It’s Time to Get Angry About the Promotion of Unsafe Sex in the Gay Community

[Cross-Posted at Daily Kos]

I’m angry at the proliferation and popularity of “bareback” porn and blogs and hook-up websites and their increasing acceptance in mainstream gay culture. Since this diary is about porn a lot of the links are going to be sexually graphic and those will be clearly labeled Not Safe For Work (NSFW).

A little history about me: I was a gay activist in the 70s and 80s in New York and here in San Francisco. More can be found here. I ran away from home in Queens, NY two months before my 16th birthday in 1971. I immediately joined the Gay Activists Alliance. At age 18 I moved to San Francisco and I, along with my friend Howard Wallace helped start Bay Area Gay Liberation (known as BAGL) in 1974. Many organizations (including what became the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club) and activists (including Assemblyman Tom Ammiano) grew out of or got their start in BAGL.

The last organization I was a part of in the 80s was, somewhat ironically given what I am writing about today, the Committee to Defend Our Sexual and Civil Liberties, which fought to stop the city from closing all baths and sex clubs as a response to AIDS. Actually, it isn’t that ironic because we still believed in safe sex. I handed out pamphlets from the Harvey Milk club (despite my strong disagreement with their support of closing the baths) promoting safer sex. One of our arguments was that it was far better to have places where you could have condoms and safe-sex literature and where you could monitor the activity in the public spaces than to push it underground to places where there would be no way to monitor or provide condoms and which could also be dangerous. At the time we were thinking of parks and restrooms and the like but now it is the internet and the iPhone which has turned the whole world into a virtual bathhouse and made that prediction come true in ways that even we couldn’t have imagined at the time. Now you have scores of websites like BarebackRT (Bareback Real Time -NSFW) that are devoted to facilitating hook-ups between men who want to have unprotected anal sex.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term – barebacking has become a euphemism for condomless sex in the gay community. It started with “bareback” porn in the late 90s. The gay male porn industry had voluntarily started requiring condom use in the mid 80s (after sadly, almost all of the major gay porn stars from the 70s died from AIDS). They were heroes in the fight against AIDS. They helped make safer sex hot and for many of us porn became, at least partly, a substitute for the real thing, the safest form of sex. Unlike in the hypocritical straight world, porn is very much a part of the mainstream in the gay male community. Porn stars and sex workers are valued and looked up to. In the 80s and 90s they very much earned that respect and adulation. But in the late 90s, after the discovery of Protease Inhibitors and the drug cocktail, which turned HIV from an automatic death sentence to a “manageable chronic disease”, a new force emerged called “bareback porn” that openly featured unsafe sex. Hot Desert Knights from Palm Springs and Treasure Island Media from San Francisco were the first ones. While Hot Desert Knights presented it as fantasy that should not be tried at home and tested their models, Treasure Island Media were the bad boys who openly advocated “transgressive” sex. It’s founder, Paul Morris once described HIV-negativity as “the new virginity” and he seems to be on a mission to make sure there are no virgins left.

What makes me so angry is that what was once a small underground phenomenon has now become mainstream, with very little protest from the majority of responsible gay men. Bareback porn studios claim that bareback porn now outsells gay porn with condoms. There is a video rental store in the heart of the Castro called Superstar Satellite. Barebacking used to be limited to one section in their porn room. Now it is everywhere. They have huge displays in the front window promoting it, even during the Frameline LGBT Film Festival which uses their store as their temporary headquarters. At a Q&A after a film about safe sex during last year’s festival, I pointed out the irony of having to walk past a display promoting bareback porn in order to buy tickets.

What’s worse is AIDS and other charitable organizations like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence co-sponsor fundraisers with companies like Naked Sword, which feature bareback porn on their website. It’s parent company bragged (NSFW) about the fact that the movie most watched on all of their websites in a single month – gay or straight – was a Treasure Island Media creation called the “1000 Load Fuck” (NSFW) where a man “takes a thousand fucking manloads, over a gallon of cum up his ravenous young ass”, some delivered in person, most by use of a turkey baster. A local leather bar featured this movie during last year’s Folsom Street Fair after having sponsored a party for Treasure Island Media the previous day. Another South of Market bar held a party co-sponsored by Treasure Island Media and Naked Sword which featured a live barebacking show.

Bareback porn is given away as prizes at benefits for AIDS and other organizations. These benefits are organized by third parties but they are perfectly capable of telling those third parties not to allow bareback porn to be given away if they are going to be the recipient of any funds. I recently saw this happen at a benefit for Lyric, an organization for LGBT youth. I sent them an email asking if they thought this was sending the right message to LGBT youth. I got a “we weren’t the organizer” and “sorry if you were offended” message back. At least the Stop AIDS Project responded that they have told organizers not to give away bareback DVDs when I complained about a similar incident involving them. The Sisters told me that they were “non-judgmental” about people’s “fetishes” as if barebacking were just another harmless fetish. These organizations are all getting taxpayer money and they should be held accountable for what is done in their name.

What we ended up with in the 80s was a compromise ordered by a judge that said that sex clubs (and even bathhouses) could remain open but that sexual activity had to be monitored and condom use for intercourse had to be enforced and that there could be no private rooms that couldn’t be monitored. Bathhouses could have stayed open if they removed the doors and some tried but ultimately closed for lack of business. However, this only applied to San Francisco and bathhouses with private rooms remain open to this day in Berkeley and San Jose. Mayor Feinstein and the Health Dept. Director at the time wanted all bathhouses and sex clubs closed so we won a partial victory. It was a good compromise that probably saved a lot of lives while still allowing for more sexual freedom than in most other urban area in this country. Unfortunately in recent years under Mayor Newsom new spaces have opened up that are not enforcing these rules. I have met with people in the Health Dept. and they say they lack the authority to act because the rules apply only to registered sex clubs and these other parties are at rented out private spaces. However we are talking about parties advertised on the internet, on Facebook or Yahoo groups. Admission or a “suggested donaton” is charged. In one case, City Entertainment, you have an adult bookstore that has opened up a second floor for what clearly is a sex club with beds, glory holes, large screen TVs showing porn. There was a party at City Entertainment after the last Folsom Street Fair that was sponsored by BarebackRT.com, which had a huge booth at the Fair promoting the party. No one seemed to mind.

I alerted the Health Dept. in advance but they did not take any action. They set up a meeting with me after the party and they asked me to tell them what went on if I went. That was the first and last specifically advertised as bareback sex party I have ever attended. To the credit of City Entertainment, they did put condoms everywhere and some people were even using them but the majority were not. There was no effort to enforce condom use and the rules posted by City Entertainment do not say condoms are required. They showed bareback porn on the TVs. There was one with the sound turned up (instead of music playing in the other rooms) made by the website and I thought it quite revealing that it had a guy constantly calling the guy he is fucking a “faggot”. This is a new and disturbing trend I’m seeing in gay porn, especially on x-tube.

For those who say that bareback porn is just fantasy and that gay men can understand the difference between fantasy and reality, they should have seen what I saw at that party. People were clearly imitating the fantasies they have seen in bareback porn. Treasure Island Media introduced the ridiculous term “breeding” to describe the transfer of semen during anal sex between men. If you look closer what they really are fetishizing is the transfer of HIV. One video (very, very NSFW – a bareback porn blog) featured a model with a “Biohazard” tattoo just in case you didn’t get the message.

And while most of their models probably contracted HIV a long time ago they are clearly encouraging the fantasy of seroconversion. They helped spur the real but overblown trend that emerged in the last decade of “bug chasers” and “gift givers” – people who actively sought out to get or give HIV. As one comment on that blog said:

SEAN’S SCENE IN BAREBACKING ACROSS AMERICA WAS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECES OF POZ BAREBACK PROPAGANDA IN MY CHASING DAYS…HE’S A MAN RESPONSIBLE FOR 100s or 1000s OF OTHERS LIKE ME. AND I KNOW HE KNOWS IT. A GOOD MAN…

The number of people who were consciously doing that was small but the number of people who were objectively doing the same thing is much larger. At this party people were shouting things like “breed him”. One person was, with the active encouragement of an onlooker, begging for as many men as possible to use him as a “cum dump”. Again, language from bareback porn. Last Saturday, Feb. 19th, City Entertainment hosted another party sponsored by barebackrt.com which I did not attend. It’s time for the SF Dept. of Public Health to do its job and enforce safe sex rules everywhere in public spaces, whether registered as sex clubs or not. It is not fair to the sex clubs that are enforcing these rules to have to deal with this unfair competition.

I have fought for sexual freedom all my life. I am legally married now but I am definitely not monogamous. I don’t want to shut any of these places down. I just want them to enforce condom use. Part of the problem is the LGBT movement, in our fight for marriage equality, has become so focused on showing how much we are like straight people that we have left a large segment of our community behind. The reality is that the vast majority of gay men, especially young gay men, are either single or in open relationships. And the last thing the movement wants to talk about these days is sex, especially casual or anonymous promiscuous sex. That has left a void that the bareback porn industry has been more than happy to fill. We need a radical sex-positive wing of the movement again to promote both sexual freedom and responsibility.

I support the campaign by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to require condom use in porn. I support the requirement to use condoms for businesses that allow sexual activity. Unlike Larry Kramer, I support Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV Prevention (a topic for another diary). Given the reality that even under the best of circumstances some gay men are going to have unsafe sex, don’t we want every possible weapon at our disposal to fight this disease? And condoms sometimes break and very few of us use them for oral sex which, while less risky, the risk is not zero. So even people who practice safe sex most of the time might still benefit. Indeed, if PrEP should ultimately prove as effective as condoms when actually taken every day, I will gladly stand down on this issue because my only motivation is to stop the spread of this disease. I don’t care how. We don’t want to be like the religious right which would rather people die than do anything which might encourage people to have sex they don’t approve of. Just about every argument against PrEP could be said about birth control pills too but I don’t see anyone (on our side) saying we should ban The Pill because it could encourage people not to use condoms.

And of course, I certainly support efforts to find an effective vaccine or cure. But until we find another way, condoms are still the most effective way (other than abstinence) to stop the spread of HIV. We cannot let our guard down now. The startling statistic that 1 in 5 Gay men in urban areas are HIV Positive demonstrates that what we have been doing up to now is not working. A new and bolder approach is needed to turn this around. The time for action is now.

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