The Los Angeles County board of supervisors on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a new law that would require bathhouses, sex clubs, and other commercial sex venues to prevent patrons from engaging in unprotected sex in order to remain in business, the Los Angeles Times reports. The law would require the venues to obtain permits from the county that could be revoked if the sex clubs allow patrons to engage in unsafe sex. Justin Burke, manager of media and marketing for AIDS Project Los Angeles, told Advocate.com the law would prohibit unprotected anal and vaginal sex and discourage--but not prohibit--unprotected oral sex. The new regulations also would allow unannounced health inspections during peak business hours and would require clubs to post an explanation of the law, provide condoms, and offer free HIV antibody testing and counseling.
County director of public health Jonathan Fielding says the new law was proposed because a federal study of two Los Angeles sex clubs showed patrons have high HIV prevalence rates. The study found new HIV infections among 11% of the sex club patrons tested, double the average new infection rate among gay men nationwide. Approximately 600,000 people visit Los Angeles County sex clubs each year, Fielding says. "We certainly have a public health risk."
The board voted in favor of the law after hearing testimony in support of the measure from several AIDS prevention organizations, including AIDS Project Los Angeles, and from commercial sex venue patrons. No bathhouse owners testified against the measure. "After a year of stakeholder dialogue, we support an ordinance that promotes HIV harm reduction activities in bathhouses and sex clubs and establishes shared expectations," said Lee Klosinski, APLA's director of programs, in a press release. "Consumers will benefit from the ordinance and guidelines since they require all commercial sex venue owners to implement best practices, ensuring that essential prevention supplies like condoms, lube, and HIV/STD testing are freely and discreetly available to patrons of every club."
But Klosinski points out that APLA does not believe sex clubs are driving the spread of HIV in Los Angeles and says keeping the clubs open and encouraging patrons to use condoms "is a significant harm reduction strategy. Ultimately, it is up to consumers to make healthy choices in an environment that maintains safer sex as a behavioral norm. This ordinance is a significant step in that direction."
Scott Campbell, president of Midtowne Spa, a Los Angeles bathhouse, told the Times that he agrees with Klosinski's assessment that sex clubs are useful in promoting safer-sex messages and helping to identify those who are HIV-positive through on-site testing, which the three clubs his group operates have offered since 1996. "We all have the same goal, which is for people to be healthy," Campbell told the Times. "It doesn't do any good if you come up with regulations that run them out of the clubs, because then you have no access to them. We have a big market of closeted men and married men who are not out in the gay community."
The county supervisors will vote on the proposal next week for final county approval. Because nine bathhouses and two sex clubs operate within the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles city council also must approve the measure for it to take effect. City AIDS coordinator David Simon supports the law and says he will urge the city council to approve it.