Condoms and Condemnations -- Another Look at Unprotected Anal Sex

Barebacking. Again. For those of you who don't already know (were you abducted by aliens or something?), "barebacking" is what we call it when gay men engage in unprotected anal intercourse. Recently, I read an article in a local gay and lesbian newspaper that said: "Barebacking remains a common practice among gay men, and its popularity may be on the rise." The only thing that surprises me about that statement is the fact that I'm no longer surprised by statements like that. Yawn. Fasten your seatbelts, gentle readers; it's going to be a prickly column.

First of all, I'm totally over the way we gay guys get all the cutesy labels. When heterosexual couples engage in unprotected anal intercourse we call it unprotected anal intercourse. Most people, in fact, don't even believe that heterosexuals engage in such behavior. They do. I've seen the research and the videos. There are only so many sexual combinations on the planet, and heterosexuals, bisexuals and gays have all discovered them. So when straights do it, why can't we call it "headhunting" or "buttbumping" or "tailgating"?

Also, I'm really bored with the entire issue of barebacking because even before there was a provocative name for it there was plenty of it happening. While safer sex educators and HIV-prevention specialists were flapping their arms and directing us to "use a condom every time," some of us were silently asking ourselves how the hell we were going to put a condom on the horse every time it got out of the barn. Can you actually imagine being 24 years old and hearing the words every time in a sentence? Can you imagine having sex for 60 years and using a condom every time? Uh huh. Neither can I.

Fortunately, I don't volunteer for an agency with such a narrow view of safer sex and risk reduction. I have never been able, nor required, to stand in front of a group of men, regardless of their sexual orientation, and say, "you have to use a condom every time you have anal intercourse." If I did, no one would take me seriously. The best I've ever been able to do is to speak what I know to be true: condoms are your best protection. When used properly and consistently, condoms are the only sure way to prevent HIV transmission during anal intercourse.

Many, many people have asked me to write about barebacking. This is at least the fourth column I've written about it, by the way. My question to them is this: what do you want me to say? Do you want me to condemn or vilify barebackers? Do you want me to tell you I think barebacking is stupid or dangerous? Do you want me to be shocked that gay men bareback, or that some of them actively seek it?

I'm not going to condemn men who bareback. Although I may not engage in the practice myself, I have not ruled out the idea. Under the right circumstances, I might bareback. I might. I just haven't found myself in those circumstances so far. Yes, I've been asked to have anal intercourse without a condom. I declined.

Do I think barebacking is stupid or dangerous? Sometimes. I also think skydiving, breast implants, bungee jumping, racecar driving and mountain climbing are stupid and dangerous things. You see, stupid and dangerous are very subjective.

Am I shocked that gay men would continue to have unprotected anal intercourse even though we know it's an extremely efficient way to transmit HIV? No, I'm not shocked. Men will always bareback. Some will do it all the time. Some will do it occasionally. Some will do it once in twenty years. Some will privately fantasize about doing it. Some will do it and regret it the next day, if not sooner. Some will do it and nothing will change. But make no mistake, men will continue to have unprotected anal intercourse.

Instead of getting mad at barebackers (who in a sense are doing what feels natural to them), why don't we start insisting that AIDS service organizations and HIV-prevention facilitators rethink their outdated materials and messages? For fifteen years the message has been the same. There's a whole new generation of gay men having sex now and they don't see AIDS in the year 2000 the same way we saw it in 1985. Prevention messages from the '80s don't apply today. They were hatched in the midst of frenzy and full-tilt crisis, when death was a certainty and people wanted answers -- fast. Safer sex education from the '80s through the '90s changed very little. The focus shifted gradually to treatment issues. In fact, way more money is spent on treatment and advocacy issues than has ever been spent on prevention.

We need to have new conversations about safer sex and risk reduction. We need to stop applying one-dimensional answers to the very complex subject of sex. We need to address the uninfected as well as those living with HIV. And we need to stop being shocked by one of life's unpreventable realities: some gay men are going bareback.