The last seduction

Gay men are tired of living in fear of Aids. So now they're turning risk into a thrill.
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The Independent Culture
Pete is into barebacking. He is a gay man who likes to have unprotected sex with other men. He advertises himself on the Internet as a "good- looking Italian" with a lean, muscular body and an appetite for hours of pleasure - strictly without condoms. As long as people understand his particular predilection, Pete will take whatever he can get.

Pete isn't sure if he is HIV-positive or not. "Last I checked it was neg, but not sure 'cause I like taking it raw and have done so a lot," he wrote in a recent online exchange with the American gay columnist Michelangelo Signorile.

"Do you have any concern about becoming poz [positive]?" Signorile asked him. "I have a concern about it, sure. But love it raw, even with that concern."

"What if you become positive?" Signorile persisted. "Well, I'd like to stay neg," he said. "But it's a very manageable disease with the meds today. I'd probably not die from it."

A survey of homosexual and bisexual American men just published by the government Center for Disease Controls and Prevention shows that, for the first time since the height of the Aids epidemic, condom-use has become less rigorous. While 69.9 per cent of respondents reported using a condom without fail for anal sex in 1994, that number slipped to 60.8 per cent in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available. The biggest slippage was among men between the ages of 26 and 29 - the first generation to have grown up entirely under the shadow of the epidemic.

According to the San Francisco-based Stop Aids Project, which contributed much of the data for the CDC report, the rate of HIV infection appeared stable for now, but there was a sharp increase in cases of anal gonorrhea - not life-threatening in itself, but it increases the risk of HIV two to five times.

"There is a shift taking place within the context of the epidemic," said the Stop Aids Project's Robert Perez. "After 20 years of dealing with Aids, people are getting restless. They want it to be over. They want to be able to have sex without fear."

Barebacking is not a new phenomenon in the gay community, but for the past few years it has been generally assumed that participants are HIV- positive already and merely want to maximise their fun now that it is too late to avoid contagion. New evidence suggests, however, that the phenomenon is spreading to HIV-negative men who are less concerned about infection than they used to be, and even to some who actively seek HIV- positive partners.

A number of Internet sites deal in disconcertingly revealing buzz-words like "bug chaser" (someone seeking an HIV-positive partner) and "gift- giver" (a positive man looking for someone negative to infect). There are adverts for "Russian roulette parties" in which four negative partners aim to get together with a fifth, HIV-positive one for the thrill of it. One particularly forthright site called XtremeSex is advertising a mass barebacking party in Dallas, Texas in April.

How to make sense of the phenomenon? The gay community is both wary and deeply divided over the issue. Traditional activist groups have condemned barebacking and attempted to play down the extent of it, while radical voices denounce what they see as the shrill sermonising of the "condom Nazis".

Robert Perez of the Stop AIDS Project, for example, insisted that barebacking was practised by "a tiny minority" of gay men as a whole, and insisted that, despite the disappointment of the CDC's latest figures, it was still an achievement for 60 per cent of gay men to use a condom during anal sex. But in this month's issue of the New York-based magazine POZ, written for HIV-positive men, journalist Michael Scarce writes: "Distinct from an infrequent slip-up, drunken mishap or safer-sex `relapse', barebacking represents a conscious, firm decision to forgo condoms and unapologetically revel in the pleasure of doing it raw. Some people use the term barebacking to describe all sex without condoms, but barebackers define it as the premeditation and eroticization of unprotected anal sex."

As part of his research, Scarce visited a barebacking house in the Castro district of San Francisco. He paid $8 at the door, was invited to take his clothes off and signed a document agreeing not to discuss illness, HIV or treatment. The intense sex he witnessed - a regular Thursday night fixture - was utterly silent, with no questions asked. Such accounts dismay and incense traditional anti-AIDS activists, who have accused POZ of glamorising barebacking as sexy and desirable. The magazine's cover shows an HIV-positive gay porn star, sitting naked astride a black stallion in an unmistakably erotic pose.

"I am surprised at POZ, not only for sensationalising the movement, but for not presenting a balanced view. Nowhere did I see the word `responsibility'. As an HIV-infected man myself, I take that responsibility very seriously," said Tom Coates, director of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the barebackers are asserting condom-free sex as something of a right. "After 18 years of living in doubt and crisis," a 36-year- old barebacking lawyer called Zach told Scarce, "men don't want to face a lifetime of wrapping themselves in latex." It remains to be seen how long such a defiant stance can last.