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Rather than fearing the HIV virus, there are gay men who actually eroticize it, and their stories are seeping through to the mainstream. This is madness, to be sure, but it also says a lot about the power of human lust and rage.
These are strange times, to say the least. Just when criminalization of the sexual practices of the HIV-positive heats up, a movement that prides itself on conscious unsafe sex blooms. Even stranger, it gets depicted in the gay media (where so many innocent people have been impaled on charges of undermining Safe Sex propaganda) as a new form of self-expression. On the February cover of the mainstream AIDS magazine POZ', a nude man is sensually draped over a horse. The issue of POZ is devoted to a craze known as barebacking that has been bubbling underground for several years.
Barebackers are gay men, some HIV-positive and some negative, who have "raw" sex, condomless sex, because they have decided that it is worth the risk – a calculation no Safe Sex educator ever imagined possible. Some do it because they are already HIV-positive and don't believe the hype about "reinfection" (the idea that different strains of HIV can compound the illness); others are negative and stick to other men who are negative, but the most talked about camp are the ones who have no interest whatsoever in avoiding HIV – quite the contrary – they want to be infected.
"The debate is stuck between two hyperpolarized camps," Michael Scarce writes in POZ, "with antibarebackers screaming, 'dangerous sex fiends,' while barebackers counter with 'Condom Nazis.' Meanwhile, a new sexual subculture has emerged, organized around the no-condoms creed."
Barebacking, Scarce points out, is no mere debauched, drunken, unsafe sex. Here's the kernel of PR genius – it's conscious unsafe sex. It's enlightened and empowered and has its own clubs, parties, language, Web sites and handkerchiefs. The idea is to "unapologetically revel in the pleasure of doing it raw," and barebacking is further defined as "both the premeditation and eroticization of unprotected anal sex."
In the most hardcore circles, it goes even further. Here, HIV-infected semen is itself eroticized, and the ultimate erotic bond is for one man to infect another – consciously. Barebacking, Scarce explains, is equated with breeding, and infection with impregnation – some men even going so far as to select the man who will "father" their HIV infection.
The barebackers themselves "speak" quite freely on the Internet, but it is impossible to quantify a movement that often involves anonymous acts. No movement should be judged by its extremes, except maybe this one where the extremes tell such a fascinating story. The barebacker magnet site is called "xtremesex" and here, against a solid black backdrop, all the presumptions of the holy AIDS war are reversed. Here you can click on "bugbrothers," "giftgivers," (those who eroticize the act of transmitting HIV) or "bugchasers," (those who try to get infected.) Or you can click on the floating white spots: "Pozcum, the fuck of death."
Start there, I figure, and with a click I embark on my voyeuristic journey. I entered this realm with what I soon realized was a romanticized view of barebacking. I wanted to think of it as a perhaps mad but perhaps also twistedly heroic act of defiance in the face of Orwellian doctrines threatening to destroy the texture of human sexuality – that kind of thing. And maybe it is all that...but it's also just ballistic fucking.
One barebacker, who calls himself Joey on the Web site, gives a richly detailed account of a barebacking party. The story reads like something out of a post-GMHC dystopia. You may ask whether the accounts on the site are true, and I can't answer that. (My attempts to interview some of the men who had posted their stories online were unsuccessful.) I think so. But more to the point, they are "true" to the fantasy, and it is the fantasy itself that is important.
This is Joey's story: The host of the party addresses the 20 nude guests and recites the rules of the game: "Try to engage in anal sex primarily. Make sure to get your cum inside as many men as possible. And, related to that, get as many different guys' cum in your ass as you can. Remember, no questions and no telling. Make each one like it's the one. And the number one most important stipulation is no condoms!"
"There are 20 men here not counting me. I know that 12 of you are neg and eight are poz. Anybody who takes at least 12 loads this weekend is guaranteed at least one of those loads was charged."
Hearing that, Joey's skin goes "tingly." The orgy begins, and the "poz" men are the most desired. One man tells Joey, post-coitally, that he's "...pretty obvious in being neg; try not to give it away. Everyone here wants poz cum."
Joey's peak of excitement comes when he looks behind him and sees what may be lesions on the man currently servicing him. "Cool!" he thinks, "This guy's got AIDS."
Thirty-six hours later, he is proud to find out that he'd "...taken 15 loads and seven of them were from poz men."
Twelve days later, he was thrilled to receive his test results and find that he had sero-converted. He was HIV-positive. He had succeeded.
In another account, a "giftgiver" describes the sensation as follows: "He was clean, healthy, disease-free, HIV-negative. I knew I had the power and the obligation and the privilege to change that. After that night, he would never be completely healthy again. I was going to take that from him, and yet that power gave me a rush I'd never known."
At this end of the spectrum, body fluids are fetishized as if from a vantage point of extreme thirst, which I suppose you could say 15 years of de-condomed sex has created.
The personal ads on the Web from all around the world speak of wanting not only raw sex, but also as much seminal fluid as humanly possible, as fast as possible and with the kind of abandon that characterized the gay '70's. "Bottom accepting all loads," reads one of the ads. "I have become addicted to cum," reads another.
I want to tread carefully here with what I mention as I am quoting from an X-rated site, but I also want you to get the idea. In this forbidden world, the messages of Safe Sex have imploded as the stuff of terror and control has morphed into the stuff of desire and abandon... "No hang up whatsoever on sharing any type of toxic manfluid," reads one, and another, titled "Fluid Exchange," laconically states, "HIV unknown/unconcerned."
There is a sense of anger, of sex with a vengeance, of a total psychic split or counterrevolution. But it seems to be as much about oblivion as about communion; many ads cite poppers, "meth-slamming" and "chem-happy" as preferences, and this combined with the purely hedonistic sex makes this site seem like perhaps the only place on earth where AIDS never happened.
I walked down Broadway in New York where I live, thinking about all this, snow swirling through the air. The late, great activist Michael Callen, inventor of Safe Sex, sublime AIDS intelligence and friend, would have understood it in a heartbeat, and I wish, as I so often do, he were here so we could talk. Despite the fact that Michael had invented – amidst tremendous acrimony – Safe Sex, years before HIV was "discovered," he was also one of the few who could speak honestly about what sex was for gay men and about what had been lost in the realm of the "Safe." He was always angry over the way that Safe Sex propaganda was projected – not as a necessary drag, which he saw it as, but as a glorious innovation. "Safe Sex is not hot sex," he would say, "and let's stop patronizing gay men by pretending it is."
Now I read on the "xtremesex" Web site: "Safer sex is not hot sex. It's pretend sex. The need for the intimacy of actual skin to skin contact is primal. Condoms are not just a question of sensitivity, they are a barrier to physical, emotional and spiritual communion."
Through knowing Michael, I grew to understand that gay sexuality, before AIDS, had a kind of velocity and urgency that I could probably never comprehend, and also that the way we all talk about it in the age of AIDS is wrong, deluded, watered down – as if sex could be standardized.
Michael and I used to have long talks about what sex might really be, about the current that passes between people (which I thought of as electrical, as did he). Metaphorically speaking, rubber seemed like such a silencer, such a censorious material, such a very sad way for sexuality to be summed up at the end of the century.
I worried a lot about the loss of intimacy, about the consequences of such drastic sexual dictates, about the long-term effects of fear when what is feared is human contact itself, now forever pathologized by the notion of bodily contamination.
"You must write about this," Michael would say. "You will have your head handed to you, but you must do it."
I never did. When he died in 1993, I lost the thread and internalized the notion that such talk is bourgeois nonsense when people are dying.
But I still don't know why people are dying. If you are convinced that the putative retrovirus HIV has been proven to cause the array of complications known as AIDS, then all of this is simple: Preventing AIDS amounts to preventing HIV; curing AIDS amounts to obliterating HIV.
But for many of us, there is a question mark – in fact it's all a question mark. Where does the spiral of death really begin in this cycle of drugs, sex, terror and toxic medications? HIV dominates the minds, hearts and souls of millions of people – whether it is a matter of avoiding it, surviving it, or as in this most recent development, acquiring it. Safe or bareback, HIV still reigns supreme. In fact, its hold on the gay male psyche has never been more potent than amongst barebackers, who in eroticizing the virus and making a sadomasochistic ritual out of its transmission have raised the level of HIV occultism to worship.
For now, I'm too busy being dumbstruck and fascinated to truly pass judgment. To think of all those endless condom ads, the endless sermonizing, the paralysis of both science and journalism in the face of any idea that was thought to promote "unsafe behavior." To think of poor Peter Duesberg (the dissident virologist who first questioned HIV as the cause of AIDS) being drummed out of science for the imaginary crime of promoting unsafe sex. To think of all the years, all the millions, all the dances and walks and runs and ribbons, and everywhere, like the emblem of the future utopia: the condom. It was the one thing you simply did not question, unless you were mad, a monster, a subversive, perhaps a terrorist, or maybe an AIDS dissident.
And then it happens – people start to abandon condoms – and it has less than nothing to do with the "dangerous" dissident movement and everything to do with basic human lust and rage. Of course POZ has the barebackers draped glamorously on horses, smiling. They recognize that there is no stopping this, and the publisher, Sean Strub, even wrote in his editorial that this has been going on all along but has been barely talked about until recently. I for one found the candor of POZ refreshing.
The boilerplate text on barebacking reads that it is the false promise of protease inhibitors that has made it inevitable because now gay men think that AIDS is a chronic manageable disease, not a deadly one to be avoided at all costs. But that doesn't speak to the deeper reason – the yearning for contact, which eventually may prove more powerful than the fear of death.
What is most interesting about this new phenomenon is that it breaks the holiest of AIDS pledges – to live in fear forever. Barebacking is like the ideological equivalent of trying to climb across the Berlin wall, pre-1989, when guards were ordered to shoot. People did that, too, and yes, it was suicide, but it was also the inevitable outcome of a long-repressed freedom. You can no longer control a person who doesn't fear death.
Need I bother with the obvious – that barebacking on one level seems mad? I'm far more interested in what makes it strangely rational and heartbreakingly human. But before I get all misty-eyed, before I contribute to yet another kitschification of gay sexuality of which I know little or nothing, let me just call a spade a spade: Barebacking is simply sex. It is a powerful reminder that sex is not a kitchen that can be cleaned up and child-proofed – that sex is not safe. The only thing that can be guaranteed once a pendulum swings so fast and so far as the Safe Sex pendulum did is that it will eventually swing back, not to the middle, but first all the way to the other end.
The letters I received about [the above] column on unprotected sex among gay men – also known as barebacking – made me want to write a bit more on it and clear up a few things, as some readers were confused about my perspective. — Celia Farber; click here to read more.
© 1999 by Celia Farber
Originally published in Impression magazine