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Sex and safety

THE WEBSITE FOR ONE FACILITY says it’s a place for “men to play safely.” Another describes itself as the “friendly, no-attitude bathhouse you’ve been looking for.” Others boast of their cedar-lined saunas and private sundecks.

Los Angeles County’s 11 known sex clubs and bathhouses have long been popular places where gay men (and to a lesser extent heterosexual couples) go to have casual or public sex. Although perfectly legal as long as money doesn’t change hands between partners, the steamy meeting points are also a major concern for public health officials because they can be breeding grounds for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex club owners and county officials agreed in the early 1990s that venues would voluntarily distribute free condoms and offer sex and drug counseling on site. But there is growing evidence that many local clubs have ignored the rules. Such irresponsibility may be a factor behind recent increases in HIV and syphilis rates among L.A.'s homosexual and bisexual population.

To combat the problem, starting this month the county is requiring that all commercial sex venues obtain a permit. Clubs also must prove that free condoms are available and pay an annual fee of $1,000 to cover the cost of quarterly on-site health inspections.

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But nine sex club owners have filed a lawsuit seeking to exempt themselves from the rules or strike them down altogether. They say the new regulations trample on their constitutional right to privacy. Even more absurdly, they maintain that the county’s definition of commercial sex venues -- any place where “high-risk sexual contact” occurs -- does not apply to them because they’ve always sought to prevent high-risk sex.

Nonsense. There is a mountain of evidence that people who go to sex clubs frequently engage in unprotected intercourse. And the new rules hardly invade the privacy of club patrons or place an undue burden on owners. Instead, they require that clubs follow basic safety practices that should have been enforced years ago.

This is not about discrimination against the many gay men who frequent these soak-and-sex emporiums, a charge that owners have successfully used for years to block real regulation. Unsafe sex is a public health threat regardless of who is having it. If anything, the rules will benefit the gay community, which is seeing a resurgence in HIV and other diseases even as rates among heterosexuals have remained flat.

Bathhouse owners should take note of the sobering fact that nearly 11% of men who visited Los Angeles sex clubs were HIV-positive, according a 2003 Department of Health Services study. If they refuse to impose these basic precautions, the city should pull the plug on bathhouses.

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