LGBT

Why It’s So Hard To Talk About Bareback Sex

With more than 50% of gay men no longer using condoms consistently, the shame that often prevents candid discussion of bareback sex may prove to be as dangerous as the health risks themselves.

Chris Ritter

I had been living in New York City just long enough to know about the risks of bareback sex, the statistics, the history, and the ghosts. This is not a cautionary tale; this is about a decision I made, and keep making.

In October 2010, I met a guy online who was visiting from France. That night, after meeting in a midtown Starbucks, we went to his hotel room. I never asked about his HIV status. I watched him do a line of coke in the bathroom, and even knowing that, knowing he was some unfamiliar man doing things I never envisioned myself doing, we fucked each other without condoms. And it felt good. This was the scariest part for me. Not the risk itself, but the fact that I enjoyed it.

The next morning, as I rushed to throw on my clothes to get to work on time, it all came rushing back: the risks, the statistics, the history. And, along with them, the names of authors I’d read who wrote during the onset of the AIDS crisis. I felt ashamed that I was doing something that would put me at risk of an incurable illness, felt ashamed because I knew people in my own life who I was close to who had struggled to come to terms with being HIV positive.

A few weeks later, as I sat in the waiting room of the GMHC, waiting for the results of my rapid HIV test, I wrote in my journal: “I’m here now, wondering if I have an incurable virus coursing through my veins. Wondering how my life will change inexorably if I do. Terrified because I wouldn’t ever give up that moment of pleasure. That I may, in fact, do it again.” Those 10 minutes were some of the longest moments of my life, and even though I felt so relieved at receiving an HIV-negative diagnosis, I’ve never stopped thinking about the consequences barebacking can have.

Two and half years later, during a recent regular three-month visit, the clinician in the HIV vaccine trial I’m part of — a study to discover how the HIV virus can be disrupted from attaching itself to cells — asked me the question, “How would you feel if you found out you were HIV positive?” I still can’t come up with an answer — and don’t think I ever could, unless I actually contracted HIV. Regardless, it’s a question any man who is having bareback sex with other men needs to ask when we are a long way off from a cure. Though it’s an impossible question to answer, it has forced me to think about the stigma that friends, relatives, and other figures continue to deal with because of their status. That’s important not because it will not necessarily dissuade me (or anyone else) from having bareback sex, but because it places the freedom that comes from fucking raw into what might happen when the rest of your life is bound to an incurable illness.

I refuse to use the words “unsafe sex” to describe barebacking. I believe it’s a phrase people use to make you feel ashamed about very real desires and habits you have. I will, however, use the word “risky” to describe the practices I have engaged in because I am aware of how to contract HIV, understand it’s incurable, and recognize how devastating it has been for millions. What I’m doing is not self-destructive, and it’s not because I’m too stupid to understand the early epidemic. I’ve seen We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague and still get teary-eyed thinking about images of activists raging against our government’s inaction. The half-sleeve tattoo I want to get is Keith Haring’s “Unfinished Painting,” 1989, which he painted just a few years before dying from AIDS.

Maybe others who bareback have no knowledge of this history or realize they have friends who struggle with the virus every day. But I do, and I’m talking about it because we can post as many articles as we want about how many men are barebacking without really asking why. Why is not an easy question, but it’s the only way we’re going to really feel comfortable talking about our desires. And if, as studies are starting to show, roughly half of all gay men bareback at some point, is it really that reckless? Are men who engage in barebacking sex really self-destructive, uneducated, or unfamiliar with the risk? I don’t think so, but the shame that stands between us and a candid conversation about bareback sex is perhaps as dangerous as the virus itself. I’ll probably bareback again, though I don’t know when or with whom. It is against my better judgment to take this risk, when the virus, even if I don’t have it personally, has invaded my vision of the world. But my desire doesn’t necessarily operate logically. It uses contact to determine where it heads next — the taste of lips together, the aroma of sweat, and yes, bare bodies as they intertwine.

This is why it is so hard to talk about barebacking. As contact against logic or reason, as sex that feels freeing but can have such permanent consequences, it should not be named, or cannot be named in a reasonable way. But for someone committed to staying HIV negative, committed to advancing HIV vaccine research, and studying the HIV/AIDS crisis intently, I want to know who else is out there who has fucked raw and wonders why that might happen, and continue to happen, despite the risk.

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