Pipe Life/m²: Gay Spaces and Health Politics at the Turn of the Millenium

Contributors
Publication Date
October 17, 2019

“Five condom dispensers in a 450 m² basement is unacceptable,” said the prevention officer of the DGS (Direction Générale de Santé).[1] His critique was addressed to the director of the Container, the biggest gay sex club in France.[2] The exchange took place on the 6th of March of 2002 in the Parisian headquarters of the SNEG (Syndicat National des Entreprises Gaies). Directors of other gay sex clubs in Paris, the editor of Têtu (the most popular French LGBT magazine), and representatives of Act Up and Aides (NGOs fighting against AIDS), as well as official delagates of DDASS (Agence Régional de Santé) were also present at the meeting. The order of the day was prevention protocols in gay spaces, particularly focusing on the Container as a paradigmatic example from which to define a series of standard measures regulating sexual behaviour.

When the Container opened in 1998, it was a unique space and business in Europe due to its scale and public turnout. Purchased and renovated for 15 million Francs (2.3 million Euros), the club offered a surface of more than 800 m2 and, in its best days, received close to 50,000 visitors per month. The opening of the venue evidenced a turning point on the perception of HIV; in 1997, the introduction of HAART had reduced mortality rates by almost half. After the closure of many gay venues during the peak of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the late 1990s saw the resurgence of spaces devoted to gay sex in Europe. It was gloryhole’s comeback. In the words of its director, the Container provided “a place of all pleasures, excessive, unexpected, affordable, accessible to everyone without any difference based on race or social status.” [3] In that sense, it succeeded.

Located in the centre of Paris, the club was at a short distance from the stations of Châtelet and Les Halles. From there, the underground and the RER (suburban train) connected to the north-east and south-east banlieues,[4] where large North-African and Central-African migrant communities lived; the easy access attracted patrons coming from Paris’ extra-muros. The rather discreet entrance in addition to a lax door policy – contrary to other gay venues, no fetish dress code was required – invited men who did not necessarily identify as homosexuals but were interested in having same-sex encounters.

Inside, the architecture meant to unleash gay desire. The venue included two dance floors and multiple bars; but most of its space, occupied by a maze of corridors, cabins, and darkrooms, was devoted to cruising. Across three levels and hundreds of square meters, visitors could lose their bearings in an endless concatenation of narrow spaces, thresholds, corners, and gloryholes. This labyrinthine interior was in a continuous transformation; it changed every two or three weeks providing a permanent terra incognita to returning visitors. The aesthetic was eclectic, a mixture of military motifs with funfair dungeon decorations. Nevertheless, not much of this could be seen, as the space was hardly illuminated. Tenuous lamps, often in red, and TV screens playing gay porn lit corridors and passages leading to pitch-black darkrooms. In the dark, dozens of bodies could simultaneously interact stimulating all their senses with the exception of sight.

The success of the Container, where over two thousand men could gather in one single night, immediately brought to the attention of activists and associations the lack of official health regulations. The club was accused of not taking sufficient preventive measures; among other aspects, condoms and lube were not accessible enough, completely dark areas increased the risk of contagion, and cleaning habits and products did not meet the minimum standards for disinfection. Due to the lack of official regulations for sex clubs, most venues operated under alternative licenses – a billiard license in the case of the Container – making it difficult to intervene within the frame of health jurisprudence. In that sense, the meeting of March 2002, called by Act Up and the journalist Didier Lestrade, was a historical moment resonating far beyond Paris and its sex clubs. Bypassing governmental legislative instruments; activists, public institutions, and private agents came to the agreement that a new deal on gay spaces and health politics had to be put in place. Following the precepts of the Prevention Charter elaborated by the SNEG,[5] a series of architectural elements and protocols were officially instituted; such as the proportional number of Pipe Life (condoms and lube dispensers) per m² and number of cabins, adequate illumination levels to avoid absolute darkness, and accessible hygiene facilities to wash oneself. Smaller details included the placement of latex gloves for fisting and the cover for condoms with luminescent materials.

The implementation of such policies generated drastic changes in the Container. The almost 100,000 condoms that would be distributed every month since then most likely contributed to the prevention of infections, however not without controversy. Some patrons saw the new measures as a form of coercion against their individual freedoms. At the beginning, the Container created a relatively safe space for anonymous homosexual encounters where togetherness grew in the darkness –democratizing sex and disrupting prejudices found in other gay venues. At the same time, the Container brought to the fore the fragile equilibrium between the institutional, the economic, and the social in building a “free” and “safe” space dedicated to homosexual practices. The tensions between freedom and safety reappears today with the advent of new HIV prophylactic drugs and the resurgence of spaces for anonymous sex.

Pol Esteve Castelló is a designer, researcher, and teacher. Affiliated to the AA and The Bartlett, he has conducted research at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

[1] As reported in D. Lestrade, “«New Deal« dans le plus grand sex-club de France”, in Têtu, num. 66, April 2002, p 124.
[2] The name of the club has been changed to respect the community still attending the venue.
[3] Interview with Alain Calleeuw by Thierry Mallet in Garçons, n 23, 21 June 2001, p 50. Translated from French by the author.
[4] French term denominating suburbs; often connoting a lower income and migrant neighborhoods.
[5] The voluntary members of the SNEG had previously signed a Prevention Charter including recommendations to keep a healthy environment in gay sex clubs.

Publication Date
October 17, 2019
Volume
5
Number
05
Publishers
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