If Robert N. DeBenedictis had a quarter for every man infected with HIV after visiting his gay bathhouses then he would be a rich man. Indeed, he's very rich. And among the beneficiaries of that wealth is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center at 208 West 13th Street which touts itself as "serving NYC's LGBT community with health, wellness and community connection."
Since the early 1970s Bob DeBenedictis has had ownership interests at one time or another in multiple establishments catering to the New York LGBT community including bathhouses such as now-defunct Wall Street Sauna at One Maiden Lane, East Side Sauna a/k/a East Side Club at 227 East 56th Street, and West Side Club at 27 West 20th Street where reportedly randy patrons have been known to hook up in tiny cubicles.
The Wall Street Sauna was opened by DeBenedictis in 1974 but shut down by New York City authorities in 2004 as a prohibited commercial sex venues pursuant to New York State Sanitary Code (Section 24-2.2) which states that "no establishment shall make facilities available for the purpose of sexual activities where anal intercourse, vaginal intercourse or fellatio take place," and local health officials may close such establishments as criminal public nuisances in violation of Penal Law section 240.45.
The East Side Club (opened in 1976) and the West Side Club (opened in 1994) both have endured notwithstanding numerous reports that they have been used by gay men as sex venues. According to state filings Robert DeBenedictis held ownership interests in both the East and West side clubs at least though 2009 although more recent filings have not been checked, and shareholder interest could have changed since then.
The DeBenedictis bathhouses long have been plagued by controversy. For example, when the Wall Street Sauna was shuttered, on July 12, 2004 the Daily News issued a scathing editorial:
The Wall Street Sauna, a downtown health club catering to gay men, has been ordered closed by the Appellate Division of Manhattan Supreme Court. Reason? The place was consistently used for high-risk sexual encounters. Unsafe sex. AIDS-inviting sex. Shocked? You should be. While there is certainly the need for continuing, and expanded, AIDS education worldwide, this case proves that while you can lead a man to information, you can't make him think. You can't make him give one little damn about himself or other human beings. If there is any group on Earth that already should know about HIV/AIDS, it's the Manhattan gay community. Yet there's the Wall Street Sauna, refuting conventional wisdom -- two decades into the epidemic.
And when the West Side Club opened gay reporter Jonathan Capehart wrote the following in a Feb. 6, 1995 article for the Daily News:
I visited a newly opened gay bathhouse that was filled with men looking for anonymous, and possibly lethal, sex. The West Side Club is on W. 20th St. in Manhattan. Its advertisements suggest that it is an exclusive health club. The ads tout private memberships, weight lifting and exercise. But that veneer is as thin as a mesh tank top the first hint being that the ads also say the facilities include "resting cabins." * * * My intention was to confirm whether the club is, in fact, the latest and most extreme representation of a tragic phenomenon: a resurgence in unsafe sex among gays. I discovered, with almost complete certitude, that the answer is yes.
At least as of 2009 patrons of the East and West Side Clubs could obtain HIV and STD testing at the premises through The Men's Sexual Health Project. Indeed, Dr. Demetre C. Daskalakis, a professor at New York University's School of Medicine, "has been conducting HIV research in two Manhattan bathhouses -- the East Side Club and the West Side Club -- since 2006" as reported by a Jan 22. 2008 article ("Researchers Support NYC Bathhouse Regulation") for POZ Magazine: "so far, he has tested about 1,000 MSMs [men who have sex with men] for HIV and other STDs and has referred those in need of health care to Bellevue Hospital, which is funding his studies." The preliminary results from Dr. Daskalaski's research is not encouraging: "HIV positive MSM attending bathhouses represent an important group to target for HIV education and prevention since many continue to engage in high-risk sexual activities."
A July 2, 2009 article ("HIV Testing in NYC Bathhouses") by Kristina Fiore for MedPage Today states:
As the number of HIV cases in the U.S. soars -- especially among gay and black men, and particularly in New York City -- one physician is going where few have gone before in terms of prevention efforts: straight to the late-night gay scene. Dr. Demetre Daskalakis runs the first-ever HIV testing venue at a New York bathhouse in Chelsea. * * * Bathhouses are usually thought of as relics of a bygone era. After the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, their numbers began to decline. But a few still exist, and Daskalakis can find no better place to do his work. Today, some men come to the club just for the free test, not the sex. That, Daskalakis says, makes keeping the clinic door open into the wee hours of a Manhattan weekend morning worth it.
Serving randy queers is a lucrative business, and Robert DeBenedictis has gotten quite wealthy from it. A few years back he testified in a court proceeding involving a now-settled class action against his company Global Vision Products, Inc. which once marketed the hair loss remedy Avacor that he had assets worth $70 million.
Robert DeBenedictis has steered some of that wealth to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center at 208 West 13th Street. In responding to an inquiry Mary Steyer, Senior Director of Communications for The Center, advised by email dated November 29, 2017 that "there is a room here that had Mr. DeBenedictis's name associated with it" -- the so-called DeBenedictis Room -- and "he named the room through a donation in our original capital campaign at some point during the late 1990s-early 2000s." Moreover, in its 2016 annual report The Center "gratefully acknowledges" Robert N. DeBenedictis as a Powsner Cooperberg Legacy Society member "whose inclusion of The Center in [his] estate plans ensures our long-term future."
DeBenedictis associate Paul Galluccio at least at one time also had an ownership interest in the West Side Club, and he similarly touted his support of The Center in defending against accusations that the bathhouse owners were "nothing but bloodsuckers in the community." Galluccio reportedly told Jay Blotcher for his article "Sex Club Owners: The Fuck Suck Buck Stops Here" in Policing Public Sex (South End Press: 1996) the following:
Galuccio prevaricates in explaining the nature of his private men's club, finally admitting that sex takes place on the premises, but adding, "We're not promoting AIDS; we're promoting a club for gay people to meet." The demographics of the club vary from professionals to weekend partiers. Galuccio dismisses GALHPA's [Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists] most heated rhetoric. "People say we're nothing but bloodsuckers in the community." But he points to his support of the Community Center and GMHC, plus the many gay men on his payroll. "I didn't give someone AIDS; AIDS started long before I was in the business." Sex between men is an inevitability, Galuccio says several times in different ways. A pragmatic businessman, he says he is merely providing a desired service, installing measures of safety which are cost-effective and also soothe his conscience. The West Side Club provides safer sex information, condoms and lubrication. GMHC volunteers come in occasionally to provide safer sex demonstrations. Monitors verbally admonish couples who choose to cavort in the open, directing them to private rooms. Beyond those policing measures, Galuccio allows patrons to make their own decisions about safer sex, adding that, at this juncture in the epidemic, blame now lies with the individual. "If I were to get AIDS today, it's my own fucking fault. I deserve it."
When Ms. Steyer was directly asked if The Center was "aware of Mr. DeBenedictis's role in establishments such as the East Side Sauna and Wall Street Sauna at the time it accepted his financial support and, if not, would knowledge now of such ownership interests cause The Center to consider returning his contributions" she curtly replied "we do not have a comment on this but thank you for reaching out."
So the AIDS victims got a quilt displayed in their memory, and Robert DeBenedictis got a room named in his honor. Just something to think about on World AIDS Day.
Further reading that may be of interest: