Wrestling With A Condom
With Guest Fight MC’s: Morality and Judgment
Last summer, my friend Dennis Hensley invited me to be interviewed on Sirius XM Out Q’s Frank DeCaro Show. It was great fun, and a great honor, to have the usually irreverent show dedicate a segment to getting serious about my book and the reality of bare-backing in the gay community. Dennis expressed a great pride in my book, seeing it as an accomplishment, which always feels good. But in the interview, he expressed that he felt most proud of the way I “wrestled” with the issues and politics of condomless sex. I said “thank you,” because I wasn’t sure how to respond. His statement stuck with me, I felt I should have said more about this, but, at the time, I didn't know what. After months of randomly hearing the interview played back, I have finally figured out how to articulate my reluctance to embrace Dennis’ assessment of what makes my book unique. I am hardly alone in wrestling with the question of risk vs. reward in the world of condomless sex. In fact, what I think makes my book powerful is that this is a struggle every man faces, almost daily, if not more. I just may be the first to write about that struggle in a work of fiction.
To wear a condom or not is a male issue. Not a gay one. Not a straight one. Rare is the man who has never lost the fight to the side of his nature that wants sexual satisfaction over safety. All of us stumble in this regard. Yet, we continue to insist that this behavior is fringe, or outlaw. The most conservative of men will admit to experiencing “raw” sex with more regularity than we care to acknowledge, and a cottage porn industry has been built on this "outlaw" association with "raw" sex. But in reality, each time a man negotiates sex with a new partner, in a new environment, he must struggle with his partner, and himself. This struggle seeks to find the best middle ground between desire, fear, and the comfort of the partner - to allow us to do the deed in the most enjoyable way.
In men, the drive to copulate is nearly universal and the instinctual belief that the act is somehow incomplete if we place a barrier between our partner and ourselves is not one that is easily squashed. Recent cultural developments as witnessed on a Facebook page called BB or Safe? Breed or Pull out? Swallow or...? , we see this struggle being reduced to a question of self worth – men who have sex with men posting pictures of themselves and others, with the question “Breed or pull out?” — as if the answer will be based on the prowess or appeal of the photograph’s subject rather than morality or logic. There are countless other examples, which all seem reductive to the profound, recurring struggle faced by so many men. Using such over-simplified cultural phenomena, we all too often paint those who choose to have condomless sex as cavalier, or selfish. We assume these men simply have not thought about their choice — because we assert that no rational person would make such a choice. But I would argue that another reality is more likely. Many of these men are not at all cavalier. They have fought, or wrestled, with the question of safety vs. satisfaction to the point that they have surrendered. They have surrendered to the side of them that is stronger, the one that has the ability to put up the more constant, more emotionally damaging fight. And this seems like it goes without saying - but it doesn't - for men that are not you, the side that won may be different than the one that won your battle.
Internally, gay men over forty fight a much different internal war about this issue than those under the age thirty-five. To map our morality squarely onto the shoulders of that generation is the truly reductive act. Those men will never want, nor need, to carry our burdens. It is all too easy for those of us who lived and lost in the age of AIDS to label this choice as a coward’s act, because to face that the reality we once knew (and still carry) has become anachronistic, is to admit that our time in the sun has past, and to question what the legacy of those lost might be. Man of us still see condoms as our legacy, even if the highly sexually active (gay or straight) will not use them.
Many gay men over forty make the choice to bareback as well, some even elevate the act to be a lifestyle choice. They too, do not choose this casually. To assume that these men do not, or have not, engaged in an internal struggle is to judge a book by its cover. A man can wrestle on that mat with all he has, and lose to a stronger wrestler, but that does not mean that he has not put up any fight at all. Yet, on the sidelines, this is what the fight announcers - Morality and Judgment- would have you believe. Such moral judgment is never a way to gain understanding or move a cause forward.
Sure, some men simply walk away from the fight; some people ignore all responsibility in pursuit of pleasure. But I dare say you cannot pick out such people by simply logging into your favorite hook-up site. To find what motivates the wide-range of people on those sites, you will have to dig much deeper. And when you do, you will find a complex set of needs and motivations that go far beyond the simple choice to have a better orgasm.
Until we acknowledge this reality, until we give it its due, we will continue to see all STDs spread. We will see unwanted pregnancies at alarming rates. The first step to creating the necessary dialogue to have an AIDS-free world is to create a space where men can own this behavior without fear of judgment or reprisal. This is hard to accomplish because to make such admissions often gets gay men labeled “suicidal” or “homicidal” and straight men labeled “misogynistic.” Using those harsh and judgmental words is so much easier than engaging in the unpacking of the complexity of male drive and desire.
Once upon a time, AIDS counselors and healthcare providers were trained to meet all discussions of sex without judgment, and to champion strategies that reduced risk. In this era, we saw the most effective intervention campaigns of our time. But when treatment developed, funding for such training was lost, and behavioral judgments quickly returned to the conversation. Our progress was quickly lost. In order to effect real change on this front, it will take more than medications, condoms, and options. It will take a prevention map that takes into account the various preferred methods, and that educates all people to all options. It will take us becoming as collectively open and judgment free about variations in sexual behavior as we have become about race, gender and ethnicity.