Gay advocates disagree about the dangers of bathhouses.
In many respects David D'Amico might be just what Club Body Center needs. He's a stocky, constantly smiling man from Buffalo, N.Y., who calls other men "baby" and talks as straight-forwardly as a finger-poke to the chest. "Things were slipping here," he says. "The managers are fine, but sometimes a place needs attention from the owner."
D'Amico ended up working in bathhouses by accident. His first love was the piano, and he spent many years playing and singing on cruise ships. But then he met Jack W. Campbell, a pioneer of bathhouses in the '60s and Club Body Center co-owner. "It wasn't out of any love of bathhouses that I started doing this," says D'Amico. "Jack needed some help running the business, and it just seemed like something I should get involved in."
Through Campbell, D'Amico is familiar with bathhouse history. Bathhouses were once like nightclubs. Bette Midler's career first took off in New York's gay community because of her bathhouse popularity. For years bathhouses stood as the one place gay men could go and be themselves. As a result, criticism of the bathhouse and its culture sounds to many gay men like an assault on their civil rights.
"The bathhouse is a uniquely gay institution, and I understand why people are fascinated by this dark, mysterious place where sex goes on so openly," says Kelly Groves, co-chair of Liberty City Democrats, a group that promotes political power for gays and lesbians in Philadelphia. "But the bathhouse is not a big part of our community the way it would've been in the '70s. Is it our dirty little secret? Maybe. As a gay activist, I think we should make sure these places are safe and well-monitored-and I also support their right to exist."
But bathhouses also have their detractors.
New York activist Peter Staley thinks bathhouses should supply 24-hour confidential STD testing services as a condition of doing business.
The most outspoken critic may be sex advice columnist Dan Savage, whose syndicated column appears in this paper. Says Savage: "My basic position is that if they traced as much disease to a Denny's as they can to a bathhouse, it would be closed in half an hour."
Savage says bathhouse closings in the wake of AIDS produced a backlash from health professionals. "There's a lingering fear they'll be perceived as homophobic if they do anything about bathhouses," says Savage. "So they send the gay community only messages the gay community will accept. But we also need to be told things we don't want to hear: Bathhouses facilitate a kind of sexual conduct we know is destructive and unhealthy and acts as a kind of lawn sprinkler shooting disease all over a community." (For more of the columnist's thoughts on bathhouses, see "Savage Talk," right.)
Nurit Shein, executive director of Mazzoni Center, and David Acosta of the city's AIDS department, both believe Philly's sole remaining bathhouse should stay open. And a study the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services conducted recently suggested that men who frequent bathhouses are cautious about what they do there.
"What we found is that men who attend bathhouses engage in riskier behavior elsewhere," says epidemiologist Trista Bingham. "Men who sought HIV testing in the bathhouse may behave more conservatively than they do when they have sex with someone in a private home, precisely because they're afraid of the amount of disease in the bathhouse."
D'Amico says the new computer system he installed for tracking members at Club Body Center indicates that 3,000 different men visited the club in the three months after it was installed. D'Amico says he's making improvements to turn Club Body into more of a gathering place.
In an attempt to rid the club of drug dealers, he's enforced random bag checks, and has made the downstairs lounge available to the Philadelphia Crystal Meth Task Force, co-founded by Jay Dagenhart and Michael DiPilla, as a distribution point for antidrug literature.
D'Amico has also replaced the carpets, repainted areas of the club, started cooking free outdoor lunches on the patio deck in summer, and outlawed smoking and chewing gum upstairs-which he says made the place seem cheaper and dirtier. He also plans to reinstitute pizza and movie nights, all in an effort to make the bathhouse a place for more than just hooking up. And that may be precisely what's needed.
"If the bathhouse is willing to work with us and allow us to do outreach, that's great," says Dagenhart. "If they're going to remove the drug dealers and keep them out, if they continue to be proactive on education and awareness-then great. But if they aren't going to be proactive about the obvious issues we face, then I wonder what the purpose is."
Steve Volk (firstname.lastname@example.org) last wrote about retiring Daily News photographer Elwood P. Smith.
PW''s sex columnist speaks out about bathhouses.