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Could bathhouses make a return to San Francisco? This proposal may make it happen

Two men in a sauna.
Two men in a sauna.Photo: Shutterstock

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has made a proposal that would allow gay bathhouses to operate in San Francisco for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Mandelman, who represents District 8 – including the Castro – made a proposal that would update existing bans on adult establishments, and would only prevent them from “offering private rooms with locking doors,” a report summarizes.

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The city outlawed adult establishments that offer locked booths or rooms, or don’t monitor for sexual activity, in 1983. The SFist notes that one bathhouse has continued to operate because its spaces are all public. This update would allow sex-positive spaces such as bathhouses to operate with ‘private’, but unlocked spaces – as long as they offer safer-sex supplies and educational materials.

Mandelman’s proposal summary cites the 1984 lawsuit that the city filed against bathhouse operators, finding that they presented a “public health risk” due to the rising HIV/AIDS crisis, and issued several orders that effectively forced them to close, such as requiring the removal of the bottom two feet of doors and monitoring for any unprotected sex. The lawsuit was dismissed against the defendants in 1989.

“Our current regulations for adult sex venues were put in place as an emergency measure at the height of the AIDS crisis when San Francisco was desperate to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS,” Mandelman said of the current law. “Decades later, with the emergence of PrEP and in light of San Francisco’s reduction in HIV diagnoses to under 200 for the first time since the 1980s, these regulations — including a ban on private rooms and required monitoring of patrons’ sexual activities — have no public health rationale and need to be changed.”

Mandelman’s office clarified that they don’t know of any potential operators that would open a bathhouse or other sex venue, but members of the community have expressed their desire for San Francisco to pave the way for their return.

These proposed code changes are nearly identical to amendments to the Department of Public Health’s guidelines for venues written in 1997.

2018 was the first year San Francisco reported less than 200 new HIV diagnoses, and they found themselves on track to reach its goal of achieving a 90 percent reduction in new HIV cases. The previous mayor, Ed Lee, announced in 2015 that he would be willing to allow bathhouses again if public health officials were open to it.

“Cities around the country and world have successful adult sex venues operating without these restrictions and it’s time that San Francisco join them,” photographer and author Blade Bannon told SFist.

The proposal was submitted to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, which has no more than 30 days to review and make a decision on it. The earliest the changes could go into effect would be July.

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