Ken Almos spoke quietly to the front-desk attendant at the Denver Swim Club, a gay bathhouse on Colfax. Two guys in the steam room were having anal sex, and he wanted them stopped. It wasn't the sex he objected to; it was their failure to use condoms.
The attendant walked back to the steam room and approached the two men, both of whom appeared to be in their early twenties.
"Several people have complained that you're exhibiting unsafe sexual practices," the attendant said, asking the men to leave--and confiscating their bathhouse membership cards in the process.
Since testing positive for AIDS in 1991, Almos has been on permanent disability and spends his days traveling around the world. Prague. Budapest. Munich. Denver. San Diego. San Francisco. Sydney. At each stop, he looks for gay establishments such as the Swim Club where he can find sex for the asking. And everywhere he goes, Almos is troubled by the increasing number of men having sex without condoms. Especially young men, he says.
Now 45, Almos was in the front lines of the sexual revolution, and even worked at the infamous St. Mark's bathhouse in Manhattan. Today he would never consider having sex without a condom, and says he doesn't understand the mentality of those who do. Curious about the rise in unsafe sex, he says he conducted his own series of experiments at San Diego bathhouses, which are among the worst offenders.
"I would go into a room and lay down butt up," he says. "I'd make sure that condoms were easily seen and available and wait to see if [potential sexual partners] would use them. Or I would get to the point of penetration without the obvious delay to put on a condom to see if they would stop me."
More often than not, his prospective lovers would neither use a condom nor ask him to put one on. "I was shocked," he says. Almos is not alone in his concern. Researchers and gay leaders both locally and nationally are worried that the younger generation of homosexual males is lapsing into the dangerous sexual practices of the past.
According to Tom Skinner of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, although the overall infection rate for gays is still decreasing, there's growing evidence that younger men are placing themselves at risk. Last week National Public Radio, broadcasting from San Francisco, aired interviews with young gays who acknowledge they're engaging in unsafe sex and defend it as their right.
Denver surveys don't yet reflect the trend. But health officials acknowledge that hard statistics often lag behind anecdotal evidence. And stories such as Almos's are becoming more common in the gay community.
Following the identification of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, and the 1984 conclusion that it is sexually transmitted, most urban areas with large gay populations passed rules that either closed or regulated establishments known for their homosexual activities.
Denver's Department of Health and Hospitals approved regulations in February 1986 governing such establishments "where public health officials have reason to believe that unsafe sexual activities take place, including, but not limited to: bathhouses, adult bookstores, adult movie theaters, hot tub and spa establishments, and massage parlors."
The regulations required that owners and operators take "reasonable steps" to prohibit unsafe sexual activities such as: prominently posting signs describing the risks and methods of transmitting HIV and listing unsafe sexual activities; monitoring compliance and expelling patrons who engage in unsafe sexual activities; and making available to patrons a pamphlet containing AIDS prevention information. And "all activities or recreational areas in regulated establishments shall have an observation window or opening which permits complete viewing of the interior at all times," the rules state.
Unsafe sexual activities are defined as those "which are likely to result in the transmission of [HIV] through the exchange of body fluids: anal intercourse without the use of a condom...fellatio, and anilingus." The regulations authorize DHH to close establishments for up to ten days if they pose "an imminent threat to the health and safety of the patrons" through repeated violations of the rules.
Dr. David Cohn, the director of disease-control services for the Denver Department of Health and Hospitals, says his research indicates that efforts to alter the dangerous behavior of the two groups at highest risk--gays and intravenous drug users--have succeeded.
Cohn is just wrapping up the second phase of a study funded by the CDC; Denver was one of only five cities chosen for the project. The first phase, from 1988 to 1991, assessed the effect of DHH risk-reduction programs on the behavior of gay men; research showed a substantial decrease in anal intercourse with onetime and occasional partners.
The second phase, which stretches from 1991 through this year, indicates that DHH community outreach programs to distribute bleach (for cleaning needles) and condoms have also been effective in reducing the risky behavior of intravenous drug users and men who have sex with other men but don't identify themselves as homosexual.
However, Cohn adds, his research also indicates relapses in behavior, particularly among those with substance abuse problems, but also with young gays. And more young gays are testing positive for the virus.
"Alcohol and other drugs are disinhibitors: You get high and forget about safe sex," says Cohn, who notes that the same can be said for heterosexuals. "Many current middle-aged men who lived through the past twelve years have changed their behavior, though not all. But young gay men who are just coming out want to express their sexuality and experiment. Like all young people, they tend to view themselves as invincible; they haven't experienced the epidemic in the same way as older gay men."
Denver's bathhouses--the Midtowne Spa, which used to be the Zuni; the Denver Swim Club, formerly the Empire Spa; and the Community Country Club--have been "extremely cooperative" in helping with his research, Cohn says, as well as in taking the appropriate steps to require customers to practice safe sex.
Tim Coats, Midtowne's assistant manager, says he noticed that younger gays were starting to engage in unsafe sex about two years ago.
"I think it's just being young--the feeling that nothing bad can happen to you," says Coats, who adds that anyone caught practicing unsafe sex at Midtowne is kicked out permanently. "It used to be the guys at the bathhouses had already been through the hassle of being married and all that before they came out. They were older and wiser and better educated.
"The guys now are coming out in their teens, and by the time they can come here, they've only been exposed to everything for a year or two."
Young lovers John and Bob, who declined to give their real names, offered their own explanation as they entered the Denver Swim Club two weeks ago. They have an open relationship that includes other lovers and unsafe sex.
"I mean, we're pretty careful," says John, a thin, blond-haired man with the looks of a model. "Word gets around on who's doing who...and you kind of avoid guys who have `that look'...older guys who were around when the bathhouses were really hot, or who look sick.
"It's not totally safe, but what is? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Older gays had their time and fucked up. Now we're supposed to wear rubbers or we're stupid?"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Both men agreed the bathhouses are fairly vigilant about asking customers to use condoms or leave. "But where there's a will, there's a way," laughs Bob.
Lance Clem, former director of the Governor's AIDS Council, says he's noticed a philosophical split between his generation of gays--those now in their forties--and the younger generation. It hinges on something as simplistic as facial hair.
"My generation tended to wear little mustaches," Clem says. "The young guys argue that they're clean and free to have sex any way they want to, so long as they stay away from those of us with mustaches.
"They look at us and say, `AIDS is your problem. You created the epidemic, and it's your burden to deal with it.'