Guest Blogger

Condoms: Why The Hell Aren't You Wearing Them?

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 30, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

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Editors' Note: Guest blogger Zack Rosen is a founder and first full-time employee of The New Gay, an online resource for alternative queer events and ideas based in Washington, DC.

Picture this: It's the dead of winter and someone walks by you in shorts and a windbreaker, shivering. Or it's midnight in Adams Morgan and you see some guy on a bike with no helmet and no lights listening to iPod headphones. Someone drives too fast down a side street while texting and blasting their radio. You see them and shake your head, thinking "What a dumbass."

A couple years ago when one of the cutest boys I'd ever seen begged me to f@ck him without a condom. Actually, beg is the wrong word. He pleaded. He whined. He implored me not to use one as if it was simply some seasoning our sexual entree that he found disagreeable. Condoms, however, are not cilantro and I refused to eat without one. And the next morning I found his blood on my sheets, meaning that if he had listened to me, and I was HIV+, he would've been too. What a dumbass.

Why are guys these days getting the idea that it is ever OK to have casual sex without condoms? Growing up in the '90s , safe sex messages where everywhere. I couldn't watch TV, read a magazine or even ride The El through Chicago without seeing some visual or audio reminder that condom use wasn't a choice, it was a public duty. Now? DC was just ranked number one in the country for HIV cases. But what does that mean? An abstract series of numbers will rarely change someone's heart. What works better is personal responsibility. It is no longer a choice to wear condoms when having sex with someone of an unknown status. You just have to do it.

I was having a conversation with a HIV+ friend of mine. A mother hen for DC's newly arrived gay youth, he helps kids in need find jobs, rent affordable apartments and connect to social networks. He is also the first person they turn to when they find out that they, too, are positive. This makes him sad. "It is very hard to get HIV," he said to me. He pointed out that it involves a perfect storm of sexual circumstance: The non-infected has to have unprotected, receptive anal sex. He has to bleed. The infected generally has to be topping, and have a high enough viral load to transmit the infection. The best way to make it not happen is to wear a condom. Period.

I've heard a number of excuses: they don't feel good, they kill the mood, they aren't necessary. There a million reasons not to wear a condom, but none of them trump the one very important reason to wear one. That one reason is a literal matter of life and death.

I don't say this to damn or shame those that already have the virus. It's an odd paradox, but one that I believe in nonetheless. If you have already contracted HIV, my heart goes out to you and I wish you the best of luck in all its attendant circumstances. If you don't have it, though, I'm sure that all those in the former category would gladly do everything possible to make sure you never get it. The best way to do this? I'll keep saying it. Wear condoms. Tell your friends to wear condoms. Go about your daily life as if this is an act akin to breathing.

But for some people, obviously, it is not. What are the reasons that some of us out there still have unprotected sex? You can sleep with whoever you want as long as you are safe about it. If you do the former, and not the latter, you're setting yourself up for trouble. No matter if it feels better or you trust the other person or you pull out in time. It is now up to each and everyone of us to do something about this.

Our gay forebears suffered through the living hell of the 80s. They watched their friends die. They fought for health care and government aid and awareness among the general public. For what? So we could become confident and complacent and lose all their lessons?

You have to wear condoms. You can even pick some up for free at the next Homo/sonic. It's the least we can do. But can we be doing anything else?

A couple years ago, in a separate incident, I told a soon-to-be sexual partner that I was going to grab a condom from my nightstand. He responded "Oh, you're so responsible" as if I was choosing to put on my seatbelt for a spin around the block or double-lock my door. I would have rather he called me responsible for choosing not to shoot him with a gun or hit him with a car. I wouldn't consider those lethal acts to be anything less than off-limits in my own moral compass. Condom use should be considered the same way.


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Wyatt O'Brian Evans | March 30, 2009 2:44 PM

Zack

First, welcome aboard!

Thanks for such a well-written, substantive and timely post! It's a message that needs to be heard now more than ever.

I don't say this to damn or shame those that already have the virus.

Right, but you seem fine damning and shaming everybody else who may be having unprotected sex for myriad reasons. I found nothing in this article to empower me to make better choices regarding my sexual health. All I got was, "Not wearing condoms is crazy, as morally wrong as shooting someone in the head, and if you don’t wear a condom you are a dumbass." That approach is never going to make anyone safer.

You can even pick some up for free at the next Homo/sonic. It's the least we can do. But can we be doing anything else?

Yes.

First, stop the shaming and name-calling of people who have unprotected sex. Not only is it ineffective, it’s extremely reductionist.

Second, you should acknowledge that there are two types of people having unprotected sex: those that make the conscious decision to do so (no matter how bad a decision we may think that is), and those who would rather be having protected sex but simply don’t have the language or skills to ask for it and negotiate safe sex with their partners. It may seem absurd that something as simple as asking someone’s status and telling them they need to use a condom is extremely difficult to do, but it definitely can be. Especially in situations where there is a power difference between the parties involved – and as a young guy who has sex with older men I can tell you that’s the case in most of my sexual encounters.

I’d definitely love to see (and attend) more workshops and skillshares from the queer community on how to negotiate safe sex safely. Giving people the tools to take control of their own health and sexual habits would go a long way towards stopping the spread of HIV.

John Shields John Shields | March 30, 2009 6:49 PM

Great post Zack.

It still frikkin' amazes me when one of my friends does this! Actually, "DOES NOT" would be more appropriate here. And I know more than just a handful, and the conversation is not easy. It takes all I can muster not to take out my dummy stick and hit them upside the head.

But that wouldn't be compassionate nor empathetic. It doesn't, however, make the conversation any easier.

Come on guys. Put on a condom just like you would a seatbelt. Please.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | March 30, 2009 10:05 PM

HIV prevention efforts targeting gay men in DC have largely been a disaster. I am hoping that the newly formed HIV Prevention Working Group headed by Dan O'Neill will make headway where the DC government and local AIDS organizations have failed.

It is no longer a choice to wear condoms when having sex with someone of an unknown status. You just have to do it.

I would have rather he called me responsible for choosing not to shoot him with a gun or hit him with a car. I wouldn't consider those lethal acts to be anything less than off-limits in my own moral compass

So let's do the same to people who don't wear condoms: throw them in jail!

Haha, just kidding. But calling people dumbasses is a good way to get them not to listen.

David Phillips | March 31, 2009 11:16 AM

JFC, Zack.... On a positive note, thanks for a great example of how NOT to promote condom use. The increased frequency of unprotected receptive anal intercourse among Gay men finds its roots in social change and personal choice as a mixed bag of positive and negative influences. Berating those who choose to not use condoms, however, is not going to help them or anyone else feel empowered to choose condom use; even if it helps some condom users feel morally superior.

While the choice to use or not use a condom can be life-changing, it often comes in the midst of one of the most conflicted moments in our lives. People who have received safer sex messages since childhood and handled condoms in adulthood can run a tenuous calculus regarding risk and reward in their hormone-addled brains when faced with the condom dilemma. Their impression of a high-risk partner is still informed by dated images of wasted and disfigured HIVers, and their need to feel as intimate and close to another man pre-empts any discussion of hepatitis status or STI history. Worse, if the pair chooses the condom, one may have had little instruction on where, how, and in what quantities to apply lubricant, given the heretofore drive-by style of condom distribution; and the skill and patience of the partners in attaining pleasure may not match their eagerness for orgasm.

More troubling, as a community of sexual beings, Gay men seem to have lost the cultural imperative to remain HIV-negative. As a 27-year survivor with the virus, I am in no way suggesting the stigmatization of people who have seroconverted. However, I fear that over the last dozen years, except when statistics call us out, we have trivialized HIV infection and its impact on the individual and our culture, as if amounted to wearing fall colors when one is a “summer.” In reality, a system of viral apartheid operates among us on many levels, and HIV infection will impact every aspect of a person’s life in some measure--from friendships to faith, sexuality to self-image, employment to emotions. When a person becomes infected amid of shaming condom proponents, the impact is more severe.

Let’s try as a sexual community to assert a multi-pronged approach against HIV, instead of one-size-fits-all solutions and divisive hysterics. Let’s educate one another about the challenges that still exist when living with HIV after much medical advancement. Let’s celebrate the mind-blowing sex we can have without depositing a load of semen in an orifice. Let’s re-normalize honest conversations about sexual risk and our personal responses to it, borrowing from the dialogues of our lives and the laws of math and science, instead of the mode du jour, whether it’s “just say NO” or “barebacking pigsex frenzy.”

bigolpoofter | April 1, 2009 10:57 AM

JFC, Zack.... On a positive note, thanks for a great example of how NOT to promote condom use. The increased frequency of unprotected receptive anal intercourse among Gay men finds its roots in social change and personal choice as a mixed bag of positive and negative influences. Berating those who choose to not use condoms, however, is not going to help them or anyone else feel empowered to choose condom use; even if it helps some condom users feel morally superior.

While the choice to use or not use a condom can be life-changing, it often comes in the midst of one of the most conflicted moments in our lives. People who have received safer sex messages since childhood and handled condoms in adulthood can run a tenuous calculus regarding risk and reward in their hormone-addled brains when faced with the condom dilemma. Their impression of a high-risk partner is still informed by dated images of wasted and disfigured HIVers, and their need to feel as intimate and close to another man pre-empts any discussion of hepatitis status or STI history. Worse, if the pair chooses the condom, one may have had little instruction on where, how, and in what quantities to apply lubricant, given the heretofore drive-by style of condom distribution; and the skill and patience of the partners in attaining pleasure may not match their eagerness for orgasm.

More troubling, as a community of sexual beings, Gay men seem to have lost the cultural imperative to remain HIV-negative. As a 27-year survivor with the virus, I am in no way suggesting the stigmatization of people who have seroconverted. However, I fear that over the last dozen years, except when statistics call us out, we have trivialized HIV infection and its impact on the individual and our culture, as if amounted to wearing fall colors when one is a “summer.” In reality, a system of viral apartheid operates among us on many levels, and HIV infection will impact every aspect of a person’s life in some measure--from friendships to faith, sexuality to self-image, employment to emotions. When a person becomes infected amid of shaming condom proponents, the impact is more severe.

Let’s try as a sexual community to assert a multi-pronged approach against HIV, instead of one-size-fits-all solutions and divisive hysterics. Let’s educate one another about the challenges that still exist when living with HIV after much medical advancement. Let’s celebrate the mind-blowing sex we can have without depositing a load of semen in an orifice. Let’s re-normalize honest conversations about sexual risk and our personal responses to it, borrowing from the dialogues of our lives and the laws of math and science, instead of the mode du jour, whether it’s “just say NO” or “barebacking pigsex frenzy.”