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Both Sides Now

bath house
Christopher Gardner

A Safe Place: Watergarden general manager John Gamber says the club is a place for gays to meet that is free of alcohol, drugs or intimidation.

The South Bay's only gay bathhouse profits while promoting protected sex. Bathhouse opponents wonder if casual sex can really be safe.

By Richard Sine

FROM THE FRONT you can't tell what it is. A towering palm, a lush little garden and a lighted address sign lead the way to an alcove containing two frosted-glass doors and an inconspicuous sign reading "The Watergarden." On busy nights, men wait in line on the sidewalk of The Alameda. Thanks to aggressive advertising and renovations, this year has been one of the most successful in the history of the Watergarden, one of only two gay bathhouses remaining in the Bay Area. The facility gets more than 200 visitors a day.

A guy at the front desk checks IDs, puts customer valuables in a lock box and makes them sign a little card with a pledge to avoid unsafe sex. A basic room goes for $20, and a few dollars more will add a television or a deluxe bed. A few dollars less buys just a locker in which to stash clothes. There is also a membership fee. The Watergarden is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I go on a Thursday night. Three men stand in the vestibule, staring into space. There's an uncomfortable silence.

Uncomfortable for me, at least. I'm here on assignment, trying to think up an alibi.

THE FOYER feels like the lobby of a mid-priced hotel from the late 1970s, which was when the Watergarden opened. These days, AIDS prevention groups hold well-attended educational seminars here, and once or twice a week set up a table where they hand out brochures and answer questions about safe sex.

There is none of this here tonight, however, as I walk into a maze of dim corridors with chocolate-colored walls and a patterned brown carpet. Fifty-two rooms are packed together on each side of the halls. Men cruise the hallways clad in nothing but towels. Some of the doors are open; in bathhouse etiquette, this signals a desire for company. A tall Asian man with a beard is stroking his genitals and staring intently out the door. An obese man lies on his side, reading a book. Others watch TV, either cable or porn. Bathhouse etiquette suggests that those who lie on their stomachs prefer the bottom in sexual encounters. The tops are lying on their backs.

For $20, you can rent these rooms for 12 hours at a time, with two hours of in-and-out privileges. Gay travelers have been known to use the Watergarden as an unofficial hotel; it's about the cheapest place in town to get a clean room and a place to wash up.

In fact, many decent hotels can't match the range of amenities provided by the Watergarden. Past the corridors is a forest-green common area with couches and a crackling fireplace. African tribal artifacts hang on the walls. There's a pool table, a television room, a weight room, vending machines and a couple of pinball machines. A sauna and a 17-man jacuzzi are surrounded by poolside recliners. Many men come here during the day with no intention of having sex; they just seek a place to lie naked in the sun.

Behind the jacuzzi and sauna a beautifully kept garden overflows with tropical flowers, cacti, palms, ferns and fountains--sort of a primeval forest theme. In the middle of the garden is a gazebo with a roaring fire in the middle. The most popular room on the night I attended, however, was the back room devoted to gay porn movies. Men sat on the floors and stared at the screen, some stroking themselves.

As fate would have it, I cannot find my room without a considerable amount of wandering around the halls, all while trying to avoid the cruising men's gazes. Finally, I happen upon Room 20. Hands trembling, I fumble for the lock with the key I was given at the vestibule. The room is maybe 50 feet square. It contains a single bed with a mirror on the opposite wall, a lamp, a side shelf and a hook and hanger. Two lubricated condom packets have been placed on the pillow where the Andes mints would be.

There's also a little sign with a "Safer Sex Tip" on the wall, reading: "You are less at risk from safer sex with many people than unsafe sex with one person." This pointer is true, one gay activist who opposes bathhouses later tells me, only in theory.

Tasteful modern rock is playing on the speakers overhead. Later in the evening it turns to house dance music. The room is more like a cubicle, because the salmon-colored stucco walls don't reach the ceiling. This makes it easy to hear whatever is going on in adjacent rooms. The Watergarden has an unmistakable smell: nothing like a gym, but a musky and sweet perfume, like jasmine. I look at myself in the mirror, wipe the sweat off my brow. I need an extra minute to fend off a few demons. Then I strip off my clothes, wrap a towel around my waist, and walk back out into the corridor.

bath house Rubber Checks and Balances: Condoms are in plentiful supply at the Watergarden, as are signs discouraging high-risk sex. Some activists, however, believe that you can lead clients to latex but can't make them wear it.

Christopher Gardner

LIKE MANY STRAIGHTS, I had assumed that bathhouses were casualties of the age of AIDS. In fact they have only been totally eliminated from San Francisco, which closed them in 1984. Bathhouses can still be found in many large cities, including Los Angeles, Portland and Denver. In the Bay Area only the Watergarden and the Steamworks, a Berkeley bathhouse, remain.

The hetero world has its scattered underground sex clubs and parties, its hot tub hotels, its pickup bars, but nothing quite like this. Ironically, the bathhouse concept fulfills most hetero men's wildest fantasies. There is a place where candy is free.

The most delirious writer for the dankest hetero skin mag could not imagine a catacomb of hallways in which naked women with come-hither expressions sit on their beds, fingering themselves, a place where looks apparently don't matter. I myself am skinny and pale; in the hetero world of bars and clubs I rarely merit a second glance. But at the bathhouse I could easily have gotten laid several times in the space of a few hours.

Many men who meet at the Watergarden later become good friends or long-term lovers. John Gamber, the general manager, estimates that hundreds of men who met at the Watergarden have married since the bathhouse opened in 1977. A few of them have been wed at the facility itself.

That aside, many patrons point to an unspoken rule of the bathhouse: A romp in the sack doesn't mean forever. The same rule applies at most straight pickup bars, only the bathhouse affair is considerably, shall we say, cleaner. "If I meet a man at a bar, I have to make a decision about whether to take him home," says Luis, a frequent patron and former employee. "Well, I don't know this guy. At the bathhouse I don't have to worry about whether he's going to rip me off or go berserk."

"You meet someone at a bar, you have dinner, you sleep with him, there's the expectation of a relationship," said Wayne, another patron. "Here there's no such expectation."

Luis claims that bathhouses are exclusive to the gay world because gays are more open and forthright about their sexuality than heteros, and he may have a point. But I'm inclined to think that the promiscuity at the Watergarden reveals less about the difference between gays and straights than it does about men and women of any preference. As the late Randy Shilts wrote in his seminal history of the AIDS epidemic, And The Band Played On: "Promiscuity was rampant [in the bathhouses] because in an all-male subculture there was nobody to say 'no'--no moderating role like that a woman plays in the heterosexual milieu."

The candy at the bathhouse is free, but it's not for straights like myself. Perhaps, I speculate idly as I sink a few balls at the pool table, the Watergarden is the manifest vengeance--the just desserts, as it were--of a minority that has been stomped on and spat upon for longer than anyone can remember.

'You getting what you need?"

It's the same man who wouldn't catch my eye in the vestibule. His graying hair sweeps gracefully across his forehead, though his face seems frozen into a dejected expression. Later, I wonder how his line would have gone over at a pickup bar.

I mumble that I'm just here to check the place out. We are standing in the porn room, which is discreetly tucked at the end of a little hallway. The movie is typically silly, something about an uncontrollably horny sheriff's station. I remark that I'm here for the first time.

"Yeah? Me too." He's a visitor from Detroit. He found out about the Watergarden from an ad in a gay San Francisco magazine. By this point in our rather tedious little conversation, he has nonchalantly removed his towel.

There's a brief pause. He puts on an inquisitive look, reaches over to me, gives my towel-covered crotch a little rub. I shake my head. I'm just here to look around, I repeat helplessly. As I grope for another harmless question to ask him, he turns around and walks out.

"The best thing about the bathhouse is you can explore, be attracted to who you want and do what you want," says Wayne, who's new to the bathhouse scene. "The negative is you have to turn down a lot of people. I was afraid it was psychologically damaging to them, but I think you have to just encourage them to move on."

Wayne, a computer systems programmer, is boyishly handsome and unaffected, with curly blond locks and a smooth chest. We played pool and chatted for awhile before I asked him if he could keep a secret. Back in my room, clad only in towels, we sat on my single bed and talked for publication.

Now in his early 30s, Wayne came out of the closet just three years ago. He has a boyfriend, but each of them tolerates an occasional trip to the Watergarden. "I don't like him coming here unless he tells me first. That's the kind of agreement we have."

Wayne doesn't like bars because of the cigarette smoke, and he doesn't like the San Francisco sex clubs because there's no place to wash up. He takes a pretty relaxed attitude toward the Watergarden, preferring the jacuzzi to the porn room.

Wayne hasn't told his straight friends that he comes here. He hasn't even told most of his gay friends. "If they've been here, they don't talk about it. If they haven't been here, they imagine things are going on here that aren't going on." Wayne means unsafe sex. The sex Wayne has experienced here has all been what he considers safe.

bath house
Christopher Gardner

Hit the Showers: Manager John Gamber says the club gives clients the information they need to make good decisions throughout their lives.

PUDGY AND OUTSPOKEN, Watergarden founder Sal Accardi was pushing protected sex long before it was politically correct. Accardi was one of the first bathhouse owners to work with public health officials to set up a program to stop sexually transmitted diseases. His early AIDS education workshops spurred checkouts by bathhouse patrons and anger by fellow bathhouse owners who refused to deal with the coming epidemic. (Accardi himself died of AIDS in 1994. Friends say he did not have sex at his own bathhouse.)

On its tenth anniversary, the Watergarden received a plaque from the county health agency for its safe sex education efforts. Nonetheless, recent efforts to open bathhouses in San Francisco and New York have faced resistance from gay activists concerned about AIDS prevention. The focus of their concern has been the locked doors and private rooms in bathhouses like the Watergarden.

San Francisco's bathhouses have been replaced by sex clubs which are informally governed by a group of public officials and club owners called the Coalition for Healthy Sex. Though the Coalition's guidelines have no legal force, sex clubs which flout them frequently find city building and licensing officials breathing down their necks. Community volunteers, agency outreach workers and club staff personally patrol these clubs to look for unsafe activity.

To facilitate the monitoring, the coalition forbids private rooms in the sex clubs. (By contrast, Watergarden staff forbids sex except for in the private rooms.) It refused to endorse an attempt by Berkeley bathhouse owner Rick Stokes to open a bathhouse in San Francisco in 1994 precisely because its rooms would have had locked doors. Ultimately, the bathhouse proposal never got off the ground.

"Just because a bathhouse has some very good educational activities doesn't mean they're doing all they can to prevent AIDS," says Dan Wohlfeiler, a board member for the coalition and educational director of the STOP AIDS Project. "People say it's homophobic or an intrusion to recommend against locked rooms. I would respond that this is a way we're going to help each other stay safe. We have to balance our basic civil rights with the fact of the epidemic."

Some researchers believe that men who are more likely to have unsafe sex are attracted to so-called "public sex environments" like bathhouses, sex clubs and cruising spots. Tom Coates, director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California at San Francisco, surveyed the sexual activities of nearly 2,000 men who meet their sex partners in public sex environments. He found that men who had met partners in public areas in the previous month were two to four times more likely to report having had unprotected anal sex with non-monogamous partners, whether that unsafe sex occurred in the public place or at home.

"Men who like to have unprotected anal intercourse are more likely to go to public sex environments," Coates says. "The better situation for a public sex business is one with no doors and with monitoring. If someone really wants to have unprotected anal intercourse, they can always go home with someone."

Most AIDS activists in New York have pledged to work with the city's four bathhouses instead of working to shut them down. But Gabriel Rotello, a columnist for Out, Newsday and other publications, has lobbied unsuccessfully for a law that would have eliminated the bathhouses' private rooms.

Rotello argues that most bathhouse patrons have long understood the basics of safe sex, limiting the usefulness of safe sex education programs. By making sex with multiple partners easy and comfortable, Rotello says, bathhouses increase the raw number of sexual contacts, which increases the chance that at least one of these encounters will result in a unsafe blunder. After all, a careless HIV-positive man in a monogamous relationship can only infect one person. But in a bathhouse, he can infect many more men, who can infect others in turn.

The "safer sex tip" in my room at the Watergarden asserted that safer sex with many partners is less risky than unsafe sex with one partner. Rotello believes that statement is a little disingenuous. "It's true in theory, in rhetoric, in fantasy, assuming that the 'one partner' is HIV-positive. But the reality is, very few people have absolutely safe sex all the time. That means no transmission of bodily fluids, no mistakes, no condom leakage or breakage, no playing around in gray areas like unprotected oral sex."

It is clear from surveys and studies that unsafe sex continues to occur in all different venues. About one-fifth of gay men report having unprotected anal intercourse in the previous two to three months, according to the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. In a survey by The Advocate, a gay magazine, more than a quarter of men reported that their condom had slipped or broken during anal intercourse. "Most people have safer sex most of the time," Rotello says. "But they slip up every once in a while, like dieters who occasionally eat a pint of Haagen-Dazs."

In San Francisco and New York, nearly half of gay men are infected with HIV, according to public health officials. In San Jose that figure is more like 25 percent, according to a rough estimate by Marty Grimes of AIDS Resources Information and Services. So an unsafe slip, for whatever reason, can prove quite costly.

Yet sexual liberation has been an important part of gay liberation. Bathhouse defenders argue that their critics have internalized the homophobic squeamishness about gay lovemaking. Shutting down bathhouses that encourage safe sex, they say, will just lead to shame, secrecy--and unsafe sex.

'THERE'S BEEN a lot of sexphobia as a result of the AIDS crisis," says John Gamber, the manager of Watergarden. "A lot of people would like to believe that the gay community doesn't have sex anymore, but that's not true. There are few places left where gays can meet each other that are free of alcohol, drugs or intimidation. From the way the Watergarden is laid out, you can tell that there are lots of places where people can actually sit and talk. Many other establishments don't offer that."

Luis, who has been to bathhouses all over the country, says the Watergarden is indeed one of the cleanest and friendliest he's seen. If the bathhouse was forced to open all of its doors, he says, he might stop going. "The last thing I want in a room with me and someone else is a referee. It's not the job of the bathhouse operator to monitor anything. If people are going to be stupid, that's their problem."

Gamber estimates that a third of the men who come to the Watergarden live outwardly straight lives or are bisexual. About half of these men are married to women. Many of these men would be afraid or ashamed of being seen in less private places, such as a gay bar or community center. The bathhouse may be the only place they will get an education in safe sex, says Grimes of AIDS Resources Information and Services.

Anti-bathhouse activists acknowledge that closing bathhouses may force men who want quick sex into more public areas like bars, street corners or parks--and that, they argue, may at least slow the rate of multipartner sex. But bathhouse defenders say that men in stressful or shameful situations will be less likely to take life-saving precautions.

"We can't govern people's behaviors," Gamber says. "We don't want to play Nazi squad, storming through the facility. Our goal has been to give people the information they need to make well-informed judgments in their behaviors. That way, they'll make good decisions not only at this facility but throughout their lives."

"This is a place built on light and hope rather than shame," says Mark Gillard, the Watergarden's advertising manager. Gillard is a staunch supporter of the Watergarden, having met his husband there. He notes, a little sadly, that it is his gay clients--not his straight ones--who get uncomfortable when they learn he handles the Watergarden account.

AT THE BATHHOUSE, however, few of the men are uncomfortable about expressing what they want. As we dry off from the showers, the middle-aged man a few feet away from me smiles and asks my name. As usual, I tell him this is my first time here. He grins and darts his hand out to touch me, lightly skimming the back of his knuckles on the hair of my chest. "You'll do fine," he says.

I turn to the water fountain to take a drink, unintentionally allowing my new friend to get a little more forward. He rubs his palm on my back and gives me a quick pinch in the rear. I stand up with a bit of a start and turn back to him. Unlike most women, I'm not exactly accustomed to turning down sexual offers from strangers. I am a little nervous, a little flattered, and just a bit envious. I consider the words of Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, who sang to his smoking-room chum: "Why can't a woman be more like you?"

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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