by Bart Church

In the late '80s, bathhouses and sex clubs largely fell out of favor. In San Francisco, health officials blamed them for rabid spread of diseases--especially HIV. Down the West Coast, health regulators saddled the bathhouses with strict regulations and lobbied for their closure. As AIDS has faded from the forefront of health concerns, sex clubs are enjoying a renaissance. But along with their return, some government agencies are scrambling to put health regulations in place.

Last month, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require its health department to draw up recommendations for licensing and regulating all gay bathhouses and sex clubs. Relying on an LA Health Department study showing that 11% of men tested in two gay bathhouses were HIV-positive and that risky behavior like barebacking [anal sex without condoms] does occur, the health department is reportedly drafting strict guidelines. Those guidelines will likely curtail sex clubs in LA. It's an approach that has sex club owners there bristling and gearing up for battle.

"The regulation efforts in LA are disappointing because they didn't collaborate with sex club owners and staff," said Jeff Bailey, the LA Gay & Lesbian Center's Health Education and Prevention Director. "We risk alienating them," he added.

Meanwhile, Portland has taken an opposite approach to policing sex. Instead of setting in place stern new laws, a few weeks ago, Multnomah Public Health Officer Dr. Gary Oxman agreed to voluntary guidelines for sex club owners. The risks in Portland sex clubs are certainly as alarming as those in LA. Only one in three gay men report that they ever use a condom during anal intercourse, with 50% saying they did not use a condom the last time they had sex. Even so, Dr. Oxman does not believe a paternalistic approach will be effective in changing community norms and behaviors.

Dr. Oxman also points out that regulations and policing efforts are expensive. Like the rest of Oregon, the county health department is a little short on cash these days.

The new guidelines ask that sex club owners post clear and positive messages throughout the clubs to encourage condom use. They also ask owners to crackdown with zero tolerance on drug and alcohol use.

But the most surprising news about these regulations is that the call didn't come from county health supervisors--it was from the sex club owners themselves. David Anderson, co-owner of Steam Portland, instigated the process. Several weeks ago, he called Dr. Oxman, requesting a meeting to hammer out a set of new regulations, who quickly met with the club owners to write a draft. The collaborative approach is unique in the U.S. and, according to club owners, has been met with resounding acceptance.

But the club owners have not stopped with voluntary guidelines. To help expand their efforts, Tom Lavoie, co-owner of Portland sex club Club XES, has agreed to invite all gay bar owners to a meeting with Dr. Oxman within the next month. Lavoie hopes the meeting will generate more ideas about how to encourage safer sex and the promotion of HIV/STD testing.

Yet, in spite of the headway being made, advocates within the gay community say that health officials are effectively putting out one fire while an inferno rages nearby: online chatrooms. Even the author for the study used to support regulations in LA admitted that more unsafe sex is being solicited online than in bars and sex club. In Portland, it's estimated that as many as 500 queer men visit chatrooms like each weekend night. These hook-ups happen in an environment completely void of any health warnings.

"Why is that the people who seek to regulate sex never seem to have any clue where people are actually having sex?" asked one exasperated sex club owner.

But it's unlikely health officials will be regulating chatrooms any time soon. In addition to basic freedom-of-speech protections, county health officials don't have the personnel to conduct online safe sex outreach. In fact, the health department doesn't even have a computer capable of reaching a gay chat line.