Are Sex Clubs Unsafe--& If So, Who’s to Blame?

by Seth Michael Donsky
Tuesday Nov 3, 2009
  • COMMENTS (10)

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."


  • stdslove, 2009-11-03 08:54:18

    We need HIV/AIDS education. It’s very important!! CDC has granted CSU $1.9M for HIV/AIDS education. The number of members on the largest HIV dating&support site == has reached 500,000 members OMG! Why so many guys and girls on the site are very sexy? Why so many people are infected by HIV? There is no doubt that we need SEX-ED

  • Amanda Hess, 2009-11-03 11:42:36

    The reason I chose to write on the issue of "safety" is because the organizer of the club himself claimed to offer a safe place. When someone dies in your club, that claim should naturally be investigated. The man’s death was not the first dangerous incident at the club---a fire broke out there in 2005. The club had no fire exits, of course, which may be normal for a "house party"---but this was a building expressly set up to do business. $14 "donations" were collected every night. There was a front desk and lockers and beds. The business was incorporated as a domestic nonprofit which has never filed taxes for those "donations." And the manager was not on the premises when the man died. Despite what your sources suggest, it’s not illegal to throw a house party in Washington. It is illegal to run a business without a license. And it’s irresponsible to claim that your underground business is "safe" when you make no effort to make it that way. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous to ask Nardicio to respond to my story by talking about business regulations "in this city." Washington, D.C. is not New York, and business regulations are much, much different here. Our regulating bodies keep an extremely strict eye on all legit businesses. Meanwhile, they have entirely ignored this place---even after the fire---until a man died. D.C. does have legit sex clubs, and while some may argue that they’re "regulated to death, antiseptic, no fun"---at least they’re up to code, and we know who to hold accountable when they are not.

  • BB, 2009-11-03 12:23:41

    We have SEX-ED. We have it, and have had it, for 25 years as regards HIV/AIDS. People who choose to expose themselves to the virus now are beyond the veil of sympathy. Everyone knows the virus is dangerous and that you get it in places like this doing things like these men were doing. It is a great irony that society is expected to be worried about well-lit stairwells in places where gay men are congregating in order to have sex that is incredibly risky to begin with. Better shut these things down than send building inspectors to make sure they’re "safe."

  • Anonymous, 2009-11-03 15:53:17

    I have visited that club on on off for years. The stairs were lit well enough. The problem was the fact that the staircase was very - VERY steep. Should sex clubs be required to have operating licenses? YES!!! Should they be well lighted, and up to building codes - YES!!! In terms of spreading disease, a sex club is only as safe as the people who choose to take responsibility for their actions. I’ve been attending sex clubs for over twenty five years. And I am HIV negative. Why? Because I refuse to put myself and others at risk for life threatening behavior.

  • Anonymous, 2009-11-03 18:26:55

    Amanda: That’s a little disingenuous. Nardicio was talking about regulation in any city, not just NYC, and how they impact such clubs. But there’s nothing in the article that contradicts your argument in your own well-reported article.

  • BB, 2009-11-03 19:43:44

    Nardicio calls Guiliani "the worst." Yes he was - the absolute worst for slugs like Nardicio who had turned Manhattan into a cesspool of crime and sleaze. Guiliani and Disney, for example, drove crap like Nardicio out of central Manhattan, brining in billions of dollars of new investment and business and making it possible for families to come back to the city. Surely Nardicio and his ilk can find other holes to open up businesses where folks can come in and fill up their every orifice with every anonymous penis they can find on the premises. What a fine and nobel celebration of life!

  • Anonymous, 2009-11-03 22:40:26

    BB are you gay or straight? Have you ever been laid? I’m so sick of people like you passing their moral judgments of "better than thou". We listened to it from Jerry Falwell for years, do we really have to listen to it from you. The annonymous poster that’s gone to the "tubs" for 25 years gets it right and you get it wrong. Your argument reminds me of the argument that the Park Police use to harass gay men in the bushes, but when a car is in the bushes with a young straight couple, the dynamics change, or rather should I say, homophobia rears it’s ugly head. BB honey, were all adults so please let me have sex with as many people, whenever I want and keep your nose out. If I choose to cover up with a condom or not that’s my right. But it’s your responsibility to protect your ass from someone that chooses to be reckless. Get off your soap box and stop pissing on everyone elses parade. Get laid and get over your bitternes. I’m now sick of the likes of you for over 30 years. OMG!

  • Seth Michael Donsky, 2009-11-04 07:16:49

    Hi Amanda. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with the poster who cited your own article as well written. It was. I’m actually quite sympathetic to your comment in many ways and agree with you that it’s very difficult to respond broadly (ie. quoting New Yorkers as if they are speaking nationally) when your piece was very specific regionally. But then you had to add that last line: "and while some may argue that they’re (sex clubs) "regulated to death, antiseptic, no fun"---at least they’re up to code, and we know who to hold accountable when they are not" and I realized the entire point of my piece was lost on you. (not to mention that you, personally, showed an insensitive type of prejudice that is a huge factor in the problem.) As long as you show no sympathy to the people who don’t want the atmosphere of their own, private sex club sterilized to the point of their not being able to enjoy the type of sex they want to have - you are part of the dynamic that forces such patrons to seek it elsewhere. I believe that my interview subjects’ common point is that as long as society at large thinks it is their business to police other people’s private sex practices for THEIR own good that they are bringing about the existence of illegal clubs that don’t. YOU are not protected from AIDS, or anything else, when you sterilize someone else’s sexual environment - you are protecting them for their own good - and they are bound to go somewhere else if your protections preclude them from having the sort of sex they would like to REGARDLESS of what you think about what it is they like to do - and THAT place is likely to run illegally and now people really are being put in jeopardy. It’s the sort of prejudice I think your piece showed when you wrote it as if married men who sucked dick in private were shameful people who, perhaps (this is my own interpretation) deserved to fall down stairwells. Why shouldn’t married men who suck dick be allowed to do it in a safe environment that caters to their desires? Who are you protecting? In fact, maybe if society at large didn’t think gay unions shouldn’t be sanctioned in the first place (see the story on what happened in Maine) it wouldn’t force so many men to be gay on the down low. Does that sound argument ring true to you at all? My piece is not free from prejudice either. I admit that. Although mine was not as heavily editorial as yours. The prejudice I brought to my piece is the belief that consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they would like sexually with consensual partners regardless of what I personally think about it. I simply think that I am aware of my prejudice.

  • Anonymous, 2009-11-12 12:42:37

    I would like to everyone to stop thinking "it’s their right" to do whatever the hell they want! I am gay, and christian and a moderate independent... The truth is we are called from a humanist and christian point of view to love others and respect others. I have never found senseless sex with as many people as I want, to lead anywhere but depression and sadness. I don’t want you to think you are judging, and I am sorry if I offer unsolicited advise, but engaging in that behavior has made many people I know sad and addicted. I have changed from that... I am still gay, but have a wonderful partner and now spend the time I would have been engaging in sex showing Christ’s love for others, while still enjoing the intamate (and sexual) relationship with my boyfriend!

  • Chippie, 2009-11-13 23:29:14

    Looks like straight clubs are running into the same problem. They should also outlaw New Years. That’s why I’m going to buy a cacoon an live in it. Berlin man drowns in night club fountain in Cherry Hill January 02, 2009, 2:52PM CHERRY HILL -- The body of a man reported missing by his family was found in a fountain outside Taylor’s Restaurant and Night Club Thursday night. David Martinez, 26, of Berlin, was with several friends at Taylor’s on Route 70 on New Year’s Eve, but the group broke up and Martinez left the club at about 1 a.m. Thursday, authorities said. He and his friends agreed to meet a short time later at a nearby hotel where they had rented a room. When his friends couldn’t locate him later, they told his family, who then reported him to Cherry Hill police as a missing person, said authorities. Martinez was found dead in the frozen fountain at about 9 p.m. Thursday, authorities said. An autopsy preformed Friday showed the cause of death was drowning. BTW: It’s a goldfish pond...some kind of Final Destination stuff happening here.

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