LA 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.
By Rong-Gong Lin II, LA Times Staff Writer
March 12, 2006
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.
Press Release Source:
AIDS Healthcare Foundation
AHF Slams LA Bathhouse Owners for Lawsuit Over Sex Club Regs
Thursday March 9, 9:04 pm ET
Bathhouse Owners' Claims That Establishments are, '...Not Commercial Sex Venues at All and Are Thus Not Subject to the Provisions of Los Angeles County Code...' Are Ludicrous
CDC-Backed Study Conducted in LA-Area Bathhouses Showed an Alarming 11% HIV Positive Rate Among Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) in Los Angeles' Commercial Sex Venues (CSVs); New County DSH Regulations Took Effect March 1st 2006
LOS ANGELES, March 9 /PRNewswire/ -- AIDS advocates from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the nation's largest AIDS group which operates treatment clinics in the US, Africa, Central America, and Asia and is the operator of the largest free alternative HIV testing program in the State of California, today blasted a group of bathhouse and sex club owners of Los Angeles area establishments targeting men who have sex with men for their recent filing of a legal action seeking injunctive relief from a new Los Angeles County public health ordinance which would require the establishments to provide improved access to such clubs for HIV and STD testing and prevention service providers in the 11 Los Angeles-area sex clubs and bathhouses. The regulations went into effect on March 1st; the legal action by the club owners was filed on March 3rd.
"We are astounded that the owners of these commercial sex venues would even attempt to pull a stunt like this just to get out of complying with pretty straightforward and prudent public health regulations safeguarding their patrons," said Michael Weinstein, President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "These venues should be an important place for HIV prevention providers to offer testing and outreach services to a high-risk population in order to try and break the chain of infection here in Los Angeles. The print ads for several of these establishments running in the current issues of Frontiers and In Los Angeles Magazines, two respected LA area gay publications, put the lie to the owners' claim that these are not commercial establishments where sex takes place."
In mid-January, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted on the Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services' (DHS) recommendation to enact an ordinance to regulate these high-risk establishments. The vote followed a years-long bureaucratic delay in drafting and implementing regulations for Los Angeles area bathhouses and sex clubs (commercial sex venues -- CSVs) frequented by men who have sex with men (MSM).
The regulations came nearly four years after County health officials conducted its landmark "Bathhouse Study" in 2001-2002 at two Los Angeles bathhouses which showed an HIV rate of more than 11% among men who have sex with men. The Supervisors' mid-January vote also came almost two-years after the Board had voted unanimously [on February 3, 2004] to have the Department of Health Services and County Counsel draft regulations for the County's commercial sex venues (CSVs).
In the past few months, the CDC released two national reports on HIV and STD incidence. One reported that HIV among the MSM population increased more than 8% in 2004. Another report documented that syphilis increased an eye-popping 81% among the MSM population nationwide over the past five years.
"The Bathhouse Study: HIV Incidence in Commercial Sex Venues," which was conducted from May 2001 until December 2002, tested 916 men who have sex with men at two Los Angeles bathhouses and found that 102 -- or an alarming 11% -- were HIV positive (compared with 5.5% of similar men tested at public clinics and community-based agencies).
As of November 10, 2005, the final regulations were drafted; however, they were not submitted to the Board for approval and voted into law until Tuesday January 10th. Since approval, there is a window for owner compliance, with the regulations set to go into full effect by March 2006 -- nearly five years after the County first undertook its landmark, CDC-backed "Bathhouse Study."
"As for these commercial sex venues and their owners' disingenuous denial of what occurs in their clubs, AHF says, after you pay an entry fee or cover charge, if it walks like a _uck, and talks like a _uck, it probably is a _uck," added AHF's Weinstein. "This frivolous lawsuit further delays the roll out of these important public health regulations and hampers some pretty basic HIV and STD prevention efforts in these high-risk venues."
Source: AIDS Healthcare Foundation
CDC MMWR Feb 2003
Outbreak of Syphilis Among Men Who Have Sex With Men ---Southern California, 2000
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by infection with the spirochete Treponema pallidum, and like other genital ulcer diseases, syphilis enhances the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (1). During the 1990s, syphilis occurred predominantly among heterosexual blacks in the South and in large cities. However, recent outbreaks of syphilis have occurred among men who have sex with men (MSM) (2,3). A large syphilis outbreak occurred among MSM during January--July 2000 in southern California. During the outbreak period, the proportion of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis cases among MSM increased to 51% from 26% for the same period in 1999. This report summarizes the findings of an investigation of this syphilis outbreak, which indicate a substantial increase in the number of syphilis cases among MSM, many of whom are HIV-positive. These data suggest that concern about HIV infection may be declining among MSM and emphasize the importance of strengthening efforts to prevent HIV infection in this population in the United States.
California law requires that reactive syphilis serologic results and suspected cases of syphilis be reported to local health departments. Suspected and confirmed syphilis cases are then reported to the California Department of Health Services and CDC. Public health staff interview all persons with syphilis to collect clinical, demographic, and epidemiologic data and to assure that these persons receive appropriate treatment. The behavioral data collected include sex and number of sex partners, self-reported HIV serostatus, drug use, and location where the patient had met sex partners while the patient probably was infected. Because of the increase in the number of reported cases of syphilis in 2000, staff re-evaluated and reinterviewed syphilis case-patients reported during January 1999--July 2000. Case-patients were defined as persons with a reactive syphilis serologic test result and symptoms of P&S syphilis. Men were identified as MSM if they reported having had any male sex partners during the interview period.
During January--July 2000, 130 case-patients were reported, 66 (51%) of whom were MSM compared with 26 (26%) of 100 for the same period in 1999 (Figure 1) (4). Of the 66 MSM case-patients, 15 (23%) had primary syphilis, and 51 (77%) had secondary syphilis. MSM case-patients were from the following health jurisdictions: Los Angeles County (41), Orange County (10), City of Long Beach (eight), San Diego County (six), and Riverside County (one). Overall, 47% of cases were diagnosed at private medical clinics, 18% at HIV early intervention programs, and 17% at STD clinics. The median age of MSM case-patients was 35 years (range: 20--54 years); 27 (41%) were white, 24 (36%) were Hispanic, 12 (18%) were black, and two (3%) were Asian/Pacific Islander; race/ethnicity was unknown for one (2%). Of the 57 who knew their HIV serostatus, 34 (60%) reported that they were HIV positive. The year of diagnosis was known for 27 of the 34 HIV-positive MSM; the median time since diagnosis of HIV infection was 4 years (range: 0--19 years). For those whose HIV diagnosis had been made <1 year before the diagnosis of syphilis, the number of months since HIV diagnosis was not available.
Although data on behavioral risks were not collected systematically, interview records indicate that of the 66 MSM, 33 (50%) reported that they had had anonymous sex, 17 (26%) had met sex partners in bathhouses, two (3%) had met sex partners through the Internet, and four (6%) had had sex with a commercial sex worker. Overall, 13 (20%) MSM reported using a condom during the most recent sexual contact, and 26 (40%) reported using illicit drugs. Crystal methamphetamine, the drug reported most frequently, had been used by 18%.
Local response to the outbreak included a media campaign, community education, outreach, and syphilis screening. The media campaign used radio, print, and Internet advertisements to raise awareness of the outbreak and to promote syphilis testing. Local health departments and community groups used mobile vans to conduct syphilis screening at bathhouses, gay bars, HIV treatment sites, and other locations (e.g., parks and selected street corners) that MSM case-patients had identified as places for meeting sex partners.