BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Even as the city health department maintains it has not decided whether it will regulate the city's sex clubs and bathhouses, continue its current policy of aggressively inspecting these businesses, or try to close them all down, a senior department staffer said the agency's goal is to shut them down.
"They are very much looking at this from a medical model and the medical model says shut them down," said Joshua Volle at a January 7 meeting of AIDS and gay groups at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center. "They don't have the resources to do it, but their intent is to shut them down... These are my words, they are on a witch hunt."
With his last day at the city's health department coming on January 11, Volle, the director of community HIV prevention planning and programs, was more blunt than a city employee might normally be.
In a November 2007 memo, Dr. Thomas Farley, a special advisor to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city's health commissioner, presented four options for dealing with city sex clubs and bathhouses. (A link to the text of the memo appears in the online version of this story at gaycitynews.com.)
The first is to continue enforcing a 1985 state health code that bans oral, anal, and vaginal sex, with or without a condom, in "any place in which entry, membership, goods or services are purchased" with inspections and to close those places that violate the code.
The second option is to more aggressively move against the city's bathhouses and make "greater efforts to close sex clubs and 'private sex parties' that have fixed locations, regular hours of operation, and charge a fee."
The third option is to use the state code "to close all commercial sex venues, including bathhouses currently in operation," Farley wrote.
The fourth option is to regulate these businesses by changing the code to 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."
The city would require these businesses to post and enforce safe sex rules, ban private areas, offer HIV testing, and allow the health department to make regular inspections and survey customers. Option four would require action by the state health department to change the code.
Volle said he had not heard directly from Frieden or Farley that they planned on closing these businesses, but was told by colleagues who have met with Farley or the commissioner that closing them is the plan.
Frieden, Farley, and Dr. Isaac B. Weisfuse, the agency's deputy commissioner of the Division of Disease Control, believe that "these bathhouses and private sex clubs are driving the AIDS epidemic among men who have sex with men," Volle said.
After saying for years that new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men are high, but stable, the Farley memo asserted that new HIV infections among those men are increasing. However, responding to questions, the health department said Farley was referring only to recent reported increases among gay men under 30.
Responding to questions via email, Sara Markt, a deputy press secretary in the health department, wrote, "We don't have any plans to change the policy at this point, just wanted to evaluate how NYC and other cities are dealing with the issue. Current position is that we need more information. If you want to touch back with us in a few months, we may have more, but we are not making any moves to change or recommend changes at this point."
A number of AIDS and gay groups, some sex club operators, and the health department have been meeting to discuss the city's policy toward these businesses for at least 18 months though this working group has meeting for longer on other issues. January 7 was the latest meeting.
Option four in the Farley memo signaled a willingness to regulate these businesses, as four other American cities have done and the groups have seized on that.
"We now have a situation where we might have an opportunity to establish a niche," said Terry Evans, public health outreach coordinator at the Positive Health Project, an AIDS group, at the meeting.
Funded by a city contract, Evans, a working group member, regularly conducts safe sex workshops at 78 sex clubs that serve African-American and Latino gay men. In total, however, he has visited 150 such clubs since the start of 2006.
Volle's assertions notwithstanding, the working group members are ready to push for regulation, not elimination, of these businesses.
"From the beginning of us coming together we shared the view that the solution to this lay in good public health policy and practice," said Dr. Barbara E. Warren, director for organizational development, planning and research at the LGBT Community Center.
The group weighed what the other four cities had done and decided that regulation was the most effective option.
"We saw that there were some practices that seemed to be having a positive effect so why should we re-invent the wheel?" Warren said. That view is unanimous.
"We strongly urge the city to adopt option four and to promote safe sex through bathhouses and sex clubs," said Sean R. Cahill, managing director of public policy, research and community health at the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which is part of the working group. "It's clear that the best way to handle this is to regulate these businesses, encourage safe sex, and not drive this stuff underground."
That was also the prevailing attitude on the gay blogosphere and among activists who are not part of the working group.
While not a poll, comments posted by readers and blog owners on joemygod.b
Peter Staley, founder of aidsmeds.com and a longtime AIDS activist, said, "Number four was trying to get where I would go, but it has some major issues... Eliminating private spaces at a bathhouse you might as well shut down the bathhouse."
Dan Carlson, a founder of the HIV Forum, wrote in an email, "If these businesses are generating revenue in this way they need to accept some social responsibility in reducing HIV rates. I think it is incumbent upon the health department to align with these organizations to promote safer sex."
Carlson, along with Bruce Kellerhouse, organized a series of eight town meetings from 2003 into 2005 that collectively drew thousands to talk about gay men, drugs, and HIV. They have since produced anti-crystal meth and safe sex campaigns.
Generally, sex club and bathhouse operators either declined to comment or did not respond to messages or emails seeking comment.
In an email, Robert Brandon Sandor, operator of Brandon's Poz Party, wrote, "Sex venues are ground zero for sexual health, education, awareness, prevention, research, support and other vital health issues. Therefore, sex venues and the local [health department] must work together to support the general public!"