Is "Dawson's 20-Load Weekend" the Most Important Gay Porn Film Ever Made?
July 9, 2012
One of the people making decisions while living with HIV is none other than the actor known as Dawson, who disclosed his HIV positive status to The Windy City Times in 2005. While his HIV status may surprise no one, something else he said in the interview was sadly revealing. "It was after turning positive that I made the decision to look into doing a movie for Treasure Island Media," he said at the time. "I had seroconverted a few months before ..."
After an HIV diagnosis, many people use it as an opportunity to re-examine their lives, make different choices, or otherwise take steps to enjoy their life in whatever ways are important to them. For the man who would be Dawson, his seroconversion was followed by the choice to be an unapologetic cum whore in front of video cameras. This may have been his fantasy, but it certainly fuels the stigmatizing belief that people with HIV are irresponsible vectors of disease, spreading infection and abandoning whatever sexual values they may have previously held.
Perhaps, then, the film was a treatise on the kind of sexual liberation available to HIV positive gay men today, demonstrating the "new normal" for those who take their meds, eliminate the viral activity in their blood, and "fuck freely and without fear," as TIM founder Paul Morris once put it. Or did it simply portray poz men as sluts, a charge leveled by disgusted (and possibly jealous) HIV negative men?
"What a person is seeing has more to do with them than with us," said Sohl. "The best mode of action is not to confirm or deny anything. I will see a scene online that I directed," he says, referring to the many porn sites that pirate pieces of his work and give them new titles, "and it will be renamed 'negative bottom takes poz loads,' as if it were a conversion scene. We never said that. Or people think the bottom is using crystal meth. That says more about the guy watching it than what actually happened."
That relationship, between porn and viewer, is something of particular concern to some HIV prevention advocates who believe bareback porn encourages unsafe sex in real life. This resulted in AIDS Healthcare Foundation's recent campaign to mandate condom use on pornography sets, a move that was popular on a simplistic level but did nothing to address the myriad of factors associated with actual HIV risk and relative safety, such as an undetectable viral load, serosorting, or the precise sexual behaviors involved.
While social cognitive theory states that we make behavioral decisions based on watching others, very little research has been conducted on the causal relationship between bareback porn and real behavior. In what little has been studied, researchers can't decide if barebackers watch a lot of bareback porn, or bareback porn makes people barebackers.
It is a riddle that Max Sohl is surprisingly happy to solve. "Absolutely" he said. "Of course it is going to influence what people do." When asked, then, what is the responsibility of porn, Sohl would have none of it. "The responsibility of porn," he says impishly, "is to make the guy watching it shoot a load."
Dawson is, now and forever, committed to videotape and featured on dozens of online porn sites, happily receiving the prize he so ardently desires. He and his progeny of newer, younger porn actors have crossed a line and they're never coming back. Their video escapades are available online everywhere and for everyone, including young gay men who are just coming out and surfing the internet for validation of their sexuality.
What those young men will almost certainly see online are depictions of unprotected sex, because bareback videos now outperform scenes of condom usage on every site that carries them -- and most of them now do. It is unquestionable that bareback sex will be viewed as typical to the uninitiated, and anyone crafting safer sex messages to those young men is going to have a difficult time trumping those images. The "use a condom every time" message is officially dead, drowned in buckets of bodily fluids by Dawson and his barebacking brethren.
Dawson's 20 Load Weekend redefined bareback porn and the men who appear in them. It influenced subsequent videos and expanded the availability of bareback films. It depicted a prevailing truth about gay sexual behavior "post AIDS," and arguably encouraged risky sexual adventure-seeking. It led to the saturation of bareback porn online, making unprotected sex normative to whomever might be watching. To dismiss this film, to minimize its social and cultural impact, would be to demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of gay sexuality today.
"Barebacking is a right," gay anthropologist Eric Rofes once wrote. "After all, practically every straight guy in the world gets to do it without being told they are irresponsible, foolish, or suicidal ... Barebacking is liberation. Barebacking is defiance."
How foolish, prescient, liberating, enlightening or destructive barebacking may ultimately become is something that may only be revealed in the next chapter of our gay community's troubled history.
(Photo of Dawson and Jesse O'Toole courtesy of Max Sohl and edited for content. Other images courtesy of Treasure Island Media [NSFW].)
My Fabulous Disease
Comment by: Dewayne
Wed., May. 21, 2014 at 8:18 pm EDT
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!
Comment by: Buck
(U.S.A. : Massachusetts : Boston)
Thu., Dec. 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm EST
I would love to know how 'Dawson' is doing today. We were gym buddies for years here in Boston.
Comment by: Tim
Sat., Aug. 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm EDT
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.
Comment by: Lee
Wed., Jul. 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm EDT
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.
Comment by: RLS
Fri., Jul. 20, 2012 at 1:43 am EDT
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.
Comment by: Tom
(San Francisco, CA)
Tue., Jul. 17, 2012 at 2:36 am EDT
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.
Comment by: Andy
Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm EDT
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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Comment by: Rodger
Thu., Jul. 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm EDT
I think this comment counts as a manifestation of Godwin's Law...
Comment by: Rodger
Thu., Jul. 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm EDT
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
Sat., Jul. 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm EDT
Prolonged bouts of abstinence don't count Rodger.
Comment by: Andy
Tue., Jul. 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm EDT
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 EDT
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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Comment by: Mark S King
Tue., Jul. 17, 2012 at 8:24 am EDT
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
Fri., Aug. 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm EDT
I disagree. It's relatively pointless, actually.
Comment by: Marc P.
(Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Fri., Jul. 13, 2012 at 11:31 am EDT
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
Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm EDT
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
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm EDT
Scary to think that people still regard bareback sex with such a blase attitude . . . always be safe and the facts and tips are here http://www.getiton.co.nz/condoms-lube/
Comment by: John-Manuel
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm EDT
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.
Comment by: MIkey
(South Gate, CA)
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm EDT
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.
Comment by: Rodger
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 2:15 pm EDT
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.
Comment by: Scott
Wed., Jul. 11, 2012 at 11:19 am EDT
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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Comment by: Mark S King
Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm EDT
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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