Getting Real About Barebacking

For about three years now there's been a lot of shrill posturing and finger-wagging about barebacking, the trendy, '90s designation for unprotected anal intercourse between gay men. Glossy, superficial gay magazines, wretchedly produced TV news segments and stuffy, homosexually-challenged newspapers and periodicals seemed content to report on a "phenomenon" for which there existed no evidence, no survey data and no hard facts, relying instead on lots of anecdotal stories from gay men who asked "not to be identified." Speaking as someone with a degree in journalism, I found this sort of writing and reporting shamefully subjective and utterly dispensable.

The truth about barebacking is out there. It always was. Unprotected anal intercourse between gay men has been with us since the culprit was called HIV and the epidemic was named AIDS. What's changed? Now there are cyberspace webpages devoted to barebackers, porn stars doing it raw on video again, admission-priced private parties devoted to condom-free sex are thriving, and SexPanic! activists are calling cautious prevention advocates Condom Nazis and Sex Police.

Okay, so in the '80s we didn't call it barebacking . We didn't even talk about it. At least not in public. But yes, I had friends tell me privately all along that they didn't use a condom every time. With all this talk of barebacking, I decided to take a personal trip down sexual memory lane. I became sexually active around 1986, after we already knew about HIV and safer sex pamphlets were available to me. I engaged in unprotected anal intercourse as the passive recipient twice in 1991, after discussing condoms with a partner and mutually agreeing not to use them. I remained HIV-, but when that relationship ended, I vowed not to do that again even though I had made a judgment call that resulted in no harm. Then, in 1993, I was raped by two men, one or both of whom were HIV+. As a result, I seroconverted. Since that time I have never engaged in unprotected anal intercourse. I have been asked to bareback, but refused. My refusal has yet to end a sexual encounter; it served only to introduce a condom into the picture.

In 1991, when I had unprotected sex with Eddie, I thought of it as a form of backsliding or relapse. I was afraid to admit it to anyone. What I didn't know was that around the same time the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts was conducting a survey of 1,800 gay and bisexual Boston men, and that study concluded fully one third of the participants reported having anal intercourse without a condom. And these men were making conscious decisions about anal intercourse and condom use. There was shock, distress and dismay ... even a few rumblings about gay men beginning to abandon safer sex.

Reality check: some men never adopted safer sex practices. Today, after almost twenty years of HIV and AIDS, some men still will not wear a condom. And some men will make up their minds about safer sex in the moment, depending on their partner. It would be easy to dismiss these guys are irrational, ignorant, misinformed or crazy. But when I examine 1998 surveys or studies that directly address barebacking, I see a trend. Yes, more gay and bisexual men admit to barebacking. Why? It's usually a very rational reply: "I knew the risk and I chose to take it."

So, what's going on here? Well, first of all, rather than making any kind of relevant contribution on the subject of barebacking, our nation's media have simultaneously condemned and sensationalized it, thus rejecting objectivity in the name of ratings, readers and revenue. Gay leaders (usually queers who've written a book) sputter about monogamy, morality, gay marriage and post-AIDS logic, but can't seem to engage in any kind of honest dialogue that acknowledges the real sex lives of gay and bisexual men. AIDS service organizations have barely addressed the issue of barebacking because they're scrambling to keep up with treatment advocacy, HIV names reporting and criminalization initiatives and the constant battle for funding.

Men who have sex with other men are reevaluating their options. They are making choices. Sometimes unpopular choices. And they're asking questions out loud, raising their voices and expressing their opinions. I have an undetectable viral load and that has to mean something. Quit trying to scare me about reinfection since I know the jury's still out on whether that can happen. If I tell my partner I'm positive and he still declines a condom, then we're making an informed decision. I think the risk to me as a bareback top is minimal. I can't wrap myself in latex for the rest of my life.

Public HIV prevention messages are dreadful and dated. Remember that public service announcement a few years back featuring Elizabeth Taylor pleading, "Use a condom every time. Every time." Whose idea was this? I mean, Elizabeth Taylor, a movie star married seven times, begging me to use a condom every time is surreal. And that's the reason public HIV prevention campaigns fail: they're full of one-dimensional, innocuous language promoting options that simply do not reflect or represent the sex lives of men who have sex with men. A condom every time. Abstinence. Monogamy. Hell, this kind of advice doesn't even resonate with men who have sex with women. Those messages are laughably simplistic. Every survey, every study, every legitimate piece of research over the past 50 years reinforces certain facts we continue to ignore: teenagers are having sex and need candid HIV/STD and birth control information; abstinence is a short-term response, not a solution; and monogamy is an ideal revered but rarely achieved by the male of the species.

I do not condone barebacking, but I can't vilify barebackers, either. No matter how lamentable or personally objectionable I may find unprotected anal intercourse between two men of indeterminate or discordant HIV status, I find America's sheer hypocrisy and abhorrent record on sexual education and STD risk reduction more worthy of my contempt and disparagement.

The barebackers I've talked to have been cooperative, confident and candid in discussing their reasons for barebacking. Some feel they are forming a subculture. Many have developed non-condom strategies to reduce risk. Others with HIV will only have sex with men who also confirm having HIV. No, not all barebackers I've talked with have a specific code of personal ethics or admirable self-control. A few have what I'd call a twisted, romantic view of HIV every bit as nonsensical as those bizarre protease inhibitor ads featuring mountain climbers. But for the most part, barebackers appear to me to be honest men making conscious decisions.

On the other hand, I have a friend who regularly attends private sex parties at a local bar. He invited me to go with him once, but told me I would be unwelcome if I chose to share the fact that I'm HIV+ with other participants. His exact words were, "You have to check that info at the door along with your clothes. Nobody goes there to talk about that." Think about it. Which situation is really more disturbing? A roomful of guys who've discussed and accepted the risk of no-condom sex ... or a roomful of guys sodomizing one another under a self-imposed cloak of silence in a state of blissful sexual ignorance?