Sex without condoms – what’s the trend?
Posted by pozlife on May 26, 2006
“I want it RAW.” These are not the words scrawled on a Diversity Fair poster in a University of Washington hallway, as noticed in a column before. These were in an e-mail sent to my friend Dom after leaving an AOL chat room for New York City gay men.
The caller was referring to “barebacking,” or intercourse without a condom. The Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York hosted a forum on RAW sex, and Seattle will be having a similar forum this month.
Barebacking is on the cover of “The Advocate” this week, but hasn’t appeared in mainstream media yet. Who should take responsibility for the intentional or unintentional practice of unsafe sex? Why aren’t gay men educated enough, or in possession of the skills and self esteem, to protect themselves? The debate is an emotional one and ultimately laden with sadness.
I’m not going to present an answer to this issue, but I am going to present questions. Is this a “male” issue rather than a “gay” issue? And shouldn’t we be talking about male attitudes in general?
When one hears that gay men are soliciting bareback sex in on-line chat rooms, it’s difficult to tell if this is just an open expression of fantasy. Is this happening in real life? The preliminary data shows that it is.
According to a 1997 CDC survey of gay men in San Francisco, 61 percent said they “always” used condoms during sex, down from 70 percent in 1994. In addition, right here in King County, we are experiencing a significant and concerning increase of syphilis and gonorrhea among gay men.
The potential public reaction to these statistics is troubling. Twenty years after AIDS surfaced as “gay cancer” in our major cities, many people feel it is hard for a gay man to not be able to protect himself from HIV. Given that HIV disease care runs about $20-50,000 per year, people are asking who should pay the tab. Right now, it is mostly you and me. And who will donate money to an AIDS advocacy organization now that – according to some – the ignorance and fear surrounding HIV has largely passed?
With the current atmosphere, this seems equivalent to donating money to organizations that support people who break their legs after they decide to go skiing. HIV care costs a lot of money, but so do a lot of other things, such as unintended pregnancy.
In both cases, we provide resources to promote long and productive lives for mostly young people who otherwise would not live. Both goals are compassionate and appropriate responses to human behavior that is ultimately preventable.
Perhaps gay may are affected by additional factors, such as societal attitudes, that make their lives seem less worthy. However, I’ve seen these same attitudes affect vulnerable teenage women as well.
Imagine for a minute what men might say in an opposite sex chat room on the Internet. Would they openly demand sex without a condom? Probably not. They don’t have to. The trend in gay men to talk about wanting “raw” sex is nothing new. Males (straight, bisexual or gay) have always not wanted to use condoms.
It seems for some that there is a feeling of entitlement that makes men think they have the right to have unprotected sex. I reviewed a draft of an HIV prevention document put out by a major Washington insurance company once. There were proscriptions galore about what men should not do, but nowhere was vaginal intercourse mentioned as something to consider not doing, or doing more safely.
This shows how uncomfortable even doctors are about challenging the idea that men have a right to engage in certain behaviors. Even advertising supports this view – condom manufacturers claim their products “feel like you don’t have anything on,” and that they are “the thinnest brand available, allowing for maximum enjoyment” as if this is the most important consideration.
Where’s the honesty in this? Are we afraid that if we don’t appeal to men’s right to pleasure, they won’t be interested? I’d like to see a condom manufacturer put on a box, “Wearing one of these condoms is going to feel like taking a shower with a raincoat – but it will save your damn life.”
Finally, look at the cover of this week’s “The Advocate” magazine that discusses barebacking. They adorn their story with the image of a naked, perfectly built man, which seems misleading to me. Sex certainly does sell, but we aren’t talking about sex in this case; we’re talking about death.
Does appealing to men’s libido help educate them about unsafe behavior, or is it simply the easiest way to get their attention?
I wonder what will happen if we isolate and limit the broad, society-wide dialogue that needs to happen. Should we only be concerned about HIV, or about a host of problems that emerge when we don’t teach people to care about one another?
As Dom commented, “We have a lot of work to do when raising our males. Let’s start early teaching all of our young males to care about the health of others. We can only hope that a caring 4th grader will grow up to be a thoughtful adult male who sees using a condom as a sign of respect and care.”