lawsuit filed March 3 against Los Angeles County.

"That's a lie," said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who has been pushing county health officials to step up oversight over such businesses. "What are people going to do? Play chess?"

Beginning this month, the county is requiring "commercial sex venues" to obtain a county health license, pay an annual fee of more than $1,000, allow quarterly inspections and provide on-site testing and counseling for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases for at least 20 hours a week.

The county defines a commercial sex venue as a business that "as one of its primary purposes allows, facilitates and/or provides facilities for its patrons or members to engage in any high-risk sexual contact while on the premises."

But that definition doesn't fit these nine bathhouses and sex clubs, the lawsuit contends, because they have "always sought to prevent high-risk sex."

The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, asks a judge to void the regulations or exempt the nine bathhouses and sex clubs.

"We don't meet the definition," said Scott Campbell, president of Midtowne Spa in downtown L.A. and two other bathhouses in the county. "We have disclaimers letting [patrons] know that unsafe sex is not allowed, and we provide condoms."

Asked about the lawsuit's contention, a county health official chuckled.

A commercial sex venue "doesn't mean that they are promoting high-risk sex; it just means it does occur," said John Schunhoff, the county's chief of operations for public health.

Campbell did not deny that unsafe sex occurs at bathhouses and he could not cite an instance of someone being ejected from one of his establishments for practicing unsafe sex.

"It's very difficult for us to know if people are doing that, short of taking a flashlight and looking at what everyone is doing," Campbell said. "To me, whatever people are going to do, they're going to do wherever they go."

The suit also cites constitutional objections to the rules. It accuses the county of violating "the fundamental right of peaceful assembly, expression and privacy," and imposing "excessive fines and cruel and/or unusual punishment."

Outside the Hollywood Spa, a bathhouse represented in the lawsuit, patron Marc Marcino was matter-of-fact.

Unprotected sex occurs all the time at such facilities, he said, whatever the warning signs say.

"If I go into a bathhouse, I expect to see guys doing that," Marcino said on a quiet side street a block west of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.

The new rules target the county's 11 known sex clubs and bathhouses, including the nine that sued. They were inspired by a county study in 2003 showing that bathhouse patrons were far more likely to test positive for HIV than other gay or bisexual men countywide.

Technically, the county has had the power to shut down bathhouses for years, but the old rules were so weak as to be unenforceable, officials have said.

The nine bathhouses and sex clubs that participated in the lawsuit are moving forward with the requirement for HIV testing and counseling. Some said they already were offering such services.

The county will pick up the tab for providing test kits and running lab tests.

Weinstein, an outspoken and sometimes controversial figure in AIDS prevention, said the facilities' arguments against the new regulations strain credulity.

"They're going to turn themselves into a laughingstock," he said.

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