Bathhouses, Sex Clubs Could Be Required to Obtain Licenses

Gretchen Gallen
LOS ANGELES – At the urging of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Los Angeles County Health Department announced a proposal Friday that the county's 11 bathhouses and sex clubs be required to obtain operational licenses from the health department in order to conduct business as usual.

Jonathan Fielding, county public health chief, said in a report Friday that licenses would be revoked if the clubs allowed patrons to engage in unprotected sex.

A recent Los Angeles County study found that 11 percent of men tested at two Los Angeles area bathhouses in 2002 tested HIV positive, compared with five percent of similar men who had tested in a public clinic or community-based testing center.

"The incidence of HIV in these establishments continues to be unacceptably high," Fielding said. "As part of comprehensive efforts to control this epidemic, as well as reduce the rate of many other sexually transmitted diseases, it is necessary to regulate the [clubs] to minimize disease transmission."

The proposal would allow health inspectors to visit bathhouses and sex clubs unannounced during peak evening and weekend business hours. It would require clubs to be well-lighted so that inspectors can see what patrons are doing, and patrons would be required to sign a consent form acknowledging that they know the rules. Club owners would be asked to provide condoms and offer HIV testing and counseling during peak evening and weekend hours.

Fieldings recommendations come on the heels of a May protest by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in which the organization called on the Department of Health to take swifter action in stopping the spread of HIV and other diseases in bathhouses and sex clubs.

San Francisco closed its bathhouses nearly 20 years ago at the onset of the AIDS crisis, however Los Angeles has so far been lax in regulating sex clubs and other sex venues where gay men congregate and often engage in high-risk sexual behavior.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation has been pushing for an ordinance that would effectively regulate bathhouses and sex clubs by permitting members of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation or other agencies to offer public HIV testing services to club goers.

The ordinance stems from a directive from County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in February giving the Department of Health and County Counsel 90 days to prepare the wording for the ordinance. The motion specified that the Director of Health Services and County Counsel work to create and enhance regulations for improved access to HIV and STD testing and prevention services.

But the Health Department asked for a thirty day reprieve that later turned into a 90-day reprieve, until this week's decision was put forth by Fielding.

The proposal has already drawn complaints from bathhouse owners and some gay activists, who claim the county is infringing on the privacy and civil rights of gay men.

"We find this proposal to be extremely discriminatory," said Steve Afriat, a lobbyist who represents nine club owners. "Private clubs will be subject to searches and will have to keep a database of individuals, with their names and addresses, who have unsafe sex. When you stop to think about it, it's really quite horrendous."

According to reports, the proposal is still a long way from becoming enforceable. It must first be approved by both the Board of Supervisors and the City Council.