As a gay man coming of age in the '70s, sex clubs and public sex spaces were an important part of my sexuality. But I maintained a difficult love/hate relationship with these spaces. While they provided near-instant gratification at almost any time of the day or night, they certainly did not provide what I was really looking for: a life partner. Like many gay men I met, I had many partners but, in my case, little satisfaction. And when AIDS appeared I found another reason to dislike these spaces: not only did they not fill my emotional needs, but now they were dangerous to my health, too.
All these concerns became moot in 1994 when the Giuliani administration began a serious crackdown on sex spaces, triggered by an undercover TV news report on the sex clubs -- videotaped at my favorite club! Highly sensational, it led to real fears that all sex clubs (which had actually been banned in New York State by legislation passed in 1985 but had continued to operate) would really be closed down this time.
I wasn't that surprised by the report, since I had seen behavior at sex clubs that seriously disturbed me. I saw guys screwing without a condom right beneath a "Safe Sex is Good Sex" poster. I saw orgies packed into tiny rooms where condom use was virtually impossible. And the worst case that I saw (an image burned into my mind to this day): a very young man on his back with his feet in stirrups, drugged out of his mind, being entered without condoms by one guy after another while about 20 guys watched. To me, this sent a powerful message, one much more potent than any safer sex poster or brochure: My peers see this behavior and approve. How would we ever get a handle on HIV transmission if the message being sent out by guys in our group sex establishments was that unsafe sex was cool?
So in early 1995, I decided to take on the issue. I thought that we had a chance to kill two birds with one stone: prevent the sex clubs from being closed down and do something about all the unsafe sex that was happening there. I contacted the owner of every commercial sex space in New York City, gay or straight -- not an easy task, since these are not people who seek the limelight. But eventually we convened a meeting with about 30 owners, all of whom were very concerned about the future of their establishments. I proposed that we take a proactive stance: tell the city that sex clubs should stay open, but that unsafe sex would not be allowed. How could that be done, you ask? The idea was to make common something that was then being done at only a few clubs: using monitors.
This was actually not a new concept. The New York Jacks, a club that celebrated mutual masturbation long before the AIDS epidemic, held regular sex parties in which only masturbation was allowed. A sign was posted at the door: NO LIPS BELOW THE HIPS, and anyone found having oral or anal sex was promptly told to leave. Since no one wanted to be thrown out, the rule was rarely broken. I had also seen monitoring work in other ways: I knew of one backroom in which the very sexy monitor stopped anal sex, but also joined in the fun on occasion!
This led to my idea: the community would find and train "lifeguards" -- sexy guys who would wear lifeguard tank tops and patrol the sex clubs. If they found anyone having unprotected anal sex, they would say, "Here, use this condom or take it home." (Since oral sex presented a low risk of HIV transmission, it seemed best to focus efforts on unprotected anal sex only.)
Using lifeguards would, of course, require that all the sex in the clubs happen out in the open: no booths with doors or private rooms. But the owners were okay with that. Anything that would get Giuliani off their backs was fine with them. I envisioned a real community effort: GMHC would train the lifeguards, the owners would hire them, and ACT UP would endorse the idea of promoting safer sex in the clubs.
Boy, was I wrong! I brought the idea to the floor of ACT UP and was crucified. Not only did people hate the idea of "Sex Police," they hated me for even proposing it. Member after member got up and called me a fascist, neo-con, or self-hating gay, and people who had worked with me for years screamed at me or stopped speaking to me altogether. Activists were adamant that anyone had a right to be infected if they chose to, and that we had no right to tell anyone how to have sex.
And I agreed -- to a point. Certainly, anyone should be able to do whatever they wanted in the privacy of their home. But I felt commercial sex establishments were different. These places were making tons of money by providing a space that I felt facilitated unsafe sex with multiple partners. If AIDS activists really wanted to promote the idea that safer sex was important, I thought the message should be, "If you want to be unsafe, that's your right, but not in our sex spaces."
So without the support of ACT UP, the sex club owners met with the city. As the meeting was about to start, I stood up and said, "We're happy that the city has agreed to meet with those of us who have been working on this ..." Mark Barnes from the NYC Department of Health interrupted me, saying, "I'm in charge of this meeting -- I'll take it from here." He proceeded to negate any work we had done, saying only, "We will be sending undercover police into your clubs and if we see any anal or oral sex, we'll shut you down." Period. No discussion, no request for input, no community involvement, nothing. The meeting was over. I was furious. And I felt like a fool for thinking the Giuliani administration would ever listen to us.
So we continued to promote the idea of safer sex clubs on our own (GMHC also refused to get involved), and the debate raged on. I got hate mail from all corners: straights calling me a sick faggot promoting the spread of disease, gays calling me an embarrassment for promoting gay promiscuity, and activists calling me self-hating for promoting the idea of sex police.
We met with the New York State AIDS Advisory Council for their recommendations, and they agreed that the clubs should be regulated, not closed. Likening multi-partner sex to other "vices" that society controls but does not ban, like drinking and smoking, the Council recommended that the city work with the owners and the community to forge a mutually acceptable solution.
But the community and city would not budge. The activists said simply, "Hands off our sex spaces!" The city said, "Anal, oral or vaginal sex, with or without a condom, in a commercial sex establishment is illegal." Clubs tried to work around the law -- one sex club claimed it was an art gallery and had patrons make partial payments on paintings instead of charging admission -- but the city knew how to close the clubs. One by one, they were shut down.
One of the funniest moments came when the West Side Club went to court to stop its closure, saying it was not a sex club. The judge asked, "If you aren't a sex club, what are you? You have no license to be a gym or a sauna." "We're a conference center," their lawyers replied. "For who?" "Professionals: lawyers, doctors, ministers." "Why do you have all those tiny rooms with beds in them?" "For people to rest in between meetings."
But the West Side Club had one tactic the city couldn't beat: hide all the sex. The clubs that remained open moved all the sex into booths or rooms. The police couldn't see it, so as long as the club had some other reason for existence (showing movies, etc.), they weren't a sex club. Of course, this also meant they could no longer provide condoms, since that would mean admitting patrons were having sex. So now we had clubs where people had sex behind closed doors with no condoms, unless they had the forethought to bring their own.
The community broke into two factions. One group, the AIDS Prevention Action League (APAL), formed to fight any closings or monitoring. Another, the Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists (GALPHA), formed "to end HIV transmission in commercial sex establishments." I attended meetings of both groups. APAL had a lot of discussions about finding new, creative ways to promote safer sex in the clubs, but in the end all it did was make yet one more poster, visit a sex club (I'm not sure what members did there other than to have sex), and hold a safer sex party. GALPHA had similarly unproductive meetings and then a few members arranged to meet, without me, with city officials about the unsafe sex occurring in the clubs. This was viewed as a real betrayal by many in the community and hardened the two stances even further.
The end result was that sex spaces moved underground. They are still there, but they are harder to find. One notoriously unsafe party was held for years by a well-known "elder" of the gay community. They got around the undercover cops by requiring people to get naked or to play with their dicks before entry -- something that is apparently too traumatic for straight undercover cops to do.
And, I'm sorry to say, the unsafe sex continues. Gay men have now adopted the fantasy of "serosorting." Many online ads request partners who are "disease-free," as though asking a stranger his HIV status offers any useful information. If I tell guys I'm negative, the option of unsafe sex often appears. What a disaster! If guys think that condoms can be avoided simply by asking your partner if he's "clean," they'll have an unpleasant surprise the next time they have an HIV test.
I believe that we missed a golden opportunity. We had the chance to create vibrant sex clubs that sent a clear message: we value safer sex and refuse to stand by and watch guys get infected. Instead, the steady drumbeat of new infections continues behind closed doors.
Mark Milano is a longtime AIDS activist and an educator at ACRIA.