For men seeking sexual pleasure with other men in the 1970s and ‘80s, nothing closed the gap between supply and demand quite like a bathhouse. Amenities varied by size and location, but most offered public and private spaces for intimate encounters, showers and saunas, and outdoor patios. For a fee, you could rent a room or a locker, stow your clothes, wrap yourself in a skimpy white towel, and cruise the halls in search of a love connection — or two.
The baths had their downside, of course, promoting compulsive sexual behavior and driving the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But for many, especially closeted men, bathhouses were havens, places where they could drop the mask they wore everywhere else.
And so the gay community was conflicted in the early 1980s as AIDS claimed more and more lives and it became clear that multiple, high-risk sexual encounters—the type of encounters readily available in bathhouses—were fueling the fast-growing epidemic.
Many gay activists, including members of the Metropolitan Elections Committee of Los Angeles, a gay political action committee, saw the baths as dangerous venues for the spread of AIDS. Others believed they could play an important role in furthering AIDS prevention education among gay and bisexual men. Many worried that efforts to crack down on bathhouses were politically motivated attacks that might lead to harsher measures against gays and lesbians.
On Nov. 24, 1985, reporter Anthony Price and I produced a one-hour radio news program examining these issues after the Los Angeles County health department developed a plan to regulate the county’s 20 gay bathhouses. The program, which includes interviews with county officials and members of the gay community as well as a call-in segment, aired on KPFK 90.7 FM on the station’s weekly LGBT news magazine, IMRU.
Nearly the entire program, except for a brief section in the middle and a few minutes at the end, has been preserved by the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Warning: strong language.
Two weeks after the program aired, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring bathhouses to hire monitors to prevent unsafe sexual practices among their patrons.