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The Comfort Zone is one of the city's spaces frequented by men looking for anonymous sex with other men. Since sex is illegal on public premises throughout New York state, the Comfort Zone—a maze-like 24-hour “social club” near Times Square—has placed signs on the walls banning sexual intercourse (a policy the managers do not actively enforce). Patrons circulate through darkened rooms, each containing a cot and a dim red light.

But in the club's lounge area is a table with condoms, pamphlets and the two life-like rubber genital molds. Staffed by Antonio Gonzalez and Terry Evans from the Positive Health Project, it's an outpost in the struggle to make sex safer in the Comfort Zone and its counterparts around the city.

For obvious reasons, most of those spaces aren't openly advertised, and often are shut down by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). Local organizations like the Project, which hands out condoms and educates customers in these venues, are trying to encourage DOHMH to regulate such places—as other cities like Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco do—rather than close them. They argue this is a more realistic and effective way to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Evans is director of the Project's outreach work and, during much of the year, he and his workers visit promoter-run sex parties, held in private houses or apartments, and venues like sex clubs and bathhouses to raise AIDS awareness. “If we convince one or two people to have safe sex on a given night, it's a success,” he says.

In the nearly 27 years since it was first identified, AIDS has moved into different communities in waves—first striking gay men, then people of color and, most recently, women; in 2004, AIDS was the leading cause of death among black women nationwide. But recent statistics seem to suggest that HIV infection rates are surging again among gay men in New York City. While CDC figures released in late March showed a shocking 48 percent nationwide increase in diagnoses between 2005 and 2006 (a rise that is partly due to new data-collection techniques), HIV has been resurgent for several years among New York's population of gay men. According to recent statistics from the DOHMH, the annual number of new infections among black and Hispanic men who have sex with men has increased by 34 percent between 2001 and 2006, and a similar increase was reported for all gay men under the age of 30.

As the statistics worsen, Evans worries about losing access to these men because the city is closing down the underground sex parties and clubs. He wants to convince the city to stop shutting them down and, with that in mind, has joined with other health workers to create an organization – the Coalition for Public Health at Sex Venues – dedicated to changing city policy. “Closing down these places isn't going to change the activity,” he says. “But it will make it impossible – literally impossible – for us to do our work.”

New York's current sex venue policy dates back to the mid-1980s, when the burgeoning AIDS epidemic prompted a swift crackdown on the city's gay bathhouses. On Oct. 25, 1985, the New York State Public Health Council added an emergency resolution to the State Sanitary Code, specifying that any facility “in which high risk sexual activity takes place” (meaning anal intercourse and oral sex) would be shut down since “such facilities…constitute a public nuisance dangerous to the public health.” Several weeks later, the New St. Mark's Baths, one of the nation's largest bathhouses, endured a high-profile shutdown. The response from the city's gay community was not uniform: Some opposed the closures, while others supported the move as a way to contain the epidemic.

In the decades since, as most bathhouses have disappeared, private promoters have filled the void by throwing sex parties in lofts, apartments and houses. “The fact that most public sex houses have been closed down has caused more and more parties to go underground,” says Sam Orlando, an outreach worker with the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, an organization that specializes in HIV prevention. These parties are generally advertised online, or by word of mouth, and some of them are billed as “bareback” (condom-free) events. Most of the promoters are wary of public officials.

As a result, the parties have become hard to track, and their at-risk customers have become off-limits to most AIDS awareness efforts. “To be able to do outreach work at a place where people are congregating,” Evans says, “is an extremely important part of HIV prevention in New York City.” By building up relationships with party promoters, and emphasizing the Positive Health Project's “harm reduction” philosophy, he and his workers are able to enter spaces that are closed to other health organizations. “We tell promoters what we're trying to do, so they feel we're on their side, and they open their doors to us.”

Few other AIDS groups do this kind of outreach work. But the Project is often under-funded, and the agreements between Evans and the promoters are also perpetually in flux. These are further jeopardized by the DOHMH's inspection policy. “It affects our opportunity to do outreach in these places,” he says. “Soon they're not going to want to work with any community organizations.”

Until last fall, Lou Maletta's midtown venue, The Studio, was a popular place for gay sex parties. Maletta, a short, outgoing 71-year-old with a hearing aid and bushy brown mustache, had outfitted his space with all the necessary gear: two ceiling-mounted slings, a massage table, atmospheric lighting, jars of lubricant, condoms and a fish-tank (for ambiance).

Five nights a week, his loft housed sex parties with themes ranging from leather to “fantasy” to bondage. “We've had people high in the Italian parliament, high in the Australian parliament, and a number of fashion designers,” Maletta says. Evans and his workers were frequent visitors to the Studio until July, when a lull in city funding suspended his work. Then, on Nov. 26, as Maletta was preparing for the night's festivities, he heard a loud pounding on his front door.

The loft, as it turns out, had become the target of a four-month sting operation by the DOHMH. Three undercover inspectors had infiltrated his parties and found more than 100 incidents of “high-risk sexual activity” involving some 175 men. Standing outside were police officers and an attorney from DOHMH. His venue was a threat to public health, they claimed, and he was told to leave the premises immediately. The Studio was closed with a temporary restraining order, and Maletta was banned from operating a sex club.

According to documents recently uncovered by the Gay City News, the city sent inspectors to 238 venues—including bars and restaurants—between 2005 and 2007, looking for illegal sexual activity.

Dr. Tom Farley, special advisor to the DOHMH Commissioner Thomas Frieden, argues that this approach is well-justified. “A commercial venue provides opportunities for people who have had many partners to come into contact with other people who have had many partners,” Farley said last week. This, he argues, facilitates the spread of HIV into the general population. “It creates a dense network of sexual connections and poses a risk for the entire gay community.”

While the Coalition claims that the city's policing merely encourages men to seek sex in more dangerous spaces, like parks, Farley disputes that notion. “There are assumptions there that may not be true,” he says. The venue closures may encourage patrons to stay home with their significant others, he argues, or seek sex in venues with fewer potential partners, like bars. Farley recently drafted a memo outlining four possible policy options. Three of those options involve continued inspections and closures, but the fourth would legalize sex venues. “I think it’s unclear as to what’s the best approach,” Farley says.

In recent years other American cities have experimented with more flexible strategies in the policing of sex facilities. In 2006, Los Angeles County decided to give permits to gay sex venues. Now, L.A. club owners are required to pay annual fees of $1,088 to the Department of Health, and undergo quarterly inspections. They must also offer HIV testing, counseling, free lubricant and condoms.

According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, voluntary testing in bathhouses, similar to the policy mandated in Los Angeles, results in a significant decrease in the number of men reporting unprotected anal sex and the number of men having sex while high or drunk. In the study, more than 80 percent of the men tested for HIV appeared for follow-up appointments, and 71 percent returned to collect the results of their tests. “It looks like it's working,” says Dan Siconolfi, a researcher at New York University's Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies.

In San Francisco, the sanitary code has been amended to outlaw only unprotected sex, require venues to carry condoms and lubricant and mandate that staff be trained in safe sex education. Denver, like Los Angeles, now requires sex venue owners to obtain a license and, additionally, report “all potential infections or potential disease transmission” to the Department of Health within 48 hours.

The Coalition for Public Health at Sex Venues, which began meeting one year ago, is hoping that the city will petition for an amendment to the State Sanitary Code to align New York's policy with these other cities', or at least downscale its inspection regime. The coalition has submitted a memo outlining their position to city officials, and have begun rounding up support from local politicians. When asked for comment, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn did not take a stance on the closures, but emphasized via e-mail the continued importance of HIV testing and safe sex education. “While we understand the DOHMH’s concern,” Quinn writes, “we also can’t turn our backs on a growing epidemic.”

– Thomas Rogers