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Is "Dawson's 20-Load Weekend" the Most Important Gay Porn Film Ever Made?

July 9, 2012

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The videos were uniform in their low production values, the older ages of the actors, and the fact that several of them appeared to have the physical manifestations of HIV. It was as if a group of men who had literally lived through AIDS said, "oh, what the hell," and demonstrated the kind of sex they had been having amongst themselves for some time. Their exploits were perceived as an underground fetish that would never break the surface of more mainstream gay pornography.

But then Max Sohl met that ferociously attractive man from the Folsom Street Fair who was so eager to "get seeded" by a string of strangers, and with the sexual zeitgeist now primed for their arrival, they made a film that would forever change the porn industry and quite arguably influence the sexual behavior of countless gay men.

Re-christened "Dawson," the budding porn star was served up in a hotel room over the course of New York City's 2004 Black Party weekend to an ongoing parade of bareback tops. Their sex was filmed in a documentary fashion, without music, scripted dialogue, or any effort to hide the many cables and cameras crowding the room. Dawson's fantasy had been fulfilled, and Sohl had the footage to prove it.

In June of 2004, Dawson's 20 Load Weekend was released and was precisely as advertised.

Is 'Dawson's 20 Load Weekend' the Most Important Gay Porn Film Ever Made?

It might first strike the viewer that the video was created in an unsettling world in which HIV is utterly absent; that is, until a revamped sexual choreography is pointedly repeated again and again. While orgasms in gay porn before AIDS typically showed the top withdrawing from his partner and spilling his semen across his partner's backside, the tops servicing Dawson had a different and very deliberate mission: to withdraw only long enough to prove their orgasm, and then re-enter Dawson immediately to show the injection of semen.

This was not a film that was made in the absence of HIV, but was created because of HIV. You can practically hear a disembodied voice whispering, "Watch closely. This is how gay men have sex now. That is where semen belongs. Fuck AIDS."

Depending on your point of view, it is either a transgressive act of eroticism or an incredibly irresponsible act that demonstrates how to become infected with HIV. Or perhaps both.

In the center of all of this was Dawson himself, and never has bareback porn had such a virile and athletic leading man, much less one that bottomed with such disarming delight. "He was a higher quality male model that hadn't been seen in that kind of extreme scene," said Sohl. "The movie changed things because of Dawson. He was adorable, and actually smiles and laughs. He is joyful in that movie."

"Bareback porn companies have blood on their hands," became a common refrain among gay men and health advocates. Gay sex advice columnist Dan Savage equated the videos to child porn, believing they take advantage of the naive and the vulnerable. Some accused TIM of making snuff films.

The video was wildly successful, ubiquitous wherever porn was shown. Even Sohl was surprised. "Our staff and even my friends would say 'I go into a porn booth, a sex party, a hookup, and its playing,'" he said. "It was everywhere."

Adult bookstores which had previously shunned TIM videos responded to customer demand and began stocking them, even creating bareback sections on their shelves. Gay porn sites that once refused to feature bareback clips began including them. Dawson and the film became the definitive symbol of a bare, wanton sexuality that eschewed condoms and refused to be denied or intimidated by the virus.

Soon, more companies produced bareback porn, and they were able to attract "collegiate jock" types who were younger, more muscular and the very picture of health and vitality. The faces and bodies in bareback videos had been transformed, erasing all evidence of HIV, much like the invisibility of HIV/AIDS in our broader culture.

When considering the legacy of his film, Sohl is more pragmatic than proud. "The concept of taking twenty loads in 2004 was beyond taboo, but to say it in 2012 ... it doesn't seem as extreme today," he said. "I'm sure someone else would have done it. It just so happened to be us."

Neither does Sohl admit to any trepidation about the safety of his actors, then or now. "I've been doing this since 2004, with thousands of men, and have had only one guy claim to get an STD (on my set)," he explained. "Probably 50 percent of my casting job is being an HIV counselor," he adds, without a hint of irony. "I spend a lot of time talking about HIV. My feeling is that people need to be responsible for their own actions and make informed decisions."

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Adapted from:
My Fabulous Disease

More From This Resource Center

Undetectable Viral Load and HIV Prevention: What Do Gay and Bi Men Need to Know?

Do HIV-Negative Gay Men Need Condoms if They're on PrEP? Here's What I Tell My Patients

This article was provided by Visit Mark's live blog.
See Also
Celebrate U=U! What Undetectable = Untransmittable Means for the HIV Community
Barebacking & HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Dewayne (Phoenix, AZ) Wed., May. 21, 2014 at 8:18 pm UTC
I don't often comment on pieces but I have to say how incredible this article is. I came out in the condom age and watched so many die far too young. I converted 10 yrs ago due to a "lapse in judgement" and I have had a difficult road yet, I have no regret of converting. I actually began to live and feel ALIVE. I encourage men to use condoms but for me I prefer BB. It's a connection like none other and I connect only with other poz men. I consider my choices of being only with poz men a small measure of prevention but that's just me. I live with my choices and I disclose so that others can choose. I have nothing to hide or fear. I pay my own insurance and I take very good care of myself. I'm not a burden to society and my "behavior" has zero influence on anyone as I only "behave" with like minded. I know I will die someday, we all do, but, I won't die wondering, Did I live my life to the fullest? Nope, that will not be my last thoughts. Every single person has the will to decide what is right for them and what isn't. So, let people decide and get off the altar preachers. Thank you Mark for scratching that little nerve and waking people up!
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Comment by: Buck (U.S.A. : Massachusetts : Boston) Thu., Dec. 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm UTC
I would love to know how 'Dawson' is doing today. We were gym buddies for years here in Boston.
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Comment by: Tim Sat., Aug. 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm UTC
Turns out "Treasure Island" is a nuclear waste dump in the San Francisco Bay. Coincidence? Maybe Morris was just alluding to his favorite childhood book, as the official line goes. Or maybe there really is something sinister to the symbolism of his works.
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Comment by: Lee (Pennsylvania) Wed., Jul. 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm UTC
I am HIV positive, yet find it sad that so many men have unprotected sex. Truthfully, I never barebacked before becoming HIV positive, and do not bareback now. My current partner is HIV negative, and I am happy to protect him.
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Comment by: RLS (Austin, TX) Fri., Jul. 20, 2012 at 1:43 am UTC
Meh, I was an HIV-negative cum dumpster after 10 years of using crystal meth. I was 14 months sober when I seroconverted, go figure.

I lol'ed at the suggestion that taking 20 loads was "beyond taboo" in 2004. When that video came out we joked about it being amateur night.

Do I sense a little buyers remorse all across the board here? TIM has a lot of hot porn. This just wasn't one of them.
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Comment by: Tom (San Francisco, CA) Tue., Jul. 17, 2012 at 2:36 am UTC
I agree with the sentiment that questions the validity of comparing straight barebacking to gay barebacking. That's an apples to oranges thing. The average straight person has maybe ten partners in a lifetime. An average gay man can easily have that in a month, without trying or thinking. Repeat that number throughout the course of his twenties and (hopefully) thirties, and we can see the number of partners reach into the thousands. The risk is commensurate. You might as well say "motorcyclists long for a helmet free lifestyle, like their car driving counterparts" or "Americans wish they could sit down to a meal without counting calories, like the lucky Somalians". It just doesn't make sense. I wouldn't want to have been stuck with the same sex partner every night through my sexual prime. I see the web of guilt, shame and contempt straight men live in to endure monogamy. Safer barebacking is a benefit to their collective lifestyle. Not experiencing the full sensation of sex is the what we pay for ours.
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Comment by: Andy Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm UTC
There is so much going on in these videos that philosophers and sociologists have really only begun to scratch the surface. I suspect we'll be talking about them for a long time after we put this disease to rest. First, the atmosphere they present is anything but "post aids". In fact, Dawson's partners contrast with his healthy demeanor; many are clearly showing the ravages of advanced HIV infection. Second is the way this entire company drips with symbolism-from the color black, to the use of the skull which is a notorious symbol for death, TIM videos remind us of a sense of danger at every turn. Even the title looks like it was painted in blood. This isn't "post aids", this is embracing aids-it is bugchaser porn, pure and simple, it revels in danger and rebellion.

I see these videos as so damaging to people with HIV that it makes me cringe. How can we wonder if they've contributed to the perception that poz people are sluts without pointing out the obvious, that their introduction preceded one of greatest rollbacks in the dignity of poz people in a long time? They promote the concept that routine, promiscuous barebacking is something everyone does when they're poz, and we've seen a commensurate spike in all sorts of STDs. They rationalize serosorting, and have basically ghettoized us in the process while doing nothing for actual prevention. They provide illustrations to an increasingly moralistic prevention discourse that gives poz people the short end of the stick.

Was this film "important"? Yes, it was important. So was Mein Kampf.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Rodger (Canada) Thu., Jul. 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm UTC
I think this comment counts as a manifestation of Godwin's Law...
Comment by: Rodger (Canada) Thu., Jul. 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm UTC
I should add that since I tested poz and have begun exploring unprotected sex with other poz guys, I have actually experienced *less* STIs, not more. True story.
Comment by: Michael (Thunder Bay) Sat., Jul. 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm UTC
Prolonged bouts of abstinence don't count Rodger.
Comment by: Andy Tue., Jul. 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm UTC
Invocations of "Godwin's law" are now so ubiquitous and reflexive that one could be forgiven for assuming holocausts start with death camps and that the victims of the nazis were the only people who've ever been killed by a society.

Within 72 hours of my first positive result, a friend of a friend killed himself after testing positive, and a positive friend died in a drug related incident. I was lucky to be diagnosed early, during an era when effective, tolerable HIV treatment that was available to most. Despite this, two years afterwards, I've witnessed a poz person die prematurely about once every two months. Most of us were set on this path at diagnosis, not before. I feel the most obvious cause for this is a sense of cognitive dissonance contributed to by these types of films that tell us we're reckless, and the fatalism and isolation reinforced by people who glorify serosegregation.

You can complain about "Godwin's Law" all you want. We're still looking at a work that has directly and indirectly contributed to people's deaths, just as Mein Kampf did. When certain things are legitimately remniscent of the Nazis, there is no virtue trying to silence concerns with accusations of "Godwin's Law".

Comment by: Vincent (Los Angeles, CA) Fri., Jul. 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm UTC
Mark - How incredibly well written and insightful this article is! The best you've ever written, I think. It is hard for me (HIV+ 26 yr) to imagine how or why anyone would be so careless with their health as to bareback. But the same could have been said of me 26 years ago, I suppose. Somehow, the general gay population is still unaware of the tragedy of AIDS, the many side effects, opportunistic infections, dashed dreams, etc. Thanks for articulating the complex web of opinions regarding unsafe porn sex. For me, an over sexed libido was like a monkey on my back, one that I am only too happy to say has died. How strange that the overwhelming biological urge that drew me like a moth to a flame should now be vanquished, leaving a transformed man in its place. Thanks for all that you do.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Mark S King (Atlanta) Tue., Jul. 17, 2012 at 8:24 am UTC
Thanks very much, Vincent! It's clearly different from my first-person blog posts, and I will admit it required conducting several interviews (including a behavioral scientist who studies gay porn, I kid you not) and I actually had to read research studies! It felt important for me to approach this dispassionately and carefully.
Comment by: Alfred (Pennsylvania) Fri., Aug. 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm UTC
I disagree. It's relatively pointless, actually.

Comment by: Marc P. (Fort Lauderdale, FL) Fri., Jul. 13, 2012 at 11:31 am UTC
Interesting article, but a couple of points are left out. For those who resent that straights face far less judgement for barebacking than gays, it is important to note that unprotected anal intercourse is THE most efficient route for sexual transmission of HIV. Unprotected vaginal intercourse is number two. Also important is the fact that the straight community has far less HIV infection than the gay male community. A single incidence of unprotected intercourse is far more likely to transmit HIV for gays than for straights, because a much higher percentage of gays have the virus. In fact, gay males, representing around 2% of Americans, represent well over 50% of new HIV infections. Lastly, there is nothing said about the costs of the drugs. A personal decision to bareback, and/or become infected with HIV, affects not only the individual, but all of society. It will cost $10,000 or more per year to keep him alive.
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Comment by: Mark S King (Atlanta) Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm UTC
Thanks, Marc. The facts of how HIV is transmitted are not at issue here. My point you refer to is about the double-standard that applies to gay vs. straight sex and its relative emotional, physical and spiritual meaning. Yes, gay men have a higher incidence of infection in some geographic areas (except, by the way, where you live -- most Fulton County infections are among black young women).

But Marc, sexuality is about more than mode of transmission. The desires and instincts of mankind can't be permanently changed because of a virus that only appeared a generation ago. And gay men's desire for intimacy is just as important as anyone else's -- ask a straight man to use a condom EVERY TIME for the next ten years and see how he likes it.

Actually, we don't have to wait it out, do we, since unwanted pregnancies continue, as do STD's among heterosexuals. That cost analysis of providing services, tax dollars, etc for unwanted pregnancies is staggering and far outweighs HIV/AIDS.

So the point is, mistakes are costly, but human sexual behavior doesn't follow strict guidelines and never has. So why must society consider the (very human) mistakes of gay men so much worse than those of others? I believe there is a word for that. Homophobia.

Comment by: Ricky (Auckland, NZ) Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm UTC
Scary to think that people still regard bareback sex with such a blase attitude . . . always be safe and the facts and tips are here
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Comment by: John-Manuel (Norwich, CT) Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm UTC
I love and miss Eric Rofes. And he was correct that "barebacking is a right." but it is a "right" in the sense that we have the "right" to abuse ourselves, even kill ourselves, if we want to. To argue that because "practically every straight guy in the world gets to do it without being told they are irresponsible, foolish or suicidal" misses the VERY BIG POINT: Straight men, certainly in America have FAR less risk of contracting HIV from barebacking with woman. There is FAR less HIV floating around the heterosexual world. The CDC says gay/bi men are 60 times more likely than hetero men and 54 times more likely than women to be diagnosed with HIV. I don't call that "liberating" by a long shot. And what is this "defiance" thing? Do we need to act out as if defying our parents? It seems to me a healthier, more mature attitude might be this: Safe sex is liberation because it frees us from the fear of getting or transmitting a still potentially fatal virus. You can have an awful lot of M2M fun when you're not worried about the price you could pay for a moment's pleasure.
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Comment by: MIkey (South Gate, CA) Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm UTC
Yes, bareback porn is hot; hotter than safe-sex porn. And as much as we as adults like to think of ourselves as above the "T.V. influences how we think" mantra of parental watch-groups, the fact is that it's true. No matter how much we like to think we are completely capable of ignoring messages sent via media, we aren't. It's a proven fact. The more we celebrate bareback porn by watching, buying, sharing, and supporting then the more we celebrate the spread of all types of STD's, not just HIV.
Is it liberating? I don't see how. One night of "liberation" can chain you to a disease that there may not be a cute for. It's insulting for those of us who everyday must live with the fact that, for the sake of others and ourselves, there are certain things we must and mustn't do. These porn media companies are a slap in the face of those of us who rally against the spread of HIV and all the other venereal diseases through the advocation of protection. These porn "actors" diminish us as a community.
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Comment by: Rodger (Canada) Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 2:15 pm UTC
This is an interesting, thoughtful and mostly balanced piece. I appreciate the effort that went into it and non-hysterical tone is sets for this conversation.

A few things though. I don't see it as sadly revealing that Dawson turned to BB porn as a poz man. Better that than doing so as a neg man, which would have been much riskier for him. The tops in the film are taking a risk whether they know the bottom's status or not.

I only got seriously involved in BB sex after seroconverting. I generally avoided it before then as a risk-reduction strategy to stay neg. When I turned poz it was essentially an accident and I couldn't change it. So after 2+ years of an undetectable VL, I decided to explore it.

It's way more fulfilling physically and emotionally, and the relationships I establish with men I meet on BB sites like BBRT are the only place I actually feel safe disclosing that I'm poz. This is fantastic and empowering. That I can disclose and have BB sex reduces my risk of being busted, which can happen if I have zero-risk sex without disclosing (such as giving a neg guy a BJ). And widely disclosing my status would be very unsafe for me on every level, including my job.

Also, seeing unprotected sex in porn has had zero affect on my behaviour, and it never has over the 25 years I've been sexually active, before I turned poz or after.
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Comment by: Scott (Chicago) Wed., Jul. 11, 2012 at 11:19 am UTC
This is a really stupid article. You leave out the fact that Dawson looks so freaking high in these videos its not funny. Ofcourse he is grinning is EXTREMELY fucked up probably on Meth. How brave of him to take so many cum loads, or how dangerous? What a waste of an article. Why dont you write about all of those with HIV that continue to do amazing things like me who went to graduate school and got my PHD after finding out I was positive, not deciding I wanted to get filled with strangers sperm. I dont really care what this dude did, but why write about it?
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Mark S King (Atlanta) Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm UTC
Someone must have dozed off during the article. Or else they wold have read Dawson's "sadly revealing" choices, or the fact that young gay men will be exposed to high-risk behaviors online, or the challenges of new prevention messages.

I've been doing HIV education for 25 years, Scott. And anyone involved in designing prevention messages will tell you that we cannot change behavior unless we first try to understand it. Your comment strongly suggests we simply not write about it, or the issues involved here. How exactly is that moving the fight against HIV forward, to ignore the risk behaviors of an entire group of people? Just ignore it. Huh. Oh, and call it stupid and accuse them of being drug addicts. Interesting strategy.

Congrats on the PhD, Scott. I might have expected a more nuanced vocabulary...

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