Five years ago, the Body Central women-only fitness club in Santa Rosa, CA, closed after a four-year legal battle with Phillip Kottle, a man who wanted to join the club.
Since that case, the issue of men challenging women-only clubs and women-only sections of coed clubs has not gone away. The National Coalition for Men, which was formed in 1977 to address discrimination issues among men and boys, continues to fight fitness clubs that it says violate California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, or California Civil Code Section 51. The 1959 act outlaws discrimination by businesses in the state based on age, sex or race, among other qualifiers.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the state agency charged with preventing discrimination in places of public accommodation, supported Kottle, a member of the National Coalition for Men, in his lawsuit, which he eventually won.
The DFEH supported similar challenges. The agency reached a settlement agreement in 2007 with Maximum Fitness LLC (dba Gold’s Gym of Vacaville), which had to open to men an area of the club previously designated for women only. In 2008, California Family Fitness reached a settlement in which it had to open its women-only club to men and modified its coed clubs that had separate workout areas for women. In February 2011, the DFEH required In-Shape Health Clubs in Bakersfield to stop designating women-only workout areas. Then in March 2011, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Ramona Garrett ruled that a Lady of America franchise lease that was negotiated with a landlord violated the Unruh Act. Garrett canceled the lease, and the franchisee closed the club.
In these cases, the DFEH and the National Coalition for Men argued that men paid the same membership prices as women but received fewer services.
“It’s morally and legally wrong to charge everyone the same price for something, but then give one group of people less than what they paid for, based on their sex,” National Coalition for Men President Harry Crouch said on the organization’s website.
Lin Conrad is the executive director of California Clubs of Distinction, a nonprofit trade association that promotes the growth of clubs in California. Conrad says the recent legal battles against women-only clubs in California are making operators think twice about entering that sector.
“People just don’t want to get sued,” Conrad says. “Once you realize you’re either going to get fined or you’re going to get sued, it’s just not worth it as a businessperson. If you want to be successful, you don’t want to challenge the government.”
Some California clubs may try to avoid the issue by putting some equipment in the women’s locker room, Conrad says, but that is not a viable solution.
“It’s a difficult environment in California,” Conrad says. “It just means clubs have to be more creative in how they’re going to attract that population. It’s a real struggle.”
The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) does not have current statistics on how many women-only clubs exist. However, according to IHRSA, eight states have laws allowing single-sex health clubs: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin. In addition, a Pennsylvania state court ruled in 1992 that LivingWell North, a women-only club, did not violate that state’s anti-discrimination law.