Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What We've Already Lost

A few years ago unsafe sex was called "unsafe sex." But now, with the emergence of the vastly popular Xtube and the heightened popularity of production companies like Treasure Island Media who make all-bare-all-the-time porn movies "unsafe sex" is now almost exclusively referred to as "bareback." No longer are people having unsafe sex, people now are having bareback sex.

Unsafe sex had an important context to the term itself. "Un" and "safe" as in, "not safe" or the sex that you're having is "unsafe." In my experience, in what seems like no more than two years, I've seen the rapid transformation from unsafe to bareback. Of course, this worries me.

Bareback has no connotations referring to unsafe or risky behavior. Despite the fact that bareback sex is defined as sex with no condoms, the word bareback shows no reflection of this. One might argue, "duh, the word bare is in it!" But bare is nowhere near as hard-hitting and exact as unsafe. In addition, the word bareback has inevitably gained a cultural fetish. Unsafe sex used to be just that, unsafe sex, but now bareback has become a type of gay sex. It's neither here nor there, rather it has become a way of having sex and thus the safe sex movement has already, with a rapid subtlety lost so much.

In our history there were two ways to have sex. Either safe or unsafe. But now there's bareback and it's a new way for gay men to have sex. It's almost as if bareback has created a third category. There is safe and unsafe and now bareback. In previous posts I made the distinction between those who occasionally engage in individual experiences of unsafe sex as people who have unsafe sex, and those who top or bottom, with no condoms whatsoever, as barebackers. But the line that differentiates the two is blurring and bareback is taking a strident lead.

It's gone from "we didn't have safe sex" to "we had bareback sex." Troubling? I thinks so.

The cultural fetishization of bareback asks the modern gay man to waver between what he knows is right and challenges him to tickle the idea of what is wrong. Bareback is successful in its allure. Like taking candy from a stranger, the idea of bareback causes us to tempt the idea of doing something we know is bad or wrong and to enjoy it in the against-the-grain notion of it all. If you don't agree with me then have a glance at some of the titles on the porn shelves. "Bad Influence," "Fearless," "Deeper," and "What I Can't See." All of these titles rather explicitly ask you to cross the line and even, I'll take it further, call those who have safe sex fearful, if not boring and clinical. These companies and films use our own protective nature as an enemy agent against ourselves.

Something is happening in our community and we're losing ground. Think about it - when was the last time you heard the word unsafe compared to the last time you heard the word bareback? Go on to Xtube, bareback is inescapable and the popularity, wild. I've seen comments like "fuck the condom queens" and in a film where an older top is banging away at a young bottom, "breed his ass." It's one thing if two young guys are having unsafe sex with each other, that is at least, in my opinion somewhat excusable but an older man, unsafely topping a younger man, is just sad. These men have the opportunity of mentoring the younger generation and protecting them. Instead its become the complete opposite. We are now celebrating the disregard for safety and welcoming in a fresh new batch of unhealthy recruits. Granted, 18 makes one an adult, but put it this way: Say an 18 year old gets a tattoo. When the 18 year old becomes a 22 year old, does that tattoo still mean what it meant to him at 18? Therefore, the decisions of an 18, 19, 20 and so-on year old would not be the same at 25, 30 or 35. Should these young men get HIV because at 18 they made a few foolish mistakes and let themselves trust the actions of an older man?

What has happened and why have we given up? When did protecting and caring for one another become this "I don't give a fuck who you are or what you do - go fuck yourself" laissez fair attitude?

It is dangerous for somebody like me to write this post because if there is anything I support it is freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In no way do I advocate censorship, which in this case, I could be easily mistaken for doing so. But I stand firm in the belief that HIV and sexually transmitted diseases would still be around if every porn, ever made had condom usage in it. The fact remains that people are going to do what they're going to do and there's nothing you can do about it other than try to influence people to make the right choices for themselves. People can argue all they want that bareback porn is the same as watching a violent movie. It will always come back to the idea that: Just because I watch a violent movie doesn't cause me to kill people just like watching bareback porn will not cause me to engage in risky behavior. Let's go even further and say that in some cases having bareback porn would prevent people from engaging in unsafe sex because they get their fill of the idea by just watching the films. Understandable, for sure. But be aware, my brothers, for this industry is not unlike Hollywood. They like your money and don't give a fuck about you. Don't come crying to them when shit hits the fan - in the end, YOU'RE the one who makes the decision and they will never be to blame. That's a key factor to their adamant, unapologetic success.

Protease inhibitors have only been around for 12 years. It has only been 12 years that gay men have been living healthy with HIV. Why are we so myopic to think things will follow suit? Who is to say things will not change? And, if things stay the same, why aren't we preparing the next generation? Are we really that tired? Are we really that over it? Have the pros and cons really become the same thing?

It's like all the sudden everyone got healthy and bam! we're living in a new world. Really, it's quite the contrary. Nothing has changed. The infection rates are still relatively the same and HIV still exists. The only difference is we have lost the idea of unsafe and we are embracing the idea of bareback. So, you tell me, with what we've already lost - how bright is our future?


bstewart23 said...

Rage, brother.

Something has been lost. Something important, something that mattered, A LOT. And I dunno when, exactly, it happened, because it was gradual or because, maybe, we were looking the other way, so relieved that our brothers weren't dropping like flies or wasting away or morphing into a different, funhouse-mirror version of themselves.

It happened through denial, largely, a denial quite popular among religious fundamentalists and, especially today, Republicans. Why do we cling to behaviours and thinking which clearly is unsupportable by facts or science or even morality?

It's a mass delusion, assisted by the utterly disposable nature of our culture, the utterly disposable nature of caring for each other.

It's shameful disgusting and wrong, SO WRONG, and I'll fight it until I have no breath. You're not alone.

RainbearNJ said...

I miss when BB stood for bodybuilder.

I hate the fact that I hear about the younger generations (18-30) foregoing safe sex. I especially despise the fact that in SF, the common thing is apparently to say "No rubbers. Don't even ask."

Haven't we buried enough people? How about these ads for antiretrovirals? Rustiva, Janiqua, whatever--the ones showing people climbing rock clifs, running marathons, etc? What's wrong with showing people sick in bed? Oh--too much 'reality' I suppose.

UGH. :(

Chris said...

Anyone who has seen someone they love die of AIDS knows you are telling the truth...many are too young to have seen it in all of it's ugliness, with record numbers of deaths and with such, many are living longer with the disease and it doesn't seem so scary. To me that is scary!!!!!! The future of HIV under these circumstances, NOt bright..........

the zak said...

The correct term is always... safer

There's never zero risk.

If so called safer sex practices really worked there would have been news headlines...

Epidemic peaks and is now going down.

After so many years we see that diligent practice every time from beginning to end is unlikely, that would be a greater demand on sex partners than getting tested TOGETHER BEFORE having sex, for A VARIETY of STDs. Sexual health checkups reduce ambiguity and can be like anything else POTENTIAL sex partners might do together.

evilganome said...

I have to wonder what the root cause of this is. Why are older men abandoning the sensible course? Why are so many older guys, people who are old enough to know better getting hooked on meth, when traditionally it has been younger populations that are most vulnerable?

Generally, younger people will involve themselves in risky behavior because they do not have a sense of mortality. The across the board nature of self destructive behavior has me wondering if there is some societal feeling of doom that is creating an attitude of "what the hell, it really doesn't matter".

the zak said...

When these people make statements about like what life would be like why don't they include something about the primitive forces that operate on people? I recognize that natural forces will cause interest in my sexual partner will become less, if I have more than one sexual partner then natural forces will cause me to be interested in them or three of them or more for a longer period of time.

roducl said...

Excellent post, Eric. I e-mailed it to the Prevention Department at the ASO where I work.

Mark said...

Unfortunately, the reason that many people ultimately modified their sexual behavior was because everyone around them was dying or dead.

This has not been the case in a dozen years or so. An entire generation has come of age since then.

However, there are men who have endured almost three decades of this plague and many are exhausted. Just as there are few support systems in place for younger men, the same can be said for survivors of our holocaust, such as they are.

A great deal has been lost. As a community we've completely devalued our heritage, in favor of the next, shiniest, newest, latest thing. And we'll pay for that. Because we choose not to look back at our history to see why this happened.

And it can happen again.

rptrcub said...

Eric, go read the news on JMG about a guy arrested in North Carolina for violating a court order forbidding him from having unprotected sex. I'd love to hear your response.

rptrcub said...

@evilganome: After these past eight years of general societal doom, as well as feelings of outright rejection through the many and various anti-gay marriage amendments and hatefulness, I believe there are many who just say "fuck it" and head down those paths.

joe said...

I'm glad you wrote this. The issue is one I think about all the time, and it's obviously controversial.

A couple points:
1. I think heavy usage of the term "bareback" has been popular for way more than two years or so.
2. To say "in our history there were two types of sex: safe & unsafe"... really, it was a period, an interval of just, what, 15 years? I'm not just saying that to be picky about details, I'm saying that the time interval might really make a difference. HIV was a relatively "quick" death sentence for about 13 years, and now it's been "mostly manageable" (not trying to say that to minimize) for about 13 years. I think that results in some kind of psychological change.

I think it's also worth noting that there was a big issue about "safe" being changed to "safer" because very few acts could be said to be unquestionably 100% safe. I'm not opposed to that, but I think it created gray areas of relative "safer" behavior. What is "safer" for me?: oral without condom? swallowing? bareback w/o ejaculation? on and on...

As for the bigger issue of barebacking and bareback porn, you really have done an excellent job of hitting so many of the paradoxical points about it. Maybe watching it does make guys not need to actually do it. Maybe not. Maybe both.

The popularity of the porn is interesting. After a screening of the film "Meth" (which deals with meth-fueled rises in unsafe sex), I asked the director if it was a bit of a dilemma that his film received a portion of its financial backing from Scott Morris of Treasure Island Media. He admitted it was a touchy issue, and while Morris was a maker of bareback porn, that he was "also a human being." I.E., it's not all black and white... and none of this is.

As someone who is poz and has in my life had my share of bareback/unsafe/less safe sex, there is a lot I feel guilty and ashamed about -- but I don't know how productive those feelings of shame and guilt are. Again, thanks for exploring this.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a lot of people, gay and straight alike, feel that making risky choices (binge drinking, drug use, unsafe sex) is progressive in their rebellion. I think for a lot of people the choice to bareback may come from this idea.

I work in HIV prevention with youth and combatting this belief is hard. My students tend to feel cool if they engage in risky behaviors. Alternatively, those people who make healthy choices tend to be seen as boring. Perhaps this is where the "fuck the condom queens" mentality is coming from....

Those who bareback want to portray themselves as liberated but really, making unsafe/unhealthy choices in life (whether its in regards to substance abuse, unsafe sex, lack of excercise etc.) does nothing to free the individual or society as a whole.

David said...

I had not noticed this until you pointed it out, but it reeks of double-speak, and dare I say it, Republican-style double-speak. Like calling an anti-abortionist pro-life, and anti-gay marriage advocates pro-family.

I don't know if exhaustion is the right word, but certainly both old and young in our community have become inured to the risk and consequences of AIDS and HIV.

Anything that is a constant in one's life eventually becomes muted, like a fluorescent light bulb hum. People in high-conflict areas become blase about the latest report of violence. It just becomes a part of daily life.

And so has AIDS, HIV and, now, unsafe sex. Is there some way we can jar this complacency? I don't know.

joe said...

Sexpert: Do you really think risk takers of this type really think they're being "progressive" in their rebellion... or are they just plain taking risks for some "thrill" on a conscious and/or subconscious level? I feel as if people engaging in all types of risky things -- from sex to skydiving to drug use -- are acting out and probing the edges of the "deathwish" to some degree or another. I've never heard anyone express it as "progressive," but it's an interesting idea to explore.

Anonymous said...

Joe: I definitely know that some people are seeking a thrill when engaging in risk. But it seems so much more complicated than that. Truth be told, I had never consciously really thought of as risk equating to progressiveness until writing my comment but as I thought it through, it felt real to my experiences with youth.

Then there are the people who engage in risky behaviors not to be progressive or even for a thrill but simply to fit into the norm......After all, peer groups definitely affect behavior (for all age groups).

If one socializes with others who consistently bareback for example, the concept of safer sex and actually utilizing it feels like less of an option in such cases, I imagine.

I may be totally off the mark with my risk as progressive idea but it felt worth touching on.

Anonymous said...

So I read this part:
In our history there were two ways to have sex. Either safe or unsafe. But now there's bareback and it's a new way for gay men to have sex.
...and I thought to myself, yes, I know I'm middle-aged. Yes, I know that sometimes I feel old. But this is the first time I've ever felt pre-historic! ;-)

Seriously, so many of us were having sex back before there was safe or unsafe. Many of us saw safety on a continuum, not as an either/or binary choice. Many of us did, at times, have anal sex without condoms even in the 80s and 90s. Many of us got sick, many died, and some did neither.

Someone above asked why "older" gay men (there's that word again) are abandoning safe sex. To the extent we have, it's been happening over many years. "Bareback" as a term started being used in at least the early 90's. It's not new by any means, although it no longer has the connotations of taboo that it did at first. So many of us, have heard the safer-sex message so often over the years that it almost becomes background noise. HIV, no longer a death sentence, seems like just one among the array of diabetes, coronary artery disease, osteonecrosis, kidney problems and other chronic conditions that we deal with every day. And my partner, a quarter-century HIV survivor, is still taking a handful of pills every morning and night. The difference is, years ago all of them were for HIV and related conditions. Now only one is.

Maybe the barebacking is just coming from a wish, finally, to have a normal life again. Not that we “old folks” have sex that often any more anyhow. :-)

Anyhow, my own recollection is barebacking or unsafe sex, whatever you want to call it, was always going on, even during the height of the AIDS epidemic. At one time it was socially unacceptable to talk about it, but nonetheless it still was there. Then suddenly in the early 90's barebacking came out of the closet, so to speak, in a blaze of OMG publicity. It's not new. Let's keep it in perspective.

the zak said...

SEX RULE number 1. Sex is more important than dying.
SEX RULE number 2. Sex is more important than killing somebody.
SEX RULE number 3. If people could change their sexual behavior we wouldn't be here.

Mike said...

I'm troubled by "bareback porn" for a number of reasons, but it seems that a lot of what's being produced breaks all "the rules" of common sense and humanity. When you see choices for clips on Xtube or other similar venues featuring "50-load weekends" and "bareback creampies" it's not just bareback but it's multiple-partner, indiscriminate sex almost a guarantee of transmission and death (yes, that's the word) for the bottom. There is such a thing as sexual freedom, but there's also such a thing as human decency and common sense. I think the makers of this shit will eventually have to answer for what they've done, if there's such a thing as karma.

Anonymous said...

FYI: Scott O'Hara began the barebacking phenom in 1995:

"The late writer and porn star Scott O'Hara was the first to lead the barebacking charge. In a 1995 editorial titled "Exit the Rubberman," in Steam, his journal devoted to sex in public spaces, O'Hara wrote: "I'm tired of using condoms, and I won't ... , and I don't feel the need to encourage negatives to stay negative." The letters from readers -- admittedly a group self-selected for sexual adventurism -- were overwhelmingly favorable. As O'Hara and other HIV positive men restated their positions in such magazines as POZ and The Advocate, there was a sense that they were mining a long-buried, pre-AIDS memory -- the sharing of semen -- and reclaiming its rich symbolic meanings. These anti-condom statements were more than enough to frustrate, infuriate, and sadden the majority of gay men who fought so diligently over the years to reduce infection rates while burying their loved ones."

O'Hara died of AIDS related illnesses in 1998.

Tony Valenzuela took up the bareback torch in 1999:

"To illustrate his passionate defense of unprotected sex, or barebacking, HIV-positive activist Tony Valenzuela posed naked on horseback for the cover of POZ’s February 1999 issue and was interviewed for the accompanying story on barebacking."

Valenzuela is still writing -- check this out for more:

Also read works by Eric Rofes (recently deceased) who wrote a lot about barebacking when it first happened. Also the work of Walt Odets.


the zak said...

RG said...

The younger generation hasn't seen the walking skeletons and the gruesome deaths. Or, experience the pain and anguish of having a loved one take their own life because they just can't take the suffering anymore.

I HATE those stupid HIV med ads. And, although they have saved my life, I also have to take anti-cholesterol meds to take care of the side-effects of those life saving meds.

stpetecoyote said...

I tested poz almost 2 years ago to the day, since that time I have gained a new understanding of the gay community, HIV poz and neg, some good some bad. It definitely gives a whole new perspective on things.
To this day I still consider myself to have been relatively well educated on the subject, and despite playing only takes that one f*** up to throw it all away.
Over the past two years though, I am absolutely amazed at how many guys have absolutely no problem with playing bare, and in fact will ONLY play bare, even when you tell them that you are poz. I have to assume that they are in fact poz themselves despite their insistence that they are Neg. Perhaps they are understanding the meds make them neg, or they just don't believe in HIV in the first place...but either way it is really frightening. Even if they are poz, there is someone else that they are playing with that believes they are neg based on their word and they are in for a rude shock.

I am fortunate to be 30 yo and healthy. Whether it is a result of growing up relatively sheltered or just the timing of new meds etc, I am also lucky to have not lost anyone I love to HIV. Despite that, I HAVE seen what years of the drug cocktails have done to friends--more and more of my friends who have been healthy up till now are being diagnosed with cancer, neuropathy, heart problems, etc. We don't know what these meds will do over time--even if they are safer than they were in the past.

Add that to the difficulty some have obtaining meds, or will have with the future economy...and I am afraid it could all come crashing down very quickly. I am truly thankful for the meds, and please don't take this the wrong way, but at times I wish that they had not been so successful. Perhaps HIV would still be front center stage and more would be done to prevent the disease from ever being transmitted--and this false sense of manageability would not be so prevalent. Until then I will spend my time fund-raising for local ASO's and handing out free condoms at the bar, knowing the majority are being left behind on the table when they leave :-(

Edd said...

How many DVD's do you think these porn companies would sell if they put UNSAFE SEX on the box cover instead of BAREBACK SEX! Since the youngsters see BAREBACK and not UNSAFE, they think it's okay. I put most of the blame on the porn companies, but part of is does have to go to the buyers of the UNSAFE videos.

IRMA said...

Just a couple of points - first, thanks for this!

One - the community norm is for guys to take care of each other, and do their best to protect each other. The majority of gay men are not trying to get each other infected. The rates of HIV among gay men are unacceptably high, and we must address this, but it is not the case that all gay men are reckless, irresponsible and immoral/amoral.

Two - some interesting research has just come out that I think you might be interested in.

Study examines repeated exposure to HIV in treatment-suppressed HIV patients

At the end of the day, and the beginning, we need to draw distinctions between sero-concordant and sero-discordant unprotected sex. And we also need to be mobilizing our community around new prevention technologies - such as PrEP and rectal microbicides.


Anonymous said...

I am 43 years old and HIV-. When I was a teenager AIDS was a big deal. Back then, it was important for me to know a potential sex partner's sexual history and whether one has been tested for HIV.
Over the years I have seen many friends and lovers die of AIDS. I have had to say, "no" many times during sex and had to educate many men on what safer sex is. My partner of three years whom worked as an AIDS reduction risk specialist wanted to have unsafe sex, but I refused. He said, "even if you had AIDS, I'd want it too because I wouldn't want to live without you." He died a horrible death from AIDS. My current partner has been HIV+ for half of his life. He was given a month or two to live, but, was saved by the new experimental drug Crixivan. He has experienced numerous side-effects from the drugs over the years, but, has been "undetectable" for 12 years.
We have done everything sexually together without the use of condoms, except him ejaculating inside of my ass. Considering how long he has been on medication, only missing a handful of doses over the years, and not taking recreational drugs or alcohol, I doubt that his semen would spread the virus.
So, here's my point:
If we want to have sex with someone else and they are over 18, why must we not do something that they are demanding for us to do? Are we supposed to hand out safer sex pamphlets before sex? I would think that someone whom is young most likely hasn't been tested, isn't aware of their status, and is not on AIDS treatment drugs and therefore is more infectious. I would think that the two major groups in the gay community that are newly infected with HIV would be the young and the middle-aged (whom see their stock in the meat market go down and are now willing to do what ever it takes to get their numbers back up).
This idea that older men are like vampires, preying on our youth is offensive. Maybe us older men have gotten over the AIDSphobia and the years have shown that we can't force people to do something they don't want to do. Even a toddler knows that if you lie down with dogs, sooner or later, you get fleas. If you are 18, and not mentally impaired, you know better than to have riskier sex.
Personally, I think the big problem here is that people have been trained to be obedient consumers whose own self-worth is based on how much they consume or appear to be able to consume. People now voluntarily treat themseves as commodities. When I go to websites like MySpace or Manhunt, it is all too obvious that measurements and popularity are what's considered important in our modern times. Men will do anything to bring up their numbers of conquests, including allowing themselves to do things unhealthy. I guess this explains why our country is getting fatter and fatter too, overconsumption with no sense of self-control.
This idea of PreP is great, but, Truvada is a toxic, costly drug. In my mind it doesn't make sense to give a harmful drug to people in the name of "safety" (in reality it is just remarketting)whom can prevent the spread of AIDS through safer sex practices.

the zak said...

          > I am 43 years old and HIV-.

Are the last test results still valid?... have you and your sex partner/s been tested TOGETHER and shared the tests results?...

the zak said...

          > the community norm is for guys to
          > take care of each other, and do
          > their best to protect each other.

Except for those that are killing each
other or giving each other a terrible

          > The majority of gay men are not
          > trying to get each other
          > infected.

How do you know this?

          > The rates of HIV among gay men
          > are unacceptably high, and we
          > must address this,

Clearly that is not happening.

          > but it is not the case that all
          > gay men are reckless,
          > irresponsible and immoral/amoral.

You should speak to anyone who makes the
claim that ALL gay men are reckless,
irresponsible, immoral, or amoral. If
there is one gay man who is not, then
there are likely to be two, etc.

Anonymous said...

And another thing, when you consider it "excusable" for guys whom are young to have unsafe sex but consider it "sad" when an older man unsafely tops a younger man, you are using the same logic as a father whom says he will kick his daughter out of the house if she has sex, but will pay for a girl to have sex with his son (this is what my partner's brother did). At what age does it change from "excuseable" to "sad"? How far apart in age do the men have to be in order for you to change your opinion? Should Xtube videos be required to show participants negotiating safer sex and having safer sex in all of their clips? I think most people use these videos to masturbate to, not as a way to educate oneself.

When I was 18, I knew I wasn't ready to have sex (or get a tattoo). This had to do with my beliefs in the "Straight Edge" philosophy at the time and AIDS. The idea that an older man or porno could make me change my mind is not giving an 18 year old much credit and is giving older men and porno too much credit. This sort of reasoning reminds me of the Women's Movement in the early 80's which blamed pornography on women being raped and children being molested and advocated banning porno.
The tattoos that I got when I was in my late 20's and early 30's mean the same thing to me now as they did back then. I feel sorry for those whom have tattoos now that say "Milli Vanilli Forever", but tough luck. You should have known better.

the zak- I paticipate in clinical trials for drugs and have blood work done often. I ask for the test results and my partner trusts that these results are my own. Although they don't test for HIV, I would think that my levels would change with infection. Otherwise, I get tested for HIV once a year.

Eric- sorry for the negative tone/criticism. I do appreciate your website, but, you hit a nerve on this post and I felt the need to show you an older man's point of view.
Thank you.