Are Sex Clubs Unsafe--& If So, Who’s to Blame?
A man died last month at a Washington, D.C, "private men’s social club" that catered to "J/O enthusiasts" in the Logan Circle section of the city. He died from injuries sustained when he fell down a flight of stairs. The specific details about how and why he fell are not clear; there’s a suspicion that the staircase wasn’t well lit, among other speculation. What is clear is that the club, now closed, was operating without a business license in a venue that wasn’t built or zoned to host private parties.
While such incidents at sex clubs are rare, they are not unheard of. In the most famous fatality, nine patrons were killed in a fire at the Everard Baths in New York City in 1977. The recent incident in Washington, however, re-opens a long-running dialogue about consensual sex in "private clubs" and public health. That is, even aside from concerns about HIV prevention, how much does the fact that these have been forced underground lead to potentially dangerous building violations?
According to Amanda Hess, writing in the Washington City Paper, espoused the view that at the Men’s Parties hosted in the Logan Circle venue "safety doesn’t mean ensuring that the apartment’s stairs, surfaces and exposed metal pipes provide a secure sexual landscape for party attendees." Hess reported that safety "doesn’t even mean encouraging members to engage in protected sex." Safety, the article proposes, means "ensuring anonymous sex for a group of gay men sporting wedding rings, sensitive careers or shame."
The club has since been forced to close by District of Columbia officials for building violations and operating without a business license. But the larger question is why--and whether municipalities may not at least partly to blame by essentially forcing these venues to operate under the radar of the law.
Sex Spaces Flourish Pre-AIDS
"It’s precisely that sort judgmental perspective and the idea that individuals’ private sex practices need to be policed for their own good that drives sex clubs underground in the first place," says Max, a twenty-year veteran of sex party hosting in New York City, who requested anonymity. Max was referring to Hess’ pronouncement--echoed by critics, both straight and gay--that these venues’ anonymity and multiple partners contribute to unsafe sex.
Max began hosting parties in the early ’90s when his boyfriend at the time, a porn star, was visiting for Thanksgiving and wanted to know where to go for a little fun. "I told him there wasn’t any fun left in town," Max says, "and he just didn’t believe me. ’Come on,’ he said, ’this is New York.’ But it was true."
Mayor Rudolph had effectively had shut down nearly all such places. "The few that were left were regulated to death, antiseptic, no fun," Max recalls. "So we got on the phone lines and put something together. Before I knew it, I was hosting these events regularly."
Sex clubs, are nothing new. In fact, they have a long and storied history dating back to ancient times. The Romans congregated and did much of their business at public baths, which were also were male prostitutes solicited and serviced clients.
In more modern times, one of the earliest recorded police raids of a bathhouse occurred in Paris in 1876. Modern sex clubs over the last quarter century in the United States were operating legally, without fronting "legit" business like massage and without kickbacks to police officers in order to stay open. An outgrowth of the old Turkish baths were men would congregate for a "schvitz," they came into their own during the sexual liberation of the ’60s.
After Stonewall, they really took off, as gay men expressed their sexuality freely, openly and frequently. Even the straights joined in: In the late ’70s Fred L. Lincoln’s Plato’s Retreat in the basement of New York City’s Ansonia Hotel became famous as the destination of choice for the bi-curious, swinger set. The mid-to-late ’70s and early ’80s were just as writer Brad Gooch calls it in his book "The Golden Age of Promiscuity." Gay sex clubs such as New York City’s Mineshaft and the Anvil became known to the general public.
By the mid-’80s, public fear over AIDS changed all of that. Municipalities across the country struggled with how to regulate public sexual activity.
A billboard for bathhouse Man’s Country once dominated New York’s Sheridan square. But by the mid-’90s, many cities, most notably New York and San Francisco, had shut down the baths. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (reportedly working in tandem with certain AIDS activists) tried to regulate the few existing known clubs out of existence.
The clubs that remained were operating only on the down low. They relied on word of mouth, phone sex lines, and advertising in the back of gay going-out guides, like HX in New York or Frontiers in Los Angeles. Private house parties such as Max’s began to flourish.
Being Forced Underground Means Danger
"Clubs and parties were forced underground," says celebrated New York City party host and promoter Daniel Nardicio, "The police made sexual activity at legal clubs impossible by harassing at every level. It really began with Giuliani, he was the worst."
Nardicio cites Giuliani enforcement (many would say selectively) of the Cabaret Law, a Prohibition era statute that prohibits dancing without an expensive license. Mayor Bloomberg "just followed suit," Nardicio adds. "Personally I don’t think Bloomberg cares one way or another, but he is invested politically."
Hess in her article makes much ado out of the fact that the underground establishment in Washington had no certificate of occupancy and no business license.
"Those sorts of parameters are completely out of touch with reality anyhow," says Nardicio. "You do the math. If bars, clubs and parties in this city strictly adhered to the limits of the certificates of occupancy issued to their spaces, even if they hit that number every night, which, of course, they wouldn’t because some nights of the week are just simply dead, they would never earn enough money to pay the exorbitant rents. It’s a ridiculous game. There’s no rent regulations in the city but then there’s tons of regulations which prevent certain businesses from being able to pay those rents if, indeed, they go into business legitimately."
Nardicio admits not knowing all of the circumstances surrounding the incident in Washington. "Sure, the stairwell could have been poorly lit, that’s not unusual, per se," he says. "The guy could have been drunk or high. But using the incident as reason to attack house parties is preposterous. How many people fall to death at well-regulated construction sites every year?"
So are parties culpable for such accidents for taking place in spaces that aren’t sanctioned for such activity? Are local municipalities culpable for forcing the clubs to operate underground in the first place? Or are the patrons themselves responsible for going to illegal house parties?
Illegal House Parties Everywhere
"Please," says James, an entrepreneur in his early thirties who has been hosting private loft parties for men in New York twice a month for the past four years, "it sounds so scandalous but, honestly, how many ’illegal’ house parties have people gone to in high school or college? How many simple New York City social parties take place in apartments that weren’t designed to hold that many people?"
James expressed some surprised when he first heard about the death in Washington--and it did give him pause. While James takes his patrons’ safety seriously and takes measures to insure that his parties are not overcrowded, he’s also concerned that his guests have a good time.
"I think, to a degree, people are responsible for themselves," he says. "And, of course, the city’s responsible as well. It’s the city’s regulations that keep the parties underground."
For his part, James would be actually welcome the chance to run his parties legally, provided, of course, that the regulations didn’t interfere too much with the spirit and atmosphere of the events.
"It’s not like the parties aren’t going to happen anyhow," he continues, "It’s what people want to do. And, yes, I do have a responsibility for my partygoers but you can fall down the stairs anywhere, going down into the subway or at Crobar [a megadisco in West Chelsea] totally sober. What am I supposed to do, walk everyone up and down the stairs?"
That is exactly what Max claims he did for his patrons. Well, not exactly. But he kept a close eye on his patrons and never let a patron leave whom he deemed too high to take care of himself.
"Greed is the problem as usual," says Max. "Not the lack of regulation. Greed is the great motivator these days. People at these events, at the Washington event, were paying to be present. Whoever they were paying should have been responsible for--capable of managing--the people who were capable of paying to come to the party. We normally did things like that. Pay someone to sit at the door and to be sure that no one was leaving too drunk or stoned to take care of themselves. Bartenders in legit bars can be held responsible for patrons who leave and get into drunk driving accidents, why can’t clubs, underground or not, take a bit of responsibility?"
As to the charges that underground sex parties are unsafe for people’s psychological as well as physical wellbeing and discourage adult relationships, Max fervently disagrees.
"It doesn’t have to be that way," he continues, "There was a lot of camaraderie at my parties. People would have sex and then sit down and talk. People would meet and become lovers. It’s a natural place for gay people to meet because they don’t have to hide their promiscuity or feel ashamed of it. People would come up to me all the time, on the street, and thank me because they met someone at one of my events."
Nardicio, who runs his parties and events legally, sums it up by saying, "Of all the things going on in most major cities today do we really need to be concerned about what informed, consensual adults are doing sexually in the privacy of clubs and parties that are specifically catering to their desires? If the whole morality policing thing weren’t present, every aspect of nightlife would probably be safer for everyone at every level."