As an avid GrindR, BBRT, and Scruff user, I’ve been noticing that traditional, institutional media, including more contemporary outlets like the Huffington Post, have been expressing dismay at the “growing specter” of barebacking in the gay male community. This morning, a friend of mine posted the, statistically dubious, GrindR poll story along with his comment, “There is very little benefit from using scare such tactics if you want to dialogue about the negative potential of certain practices (e.g. barebacking) among HIV+ individuals…not to mention the piling on of shame and stigma that inevitably results.” Upon reading his status update, I commented a few times with my own insight and a confession.
I engage in bareback sex.
As an HIV+ gay man in 2013, I take all the information that decades of scientific advancement in relation to STD and HIV prevention have taught me, I assess the statistical significance of being HIV+ and adhering to antiretroviral therapy and transmitting HIV (there is none), and I write and speak about my HIV status publicly. On some of my online profiles used to find sexual partners, I specifically state a preference for other HIV+ guys, and on Adam4Adam, I checked the box that said “Anything Goes” rather than “Safer Sex Only.” On paper, it would seem that I am in a small minority of gay men who engage in bareback sex. After years of exposure, both literal and figurative, to gay sex in Philadelphia, I can faithfully say that, in practice, I am in a sizable minority, if not the majority, of gay men in that I don’t use condoms when I have sex. The only thing notable about me, however, is the fact that I’m not claiming something else out of shame or worry about what other people might think. Rather, I’m being open about my behavior and the fact that I assess risk and try to reduce it, not eliminate it, in my life.
In the 1990s, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and other worthy LGBT and HIV/AIDS focused organizations beat a drum that was necessary during a time when good men were dying on account of a neglectful government, scientific ignorance, and pharmacological failure during the fight against HIV/AIDS. As a middle schooler, I remember the mantra, “If you don’t have sex with a condom, you will die” well. As an adult, particularly as a man living with HIV, I cringe at the insensitivity and logical alienation at its otherwise well-meaning message. After all, if having sex without a condom means I will die, naturally because I will get HIV, and I got HIV, does that posit, then, that I am the walking dead? Do I not live robustly, enjoy an active and healthy sex life, contribute as much as I can to my friends, and laugh as much as possible? Or, am I just a sick patient waiting for death to take me, atoning to my god for my sins, wishing that I could change my personal history?
In an ironic twist of fate that only reality, not fiction, could offer, after years of drunken, bareback sex, I found my sobriety and adhered to safer sex practices. Then, after a month of really bad gingivitis, I contracted HIV likely through oral sex. Yet, even I cannot prove that with certainty or affirm it without at least some doubt as to how, precisely, I contracted HIV. With this in mind, I insist that it is science, not stigma, that should guide our behavior as individuals worthy of sex lives in 2013. Just as going online, publishing an online profile, taking pictures that are both attractive and accurate (ahem), responding to messages, setting up a meeting time and place, and engaging in sex with another consenting adult all have deliberate action items that require and demand an individual’s implied consent and awareness of the reality facing the gay community, debating on whether or not to wear a condom and candidly admitting that you prefer not to but understand the potential risks involved is an adult, informed decision.
Now, I am not saying that there is no risk in bareback sex. Statistically, if you are HIV-, it is the easiest way next to intravenous drug use to contract HIV. Yet, even if you wear a condom for intercourse, you are also opening yourself up to a host of sexually transmitted diseases that care nothing about your condom use: syphillis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, crabs, scabies, and hepatitis.
With that in mind, as reasonable, rational adults, we should be open and honest with each other. Do we like to use condoms? No. Do we find them annoying? Yes. Should we try to mitigate our behavior through risk management, through adhering to practices that make HIV transmission, such as adhering to anti-HIV therapies if you’re HIV+, less likely? Yes. Should we somehow scare folks and imply that those who do not use condoms are behaving recklessly or part of a growing specter of deadly sex? Absolutely not.
In fact, the stigma attached to HIV is now its most deadly aspect; ignorance, terror at the potential for contracting HIV, and failure to realize that there is an entire life of sexual escapades and enjoyment after seroconversion lead to good men and women to not get HIV tests, to lie about their adherence to safer sex practices, to not seek treatment for a virus that has less impact on me, personally, than the fact that I smoke cigarettes, a far more deadly prospect in 2013 than being HIV+.
In 2013, nobody should contract HIV. Those of us with HIV should adhere to antiretroviral therapies to ensure that we cannot spread the virus, governments should equip community organizations and individuals with the resources necessary to provide antiretroviral therapies at free or no cost, and HIV negative individuals should take as much ownership of their personal health as the HIV positive. Just as I take Complera every morning to ensure that my life expectancy exceeds past 70 and the risk of my spreading HIV is statistically nothing, I expect those in the HIV negative community to take ownership and responsibility for their actions as well. This includes wearing a condom when they wish to remain HIV negative, understanding that they, not anyone else, are in total control of their actions, and being aware of the fact that it is common, and likely inevitable, for some sort of STD to be transmitted throughout the lifetime of an adult. This does not make people anything but human.
Adult humans have sex. Mature, reasonable humans assess risk to their lives and behave accordingly, and they certainly do not fan the flames of hysteria by turning HIV+ men, or anyone who engages in an activity that is more popular than voting, into boogeymen in order to scare the hell out of the 16 year old gay boys who read these stories with rapt attention and who, in turn, then suffer from panic attacks and anxiety after every single sexual encounter regardless of their condom use.
This type of hysteria is one of the gravest sins possible; it takes scientific evidence, ignores personal responsibility in relation to health management and sexual behavior, and it marginalizes huge swaths of gay men just to get readership.
Then again, this is the same story the HIV+ community has been told for thirty years. The only difference today, however, is that we’re not buying it anymore or apologizing for being human.
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