The Shockingly Common Case of Barebacking

For most urban gay men, HIV is an omnipresent factor in life.  Between the 52% of gay men who are positive in NYC and the slew of benefits/fundraisers/message points that fill social calendars and Facebook feeds, even the casual observer is well informed and aware of this disease.  Phrases like GET TESTED and PLAY SAFE and LOSE THE STIGMA have been drilled into us thanks to subway posters, ads in bars, and of course, dear friends.  I can’t type 2 lines in a Scruff message without considering safe sex so it’s always a bit surprising to me when an exchange over the “dating” app goes something like this:

Me: Hello random guy I don’t know but am sexually interested in.
RandomGuy: bb?
Me: No, I play safe to protect both myself and any others I may have sex with.
RandomGuy: Lame.  Boring.  <user blocks you>

Shocking, isn’t it?  Some stranger wants to have unprotected sex with me not knowing anything about my status and then throws a little fit when I insist on using protection.  Who is this uninformed individual who obviously doesn’t know the risks?!

But I return to the sea of men who are only a tap and swipe away and encounter some hunky HIV-positive guy.  Well I know that I shouldn’t fear this individual and that knowing one’s status and being on meds can lead to a healthy life both in and out of the bedroom.  Let’s see how he respond to my advances:

Me: Hello HIV-positive man I’m sexually interested in but not stigmatizing.
Hunk+: bb?
Me: Uh no, I play safe both to–
Hunk+: But I’m undetectable!
Me: Still I play–
Hunk+: Boring.  Lame.  I refuse to have sex with someone who insists on using condom.

Okay seriously, wtf?!  Why is everyone rejecting me because I want to use condoms?  I thought I was doing the right thing by being a responsible citizen.  This is not an isolated incident either…I’ve had multiple guys reject me because I wanted to use protection in recent months and so have many of my friends.  In some cases this level of rejection has gone beyond a simple denial and into a juvenile case of dangerous peer pressure.

One buddy of mine, Matthew, met a super hot guy at Folsom who insisted that he “only breeds his subs raw” and while this type of sentiment sounds hot in a porn kind of way, Matthew was not keen on putting his health at risk for the sake of some stupid top’s desires.  “Most intense for me was the fact that I felt this enormous internal pressure to risk my health because of the perfection of this guy’s body…I was only fuckable on the condition that I allow him to risk my health for the rest of my life,” Matthew told me later.

Another friend, Kevin, tells me how when he brought up the issue of safe sex with a mixed group of positive/negative guys they laughed and mocked him as if they were in middle school and Kevin had just told them he needed a nightlight in his room at night.  “They literally said, ‘Kev needs his rubbers!  Get him his little rubbers so he feels safe!’ and laughed.  I was shocked at their reaction.”

So it seems that despite the magnificent efforts of countless groups and individuals to instill the messages of responsibility and safety in us, there are still many who aren’t concerned with the spread of HIV and other STDs.  We’ve talked about this before on my blog and probably the most awesome quote I’ve heard since then is from a 25 year old who recently seroconverted: “Becoming positive is like getting a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  I don’t have to worry anymore–it’s a relief.  Also I expect to get put on some steroids by the doctor so I’m looking forward to getting pumped.”

You can only imagine how my head exploded in mixed outrage and sadness over such a statement.

Look, I totally get why people don’t like condoms and why worrying about STDs is not fun or sexy.  I also realize that HIV is a “manageable” disease now and knowing your status and being on meds if you’re positive greatly reduce the risk of spreading it.  But this does NOT mean we should be recklessly fucking all for the sake of “good sex” with complete disregard for ourselves and others–both future and past generations.  The fact is, we are one community and when one of us seroconverts we perpetuate a disease that has already taken too much.  And despite the level of care available today (care that comes at an expense shared by others) being positive is never easy or simple–it’s a condition that will impact the rest of your life.

Really I’m just pissed that the rhetoric in the social scene is all SAFE SEX, YEAH! and then the demands of the naked men are all “Uh condoms are lame and if you use them I won’t have sex with you.”  I’m tired of selling goddamn raffle tickets at HIV-related fundraisers because people still won’t practice safe sex.  In theory this disease could be stopped and contained right now if we would just be smart and dedicated to the health of ourselves and those around us.

Okay, let the opinions and comments fly!

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13 Responses to The Shockingly Common Case of Barebacking

  1. Marc Daniel says:

    Justin, I really enjoy reading your thought provoking blog posts. I’m surprised how many so called “Negative” guys ask me to fill them up, with just a simple trust that my profile states that I’m am Negative. We all know that our status can change in one single sexual encounter and even though I get tested regularly, my Negative status is only as good as my last test. I have had a couple occasions to go together and get a rapid oral test with a sexual partner at the LGBT Center. Honestly, how many guys want to take the time to do that, when we are conditioned to getting immediate gratification using Apps such as Scruff and the rest of the websites. Now that home HIV tests are becoming available, it will be interesting to see the reaction of our “immediate” partner when we pull a home kit out of our pocket.

  2. Dan says:

    The cost of HIV meds is in the 10’s of thousands of dollars per year. That is a heavy burden on society. If you lose your health insurance, NYS has programs, but it will still take a huge portion of your savings, if you have any.

    Despite the happy healthy guys in phone booth ads who only take 2 pills a day, it can take a lot of trial and error to find a regimen that doesn’t leave you with bad side effects. In addition, all these meds are relatively new. Dementia seems to be a problem with long term HIV infection. Is it the virus, is it the medications?

    I am from the generation that suffered from the plague when HIV was a death sentence. My peers seem more tolerant to those of us who use condoms, but I’m still amazed by the people who refuse to have sex with condoms.

  3. P says:

    There is one more perspective that you might be missing: The one from guys who are positive who only want to have sex with other guys who are, too. Many who do would prefer not to use condoms. Setting aside the STD risks of doing that, it’s a personal choice to “serosort”: poz with poz, neg with neg. In many states in America, it is STILL A CRIME for a guy who is knowingly positive to have sex with a guy who is negative. They can still be brought up on charges if the neg guy sours later on. … I would also argue that for years, poz guys have been forced to hide the “stigma” of their status by neg guys who call them “unclean,” “dirty,” and refuse to touch them. That poz guys are finally in a position to assert their sexual desires — and this time, being able to be the one who does the rejecting is an empowerment that they lacked for years. Right or wrong, there is a clubbyness to condom use, and part of that stems from the hurtful and loud rejection that poz guys have been subjected to for years. New conversions from carelessness are a different discussion, but we must all be careful not to label all condomless sex as reckless. If you’re serosorting and also if you’re in a state where mixing statuses can be prosecuted, it’s a way of weeding out the wrong partners.

  4. TJ says:

    A friend of mind used to tell me about his own bb habit, one that eventually (inevitably?) caused him to seroconvert and become positive. Shockingly, this didn’t change his bb practice – instead, it seemed to ignite in him a more intense desire to “never use a condom again” (his words). I would like to say that he at least attempted to “serosort” with his online tricks by telling them his own status or asking after theirs, but he did not. Instead, he relied on a “feeling” that he knew the other person was positive (apparently seroconversion also gave him psychic powers). While I empathized with him about the stigma around being HIV+ and how shaming it could be to hear things like “looking for ddf (drug & disease free) men only” from strangers, I couldn’t understand his inability to see what he was doing as morally wrong (not to mention illegal as P points out). I am relieved that he’s now in a long-term relationship with another (poz) guy, and that his multiple-tricks-in-a-day behavior is behind him. Because I seriously didn’t know what to do – reasoning with him was labelled as “shaming” him, and I didn’t have the heart to actually make some sort of legal complaint over it – I mean, the guy was my friend! I still don’t know if I made the right choice by doing nothing but talk to him, though… I imagine anyone who converted because of him would think not.

    • P says:

      We all know about HIV. We all know how it is transmitted and we all know when we are doing something risky. We can not blame poz guys for infecting others without being disingenuous. We must all take responsibility for ourselves. Blaming poz guys when it takes two people to have sex is another form of persecution. Even if he’s in the closet about it. Because we all know about HIV.

  5. Carlos says:

    Ultimately, I am not any more responsible for your HIV status than you are for mine. I firmly believe that while barebacking is reckless and potentially dangerous, how a man plays is up to him. Serosorting works for positive guys that know their status, but for everyone who’s not positive, it’s better to assume that everyone you’re fucking is potentially poz and manage the risk accordingly. We can educate and promote safe sex, but if a guy wants to only have sex sans protection, you or I are probably not going to convince him otherwise.

  6. Carlos says:

    I also think you mischaracterize when you say the potential barebacker is an “uninformed individual who obviously doesn’t know the risks.” I have never met a guy into barebacking that was not 100% aware of the risks; often the risk is part of why he choses to do it.

  7. xhemi hologram says:

    From the first day that I came in this country and to the city of “Gomorra“…, because of my job, i got in contact with so many of those young and old guys with HIV and HCV awaiting for a transplant or struggling for it! For sure they didn’t have anymore in their eyes their will to expand their unsafe sexuality! The only thing they would think of themselves is “ I was stupid“! Why do you have to be stupid? After centuries of sexual wars and finally some LGBT rights, why do you have to transform the right of being free to make love and sex with whom you want, into a punishment for yourself and others life? Think Man! Enjoy your right to have sex with whom you want for whole your life, without thinking that it will harm you! except love Disillusions…. but that is love’s pit.

  8. Jon says:

    Totally get your point – so you have standards and the part of the community you categorize and provide concrete examples ( I have been there, done that) have no self worth – or they would care about more than the gratification of right now.

  9. Jerges says:

    I an relatively newly seroconverted. I bb prior to conversion because it was exciting. In retrospect I was a bit of a whore. I liked the feel from insertion to completion, giving and receiving. I have to admit that I still like the feeling. Even prefer it. However I don’t understand the concept of someone refusing to have sex just because the prospective partner insists on protection.
    I admit I am still adjusting to my status but I can’t fathom not giving someone the option to opt out to avoid contracting HIV or any STD for that matter. Yes it has hurt when I was rejected because of HIV but I kept on living. If, however, after having giving the opt out (advising my status) the individual chooses to have protected sex with me. I was and am ok with that.
    Strangely, if after advising my status, I find my prospective partner is negative, I insist on protection, even if they prefer bb. This I admit is for my own pleasure, not their protection. Each man can choose to do with their life and body as they wish. For my heart and mind (and enjoyment of the moment) I don’t need or want the stress of thinking that I might be infecting the other person. I have learned in the short time I have been positive that it is not a death sentence. However there are unexpected negative (no pun intended) consequences. I work for health benefits not because I enjoy the work or get paid well (ok I do like my job and am paid decently but I would leave it in a heart beat if they dropped my insurance). On top of that is the social stigma, inside and out of the community. I am very aware that I need to be careful of when, how and to whom I disclose my status. I am no longer ashamed. I just choose not to be catagorized.

  10. Nathan says:

    Barebacking is common. So common in fact, I find it boring quite often these days. I think in the 90s there was a taboo about it (in fact, some gay magazines of the time wouldnt even review a movie if it had condom-less sex) and that was true for the early 00’s too. But then HIV and sero-conversion began to be glamorized in many stories (fantasy and true) and over the next few years, the few video companies pumping out bareback porn (for want of a better word) with older men switched to twinks. Now its debatable if the video companies started the trend or simply picked up on what was happening in the wider community (or if they realized in the wake of falling sales that condoms weren’t so popular and their audiences wanted no condoms) but I think what changed was many become much more vocal about it or boastful. So it has a much wider presence and people no longer feel ashamed to say they engage in such behaviors.

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