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An Ounce of Prevention?

By Catherine Hanssens, Esq.

Fall 1995

This past Spring, the issue of AIDS prevention resurfaced in a furor over the role of commercial sex establishments -- such as sex clubs, theaters and bath houses -- in the spread of HIV.

While New York City went about padlocking movie theaters, many in the community took issue with the position that these establishments were contributing to the spread of HIV and should be closed down or restricted. Some countered with accusations that activists who failed to lobby the city for more closures of these businesses were irresponsible.

Meanwhile, city officials developed zoning amendments which aimed to eliminate the majority of commercial sex establishments in the city and would have a particularly profound effect on the gay community in Greenwich Village. With far less fanfare, city administrators quietly planned the closure of public hospitals, and the reduction in funding for AIDS services and publicly-funded medical services on which many with HIV are dependent.

What is the connection between opportunity and activity? Why is it so difficult to carve out consensus and take action on a workable prevention strategy? Is the closing of these businesses worth our attention when an assault on basic AIDS services is underway?

These questions don't lend themselves to easy answers. However, there are some apparent truths worth noting. One is that desire and the reasons why people choose to take risks with their lives and their health are complex -- far more complex than a simple function of the availability of information about these risks or the opportunities to engage in them. Another is that there is nothing in our history to suggest that prohibition -- whether of alcohol, abortion, birth control or sex -- is an effective way of stopping behavior or choices some segment of society deem indecent or unsafe.

There is no real evidence that the closure of bathhouses and theaters will accomplish much other than force behavior underground or change its locale. Closure does nothing to address the fact that many may not care about, or even believe in, the possibility that they could survive this epidemic. It may, on the other hand, add to the everyday, depressing assaults on autonomy, self-esteem and the quality of gay life which encourage people not to care about themselves enough to reduce some of the risk-taking in their lives.

A third truth is that turning to city officials to prohibit "high risk" behavior for the protection of our community can produce some undesirable results. Recent experience in New York City bears this out, as the padlocking of a theater was based exclusively on observations of oral sex between men. Although incidents in this theater observed by inspectors dropped to two per month, and despite evidence that oral sex is not a major means of HIV transmission, the city closed the theater for being a threat to the public health.

In light of dire under-funding of AIDS services and lack of attention given to proven methods of risk reduction and AIDS prevention, it seems a shame to spend scarce resources to monitor and close gay spaces. Closing theaters and clubs surely contributes to the continued stigmatization of gay sex, although it is far less clear whether it contributes at all to the reduction of risky behavior.

Catherine Hanssens is the AIDS Project Director at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization committed to achieving the full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.

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