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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

Uncovered: Human Need vs. Condoms

By Brandon Lacy Campos

October 1, 2010

This article originally appeared on September 6 in Brandon's blog My Feet Only Walk Forward.

I think about sex quite often. Even before testing positive for HIV, I thought about sex, well, almost constantly. Whether it was the politics of sex, teaching my peers about sex positivity, deconstructing sex, looking for sex or having sex, I was (and still am) thinking about the various ways that sex impacts my life and our lives as humans.

As humans as the key part of that statement, as more often than not we attempt, or others attempt, to separate sex from our basic humanity and the fundamental connection that sex provides between two (or more) human beings.

Today, I received an email from a good friend (and super smokin' hot friend) of mine from Minneapolis. He has been positive for two decades, and he is one of the people I know that lives, and fucks, beautifully with HIV. When I have struggled and needed someone to share emotional vomit, angst, shame, or fear around HIV, and particularly being an HIV positive man that refuses to walk away from his sexuality, this friend is the person to whom I have turned.

Today he turned to me. His note to me wasn't about sex per se but was more about at times realizing there are things that he can't do and limitations he has because of being immuno-compromised. I won't go into too many details, but because of his upcoming travel, he won't be able to visit some family because of their geography and the risk of some nasty health complications due to the make up of the natural environment where they live. This triggered for him some personal regret around decisions he made as a young gay man coming up in the 1980s around sex. Those decisions lead to him testing positive.

Please, please please note the realness of his regret. He isn't angry at the person that infected him. He isn't blaming the other. He regrets the decisions HE made around HIS sexual choices in the 1980s. In this age of over information with regards to the risks of unprotected sex, it is down right ludicrous, except in very discrete situations around sexual assault and rape, that an adult that contracts HIV from consensual unprotected sex should place the burden of his or her choice on someone else.

This man has been HIV positive since the mid-80s when the White House wouldn't acknowledge the existence of the HIV virus, there were few prevention programs, and people were dying left and right while also marching in the streets demanding that Congress pay attention (God Bless ACT-UP). He could blame a whole lot of people, particularly our elected officials, and rightfully so. But he doesn't. He is also clear that this, for him, comes up every five years or so ... he sees it ... holds it ... looks at it ... and then lets it go.

I wrote back to him this message:

You know you can emotionally upchuck here any old time. We all need to do it. All of us. I used to not do it, and that is why I ended up with these three letters attached to my identity ... I didn't know how to externalize the damage and the pain, and so I found other ways to make it go away ... temporarily.

And, I believe this with all of my heart, condoms save lives but there is also a biological imperative to feel that basic connection with another person that happens through sex. Because we don't talk about that, because we believe it doesn't exist, because it is shamed as something purely psychological, we don't really teach ourselves, our children, or each other how to make the best decisions concerning when to have that experience that all of us need ... and that some of us may never get again or think we never will. It is a loss. We don't talk about that shit either.

Let me be clear. I am talking about having unprotected aka bareback sex in the note that I sent back to him. Because of the fear and shame that was created around HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, because the virus was so virulent and people were dying, and because the evolution of the messaging was so retarded by the lack of information available, the message came out that any sex but sex with a condom under any circumstances unless you are married (meaning a man and a woman) is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Meanwhile, HIV and STD rates continued to climb, and they are climbing again. Why? Do all of us having a fundamental death wish? Does no one anywhere care about his or her own sexual health? While there is a woeful lack of education in certain quarters over what types of sex can transmit HIV (please note that a study in NC in 2000 of high school students found that 80% of high school students in that abstinence only education state thought that unprotected anal sex was abstinent behavior), the general messaging about how to protect oneself is out there and most folks know the basics of it now.

Let me suggest what others that are smarter and wiser than I am have suggested: in addition to the psychological damage reasons why a human being may disregard their sexual health, there is a psychological need (and a healthy need) to want to physically connect with another human being without any barriers.

Anyone, and I mean anyone, that tells you that sex with a condom is just the same as sex without a condom is telling you a goddamn lie.

But, because it is not PC to talk about unprotected sex openly. Because we don't talk about both the need to connect with someone else without barriers nor how to do it in a healthy way or in a way that reduces risk of contracting HIV or an STD, as a community we walk around, many of us pretending like we are condom commandos and are always safe all of the time, and that is just a comforting lie we allow ourselves so that we can look down, shame, and wag our figures at other people ... all the while bending over and taking it raw again and again and again.

And let me be clear, I am not talking just about queer folks here. Very recently, in the last few days, a straight person close to me told me that she is on the pill because the person she is sleeping with hates condoms and won't use them. Now, I have fucked or known one too many of my friends that have taken a supposedly straight man for the pony ride of his life, to even have to talk about why that is not the smartest sexual move. And, also, HIV can be transmitted from penis/vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman. It is less likely, but it does happen. But the assumption that the only risk from unprotected penis/vaginal intercourse is pregnancy is one of the reasons why women of color are the fastest rising population of people being infected with the HIV virus.

Yet, for many of my highly educated straight sisters, having unprotected vaginal intercourse while using chemical contraceptives is so common as to quite often be the norm. These women know all about dudes on the down low. These women know all about high risk transmission rates, yet they still participate, and most of them happily, in straight bareback sex.

I thought we learned long ago that the thing that we do not talk about is usually the thing that is most likely to kill us. There is a reason why the HIV prevention slogan from the 1980s was SILENCE=DEATH.

If HIV infection is the symptom of unprotected sex, then why aren't we having a frank, non-shaming, and healthy discussion about bareback sex? Haven't we learned, and don't I know from personal experience, that by creating shame, risk, and danger about bareback sex, we actually heighten the desire for it in unhealthy ways? In the same way that we drive fast cars, go bungee jumping, and slather ourselves in fish blood and then go diving in a cage in a great white shark spawning ground, the forbidden factor/the danger/the excitement of bareback sex is, in my honest opinion, part of what makes it so appealing to so many people: gay and straight.

Why aren't we talking about the intensely erotic and often deep, if only temporary, connection that occurs from bareback sex. People aren't just having bareback sex because of the riskiness of it. People are having it because humans are biologically/mentally/spiritually designed to have sex.

Please note I am not advocating in any way for people to throw out their condoms and blame it on biology. We are also biologically predisposed to solving problems through physical violence, yet we don't go around whacking people in the head that get on our nerves. If that were the case, I would have the biggest biceps on the East Coast.

Instead of criminalizing people living with HIV (which, btw, does nothing for prevention, disregards personal responsibility for negative people, heaps more shame on people living with HIV, and keeps people from getting tested), instead of pretending that everyone uses condoms, instead of reacting high and mighty when a friend talks openly about bareback sex and then going out and starring in an Xtube video ass up in a sling with cum dripping out of your ass, and instead of denying that there is a need and something that can be truly beautiful about connecting with another human being, consensually, without a condom, why don't we actually talk openly about bareback sex? Why don't we look at new HIV prevention models that focuses on a whole person healthy view of sex that includes risk reduction and strategies for how, when, and under what circumstances to have unprotected sex? How about stripping the fear and shame out of sex education and injecting positive sexuality as the core of sex ed? Condoms are one strategy, and it is a strategy that is not working effectively. We still have idiots that believe that abstinence is the only answer while denying that it doesn't work and in the absence of any kind of education, STI and HIV infection rates among youth continue to rise.

Let's have a revolution in the way we think and talk about sex. Let's have a revolution in the way that we have sex. No one, positive or negative, should have to walk away from bareback sex, nor should it be reserved to straight married couples that are trying to procreate. Nor should we believe that it is only wildly idiotic irresponsible queer men that are having it. What we need to do is talk about sex (thank you Salt-n-Pepa), and talk about it without shame, without guilt, and with a realness that honors our physical and emotional need to connect to one another as part of our fundamental humanity.

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See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
Ten Common Fears About HIV Transmission
Condom Basics
More Personal Views on Condoms

Reader Comments:

Comment by: keya (...) Mon., Dec. 13, 2010 at 6:17 am UTC
agreed. Sometimes I feel the whole conversation regarding safer sex is soo hetro.. they never include info on bi and lesbian women let alone trans people... In terms of having sex, should HIV+ people feel shame in inganging in risking behaviors even though its protected sex? What I mean is, I've been thinking on this question: should hiv+ people tell people their status if they are having protected sex?
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Brandon Lacy Campos (New York, NY) Sun., Oct. 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm UTC
Thank you all for your feedback and your reflections. Honest and open conversations without absolutes is the way that we are going to figure out the best, most effective way to support each person in being fully who they are and receiving what they need while also created effective non-shaming strategies for HIV prevention and for supporting the right to sexual personhood of HIV positive individuals.

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Comment by: Eisenhans (St. Louis, MO) Sat., Oct. 9, 2010 at 10:00 am UTC
We still don't have an effective HIV prevention strategy for the same reason we still don't have an effective strategy to protect gay teens from bullying - homophobia. Ultimately the blame can be laid on the church (or mosque or temple) steps. We are stuck with "just say no" because the religious believe that we shouldn't be having sex - especially gay sex - anyway. They want to keep the price of "sinning" high. (Clearly the previous commenters drank the Kool-Aids onthat one.)

An HIV prevention strategy that relies on condom usage is really a version of abstinence mongering. "Just say no - to real, satisfying, meaningful, good sex" is the message. It works about as well as " just say no to all sex." and as the original blog implies (but fails to say), it's really only intended for the unmarried anyway. No one points a finger of shame at the married couple with the new baby, though they are clearly guilty of indulging in barebacking.

And message fatigue is not the only reason for the rise in HIV infection now being seen among men over 40. Ask the guy in the Viagra commercial why he isn't using condoms. Try putting a condom on a limp dick. And those ED drugs only work if you get adequate stimulation. Condoms are pretty good at preventing adequate stimulation, too. No one really wants to live (or die) with HIV. But no one really wants to live (or die) without good sex, either.

Any strategy that relies on sero-sorting as risk reduction not only denies reality but depends on the demonization and ostracizm of HIV-infected people.

Why are we not in the streets demanding free access to pre-exposure prophylaxis? The medical-industrial complex has known for a decade that the same meds used to suppress the virus in the already-infected will prevent infection of the HIV-exposed. Yet they still make us wait until we are infected to get access to the meds. Why? Same reason the conservatives don't want us to have condoms - it might encourage us to go out and get laid.
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Comment by: JH (OK) Thu., Oct. 7, 2010 at 3:31 pm UTC
I appreciate the candor and honesty with which this article was written. I also completely agree with the need to include bareback sex as an option when discussing risk reduction for HIV. I've worked in HIV/STD prevention for 25 years.
The article is full of sanity and I want to enshrine in particular the following:
"In this age of over information with regards to the risks of unprotected sex, it is down right ludicrous, except in very discrete situations around sexual assault and rape, that an adult that contracts HIV from consensual unprotected sex should place the burden of his or her choice on someone else."
"Why don't we look at new HIV prevention models that focuses on a whole person healthy view of sex that includes risk reduction and strategies for how, when, and under what circumstances to have unprotected sex?"
We do this with injecting drug users who continue to use. Why wouldn't we do this around sex? Well the reason is ugly and has to do with conservative political influence on government programs that result in ABC, 123, do rei me, rather than something useful in the real world where grown ups live.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Dave (pa) Sat., Oct. 2, 2010 at 11:41 pm UTC
I don't know why anyone would participate in non barrier sex due to the obvious risks. I really don't buy into the notion that somehow exchanging bodily fluids is somehow connecting to another. If we are needing to connect with another, why are we not cultivating intellectual and agape based relationships. Granted, skin to skin contact is so very pleasurable, but the risk of disease is too great. Further, unless a couple is monogamous, negative and committed, barrier free sex is too dangerous. We need to get honest about sexual issues. While it is not PC to advocate for barrier protectied sex, it is necessary to maintain ones health, not only in terms to avoidance of HIV but other sexually transmitted diseases as well. And if there is any doubt about the dangers of BB look at rise in MSM infection rates. Just being honest
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Comment by: Enron (Caribbean) Sat., Oct. 2, 2010 at 9:43 pm UTC
I think Bareback sex boils down to plain and simple, 'I can't help it' for some persons. Its an addictive drug that keeps you coming back for more. One experience and you are basically hooked. You might be able to control it at times (condom), but you relapse. That sensation, that high you get from feeling flesh against flesh, the warmth, the tickle, the spasm, the orgasm, you don't get that from using a condom, it comes a distant second, but its not like the entirely natural bareback of old.

The reality though, that is an option for a committed monogamous couple, gay or straight. With the recent increase in high HIV rates among gay men around the world, Europe and North America, especially certain ethnic classes such as African American men, it is such a high risk to be having unprotected sex. Trust is a major issue, there are persons out there who want to intentionally infect others, either as a way of 'sharing the love bug', revenge or just plain heartless. There are persons who want to get infected too - stupid if you ask me.

With the increase of online videos that depict it bb as an attractive activity, the fact that HIV meds are readily available, a younger generation who were just babies during the epidemic of the 80's, there is no awareness among today's youth. There are no friends dying around me type of thing happening again, persons can live a long life. Not necessarily the best life, and that is the reality that needs to be spread. HIV is still a death sentence, not everyone has the readiness to commit to a drug regimen that is still toxic and long term damaging to your body.

Yes, bareback is like nothing else, I wish had it on tap, but I still want a long fruitful, healthy lifestyle.
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Queer, Poz and Colored: The Essentials

Brandon Lacy Campos

Brandon Lacy Campos

Brandon Lacy Campos is a 32-year-old queer, poz, African-American, Afro-Puerto Rican, Ojibwe and Euro (smorgasbord) poet, playwright, blogger, journalist and novelist (that last one is slowly coming along). In 2009, named him the #2 queer, Latino blogger to watch. In 2006, the Star Tribune named him a young policy wonk for his political shenanigans. His writing and poetry have appeared in numerous anthologies including, most recently, Mariposas, edited by Emanuel Xavier and published by Floricanto Press. This fall, his work will appear in the academic text Queer Twin Cities, published by the University of Minnesota Press. And, one of these days, Summerfolk Press will be publishing his first solo book of poetry: It Ain't Truth If It Doesn't Hurt. Brandon is hard at work on his first novel, Eden Lost, and he lives in New York City with his partner, artist David Berube, and his boss, Mimzy Lacy Berube de Campos (their dog).

It's with heavy hearts that we share that Brandon passed away unexpectedly on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012. He was 35 years old. Read memorials by Brandon's friends and colleagues.

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