By Amy Goldstein April 17, Email the author Follow goldsteinamy A gay men's social club where the lights are low and patrons must leave their clothes in lockers has opened near downtown Washington, reviving a dispute over public health and civil rights in the era of AIDS.
The owner of the month-old Crew Club, D. Allen, says he has created a clean, safe space for gay men to lift weights, shoot pool, get a tan, sip sodas and pick up condoms and lessons on how to avoid AIDS. His critics say he has created a throwback to the bathhouses that predate the epidemic, fostering promiscuous, anonymous and possibly dangerous sex.
During the s, many bathhouses were closed or shunned as breeding grounds of the fatal disease. As the epidemic has settled into its second decade, bathhouses and clubs are reappearing in several major U. But this time, the establishments are touting themselves as environments that promote safe sex. A man's risk of infection is not determined by his number of partners, they now preach, but by whether he uses condoms and by the kind of sex he has.
The ethic of safe, casual sex is spreading while health workers fear that AIDS prevention campaigns are failing. New research suggests that the HIV infection rate, stable among U. In a recent study of San Francisco men ages 17 to 22, nearly one in three reported having anal sex without a condom, the form of sex in which HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is transmitted most readily. One in 10 was infected. But local clinics that treat sexually transmitted diseases have noticed a recent increase in cases of rectal gonorrhea among gay men, especially young ones, after a decade-long decline.
Such cases are considered a good indicator of the kind of unsafe sexual behavior that can lead to AIDS. Those clues could signify that the local AIDS epidemic, spreading most rapidly during the last few years among intravenous drug users and their sex partners, might be veering back into the gay population. In that climate, the Crew Club has become controversial in its first five weeks. Allen, its owner, was forced to remove a bank of tall, open-sided cages made of chain-link fencing.
City regulators contended they were too conducive to sex. Several patrons said in interviews that they had had sex in the cages or had seen other men doing so. Even within the gay community, opinion over the club is split. Said Jim Smith, 43, a Logan Circle resident who inspected the club one night: I didn't see anybody working out -- except on each other and themselves. This can't stay here. But the relationship between clinic and club is uneasy.
Whitman-Walker has started an advertising campaign warning of the hazards of bathhouses. Relatively upscale and near downtown on 14th Street NW, it is attracting men who would not seek casual sex in parks or other more dangerous places, he said. Dating to the public baths and saunas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they proliferated during the s and '70s as site and symbol of gay liberation at a time when homosexual sex remained illegal in many cities, including Washington.
Patrons rented a locker for their clothes and paid for a private room or a public "dormitory" room. Council repealed the city's sodomy law. But most had closed by the mids in the face of neighborhood redevelopment and waning business. By the late s, new sex clubs were opening in San Francisco. Unlike the illegal bathhouses, they lacked private rooms with locks. Some recent studies suggest that men who have homosexual sex use condoms more often in bathhouses and sex clubs than they do at home, in parks or in other settings.
Although some AIDS educators view the new clubs as effective sites to teach safe sex, city governments have not been entirely tolerant. This month, New York closed a six-week-old bathhouse in Chelsea, but a judge allowed it to reopen last Monday. The city also closed two gay theaters in the last two months where inspectors observed high-risk sexual activity. Los Angeles recently sued two bathhouses to try to close them on public health grounds. The suit was settled when the owners and AIDS groups agreed to a set of safe-sex rules.
In Washington, the bathhouses off South Capitol Street remain open in a shabby block that includes a club with nude male dancers and a gay movie house.
But unlike in other major cities, no new clubs had opened since the AIDS crisis began. Allen, a former actor who has run a talent agency, painting company and catering business, is 39 and brash.
They tried to open it as a bathhouse but now bill it as a health and social club. The Crew Club is in the middle of a block of businesses, behind a locked door marked only with a small pink triangle.
Patrons are buzzed into a lobby with large black-and-white floor tiles and walls painted a bright apple green -- "the Mary Tyler Moore look," Allen said. At the top of a long stairway, patrons are greeted by an employee behind a glass case filled with neatly folded white towels -- the only attire permitted beyond the weight room. Before the city intervened, the club sold six-month memberships. Touching, kissing and other displays of affection are allowed. Lewd conduct is not. Nor are alcohol and other drugs.
The club is decorated with Allen's international collection of safe-sex posters. At one end of a large game room is an old, red gasoline pump with a window. Inside are three naked male dolls in erotic poses.
Because the rumor is we are a sex club, people come here with that expectation. Two nights later, he said, he saw patrons engaged in sex but could not see whether they used a condom. After an anonymous complaint to the city this month, the club is negotiating a consent decree with the D. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs over the terms of its permit, which classifies it as a health club.
The agreement will specify that "engaging in sexual activity of any nature in this club is strictly prohibited," said the club's attorney, Mickey Wheatley, who represented the bathhouses sued by Los Angeles. Commission on Public Health has not been involved in the negotiations. At least one visitor said sex has continued since city regulators intervened.
Sean Bugg, who works at Whitman-Walker, said patrons were engaging in sex when he visited the club at 2: Allen said his club has been singled out for harassment by the city, even as gay men congregate for sex in Southeast Washington, in certain health club locker rooms and at large, private parties across town.
Yet he is trying to please both city regulators and his clientele. One morning, he looked over his bank of chain-link cages shortly before he had to remove them. This is an advertisement for the Crew Club. The portion blocked out by the gray bar mentioned "Private Crew Quarters," which were removed from the club under orders of city regulators.
Allen, owner of the Crew Club on 14th Street NW, holds pamphlets he gives clients advocating safe sex. The club has become controversial in its first five weeks.