Eric Leven

A Great Divide

Filed By Eric Leven | July 25, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media, The Movement
Tags: ACT UP, barebacking, HIV/AIDS, New York, prevention

This past Sunday I helped my friends of ACT UP New York sell tee shirts ACTUPPosters.jpgand buttons at their booth at the Broadway Street Fair. I'll always make myself available for any additional help ACT UP needs and I am always happy to do so.

I noticed the ACT UP booth right away by their iconic white background- black font posters. I've always loved ACT UP for their in your face, civil disobedient approach to activism, but on Sunday I saw one thing on one of their signs that I couldn't help but feel uneasy about.

One of their signs at the bottom stated in big bold font: "Boycott Bareback" and I felt immediately something was amiss.

77Percent.jpgAs I'm sure we all know barebacking has become somewhat of a fad lately or something a lot of people feel very nonchalant about. Go on to xtube, search your common porn sites and you'll find that barebacking is a movement that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

If you go back into my archives and read my post entitled "Barebackers, Meth heads, Young Guys, Sex Parties and Everything Else We Love to Blame" you'll find that a lot of my thinking, writing and activism regarding safe sex and HIV/AIDS evolves with the more I learn and experience. The bottom line is that sex and safe sex is nowhere near cut and dry and is, in fact, quite fucking complicated.

But let's make some distinctions first: not all people who have unsafe sex are "barebackers." There are people who choose to go in and out of bouts or individual experiences of condom-less sex that would not identify themselves as "barebackers." "Barebackers," more or less, are people who get off on the idea of going completely condom-less and engaging in pure, raw sex- only. It's almost as if Barebackers don't consider sex real sex unless it's entirely raw and there is some form of "cum dumping," "breeding," and all the other words that make the safe sex movement weep.

Barebackers are gaining momentum. They're online, there are websites set up for them to meet and greet, bareback porn is reinstating itself into the mainstream and the whole thing teeters on the belief that if two people want to willingly engage in bareback sex then they have the right to do so and can decide for themselves what is right and healthy for their body.

Fine. Great. Whatever.

But what about the allure of unsafe sex and the encouragement for other people to go bare and "try it out"? I have to admit this is where barebacking is most dangerous- it's in the fetishistic ammunition.

Just like ACT UP says "Fuck you" to the unsafe sex world, barebackers are now saying "Fuck you" right back to the safe sex movement. "How dare you tell me how I should have sex!" "I don't have to wear a condom if I don't want to!" "I know the risks associated with unsafe sex and I don't care. It's my body." But when ACT UP says something like "Boycott Bareback" they look like a group of sex police and that's exactly what the bareback movement is looking for.

Those who advocate for Bareback sex want AIDS Service Organizations and activist groups to look like dishonest Sex Police who infringe upon people's individual right to choose. "See! Look at those sex police trying to tell people how I should have sex- how dare they tell me/you what to do. Sex is between me and the person I have sex with!"

The truth is ACT UP is anything but a group of Sex Police and they should choose their words wisely to prevent themselves from becoming so. I've always known ACT UP to be rather sex positive. They are a group encouraging gay men to empower themselves on the glory of protecting one another through safe sex and fighting those in politics who prevent us from equal health care and recognition. ACT UP are not sex police but the simplistic words of "boycott bareback" make them look like just that and thus, the divide between those who have safe sex and those who don't only grows deeper.

We in the safe sex world seem to constantly trip up on the idea that it's the safe sex message which isn't strong enough. That people don't know how to use condoms or that safe sex options aren't out there. But having spent so much time in this world I am starting to understand that the message is out there and people do know the options. People know about safe sex and condoms and the risks associated with unsafe sex, it's just that people are choosing not to have safe sex. The message needs to change from "Wear condoms" or "boycott bareback" to "Why are we barebacking each other?"

Are the loads really worth it? Does being a cum dump, or a bareback bottom or a bareback-only top really trump a life of being HIV negative? I don't know- who am I to say or argue? Yeah the meds are out there, and those reading this blog and others like it know that nonsense rhetoric of HIV="Oh, I'll just take the meds." But even with the meds the epidemic doesn't stop and regarding your health, it's all a lottery and you could be might be hopefully will be ok.

The only thing we can do is present the most honest information possible and encourage others to make the best choices for themselves and for their lives. Talk about this topic. Really get it out there and let your friends and brothers know how much you care for them.


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I have to preface my comments by saying that I'm not the intended demographic for ACT UP's message, so my opinion here probably has limited value.

However, I think that "Boycott Bareback" is an excellent campaign message. It's blunt - there's no misunderstanding its meaning; it's bold - it gets your attention; it's simple, therefore memorable; and it demands an action. These are all necessary elements for a successful campaign.

The sex police charge seems weak. No one can or will physically stop anyone from praticing unsafe sex, nor can anyone be punished for it per se.

But I have to say that the notion that no one else can judge whether or not it's worthwhile to become HIV+ is one that I reject. Anyone who really understands the consequences of being HIV+ and has normally functioning cognitive abilities cannot believe that barebacking is worth the risk.

I'd like to point out that if someone practiced safer sex 100%, they wouldn't have the basis of comparison to rate barebacking, which is yet another reason never to do it.

Society has accepted that there are certain communal risks and responsibilities of individual choices. For example, there are motorcycle helmet laws because someone has to scrape up your dumb ass off the concrete, get you to the hospital and treat you, and pay to keep you alive and functioning with brain damage if you don't know enough to wear a helmet on your own. It doesn't seem unreasonable to expect people to think getting HIV is a bad thing.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 26, 2008 9:05 AM

One either has very safe sex or very monogamous sex.

As an activist I have to say that blatant barebacking is a public relations nightmare for LGBT activism vis 'a vis the endless weilding of weaponry by the Christian Right.

Okay, but let's put this into perspective. As Eric points out, there's a difference between barebackers and being high/drunk/horny and fucking up and not using a condom. So, yes, there is a basis for comparing condom sex and unsafe sex. That's a red herring in my opinion.

However, I agree with that commenter that "Boycott Barebacking" is a great slogan. I don't see it sex policing as much as a short "sound bit" that'll stick in folks' heads.

The message needs to change from "Wear condoms" or "boycott bareback" to "Why are we barebacking each other?"

Your version just doesn't flow nicely in big block letters on a poster, Eric. I see your point, but you have to distill it down into something shorter and more memorable.

Great article. More of our community should read it and start the conversation.

I think the sex police police are a bigger problem than the sex police.

I don't think it matters whether you distinguish between barebacking and "merely" unsafe sex in terms of HIV prevention. The act is the same, and so are the consequences. I understand the "lifestyle" aspect of it (if you'll excuse the expression) and why Eric differentiates it as virtually a fetish. But I also think that 100% safer sex compliance is an attainable goal.

If people really *get* what being HIV+ means, they can make safer sex a cardinal rule. Horny and/or drunk? There are other ways to have sex that have comparatively little to no risk. And if you're that drunk, how can you really know how good the sex was?

As for Eric's question about why barebacking is practiced, the semi-flip answer is because it's considered hot. But as far as the underlying psychology, I think it's wrapped up with the notion of legitimacy.

That is, "real" sex is a man and woman having intercourse. "Gay sex" is a gerryrigged approximation. Condoms are to prevent pregnancy. I hasten to add that these are not my views.

But I remember reading (and I really don't remember where) an entire discussion about how two men in a relationship had finally had sex. They, of course, had been having a lot of oral sex, humping, and mutual masturbation, but that didn't count (to them). They were waiting for six months worth of HIV- tests since they were together so they could have condomless intercourse. (Apparently, intercourse with a condom was rejected as an unacceptable alternative and also not "real" sex.)

So it was an occasion of joy when they finally had sex after waiting six months. As you might imagine, this sentiment prompted a lot of back and forth about what is real and valid and reaonable.

They were adamant that sex had to include penetration. You can probably guess the elements of sexism and heterosexism that might contribute to such a philosophy. But if we don't think the basic format (for lack of a better word) of some of our relationships isn't valid, that's going to have an impact on our self esteem. Many argue that until we believe we're worth protecting from HIV, sexual and health related behavior isn't going to change.