NYblade.com: The Truth About Bathhouses & Unsafe Sex

The Truth About Bathhouses & Unsafe Sex

A San Francisco study finds that sex venues facilitate more responsible behavior, not less.

By Joseph Couture
Friday, March 14, 2008

What we have been told about bathhouses is untrue. Conservatives and moral crusaders with an agenda want us to believe they are places that foster unsafe sex and irresponsible behavior. But finally, the truth of the situation has been presented in credible new scientific research.

Psychologist Dr. William Woods and his colleagues from the University of California at San Francisco have come up with groundbreaking research that turns conventional thinking on it head. His findings show not only that bathhouses do not in themselves promote unsafe sex, but also that they actually facilitate more responsible behavior, not less.

Studies by Dr. Woods found that of the men who visited bathhouses most only had oral sex, and of those who did have anal sex, the majority of them did so safely with a condom. Only a small minority of men engaged in high-risk unprotected anal sex.

But here’s the kicker. What the researchers also discovered in their investigation was that of the men who had engaged in unsafe anal sex, twice as many had done so in the last three months in a private space like their own home over public spaces like bathhouses.

What this means is that men were having twice as much unsafe sex at home or other private spaces rather than bathhouse by a margin of 2 to 1, leading to the conclusion that bathhouses actually decrease the risk of unprotected sex rather than increase it.

Asked for an explanation of these findings, Dr. Woods was clear: “The number one thing you can do to promote safe sex is to have condoms available,” he said in an interview. “If there are no condoms, it may lead to a bad decision to have unprotected sex.” He says that as a general rule bathhouses today make condoms available and encourage safer sex, a policy he says is working.

Asked to speculate on other factors that may be a work, Woods says he thinks three other things are involved. The first is that men consider anonymous partners at the baths to be high risk and are less likely to take chances with them. Secondly, and conversely, he says men having sex in more private settings may feel they know their partners more intimately and may take more risks as a result. The last reason is that if condoms are available like they are in bathhouses, it is easy to make the right choice.

A NUMBER OF vocal critics of the New York City bathhouses have either called for the venues to be closed down or for a radical change in policy in how they operate because of recent statistics showing an increase in HIV rates among young men. Many favor the San Francisco model where private rooms are banned and all sex is required to take place out in the open where members of the staff and health department can police for unsafe sex.

This idea is offensive to many in principle because it invites the state back into our sex lives after decades of work to get the government out of our bedrooms. But the research done by Woods also shows it doesn’t work.

Woods found that there was no difference in either the rates of high-risk sex or general behavior of men who have sex with men in regions with different policies. Men where bathhouses were illegal had just as many partners and the same number of casual sexual encounters as men in cities where bathhouses were permitted.

The research team discovered that variations in policy only changed where the behavior occurred, but it had no effect on whether it or not it happened. This means that by closing one venue, they simply moved the activity to another location. “The risk with that,” says Dr.Woods “is that you might very well end up driving the activity to a location where condoms and education are less available.”

What Woods concludes is that if you were to close the baths, overall rates of condom use would decrease while the number of sexual partners among men who have sex with men would remain the same. Essentially, opponents of the bathhouse would effectively achieve the opposite of what they say they are trying to do–reduce the spread of HIV.

Dr. Woods points one last truth, people with an agenda often use statistics—especially HIV stats—in a self-serving way that is often not supported by the objective research.

It is worth asking, What is the real goal behind all the rhetoric and rush to close the baths? Is it about protecting men from AIDS, or is it about a group of temperance crusaders trying to enforce their own moral code on the gay community?

Joseph Couture is a freelance journalist and the author of the just released “Peek: Inside the Private World of Public Sex” by The Haworth Press.

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