In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, communities found ways to promote queer sex as healthy sex in NYC bathhouses, as explored in our previous piece titled “Sex in an Epidemic.” Not only did these efforts result in community-produced safer sex materials, but they also led to community-based organizing to maintain the bathhouse as a healthy space amid the epidemic. One such example is New York City’s CSR.
The Coalition for Sexual Responsibility was established in December 1984. The CSR’s records, held in the archives of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village, reveal an organization that partnered with NYC bathhouse owners to keep those establishments open through community-based inspections. These records include piles of type-written checklists, which were the inspection sheets. They’re scrawled with handwritten notes like “more than half the soap dispensers were empty!” and “room had come stains on wall + door.” All of these checklists noted that safe-sex posters were “not framed.”
In its October 1985 report, the CSR listed its objectives as “encouraging commercial establishments whose primary purpose is to permit high-risk sexual activities to occur on their premises to provide an environment where safer sex is encouraged and promoted” and “encouraging these same establishments to help educate the community about AIDS and safer sex.”
The CSR developed recommendations for the baths and invited bathhouse owners and managers to a February 11, 1985, meeting facilitated by the staffs of Lambda Legal Defense and the National Gay Task Force. The CSR supported community-based regulation to avoid government intervention, which had long been associated with denigration of gay sexuality.
Many baths agreed to the plan.
The management of the New St. Marks Baths wrote to the CSR that it “heartily endorses, in principle, the recommendations of the Coalition for Sexual Responsibility” and that “the overall aims of the Coalition are both necessary and important for the bathhouse business in its responsibility to the gay community.”
The Wall Street Sauna was “in agreement with all points made … and we will cooperate completely with you and your organization.” Indeed, the Health Department of the City of New York initially backed the CSR’s proactive community-based efforts by noting that the work “the organizing CSR has done to develop educational activities in commercial sex establishments is noteworthy and represents the cutting edge of community education on AIDS.”
After receiving written consent from 10 NYC bathhouses — Ansonia Baths, Barracks, Beacon Baths, Broadway Arms, East Side Sauna, Everard Baths, Mt. Morris Baths, Northern Men’s Sauna, St. Marks Baths and Wall Street Sauna — the CSR organized a schedule of three inspections to be carried out by volunteers throughout 1985. Volunteers would enter the bathhouses with a checklist of 13 items and evaluate compliance. This list included the following:
1. Framed safe sex posters were displayed in prominent, well-lit places.
2. Safe sex information in written form (the brochure) is directly offered to each patron upon admission.
3. Management has set aside a separate community space/table where questions can be answered and literature distributed.
4. Management has made available and encourages the exchange of pre-printed cards so that sexual partners can exchange names and addresses.
5. The premises were clean. It appeared that management had regularly cleaned premises with Chlorox (or similar substance) every six hours or more often.
6. The water in hot tubs and swimming pools appeared clear and clean. It appeared that management had used appropriate levels of chlorine in hot tubs/swimming pools.
7. Management had made available water-based lubricant in appropriate containers, e.g., pump tops or small disposable packets.
8. Management exchanged all soiled towels and sheets free of charge.
9. Management provided liquid soap rather than bars.
10. Management provided, free of charge, each patron upon admission with medically approved condom.
11. There were no glory holes.
12. The lights had been turned up.
13. There were no slings or bathtubs.
In early June 1985, the CSR notified bathhouse management of “poor results and requesting that they take immediate remedial action.” After a second inspection a month later, the CSR learned “eight out of nine bathhouses [still] failed to hand each patron a copy of the [safer sex] brochure upon admission.”
The CSR then partnered with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to set up on-site tables where GMHC members could distribute safer sex pamphlets to patrons.
A third round of inspections took place in October. While noting modest improvements, CSR reported only “full compliance in two of the 10 bathhouses in the city.” The report concluded by mentioning that city authorities were considering action against the bathhouses. It also highlighted that a majority of the NY AIDS Institute Advisory Board endorsed the CSR’s inspection regime be adopted by city and state officials rather than close the bathhouses entirely. But even the CSR admitted, “the response from the bathhouses has been, for the most part, irresponsible and disappointing.”
This history suggests that bathhouse owners — who were often not identified with the gay and queer communities — were not invested in the CSR’s aims to promote healthy sex and community care. And it illustrates how authorities disregarded the comprehensive inspection regimes that community members developed.
Indeed, elected officials later exploited what could be seen as community failure to suggest that gay men were fundamentally incapable of taking responsibility — that they were in this sense undignified or immature — and that government intervention was therefore needed. City officials, who were already predisposed to consider gay men incapable of responding to the crisis, began to bust through the doors of the bathhouses to conduct their own inspections.
Regardless of the innovative early community-based responses, the long-standing belief of gay men as depraved, oversexed animals gave reason to shut down the baths entirely.
Stephen M. Engel is Professor and Chair of Politics at Bates College and is the author of Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives. Timothy S. Lyle is Assistant Professor of English at Iona College, and is most recently the author of “Tryin’ to Scrub that Death Pussy Clean Again: The Pleasures of Domesticating HIV/AIDS in Pearl Cleage’s Fiction.”
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