In 1984, during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a San Francisco Superior Court judge effectively banned bathhouses by ordering them to remove all doors from private rooms ostensibly to cut down on opportunities for unprotected intercourse. Since then, enterprising queers have had to find a way to Berkeley’s popular Steamworks or even to San Jose for the Watergarden.
Related: Are Gay Bathhouses Going Extinct?
Mayor Ed Lee tells the Bay Area Reporter he is “open” to the idea of doing away with that rule and allowing bathhouses to once again operate within city limits. There’s a catch. Lee says public health officials must be on board, as well.
“The issue about bathhouses and so forth that is an item that blends entertainment along with safe sex,” said Lee. “I have got to have experts telling me that is something they wouldn’t have a problem with. I would be open to it but I have got to have that kind of process.”
The city recently announced its Getting to Zero initiative, which aims to cut new HIV infections 90 percent over the next five years. The increase in HIV testing and widespread adoption of PrEP has made that goal obtainable. There is concern in some quarters that reopening bathhouses could hurt that initiative.
The City’s Department of Public Health has not changed its position regarding the ban.
Buzz Bense, a former co-owner of Eros, one of the city’s last remaining gay sex clubs, predicts the City’s Department of Public Health will never get on board.
“This isn’t about health science,” he claims. “It is about politics.”
There’s another more practical reason it might not happen anytime soon. Given the skyrocketing price of SF real estate, potential operators would be hard-pressed to find a convenient location for such a modern facility, although, presumably, demand would be high after years without a true bathhouse in the world’s gay sex mecca–even in the age of hookup apps.
Eros, a sprawling two floor space on the edge of the Castro, could presumably be reconfigured with private rooms rather than bunk beds and communal spaces open to all.
“Where the fuck can you buy a big building for less than a gillion dollars to open a bathhouse?” Bense asked.