Why doesn't San Francisco have gay bathhouses?

Liz Highleyman | August 03, 2006

The announcement in February 2005 of a case of highly drug-resistant HIV in New York City renewed a debate that began two decades earlier about gay civil liberties and AIDS prevention.

Bathhouses catering to men who have sex with men were widespread by the gay liberation heyday of the 1970s, and many men came to regard them as important centers of gay community and culture. Concern about the health implications of bathhouses intensified with the outbreak of AIDS. While some viewed baths and sex clubs as incubators of disease, others saw them as important sites for safer sex education.

By the beginning of 1984, attendance at San Francisco's bathhouses had already declined dramatically. San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts began quoting medical experts and political leaders who suggested that bathhouses were linked to AIDS and should close. Larry Littlejohn, former president of the Society for Individual Rights, introduced a ballot initiative prohibiting bathhouse sex.

Amid the ensuing controversy, San Francisco Department of Public Health director Mervyn Silverman, who had previously told Littlejohn that closing the baths would be illegal and an invasion of privacy, held a press conference on April 9 to announce that "all sexual activity between individuals" – protected or unprotected – would be banned in public facilities where AIDS transmission "is likely to occur."

While a few sex establishments closed, most stayed open and defied Silverman's ban. On Oct. 9, he issued a closure order for 14 sex businesses, likening them to "Russian roulette parlors." That night, a protest in the Castro drew 300 demonstrators, and by the next evening, all but two of the businesses had reopened.

Silverman then sued the recalcitrant venues. On Nov. 28, Judge Roy Wonder issued an injunction that allowed the businesses to remain open as long as they eliminated private rooms, removed doors from booths, and employed monitors to watch for high-risk sexual activity.

The city's lawsuit formally ended in 1989 with a permanent injunction barring San Francisco's last traditional gay bathhouse from reopening. By this time, however, a new type of sex club had emerged that lacked private rooms but allowed low-risk sexual activity in public areas.

In 1996, gay city supervisor Tom Ammiano proposed legislation that would, for the first time, license commercial sex venues and institute more consistent regulation. The proposal included a set of risk-reduction standards – similar to the rules imposed by Judge Wonder – developed by a group of sex-business owners, AIDS educators, and city health officials called the Coalition for Health Sex (CHS).

When the press got wind of the proposal, the old debate from the 1980s erupted anew. The San Francisco Examiner called for the closure of all sex clubs, while some gay men demanded the return of traditional bathhouses with private rooms. Although the controversy led the mayor to withdraw his support for the legislation, the health department nevertheless adopted the CHS standards as official policy, despite opposition from several LGBT and AIDS groups.

Over the years, other cities took different approaches to regulating sex businesses. New York City, for example, allowed private rooms but banned sex in common public areas. Despite these differing policies, research generally shows that rates of bathhouse attendance and high-risk sexual activity remain similar in various cities, and that men who do not attend commercial venues tend to have similarly risky sex elsewhere.

For further reading:

  • Shilts, Randy. 1987. And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic (St. Martin's Press).
  • Woods, William, and Diane Binson (eds.). 2003. Gay Bathhouses and Public Health Policy (Haworth).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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