It was taboo. For me it always had been. It was my boundary. That blurred dividing line between hedonism (which I loved) and self-destruction (which I constantly toyed with, but always pulled back from – even if at the last moment). It wasn’t even a promise that I’d consciously made to myself. No, it had been drummed into me – as fiercely as metal rods into my spine – by a 1980s childhood: those chilling television adverts showing the new acronym “AIDS” hammered onto a tombstone; by the fear and barely repressed homophobia of a biology teacher skirting around the topic of gay sex; by those haunting images – even now still hauled out by the press – of a dying Rock Hudson or an impossibly glamorous Elizabeth Taylor or Princess Diana visiting an AIDS hospice: no unprotected anal sex. It didn’t matter how much I’d drunk, how many drugs I’d taken. Some risks I would never take. No barebacking.
 

Taking risks


That Friday night had begun in much the same way as every other in the last six months: drinks with colleagues from the job I detested and felt trapped in, then on alone to bars, clubs - wiping everything out. I’d been in the sauna for hours and consumed my body weight in Jack Daniels. I’d taken whatever substances had been waved in front of my nose and worked my way through almost every man who had given me a sideways glance. I didn’t love myself very much, and by 7am I didn’t care anymore. The guy who then walked in was the hottest I had seen – that night, any night: the perfect, porn star body. So what if neither of us reached for a condom? I’d deal with that later – once I’d slept.

 

Normalising barebacking


Bareback sex is now completely normalised on the gay scene. I no longer count the number of times a guy in a sauna doesn’t ask me to use a condom. Rather than asking him to wait while I go and fetch one, I usually just sigh and wander off. I’ve been in situations when I’ve been having sex and my partner has even tried to remove the condom. My reaction is always the same: I leave. Most of the time I don’t even expend the energy admonishing them. Apart from the lapse I’ve described above, I’ve always practiced sex with a condom. For me it’s as habitual as daubing on under eye concealer before hitting the town - an essential. Historically, my encounters have largely been casual. I’ve had lots of sex. Many anonymous partners. Perhaps it would be different if I was in a committed relationship and trust had been established. But there are some stakes I’m not prepared to contest. Whatever happens to me – no matter how low I have sunk – I have at least held on to some form of self-worth and respect in this sense.

 

Pornification


I came out in the late 1990s and since then I have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes to condom-less sex. I am even old enough to remember when it wasn’t called “bareback sex”; old enough to pinpoint – in the mid-noughties – when the term “bareback sex” became less of a warning – a forbidden to be avoided at all costs – and more of a trend, a club, a clique to aspire to. The acceptance of the bareback culture is perhaps best documented in the recent history of gay porn. And here I was on the frontline: taking part in the first UK hardcore film back in 1999, in which the director threatened to chuck us off set and have us shipped back home if we didn’t use condoms. How different this is from now, where anything other than “raw sex” and “breeding” is considered tame at best – and more commonly not even “real” or “proper” sex.

 

A sexual outsider


But other points in time are less difficult to specify. I can’t, for example, recall the exact moment that I began to feel like an outsider, ostracised for standing firm in my desire not to have bareback sex. Now, however, I am used to the dismissive if not outright hostile looks that a guy will give me when I politely request that we use a condom. Now I find it unusual if the first message I receive on a hookup app doesn’t include “BB?” or “H ‘n H?” – that vital safer sex message that I grew up with reduced to mere letters, tapped into a Smartphone with the nonchalance of changing a TV channel. When, I wonder, did we become so laissez-faire in our approaches to our own sexual health – and that of others – and why?

 

Advances in meds


I am only too aware of the unprecedented advances in the treatment of HIV. Thanks to ever-advancing anti-retroviral medication the virus is no longer the death sentence that it once was. If detected early, men can lead healthy lives. Their life spans are normal. The medication is nowhere near as toxic as it once was. It’s important that we are all educated about the much improved reality of living with HIV today, and only by breaking down the myths we also break down the stigma. Barely a week goes by without an article appearing in the gay press focussing on and advocating the benefits of new treatments such as PrEP. We all need to know about it. It’s our responsibility to do so.

image_1770.jpg.jpg
PrEP may vastly reduce the risk of contracting HIV, but not against other STD’s.

 

PrEP


But at the same time, I often feel that the less palatable facts of what is still a chronic condition are being sugar-coated in a frequently strident – often blinkered – attempt to be ultra-PC. I have spoken to young gay men who have had devastating reactions in terms of their mental health to Atripla. And while studies have shown that when taken consistently PrEP can reduce the risk of contracting HIV by over 90%, it does not prevent infection with other STIs – and this is becoming a major problem: in the UK alone there has been a rapid increase in infections, and Gonorrhoea, in particular, in becoming more and more difficult to treat as new antibiotic resistant strains emerge. As ground-breaking as these new drugs are, there is still no cure for HIV, and the long-standing fear remains: that a new, more deadly strain will evolve; indeed, an aggressive hybrid strain has already done so in Cuba. Meanwhile, in The Netherlands, sub-epidemics of the virus are shifting towards new generations of gay men. The material out there which advocates barebacking (whether that be porn or the arguments of the PrEp proponents) far outweighs our access to these harsher realities – and the balance, I would argue, needs to be readdressed.

 

Your choice


As we continue to fight HIV we must work together to face the challenges which the latest drugs bring. The landscape is changing and we must adjust in order to tackle the effects the virus has on our lives. Being in possession of all of the information is essential – but this includes information and views which we may not wish to hear. One fact is incontestable: the HIV epidemic is resurgent in many Western countries. This is a dire situation, and each one of us has the free choice to decide how we respond to this. We have the right to refuse to have bareback sex if we do not feel comfortable about it – despite what we may read about how revolutionary a drug like PrEP is or how studies state that an undetectable viral load is in fact better prevention against HIV infection that the use of a condom. It is no more acceptable for someone who is dubious about PrEP to label someone who is taking it as a “Truvada Whore” than for someone who swears by PrEP to reduce a person who has doubts about it to a “bigot”. We own our bodies – no one else does – and each one of us has the right to choose how we use them. The crucial thing is to keep the dialogue going in the most open and constructive way possible.

 

 

 

 

 


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