In 1999, both “Blue” magazine (the “Bucking the Condomocracy” article, also reprinted in “Out” Magazine, July 1999, Vol. 7, No.12), and “HQ” magazine (“They Shoot Barebackers Don’t They?”) published articles on barebacking, the one in “HQ” being a reprint of an article from “Poz” magazine. The latter caused a bit of a furore in both “The Sydney Star Observer”, and in the “Sydney Morning Herald”…probably understandably. Read in the context of HIV education and safe sex messages at that time, they read almost as a promotion of barebacking.
I was writing regularly for “Talkabout” magazine at the time, and was on the magazines working group. When I read both articles, I thought they elicited a response, and started to put an article about it together. However, several things were going on at “Talkabout”’ at that time, most notably was a new editor, and I was unsure of how liberal she was going to allow the writing to be, and secondly was an article I had written about the “Options” Employment Agency, which was operating on Oxford St at the time, supposedly to assist HIV/AIDS people to return to work after surviving AIDS, or to re-educate. I had written an expose of them not really doing much to actually assist people, and using said clients to do unpaid “work experience” in their offices. The editor, in all fairness, had sent the article to them… and their response was to threaten to sue the organisation (PLWHA NSW), the magazine, and myself. It was “Bring it on!” from my perspective, but obviously from the organisations…and funding…perspective, it wasn’t something they wanted..As it turned out, my accusations were accurate (I had been quite outspoken about what was going on there for some time,…and had the written testimony of a number of guys who had personally encountered the rort…and had even had the office manager of Options…whose name escapes me now…invite me into his office, and made veiled threats about what I was saying) and the agency had its funding stopped, and closed down shortly after. The article was published, but was so heavily edited that it lost all its clout. I was very disappointed.
However, this made me a bit dubious about publishing another controversial article, and being unsure about the editors response to this piece, and time then passing, I never completed the article. I have been republishing most of my “Talkabout” articles on my blog over the last couple of years…some re-edited, some not…and came across the original draft for this article. I couldn’t actually remember the content of the magazine articles, so did a bit of googling, and thanking the gods of cyberspace that nothing ever disappears completely in the ethos…I found both original articles. I will now include them in my article, to have a permanent record of them. They both make interesting reading.
About 18 months or so further down the line, and with a different editor, I wrote yet another controversial piece on bug chasing…heavily researched, so unbiased…that was totally pulled from publication by the then “Talkabout” working group. It was with great trepidation that Glenn, the then editor, rang to tell me the decision. He knew how much work had gone into it, and I cannot ever recollect an article, written by a HIV+ man, being pulled from publication before in “Talkabout”. The reasoning: it was a great article, but because “Talkabout” was funded by NSW Community Health, there was a perception that said organisation may have seen it as a “promotion of the act of bug chasing” rather than an expose. I was furious. Bug chasing was being talked about within the HIV community, the whole sex dating mentality of “breed me” was a reality…it was happening! To my thinking…it was as if they were burying their heads in the sand, and pretending this just wasn’t happening! The mentality defied me!
Such is the life of writers lol.
Here are the links for both articles
Below is my original article with the articles now included. At the end is letters published regarding the “Bucking the Condomocracy” article, and a more recent article on the same subject. My bug chasing article can be found on this blog simply by searching for “barebacking”.
My, hasn’t the HIV community been blessed this month, with both a quarterly and a bi-monthly magazine taking up the HIV cause. I wish I could think that the sort of hype they give HIV/AIDS is harmless, but unfortunately, after reading through both articles – twice – just to make sure I hadn’t miss a subtle point, my conclusion is not so.
The article in HQ magazine (They Shoot Barebackers, Don’t They?), which has also received publicity via both the Sydney Star Observer, and the Sydney Morning Herald, is a reprint of an article from the American POZ magazine in February 1, 1999. When my partner and myself (also HIV+) read the article earlier this year, we were both quite horrified. It described in quite detailed account the so-called phenomena of ‘barebacking’, a current catch-cry for unsafe sex, especially between HIV positive and HIV negative men. This is supposedly by people who are ‘over’ practising safe sex and using condoms, and desire the thrill of ‘skin-to-skin’ sex. It reports on private parties in the USA for people who wish to indulge in this type of sex, and consider the risks of catching HIV minimal, compared to the joy of unprotected sex. Needless to say, the people who run the parties make sure everyone present signs a disclaimer. Wouldn’t want to get sued by people becoming infected, would we! The phenomena has reached as far as the Internet, where there are advertisements placed by HIV negative people to get HIV positive people to supposedly ‘father’ their own HIV infection. The mere implications of this sort of mentality would be enough to frighten anybody. There are also porn sites promoting galleries of photos with guys barebacking. Make it erotic, and you make it right, or so it would seem.
Of cause, the obvious question to ask is why is this happening? Have we stretched the limits of the practice and promotion of safe sex as far as it can go? Have people become so accepting of HIV that it is no longer considered a dangerous disease? Does the fact that we now have an arsenal of drugs to control HIV infection reducing people’s fear of infection? Do younger people consider the entire AIDS issue as a ‘generational’ thing? Is it just a millennium trend? Considering the current arguments going on around compliance and drug holidays, I don’t think it is feasible to even consider that HIV is either ended, or under control. Ask anyone infected and on drug regimes what they think of this! Ask them how much they enjoy taking the handfuls of pills everyday, and how much they enjoy the side effects of same. Ask them about how secure and comfortable they feel in the knowledge of a possible ten to twenty years with such regimes; always hoping the next generation of drugs is going to be easier on us. A vaccine is still a long way off.
Likewise, I also loved the article in ‘Blue” (“Bucking the Condomocracy”) which hit you in the face with the fabulous attention grabbing statement (in bold font) ‘POST-AIDS’. Now this article isn’t quite as bad as I originally thought. In the context in which it is written, it is in many respects correct. However, it does overlook a major point. If we are living with a ‘Post-AIDS’ mentality, then why are so many people in their mid twenties seroconverting? The article tends to cover the promise given by new treatments, but not the fact that playing down HIV is a dangerous road to take. It is full of trendy language, and as someone who has lived with HIV day in and day out for the last seventeen years, I haven’t heard of any of the expressions mooted by the author. Terms such as a ‘Protease Moment’, ‘vaccine optimism’ and ‘vaccine positive’ (in respect to forth coming language in the vaccine age) are all nice terms, and factually the article is right-there is more emphasis being placed on a preventative vaccine than a therapeutic, but that possibly is still a decade away. The article is, I grant you, full of positive images, which perhaps isn’t so bad in a world where doom and gloom are never far from the headlines. But it does seem to have made it look as though HIV is no longer happening. By being so nicey nicey about HIV, I feel it tends to play down the actual dangers inherent in contracting it. Again, ask anybody HIV positive if the would change sero status if possible, and you would get an almost one hundred percent resounding yes!
I felt, when originally reading the barebacking article earlier this year that it demanded a response, but being in an American magazine, and being a phenomena that I had not heard of occurring here (not, of cause, taking into account the many unsafe sex stories one hears from the saunas and backrooms), I decided to let it lie. The fact that HQ magazine has done a sideline on the Australian reaction to barebacking does not change the fact that, having the subject announced on the front cover is irresponsible journalism, to the extreme. The editor can defend it however she likes, but then she is not working in mainstream HIV/AIDS, and obviously knows very little about the subject, or the implications of the article. Trying to make barebacking a mainstream and fashionable pastime is not funny! An article published by Capital Q the same week as the SSO had its piece on HQ, showed the possible incidence of contracting HIV through unsafe sex. Odds of 120 to 1 (for unsafe anal) may sound good to many people, but considering the sex life of your average horny gay male, that makes the risk of infection from unsafe practices highly likely very early in their lives.
I grant that freedom of the press is a much-nurtured principle, but it can go too far, and the press often plays a major role in influencing people in a particular course of action that they may not otherwise take, and are often paramount in establishing new trends (Desirable, and undesirable). Journalists must stop looking at just headline stories to sell magazines, and consider the implications of what they are publishing.
LETTERS PUBLISHED IN “OUT” MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER 1999, VOL 8, NO. 3 IN RESPONSE TO “BUCKING THE CONDOMOCRACY”.
Barebacking is Dead. Long Live Barebacking!
Leave it to science and rational thinking to ruin a popular sexual taboo.
The “bareback” label for sex without a condom has faded in the age of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and U=U. People not living with HIV who are taking PrEP are protecting themselves from transmission, while people living with HIV who have an undetectable viral load are unable to transmit the virus to their sex partners at all. As the very definition of HIV risk is being rearranged, the problematic term “barebacking” is finally being relegated to the dust bins of history.
We all know the nature of taboo. The naughty, furtive longing for something forbidden. As the AIDS pandemic lurched from the murderous 80s into the 90s, sexual behavior among gay men pivoted, from horror at the very thought of sex without a condom to, well, something we just might like to do. Real bad. “Barebacking” instantly became part of the lexicon, spurred by maverick porn producers who capitalized on our carnal desire to have sex without a barrier.
Sex without a barrier. Unprotected sex. Barebacking. Also known as having sex. Ask a straight person.
Gay men have always barebacked, of course (along with every other human being and their parents), certainly before HIV ever showed up and yes, even immediately after. If we all had stopped fucking without barriers we would have halted the HIV epidemic in its tracks. Instead, we kept behaving like human beings, making mistakes or getting horny or saying yes when we should have said no or getting drunk or falling in love or being young and stupid.
And sometime, even in the darkest and deadliest years of the epidemic, to unload inside our partner was an enormous “fuck you” to AIDS. You might not understand the humanity of that choice, the triumph of it, or the search it represented for some kind of spiritual and physical release in the midst of relentless mortality. I guess you had to be there.
Not long after we emerged from the 1990s, shell shocked but ready to rumble openly again now that we were armed with effective medications, a renegade porn star bottom named Dawson collected orgasms in the double digits on video and his flick was so polarizing that it was banned in gay video stores. Today, his exploits seem positively quaint, and those same video stores and the countless internet sites that followed transformed themselves from featuring a barebacking category to dropping the category and lumping everything together. Sex without condoms in porn is now customary. Condoms are the outlier.
The actual term has lost its wicked luster. These days, you rarely hear your sex partner say, “oh yeah, fuck me bareback, man.” I mean, sure I will, dude. Yawn.
And gone, too, hopefully, is the judgment of those who labeled barebacking a deviant, destructive pathology. This may be the most painful aspect of our prevention legacy; the rush to demonize those who admitted to having sex without condoms before it became agreeable again, not to mention the furor over those of us who have spoken empathetically about sex without a barrier.
Activist and writer Tony Valenzuela became a community pariah when he wrote a piece in 1995 about being a young man living with HIV who had condomless sex with his boyfriend. He thumbed his nose at his detractors when he appeared naked on a horse for an infamous 1999 POZ Magazine cover (“They Shoot Barebackers, Don’t They?”) in which he discussed how the controversy angered and confused him. Valenzuela’s personal character was questioned and his professional life was derailed for years.
The late social anthropologist and author Eric Rofes (Reviving the Tribe) nearly caused a riot at a 1996 Atlanta town hall event for gay men when he discussed the spiritual and emotional value of sharing semen with a partner. And even as recently as 2013, my essay, “Your Mother Liked It Bareback,” produced one apoplectic comment, among many others, that remains the pinnacle of my blog infamy. “You,” it said, “are a vile merchant of death.”
Maybe, with our new biomedical tools of HIV prevention, those same people who once blindly damned sexual behaviors they didn’t understand — whether out of puritanical beliefs or their fear of their own desires – have reconciled their fantasies and their HIV risk. I hope they’re enjoying totally hot sex and the fluids are flying.
It is difficult to ignore the appalling homophobia, internalized and otherwise, that runs through this aspect of HIV prevention history. We held ourselves as gay men to a more grueling standard than the countless non-queers who get an STI (several of them life-threatening) or an unplanned pregnancy every year.
I have no illusions. Sexually transmitted infections continue, even if the very thought of gonorrhea just makes me feel nostalgic. The PrEP train hasn’t reached everyone who might benefit from it and there is misinformation about its efficacy and side effects. Meanwhile, nearly half of those living with HIV in the United States have not reached viral suppression. There is still reason to be cautious about the who and the when and the how of sex. Now, as ever, we are responsible for our own bodies and the risks we take.
Frankly, behavioral change has not served us well in the grand scheme of HIV prevention. There has always been some debate, tension even, between those who believed the answer to HIV infections is behavior modification, and those who welcome the advent of biomedical interventions such as PrEP and “treatment as prevention” (TasP) that don’t rely upon sexual behavioral choices to work.
Throughout the decades, we have all witnessed the dominant, primal pull that sexual desire has exhibited over caution, so I know which prevention strategy my money is on. But hey, to each his own strategy. For that matter, condoms are a golden oldie and a perfectly legitimate choice. You do you.
What has changed are the conversations and information gathering that happen between partners. PrEP, medications, who is undetectable or not, what sexual positioning in what combination will occur, all of these exist in a more informed landscape, at least among gay men in this country.
Barebacking, as an urban phrase and a taboo, is dead. Thank god and good riddance to this divisive bit of sexual branding. Sex, meanwhile, motors happily onward, unbothered by the judgments of man.
- Barebacking is Dead. Long Live Barebacking!, My Fabulous Disease, Mark S King https://marksking.com/my-fabulous-disease/barebacking-is-dead-long-live-barebacking/
- Bucking the Condomocracy, Out Magazine, July 1999, Vol 7 No.12, by Dan Savage, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=cmIEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Letters, Out Magazine, September 1999, Vol 8, No.3, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=kGIEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
- They Shoot Barebackers Don’t They, Poz Magazine, 1 February 1999, by Stephen Gendin https://www.poz.com/article/They-Shoot-Barebackers-Don-t-They-1459-4936