Bathhouses were ordered closed in San Francisco at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, but they’re on the way back, as the SF Planning Commission just approved “adult sex venue” zoning legislation.

True, proper bathhouses have not existed in San Francisco since the mid-1980s, when then-mayor Dianne Feinstein declared war on the popular gay hook-up spots during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And while the well-known Market Street club and sauna Eros has been around since 1992, even they have been a watered-down version of a bath house, because of a 1989 ruling that outlawed locking doors and required monitors to be keeping track of guests’ behaviors.  

You would not think there is an interaction between sex and zoning laws, but Eros learned that the hard way that there is when they lost their lease and attempted to move to SoMa. Since Eros is classified as an “adult business” like a strip club or porn shop, they can only operate in certain areas. “We looked at the the three queer cultural districts specifically where we could locate,” Eros owner Kew Rowe told the Planning Commission at a Thursday meeting. “To our surprise, we found out that there wasn't any place for us in SoMa or much of the Transgender [Cultural] District.”

Shortly before the pandemic hit, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman brought legislation to effectively re-legalize the old bathhouse model, with privacy and lockable doors intact. The legislation passed, but was effectively worthless, because bathhouses were no longer allowed under most zoning codes. So Mandelman introduced yet more legislation to zone more areas for bathhouses, and that legislation unanimously passed the Planning Commission Thursday afternoon.

Image: SF Planning

“Gay bathhouses used to be quite a common feature in the LGBTQ community in San Francisco,” Mandelman’s legislative aide Jacob Bintliff told the Planning Commission Thursday, presenting material including the above map showing former “adult sex venue” locations in previous decades. Those materials also noted that “Over the course of the 20th century at least 60 bathhouses and sex clubs have operated across the Castro, Tenderloin, SoMa, and Mission districts.”

This legislation creates a new “adult sex venue” zoning code that applies to neighborhoods historically associated with the LGBTQ community; the Castro and the upper Market Street corridor, western SoMa, and some areas of the Castro, Leather, Transgender Cultural Districts. The map below shows a shade of shade of green where the zoning will be loosened on adult sex venues, areas in orange would acrually see tighter restrictions.

Image: SF Planning

The rules would not allow a total free-for-all. Clubs would be required to verify clients’ age at the door, there would be no alcohol or drugs allowed on the premises, and clubs would be required to provide safe sex supplies like condoms and dental dams. Venues would be able to operate 24/7, though operating between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. would require additional city permits.  

Bintliff also noted that the permitted activities “do not include sexual acts or performances by employees of the business, and that’s an important distinction.”

This is not the final say on the new bathhouse zoning legislation. While the Planning Commission approved the rules, they still have to go before the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee, and then the full board itself.

Related: Two Pandemic Years Later, Gay Bathhouse Zoning Back on the Docket In SF [SFist]

Image: @MusclePupBadge via Twitter