3 min

When sexual freedom equals sexual health

Forum grapples with nation's prude laws

Credit: Joshua Meles

What’s the connection between AIDS prevention and the laws about getting off at a bathhouse?

John Maxwell, director of community development at the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT), says that there is a strong link between sexual freedoms and sexual health, which was the impetus behind ACT’s panel tonight (Thu, Nov 25) on Canada’s sex laws.

Maxwell says men who are afraid to go to bathhouses or other queer and sex-friendly spaces because the police may barge in may end up taking greater risks in their sexual relationships – and that could mean increased transmission of HIV.

“It’s important that we highlight this because it is fundamentally a health issue,” Maxwell says. “To close down those venues is putting a lot of gay men at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”

According to Canada’s Criminal Code, it is illegal to run or even visit a place operated “for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency” – that’s a common bawdy house.

Since indecency is not defined, police across the country have exploited this lack of clarity to raid sex spaces like bathhouses, peep shows and swingers’ clubs, alleging that the sex taking place there is indecent. Though raids on bathhouses in Toronto have been rare since the big raids (and subsequent protests) of 1981, the laws haven’t changes since then. Police arrested men at the Bijou porn theatre (now a bathhouse) in 1999, laid liquor charges at the Toronto women’s bathhouse in 2000, arrested patrons and staff at Goliath’s bathhouse, in Calgary in 2002 and arrested patrons of The Warehouse bathhouse in Hamilton this year.

Maxwell says places like bathhouses can be important avenues for reaching out with safe-sex information for men who have sex with men. He says Toronto bathhouse operators in particular have been responsive to the need for education and health promotion work.

“Most of the bathhouses have signed onto an agreement with us which outlines what they’ll do to help promote the health of their clients,” says Maxwell. The agreement is basically a code of conduct for bathhouses which includes the promotion and availability of anonymous testing and making sure the facility is clean and safe.

“Closing down bathhouses, or the threat of closing down bathhouses, just pushes men underground. It’s harder to do public education and outreach in parks or washrooms,” Maxwell says.

Along with health issues, panelists at the forum expect to hit on other aspects of how sex laws infringe on queer life. For example, anal sex is illegal – even in the privacy your own home – if more than two people are present.

Maxwell is a member of the Committee To Abolish The 19th Century, which was launched this fall by Spa Excess owner Peter Bochove. The committee’s goals are to have Canada’s sex laws updated.

Bochove is aware that not all queer people are bothered by the laws. But he thinks that both marriage-minded and more sexually liberated queers should join forces on the issue, considering opponents to same-sex marriage and gay sex rights are often the same people.

“I think the community itself, the gay community, we’re all pretty divided, too,” says Bochove. “There are liberationists and assimilationists. People who want to get married and people who spit on the idea. But the same people who hate the people who want to get married, hate the rest of us who want to get laid.”

The forum is targeted toward gay and bisexual men, but Bochove says it is important for a wider range of people to come together to have the laws changed.

“The prostitutes and sex trade workers these days are treated like a 1950s fag,” he says. “Anyone who finds themselves being victimized by laws against crimes that don’t have victims should get involved.”

Bochove has filed to incorporate The Committee To Abolish The 19th Century. Once the legal status comes through, the group intends to fundraise in order to raise public awareness about the sex laws and also to support court cases that challenge them.

Also in the works is a website, Bochove says the site will be used to educate and inform the public, and to spread the message of his campaign across the country.

“The idea is that we have this debate in a civilized fashion,” says Bochove. “You have your right to your life and your nuclear family where you never ever look at someone else but that doesn’t give you the right to tell anyone else how to live their life…. There is a big difference between being moral and being a moralizer.”

* The Stuck In The 19th Century panel is free and starts at 7pm on Thu, Nov 25 at City Hall (100 Queen St W) in the member’s lounge. Panelists include John Maxwell of the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, which is presenting the forum, Peter Bochove, Jerry Herszkopf, Tim McCaskell, Kyle Rae and Tom Warner.