Interview with a Barebacker
A documented case of transmission of resistant virus between two HIV-positive men, reported at the 7th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, prompted me to explore the issue of unprotected sex.
The sexual phenomenon known in the gay community as "barebacking" (anal penetration with no condom) appears to be on the rise. Go online and you will find chatrooms designated for barebacking. Sex parties for barebackers are more prevalent than award shows this time of year. More tangibly, rates of sexually transmitted diseases are climbing in the gay community. This behavior may carry some severe consequences, such as reinfection with a drug-resistant virus or exposure to other sexually transmitted diseases.
In an effort to learn what drives a person to bareback, I wanted to interview one sexually active person with HIV. I did not want to conduct a broad survey. Frankly, statistics bore me and don't delve deep enough into an individual's psyche. So I set out to find an articulate, frank, gay male who has unprotected sexual experiences with HIV-negative men, as well as other HIV-positive men.
I posted announcements on the Internet to find my "Mr. X." Of the candidates who came forward, the man I selected possessed key qualities which pushed him into the foreground: He lives in a large metropolitan area which contains an active, visible gay community. He is in his 30s, thus, well within his sexual prime. He is able to talk without censoring himself.
My conversation with "Mr. X," published here, was unequivocally honest and may disturb some readers. I see it as a wake-up call for what is fast becoming an extremely polarizing issue within the HIV community.
Glenn Gaylord: OK, so let's cut right to the chase. Why don't you describe a recent barebacking experience?
Mr. X: (Laughs) OK, I'm at this bathhouse, and this guy cruises me. We go back to my little cube, and we start having sex. Before I know it, he's wanting me to fuck him. I kind of hesitate, but he really wants to do it, so I fuck him without a condom. He wanted it and I obliged. Who am I to stand in the way?
G.G.: So you didn't discuss your HIV status?
Mr. X: He didn't ask, and I didn't tell him.
G.G.: Was there any conversation at all?
Mr. X: More grunting than anything else. [Conversation] is not really the norm in a bathhouse sexual encounter. The assumption is that two people are going to sit down and discuss something when I don't even know the guy's name?
I just think that the premise of discussion of HIV status is ridiculous in the context of a dark, slippery sexual situation. My assumption was, it's the year 2000. He wasn't mentally challenged. He did not have a learning disability. He seemed pretty normal. He wasn't a fresh 18-year-old off the farm. He was a middle-aged, decent-looking, healthy guy. So if he's wanting me to penetrate him without a condom, I'm assuming that he's positive himself, because a lot of people who are positive like to get fucked without a condom.
G.G.: So how far did you go?
Mr. X: Well, I never actually just cum in people. I do that more for myself, not for the other person. It's sort of over-the-top, actually ejaculating in somebody. I like to skirt the gray areas. He actually was bummed when I pulled out.
G.G.: Well, if you're skirting gray areas then you would be concerned about pre-cum.
Mr. X: Not necessarily. I followed the study that said that the levels of pre-cum and semen generally equate to the levels of virus in your blood. I have an undetectable viral load, less than 50 copies. If pregnant women with less than 400 copies aren't even passing the virus on to their children, the chances of passing on HIV to somebody through pre-cum is pretty small.
G.G.: But something obviously went through your mind to cause you to pull out.
Mr. X: It's probably because it decreases the likelihood of transmission. So if I could keep it to a reasonable, moderate level without trading off an unreasonable amount of satisfaction, then I'm willing to do that. In those kind of sexual situations, it's a weird, emotional gray area. At some level you're always trying to do what the other person wants you to do. You want them to accept you, and he really wanted it. At one point he hesitated but then he reassured me that it was fine. So I did.
G.G.: Afterwards you parted ways?
Mr. X: In this particular situation, we actually exchanged numbers and we called each other. I kind of liked him. I just assumed he was HIV-positive, because what gay man in the year 2000 has not heard of HIV, has not heard of condoms, and is not using them? I mean, everyone's heard the message.
G.G.: Probably the same gay man who assumes that if somebody is willing to have unprotected sex then they must be negative.
Mr. X: I would disagree. I think that HIV-negative men are probably more willing to have unprotected sex, that they're the ones doing the fucking, not getting fucked. What you say may be true, but HIV-negative men have something to lose. HIV-positive men don't have anything to lose.
G.G.: We'll get to that a little bit later. Let's continue with the story first.
Mr. X: Ultimately, he tells me that he's HIV-negative. Once someone reveals, you're kind of obligated to reveal in the other direction. And usually I just lie. I don't think of it as lying, I just think what they don't know won't hurt them. And if they're going to do it once, they've probably done it many times before and are going to do it many times in the future. I'm just a little cog in the wheel.
So I use this great answer I like: "You know, I haven't been tested." It leaves the possibility open, so if they're responsible people they'll go out and get tested. It doesn't put me at risk for revealing too much information and having no control over that information, and it doesn't have any legal implications.
G.G.: Sure it does, because you're lying.
Mr. X: Not if they can't pin it to me. Listen, DNA testing doesn't even work in half the rape cases today.
G.G.: So in this instance, did you lie?
Mr. X: No, in this particular instance I actually said to myself, "You know what? Tell the truth." And I didn't say it for his benefit. I want to make that perfectly clear. I said it for my own benefit, because I am sick and tired of being made to feel like a liar, being made to feel like I'm less than a second-rate citizen, that I'm the creepy infected one.
The HIV-positive guy is always the one that at some deep dark level is the bad guy. And I think that's wrong. I think if transmission occurs it should be the person who gets it who should be arrested, not the person who transmits it.
G.G.: Let's get back to your story. You told the guy from the bathhouse you were positive?
Mr. X: Yeah. And he looks all freaked out, like "Oh my God, how could you have done this?" I just decided to ride with it, and said, "You know what? It's true. Deal with it. This is reality. Welcome to the year 2000. You're alive, you're a gay man in a bathhouse, you know, jeez, what did you think?"
And then he starts this whole thing with me about, "Well why didn't you tell me?" I said, "Why didn't you ask?" And he said, "Well, because it's your responsibility to tell." Why is it my responsibility to tell? I'm the one that has something to lose here by telling total strangers that I'm HIV-positive.
G.G.: What do you have to lose?
Mr. X: It's valuable information. Disclosure is a difficult enough process with people you care about, let alone strangers. Why should you hand them information?
G.G.: So they can make informed decisions.
Mr. X: They can make informed decisions without my giving that information to them. They make an informed decision when they whip their ass in the air, spread their cheeks open and let people cum inside them. That's an informed decision. It's ridiculous to try to identify all the HIV-positive people in the room so that you know which ones you can stick your ass up in the air to, and which ones you can't.
G.G.: So are you saying that if somebody is going to make a commitment to safer sex that it needs to be the same commitment all across the board?
Mr. X: Exactly. It doesn't matter what I say, because I could truly believe that I'm HIV-negative. But two days later I could have had unsafe sex with someone else. I could be right in the middle of seroconversion, have no antibodies, truly test negative and tell this guy that I'm negative and actually mean it, when in fact I infected him.
G.G.: How did your love connection end?
Mr. X: We went back and forth, and obviously it's not going to work out. Not that I thought it was ever going to work out. I'm not going to be with someone who is going to be so moronic and careless about himself.
G.G.: Is that what you thought while you were fucking him? "What a moron!"?
Mr. X: No, not really. I would say it now, though. You know what? He's just a warm body. That's all he is, and that's all that sexual situation really is. I'm not there to bond with my fellow man in an intimate way. I'm there to ejaculate. By the way, he got tested, and tested negative. So in his mind now he could prove if he tests positive eventually, then it was me. That's the mentality that we're dealing with. Let's point fingers and see if we can identify where we got it from, whose fault it is, who in the room is HIV-positive so I can avoid that person.
G.G.: So you think in a perfect world the responsibility lies with the person who is HIV-negative? And there is no responsibility on the part of the person who is positive?
Mr. X: Yes. The only responsibility I have is to myself. And I'll do what I'm morally comfortable with. I'm not responsible for your health. You're responsible for your health. I'm responsible for my health.
G.G.: Let's take that a little bit further and use the analogy of driving. Would you say that the only responsibility you have is to yourself when you're driving?
Mr. X: Well, yes.
G.G.: You don't have a responsibility to protect others walking across the crosswalk into traffic?
Mr. X: Yeah, if somebody steps out in front of me and I just keep driving and I hit them, yeah it's my responsibility. However, I think that metaphor isn't accurate unless I complete that and say, I'm driving and the passenger on the right-hand side suddenly reaches over and grabs the steering wheel and hits somebody else. It's a parallel to being in a sexual situation -- some guy reaching over and grabbing my dick and shoving it in his butt. It's the same thing. I'm just a bystander. I'm just here, I just happen to have the right car.
G.G.: No, a bystander wouldn't have his dick just happen to appear in this guy's ass. Let's take this out of the anonymous situation. First of all, why barebacking?
Mr. X: It feels better. It's more natural. And then there's the subtext in there about freedom. Not being roped in, tied, shackled, oppressed.
G.G.: What are the downsides?
Mr. X: You know, it leaves shit on the dick. (Laughs)
The only downside I see for me is my own responsibility to myself. And in some situations I feel like the right thing to do for me is not to fuck this person. Like for example, if I met some 18-year-old kid who has had no experience in the gay community, is scared to death, and finds himself in a sexual situation with me and doesn't know what he's doing, no I would not be comfortable fucking him without a rubber. However, if I met a 40-year-old gay man who clearly knows the language and nuances of the gay community and has been out for more than a year, and has driven Santa Monica Boulevard and has seen a safe sex ad, it's a different story. He's gotten the message. He's just being an idiot. The downside for me is that I'll probably never deal with the guy again, even if I actually want to see the guy more than once. I only see that downside in how it affects me.
G.G.: What about the consideration of other STDs?
Mr. X: Well, you fly a plane, you take the risk it's going to crash. Hey, giving a blow job you can get an STD. You can get crabs from a towel. I mean it's the price you pay.
G.G.: What about the risk of reinfection or infection with a more virulent strain of HIV?
Mr. X: Only one case has been documented to date. And that only just came out what, a month ago at the Retrovirus Conference? I'm not talking as if I'm getting fucked. I'm not gonna let some guy fuck me and cum in me. No way!
G.G.: But let's talk about what is becoming more and more a norm in the HIV community, which is that two people with HIV seem more and more comfortable having unprotected sex now than several years ago.
Mr. X: Absolutely true.
G.G.: With that in mind, how does this documented case of reinfection inform your decision-making?
Mr. X: Well, actually I've given this some thought. It's a quality-of-life issue. OK, there's some obscure chance that I could be reinfected or give a virus but the chance is small and life is full of risks. I'd rather spend 10 years fucking around with other HIV-positive guys and having a great time in knowing that I've lived a full exciting life than clench my butt and worry about that one-in-a-million chance of getting reinfected.
G.G.: So what you're saying is, it's worth it. It's worth risking STDs, it's worth risking the chance that you'll never make a connection with that person again.
Mr. X: Yeah.
G.G.: It's worth hepatitis, chlamydia, gonorrhea...
Mr. X: I could get hepatitis from kissing somebody and yet I don't see people getting all upset about that.
G.G.: Is it worth the possibility that the medications might not be an option for you?
Mr. X: There's the possibility that it could interfere with my health. However, there's also a possibility that driving behind a bus that is spewing carbon monoxide could shorten my life span. There's a possibility that secondhand smoke could shorten my life span. It's risks and benefits. I say that the benefits outweigh the risks.
G.G.: What about the possibility that this could create a drain on social services?
Mr. X: I couldn't care.
G.G.: Why? I bet you cared about the availability of funding for AIDS when you needed help before, correct?
Mr. X: Actually it's in my best interest to see that there are as many HIV-positive people as possible, because then it's more likely that there's going to be a cure. I'm not saying that I'm doing anything to cause that.
G.G.: Well, you might have at that bathhouse a little while ago. Seriously, the HIV community rallied around in the early days and our voices were heard. It increased public funding, it increased the rate at which drugs were developed and approved, and the majority of the people in the world were seemingly on our side.
But now that pendulum has swung where they are seeing that people with HIV are knowingly having unprotected sex, are possibly infecting others with what could be a resistant strain of the virus. Do you honestly feel they're going to be inclined to give to an AIDS organization or support AIDS research?
Mr. X: I agree with you. What is wrong with all these HIV-negative people letting themselves get infected? Absolutely!
G.G.: Forget about HIV-negative people getting infected. Let's talk about HIV-positive people now. If you were a person who regularly donates money or who really approved of their tax money going towards research, etc., would you be as inclined to want to help out?
Mr. X: Yeah.
G.G.: You wouldn't say "To hell with them!"?
Mr. X: You know what? When I wasn't infected, I didn't know that there was such a thing as safe sex. None of us knew.
G.G.: And people could relate to that.
Mr. X: I have to say, people that are recently infected, I look at them twice. I'm thinking, "Are you stupid?"
G.G.: And people would be looking at you and saying, knowing what you know now, you know you're infected, don't you think you ought to take some responsibility too?
Mr. X: I'll take some responsibility.
G.G.: That's not what you said a little while ago.
Mr. X: I didn't cum in the guy.
G.G.: OK, but doesn't this kind of create a community of liars? Is that what you want to live in?
Mr. X: I'm only living in the community that's been created for me. You live in a community where you're forced to lie in order to keep your job.
G.G.: But you can change that community.
Mr. X: It should be changed at a policy level not at a bathhouse.
G.G.: I think these things change one by one, not all at once.
Mr. X: Well, let's start at the policy level.
G.G.: Why not start at the individual level? It's a lot easier.
Mr. X: Well, not really. You and I know that changing individual behavior is a monumental task.
G.G.: But individually people can make a commitment that they don't want to live in a community of liars.
Mr. X: You're absolutely right. Then why are HIV-negative people letting people fuck them?
G.G.: For the same reason that HIV-positive people may be quick to lie about it.
Mr. X: If we did an across-the-board rule that nobody with HIV is going to use a condom, then we'd all be operating on the same assumption, and you'd see rates drop because people would learn that they could protect themselves, that it's not the responsibility of the person who is positive to protect the person who is negative. It's the responsibility of the person that's negative to protect himself.
G.G.: You're not going to get consensus on that, because you're going to find that there's still one or two people with HIV left that do feel they want to protect others and do take their share of responsibility in a sexual situation.
Mr. X: I think that's great. They should do what works for them. It doesn't work for me. It doesn't work on an individual level when the lights are off and everyone's tweaking out on crystal and rules just get tossed aside. If we all assumed, "Hey everyone's got HIV," then we'd use universal precautions.
G.G.: So do you think then that it would be fair of you to cry foul when insurance companies and public benefits programs dry up and say, "Hey sorry, you did this with your eyes wide open"?
Mr. X: No, it probably wouldn't be fair. Is that going to stop me from behaving this way? Probably not. But I see guys who are recently infected and I have to wonder, what if one dollar goes to my research and one dollar goes to his research? Well he's the one who got fucked recently. I deserve the money, not them.
G.G.: Do you see a connection between the recent passage of Prop. 22 and how the public may feel about the unsafe sexual behaviors of the gay community?
Mr. X: I see where the inconsistencies could lead to a public perception that would be damaging and harmful. Is this broad concept enough to change my personal behavior? Probably not. Is capital punishment enough to change the behavior of an enraged person? Probably not.
G.G.: Some people feel that if that person committed the crime, then let him rot. Then there's the other half that feel that this person is deserving of our compassion regardless.
Mr. X: You're talking about fluid emotional gray areas where theories don't really apply, and you're not going to solve the problem by finger-pointing. We've tried for thousands of years to try to manipulate sexual behavior in people and it's never worked. There is always going to be teenage pregnancy, there's always going to be unsafe sex. It's just the way human beings are. We're built that way. You're not really ever going to change people's sexual behavior. Instead of trying to fight it, work with it. People haven't used condoms for thousands of years and they're not going to start.
G.G.: A lot of people may skirt that issue and say the reason they have unprotected sex is because they can't stay hard in a condom or it just doesn't feel the same.
Mr. X: That probably stems back to a societal problem about sex. We've gotten so many mixed messages. You watch a TV commercial and it's hip and cool to be sexy and have sexual prowess and at the same level you get messages from religious groups that one should contain themselves. Parents won't talk to you about sex. It's weird. Slapping on a condom seems premeditated and goes against the messages that we were sent; that we shouldn't be having sex and therefore we can't talk about it and then when you put on a condom there's something very premeditated about it. It fucks with people's heads and they can't stay hard.
G.G.: When the safer-sex campaigns were initiated they weren't really intended for a lifetime. As time has gone on, and we're now 19 years since the first case of AIDS was reported, it has become an increasing challenge for people. That's acknowledged. So let's assume that it is a goal to return to that. What do you think would be an effective way to get people to go against this human nature you're talking about?
Mr. X: Well, first of all, address this issue that it's the responsibility of the HIV-positive person to be responsible for everyone else's best interest. We should get rid of that and go back to anyone could have it, and they're not going to use a condom. When you get rid of that assumption, people will be more motivated. But now, at some level they're thinking that, "Oh well, if he's positive he's got to tell me." Then all these HIV-specific laws add to that. Those laws send messages that we can identify the person who is positive, and change their behavior through punishment. That sends a message to people who are negative that they are being taken care of by these laws.
G.G.: Why not try to be a part of a solution? Why not just tell the truth?
Mr. X: I am part of the solution by announcing publicly that I am not going to use a condom. That I am going to admit to my behaviors versus refusing to talk about it.
G.G.: But you're part of a problem. A lot of people with HIV carry other STDs, true?
Mr. X: Probably true.
G.G.: So knowingly transmitting another STD is a solution?
Mr. X: You take that risk any time you have sex. I see the solution as the person who's got something to lose insisting that a condom be used. I don't see the solution as blaming the person who has the disease and saying you're the enemy and legally forcing him to put on a condom.
G.G.: I don't think anybody in either situation is calling the other person the enemy, though. I think people are looking at each other with equal respect sometimes and expecting human kindness to go both ways.
Mr. X: I would say to HIV-negative men, why not be a part of the solution and insist that a condom be worn?
G.G.: OK, but our readers are primarily HIV-positive. So what would you say to them? "Don't worry, you get to be innocent bystanders in life"?
Mr. X: I would say, don't buy the premise that you are the villain.
G.G.: What about the premise of just being nice?
Mr. X: I don't want to be mean to other people. I don't want to feel bad about a situation I created. I wouldn't have unsafe sex to be malicious. But why do people speed in their cars? It's not something people intend to do. It just happens. You don't consider the consequences as it's happening. You don't drive the speed limit to be "nice." In a sexual situation, there are no safe sex police monitoring it. Everyone agrees to participate.
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.