Rough Notes on
The economics of privacy in bathhouses??
I have been involved in a recent effort to stimulate political discussion of reopening bathhouses for gaymen in San Francisco and an economic question quickly arose. I write this to get reactions to a conjecture I pose about the market for patrons of bathhouses, but first a brief description of what the issue is. Do your experiences in economics or in lesbian, gay or straight bathhouses contradict, support or add to the conjecture I offer below?
The Bathhouse Issue in SF:
In 1984 the bathhouses for gaymen here were closed by court order on the grounds that they encouraged unsafe sex, esp. fucking w/o a condom. Or, more accurately according to Dr. Mervyn Silverman (with whom I spoke while on KPFA for an hour on 27 May 99 and who was Director of Public Health in 1984 when the gay bathhouses here were closed and was under extreme pressure from then mayor - presently Senator and still erotophobic - Dianne Feinstein) the court order mandated that all commercial places where people gathered and engaged in sexual interactions had to permit monitoring of such activity every ten minutes. This led to a closure of the old bathhouses and a handful of new "sex clubs" arose which have no "private lockable" spaces; i.e., cubicles containing a bed and with a lockable door.
So the distinction between "bathhouses" and "sex clubs" has come down to whether or not private lockable spaces are available to clients. All major cities of the world have bathhouses for gaymen except the so-called "queer mecca," San Francisco which does, however, have one officially licensed bathhouse for lesbians (though according to women who go there, it has no private lockable spaces and strongly discourages sexual interaction, though not always successfully) and it also has baths catering to straights which do have private lockable spaces and with no restrictions on the legal relation of those jointly using such spaces.
The court order closing bathhouses has expired, but the Dept. of Public Health (DPH) maintains its prohibition of private spaces for gaymen by fiat. What is most maddening about this policy is that the DPH and the Health Commission which oversees the DPH refuse to hold a public forum to air the evidence on the role bathhouses for gaymen play in the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). In fact, this evidence falls most heavily on the side that bathhouses can be an important social institution promoting safer, healthier sex among men [e.g., Bolton, Vincke and Mak (1994)]. In particular, they promote better opportunities for education about healthier sex and so promote cultural change thereby reducing the transmission of STDs. In contrast, banning them, as occurs in general when markets are legally proscribed, encourages "black market activity" because it makes such activity extraordinarily profitable. In this case, the current prohibition seems to encourage the amazingly numerous venues (e.g., "backrooms" at bars) for sexual interaction in this city, venues which are truly dirty and dark and where condom usage, let alone sanitation, is impossible due the harsh conditions, let alone being laughable, unlike the one sex club here which is a "clean, well lit place."
Many gaymen seem to very strongly want private spaces for their sexual interaction rather than the large-room with skimpy slats/curtains separating any couple or group playing with each other from the rest of the assembled voyeurs. Some few of us are exhibitionists, but most seem to be very uncomfortable being watched when engaging in erotic interaction. This apparent strong preference for privacy has two consequences:
i. Two of the three sex clubs here for gaymen keep their rooms so dark that it is almost impossible to see if your partner has a condom on or any other such relevant details. When asked why they do this, their response has been that they would get no patrons if the lights were turned up: for some clients, the darkness mitigates the lack of privacy, but the rule of no private lockable spaces now has the consequence of making monitoring difficult to impossible even BY THE PARTICIPANTS THEMSELVES! As usual, public health measures which must rely on aware, intelligent individuals making decisions which tend to inhibit the spread of infection are turned into measures promoting unsafe sex and promoting the spread of infection because these measures disempower the indivudals who must make them work effectively.
ii. My conjecture about the economics of privacy in bathhouses:
Because large numbers of gaymen have a strong preference for privacy in their erotic interactions, permitting private spaces in bathhouses increases the market for these businesses so much that they can experience increasing returns to scale (where "scale" = number of patrons/unit of time), economies which are due to set up costs of licensing and brandname creation as well as to increased desirability to patrons of more crowded bathhouses (positive crowding effects) since larger crowds offer more "excitement," "action" and choice. These larger institutions offer more facilities as joint products (cafe, genuine reading area, indoor and outdoor tubs and play spaces, wider variety of erotic venues) which, by being together in one location for one cover charge, offer economies of scope to patrons and offer owners ways to differentiate their product - their brandname - in seeking market dominance or at least a protected market niche.
THUS, because of the importance of "privacy" in most men's preferences in our current culture, to see the emergence of large, multifunctional bathhouses as an institution promoting safer sex in San Francisco, like those existing in much of the rest of the world from Thailand to Germany, economies of scale and of scope dictate that "bathouses," i.e., clubs for gaymen in which closable, even lockable doors are permitted, be encouraged in this city.
Foucault on baths (Dits et écrits, IV 1980-1988, pp. 280-1):
Les thermes étaient un lieu de plaisir et de rencontre très important, qui a progressivement disparu en Europe. Au Moyen Âge, les thermes étaient encore un lieu de rencontre entre les hommes et les femmes, ainsi qu'un lieu de rencontre des hommes entre eux et les femmes entre elles - bien que, de cela, on parle rarement. … les rencontres entre hommes et femmes … ont disparu au cours du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle. … [En le XIXe siècle,] les bains ont donc continué à exister comme lieu de rencontres sexuelles. Ils étaient une sorte de cathédrale de plaisir, au cœur de la ville, où l'on pouvait se rendre aussi souvent qu'on le voulait, où l'on flânait, où l'on faisait son choix, on se rencontrait, on prenait son plaisir, on mangeait, on buvait, on discutait … La sexualité était, à l'évidence, un plaisisr social pour les Grecs et pour les Romains. Ce qui est intéressant à propos de l'homosexualité masculine aujourd'hui - et il semblerait que ce soit aussi le cas de l'homosexualité féminine, depuis un certain temps -, c'est que les rapports sexuels se traduisent [are seen as] immédiatement en rapports sociaux, et que les rapports sociaux sont compris comme [lead into] des rapports sexuels. Pour les Grecs et les Romains, d'une manière différente, les rapports sexuels s'incrivaient à [were part of] l'intérior des rapports sociaux, au sens le plus large. Les thermes étaient un lieu de socialité qui incluait des rapports sexuels.
Warner (1999) is excellent on privacy and its political economic connections to privatization such as the privatization of public space (pp. 69-70, 132-3 162-165, 172). Thus the goal of much of the current push for samesex marriage is to get lesbigayers to adopt the heteronormative prescription of "cloaking sex in the invisibility of a zone of privacy ... marriage makes your desire private ... marrying embraces propriety"(132-3) Federal law (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act of 1996, aka "welfare reform") mandates that states teach "that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity." (203)
Warner also points out that there has been "an expansion of a market at the expense of public space" (162) Many lesbigayers (cite some such as Rottello, Signorelli, Eskind,...) have sought to get straight respectability through the expedient of repudiating sex and to "embrace a politics of privatization that offers both property value and an affirmation of identity in a language of respectability." (164)
See Warner's list on p. 172 of private vs public.
This impulse to make samesex sex private perpetuates a geography of shame. This serves, in particular, to constipate our HIV-prevention public health measures since it is tied up in the straight-jacket of moralism condemning "promiscuous" sex: "Abstinence education" (propaganda) receives more Federal financial support than does all other HIV prevention. (203)
Bolton, Vincke and Mak "Gay Baths Revisited: An Empirical Analysis" GLQ 1, 3 (1994) 255-273.
Foucault, Michel. 1994. Dits et Écrits IV, 1980-1988. Paris: Gallimard.
Leap, William. ed. Public Sex, Gay Space, (ColumbiaUniv. Press, 1999). Lots of essays about bathhouses and cruising zones including good piece by Stephen Murray on how for some of us our self esteem and sexual excitement are enhanced by being observed, quite the contrary of the people he cites who take it as obvious that we all want privacy.
Murray, Stephen O. American Gay. 1996. 99-125. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pattanaik, Prasanta K., Yongsheng Xu, On Diversity and Freedom of Choice
Rofes, Eric. Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures. 1998 New York: Harrington Park Press (Haworth) notes generational splits:
p. 35: between "old guard" by 45 year-olds and the "youthful vision" by 25-year-olds
p. 89: "I believe there are at least five generational cohort groups of gay men who have radically different experiences and understandings of AIDS …
1. Young men born after 1977 who are coming out amid the Protease Moment :
2. Gay men born between 1965 and 1977 who entered gay worlds in the mide- to late 1980s and have never known gay communities without the firmly fixed imprint of AIDS.
3. 'Cusp' men, born between 1960 and 1965 who were coming out into gay culturues as the epidemic was coming out in the early 1980s and occupy the cusp between pre-AIDS and post-AIDS coming-out experiences.
4. Surviving members of what I have come to consider a 'lost generation': gay men born from 1938 to 1960 who were out and involved in community before AIDS and are still walking this earth.
5. Gay men born prior to 1938 who were approaching midlife as AIDS dawned, and experienced their own losses - both symbolic and material - during the tidal wave of the epidemic.
pp. 90-94 describe his interviews with these different groups.
p. 181-187 notes MORAL PANICS THROUGHOUT THE NATION and includes good disc of scapegoating circuit boys and discussion of Blow Buddies)
Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: The Free Press, 1990.