Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sex, Drugs & Bath Houses

It's been several months since I've written a post for this blog, and even longer since I've written about queer men's health issues. But this evening, I saw a string of comments on a friend's Facebook page around whether or not he should accept an invitation to visit a bath house. The responses were not atypical, and were, in fact, pretty much out of the pervasive imaginary textbook of morality that permeates public health discourse, and the opinion of so many of my queer brothers.

The summary: my friend was discouraged from visiting the bath house, and was told to inform whoever extended the invitation that he was "not that kind of guy" and to not talk to that person again. The reason? Because "they're dirty, unsafe, and largely drug infested."

Now, it's not my job to be the counter gay-morality police. But the policing of queer men's bodies by other queer men has become so widely acceptable (even in the liberal queer paradise of San Francisco), that I thought I'd weigh in and offer a different opinion.

First, I must agree that some bath houses (yes, I've been to one or 12) could use some extra Fabuloso, a paint job, and better lighting. As for being "unsafe," I imagine the person is referring to the socially constructed concept of "safe sex." Meaning, people at bath houses are engaging in sex without condoms. And, well, some people are. I also agree that some people are probably engaging in some form of drug use (prescribed and not), although I'm not exactly sure what a drug infestation looks like.

I'm not necessarily in disagreement with most of this person's assessment of what goes on in bath houses. Most of what he says could be true in some, or perhaps most, bath houses. However, it is also true that bath houses are, as far as I know, regulated by public health departments, they provide condoms, and local organizations often provide free testing and resources. Also, typically 
there are signs stating that drugs are not allowed, but we can always debate about how enforceable those placards are.

It's not the assessment of bath houses that I have a problem with. My problem is this simple-minded approach to gay men's health and how widely accepted it seems to be. Queer men already live in a world that thinks of us (our bodies, our minds, our spirits) as "dirty, unsafe, and largely drug infested." And somehow, at some point, our legacy was infected by the very morality that deems us pariahs and perverted vectors of disease.

There's no arguing that HIV is still a significant concern for our communities. There's no dismissing that the pain of losing so many of our queer forefathers and brothers is a pain we carry on our backs. But this pain seems to have translated into us believing the words of the Reagan Administration and the hateful rhetoric of those who despise us. We must remember, 
this disease is not our cancer, it is not our own doing.

I know I am unpopular in my public support for the existence of bath houses. But I state my support publicly because silence around our sex and sexualities is dangerous. Despite what goes on in bath houses, they can be, at a minimum, a space where men can engage in consensual sex. Some men don't have other spaces. I've seen far too many reports of men being subjected to violence at the hands of sexual partners or law enforcement when engaging in consensual sex in other spaces (i.e. public areas). If anything, a bath house can provide literal, albeit relative, safety.

But arguing a case for why bath houses should exist is hardly the point of this post. Rather, I hope to convey an argument against the moralization of queer men's sex and sexualities, and against the patronizing peer-to-peer policing we engage in. We already exist in a culture that works to dismiss our sense of agency and deny us our right to self-determination. Why must we strive to do it to each other?

Bath houses aren't the only place where sex without condoms happens. Bath houses are not the only unsanitary spaces where men have sex. Bath houses are not the only places where drugs are used. If the concern is that queer men do not have access to the necessary information to make informed decisions about their health, then make the information (not your moral opinion) accessible. Demonizing and treating us like unintelligent creatures who are incapable of taking care of ourselves does not help us make informed decisions. It only increases the silence between us. There's a reason more men seem to frequent bath houses, than men who freely admit to doing so.

P.S. If at the end of the day you refuse to visit your local bath house, remember, it's your body and only you get to make that decision. And, yes, that is my moral opinion.


  1. I completely agree with you about the demonization and over-policing of queer bodies of color, especially male ones. Like you, I think we need to seriously consider how and why we are internalizing and reproducing so many pathological beliefs and actions. Any time the word "safety" or some other prohibition comes up in our conversations, we should interrogate if it is a medical question or something based in negative stereotyping.

  2. Agreed and is it the fear or ignorance associated with bath houses and the homophobia of the comment "they're dirty, unsafe, and largely drug infested?"

  3. "I hope to convey an argument against the moralization of queer men's sex and sexualities, and against the patronizing peer-to-peer policing we engage in. We already exist in a culture that works to dismiss our sense of agency and deny us our right to self-determination. Why must we strive to do it to each other?"
    This was a refreshing read, after 10 years of working in the HIV/AIDS field, it's good to read something that reminds me of the many reasons why I continue to do the work.

  4. I completely agree, and I could not have said it better myself. Thanks for being the voice of sex-positivity.

  5. What is irrefutable is that there absolutely seems to be a ""gay agenda." If you accept my premise, you might want to know what that agenda is? It would appear to be general acceptance and the patina of normalcy. For years the American Psychological Association had classified homosexuality as an illness.