TV & Radio
NY's gay baths become sex clubs of last resort
By Matthew Verrinder
Mon Sep 11, 8:24 AM ET
Wearing just a small white towel and a smile, Bob prowls the dark halls of the East Side Club, looking into dozens of its closet-sized rooms and hoping eye contact with another man will lead to sex.
"It's better than going to a bar and taking your chances," said Bob, a 46-year-old garden supplies salesman from New Jersey who declined to give his last name. "You always know something is going to happen here."
For some gay men, the city's two 24-hour bathhouses -- the East Side Club in midtown and the West Side Club in Chelsea -- live on as a spot for sex without strings despite a recent trend toward more men hooking up online.
They rent small rooms to have sex in at a cost of $21 for four hours, after paying a nominal annual membership fee.
Bathhouses, pushed to the fringes of the gay scene in the mid-1980s when the city shuttered most of them to stem the spread of AIDS, still offer patrons something a bar or the Internet cannot -- near-guaranteed sex in a safe environment.
"In a bathhouse you meet a person in the flesh in a relatively safe and clean environment where everyone has the same agenda," said Bill Stackhouse, director of the Institute for Gay Men's Health at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a group that fights AIDS in New York City.
"It's safer than the Internet, where all you have is a photo and maybe some video footage before you go to someone's home," he said.
Operating a business for the purpose of sex violates state law. City officials say they do inspect the bathhouses, but they are not legally allowed to look inside the rented rooms.
"We do not access private areas within establishments, 'private' meaning closed-door, to make observation," said Isaac Weisfuse, deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Several officials, asked why the city effectively turns a blind eye to the bathhouses, declined comment. The office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg also declined comment.
AN ITCH TO SCRATCH
The two clubs are owned by businessman Ancil Brown, who declined an interview request, but managers at the clubs allowed a reporter to tour the facilities and interview patrons.
Nearing midnight on a Saturday at the East Side Club, dozens of middle-aged men roamed the labyrinthine hallways, hoping to have anonymous sex. Downstairs, five men waited to get in from the lobby, looking as ordinary as any group of suburban fathers waiting at a dental office.
Peter, 57, a construction manager with silver hair, goes to the East Side Club once every two weeks and has for years.
"You have that itch, and it feels good to scratch it," said Peter, who also did not want to give his last name. "There is still a place to go for it. You should see this place at 6 (p.m.) before all of the guys go home to their wives."
Both clubs smell of chlorine and loud techno music bounces off the ceiling and walls of the thin, dark hallways, which are lined with about 100 rooms and separate steam rooms and showers. They are both housed anonymously in Manhattan office blocks, identified only by discreet entries on the tenant directory inside the lobby of each building.
Customers can rent lockers or rooms, which are about 6 by 8 feet, of which a bed with a 2-inch-thick (5-cm-thick) mattress takes up more than half. A small lamp dimly lights the rooms.
In the 1970s, there were many such bathhouses in New York, and musical acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow would perform at them to crowds that arrives after a night of hard partying at nightclubs.
In the old versions, people would "talk to each other and socialize" in lounges and snack bars, and sex "was part of the agenda instead of the whole agenda," like it is now, GMHC's Stackhouse said.
"There was a time before AIDS when the baths were more integrated into the gay male community," Stackhouse said. "Now they're looked upon as some last resort thing that you do privately and don't talk to your friends about."
Despite popular notions that the clubs are havens for illicit drug use and the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, they are also a place where a captive audience can be taught about safe sex, activists say.
"At least bathhouses are public and a place where you can educate people about disease prevention," said John Riley, of the New York chapter of ACT UP, an AIDS activist group.
"You can't get to them in other places," he said, referring to private sex parties and hooking up online, which have flourished, partly due to the lack of bathhouses.
Volunteers from GMHC visit the clubs twice monthly and hand out condoms and brochures on safe sex, said Mark Kornegay, a GMHC community health specialist.
"Almost all of them take the condoms," Kornegay said.
In 10 recent conversations with bathhouse patrons, none said they engage in unprotected sex. The clubs give out condoms and towels when customers sign in.
However, Peter said that he has encountered many men at the bathhouses who would rather not use protection.
Unprotected sex "seems to be coming back into vogue," he said. "There's a lot of advertising for it in the magazines and demand for it in the personals. I don't know why you'd put your life on the line."