Webb, who could not be reached for comment, went on to document a growing trend toward "barebacking" -- having anal sex without condoms -- and he related conversations he'd had with HIV-positive gay men who preferred it. "One of these men," Webb wrote, "said he preferred his partners to be HIV-negative because of the psychic thrill he got from knowing he might infect them. In addition, he said, he prefers that his sexual partner not know he is HIV-positive; he gets a kick out of possibly infecting someone who doesn't know he's getting infected. 'I think it's a power thing,' 19-year-old Zach told me. 'Normally, I like to be the one who is totally dominated, but when I'm topping a guy I like to know that what I'm doing is changing his life, especially if he doesn't want it to be.' "
Knowingly transmitting the AIDS virus is a felony, but so far, only heterosexual men have been convicted of it.
Hartline believes that the barebacking ethic is especially prevalent in the bathhouses, where, he says, anonymity and lack of consequences are part of the attraction. That, he believes, makes those establishments hotbeds for AIDS transmission. His belief would seem to be confirmed by recent studies in Los Angeles. "Men at gay bathhouses in [Los Angeles County]," stated an August 3, 2003, Associated Press report, "tested positive for the AIDS virus at a rate twice that of men tested in public clinics or community-based agencies...of 916 men tested at two Los Angeles bathhouses between May 2001 and December 2002, 102 of them were diagnosed with HIV."
Curiously, the immediate response from Los Angeles County health officials was not a move to shut down the bathhouses, but a proclamation that they wanted the bathhouses to stay open. "It's a great place to do more intervention and prevention work," explained Trista Bingham, an epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
Terry Cunningham, director of San Diego County's Office of AIDS Coordination, agrees with his colleague to the north. "We have contracts with community organizations to do outreach into the bathhouses and to conduct risk-reduction workshops. We have a team of health educators and outreach workers who provide one-on-one, risk-reduction education sessions with the patrons as well as conducting outreach. The reason we're doing that is that we realize that it's a high-risk population that attends bathhouses and that there are men in [the bathhouses] who are on the down low, meaning they don't identify themselves as gay, but they are having sex with men. And the only way to reach these populations -- who are definitely at risk for transmitting the disease to their heterosexual female partners -- is by getting the education in the bathhouses."
Asked whether it would be simpler and more effective to shut down San Diego's three gay bathhouses -- Club San Diego, the Mustang Spa at 2200 University Avenue in North Park, and the Vulcan Baths at 805 West Cedar (across Pacific Highway from the County Administration Building) -- Cunningham answers, "When San Francisco shut down their bathhouses...one of the things that was the offshoot of that was that several private places opened where anything went. I mean, there were places that opened that were basically bathhouses in somebody's home. If they're underground like that, then you can't get in there and do any type of educational seminars or monitoring or one-on-one counseling or even handing out pamphlets. Because it's an anything-goes environment."