As someone who finds himself very invested in seeing the eradication of HIV, it would seem contradictory for me to participate in condomless sex. Yet, I have done it. Although I do not advocate for everyone to go about having condomless sex, I do think it is a point of interest for us, as black gay men, to examine why study after study continues to demonstrate that we are ineffectively using condoms. And that part of that reason is because of physical pleasure.
The general consensus is that physical pleasure is one of the reasons why people decide to not use condoms, especially considering the documented effectiveness of consistent condom use and the increasing availability of them. However, what is missing from the conversation is how pleasure is not only related to the physical sensations that are felt when someone's body parts are wrapped around another's penis, but that pleasure can also be an emotional experience for those people. That there can be an essence of eroticism, intimacy, and connectedness occurring when two or more people exchange fluids and come together in a moment of pleasure and climax.
My most recent experience having condomless sex was very unintended. The person, whom I will call Joe, was a new sexual partner and a complete sweetheart. Joe opened up his home to me, cooked me a Ghanaian dinner, engaged in cuddles and conversation, and just when things could not get any better, he kissed me. From there we found ourselves in his bedroom. The passion was high and our bodies seemed to know each other's needs and desires. Thus, by the time we were ready to penetrate and be penetrated, I did not need to ask about Joe's HIV-status, the last time he was tested, or if he took PrEP daily. I only needed Joe physically and emotionally inside of me. The moment of penetration was glorious because it did not warrant thoughts about risk or seroconverting. I only thought about how deep the moment was for us -- how I was feeling with and trusting of another black gay man. I only conceived of how I was building solidarity with someone like me. Snapping myself out of that moment and into the reality of the situation was not what I wanted or needed.
The emotions and feelings crafted within my narrative can translate into the experiences of club hookups, back alley fucking, or no-string attachments and monogamous relationships. It is more than just the physical that black gay men are seeking. It is the emotional and spiritual that guides our behaviors as well. We use condomless sex to survive the realities of being whom and what we are, to reassure ourselves that we are not void of love, eroticism, resilience and intimacy, and to exchange that reassurance with other men like us. Prevention interventions that are focused on condom efficacy must address that reality.
My experiences navigating and researching sexual risk as a black gay man from the U.S. South taught me to not be interested solely in how we can get black gay men to consistently use condoms or PrEP effectively; as other studies will demonstrate, individual-level behaviors are not and should not be our only concern. I am simultaneously vested in how my community and I can traverse and dismantle structural-level oppressions while we gain a more political voice, build coalitions, and engage in more moments of solidarity and love with each other. All of which will help improve our health outcomes and well-being.
Marlon told us that "Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act," and I am continually asking myself how can we foster this love and revolution in private and public spaces when dealing with risk, violence, romance, political resistance, secrets, and condoms.
"We Are Here: Black Gay Men in the South," is a blog tour curated by the Counter Narrative Project and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance to amplify the voices of Black gay men in the South. For more information feel free to contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenneth M. Pass is a graduate student at the University of Michigan and a research assistant in the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities. He is currently interested in substance use, sexual decision-making, socio-structural risks to HIV, and identity among LGBTQ, racial and ethnic minority, and/or incarcerated populations. He is an unapologetic country boy.