The Human Condition: Johnny be good

Whatever happened to that condom moment? 'Bareback', or unprotected, sex is still practised by up to a third of gay men - because, despite the dangers, it feels liberated, sensuous and like one in the eye for 'sex police'. Iain Finlayson reports on a high-risk strategy

"BAREBACK" is the latest US slang for unprotected sex. If it sounds erotic, daring and liberated rather than just dangerous, that's because for a significant minority of gay men, it is. Aids has been with us for nearly two decades, but we are apparently no nearer being able to separate the tangled strands of public health, sexual prejudice and gay rights. So much so, that even safe sex has become an ideological rather than a practical consideration.

In Britain, the latest research reveals that a third of gay men have occasional unprotected sex. But it is in America, always ahead in such matters, that unprotected sex has its own radical gay theoretical framework. It was Mayor Giuliani's campaign to clean up New York by banning sex shops, topless bars and porno movie houses from all residential neighbourhoods that first sparked a gay campaign calling itself Sex Panic after the anxiety gripping the city. Last year, a group of queer theorists identified Giuliani's assault on urban sleaze as a "sex panic". Historian Allan Berube defined a "sex panic" as "a moral crusade that leads to crackdowns on sexual outsiders". Berube characterised the current crackdown as one that "demonizes gay men... for stealing moments of sexual semi-privacy with othermen in places such as public parks, public toilets in subways, bus and train stations." The "Sex Panic Summit" in San Diego in mid-November last year even adopted A Declarationof Sexual Rights, a list of four principles and eleven demands.

By no means all of New York's gay men agree that anything less than the right to have sex when and where you want is a gross infringement of their civil liberties. The dramatist and author Larry Kramer wrote in The New York Times last year that "a small and vocal gay group that calls itself Sex Panic has taken it upon itself to demand 'sexual freedom', which its members define as allowing gay men to have sex when and where and how they want to. In other words, this group is an advocate of unsafe sex, if this is what is wanted, and of public sex, if this is what is wanted. It advocates unconditional, unlimited sex." Kramer pointed out that "this is the very same debate that occurred in 1981 when the first signs of the AIDS plague were appearing. Few wished to pay attention to the dangers then, preferring to demand the right to have sex in exactly the same way as Sex Panic."

The debate has widened further than ever the gulf between radical gay civil rights activists and the so-called neo-conservative gay theorists. High-profile, articulate protesters against the values and attitudes of Sex Panic - notably gay journalists and authors Michelangelo Signorile, Andrew Sullivan, Gabriel Rotello and Larry Kramer - are vilified by their radical brothers as irredeemably bourgeois and assimilationist. But Signorile warns that "a culture of unbridled, multi-partner anal sex directly contributes to the ongoing [AIDS] epidemic, which, far from abating, is threatening more - and younger - gay men."

So what, exactly, is the relevance of any of this to the British gay community? The original big bathhouse debate of the Eighties in the USA pitched strategies of legal restrictions and safe sex education in the battle to contain HIV infection against a very vocal and active protest regarding individual civil liberties, gay rights, commercial freedom, public morals, political expediency and public health. The debate was largely irrelevant in the UK,where at the time there were very few public sex venues (or PSVs). In the Nineties, however, there has been a significant increase in commercial gay venues, particularly in London where there are now at least 15 saunas and 10 bar/clubs that provide facilities for gay sex on their premises.

An investigation by Sigma Research into London's PSVs commissioned by three central London health authorities on behalf of the Inner London HIV Health Commissioners Group found "a small but significant amount of unprotected anal intercourse", usually between men who assumed their own and/or their partner's HIV positive status. Roughly a quarter of all the gay men questioned admitted to sex, often involvingconsiderable risk-taking, in bars or clubs, saunas, cruising areas and cottages, even though condoms and lubricant are generally freely available on PSV premises.

For most gay men the politics of sex are subsidiary to their need for emotional and sexual intimacy. A condom coldly reminds them of HIV status, whereas latex-free sex is seen (and felt) as intensely liberating. "Men who are positive need so much to be back in control of their bodies, their lives and their futures," said Mike Jones, senior health advisor at Mortimer Market Health Centre in London. "Anything that can assist in that process is going to be developed and used. If that means having bareback sex with a number of positive men they'll do it. We can't justify it in medical terms, but we are aware in psychological terms that there are reasons why."

The evidence over the past three to four years, say health professionals at the Terrence Higgins Trust, is that the majority of gay men in the UK practice safe sex, but a significant proportion - about one third - will occasionally or regularly have unprotected anal sex. In 90 per cent of cases, unsafe sex is much more likely to take place in private, at home, between consenting adults. Either this is simply a slip-up in circumstances where a rubber is not at hand, or the choice of bareback sex is deliberate, for reasons best known to the individual who is still free to exercise personal choice. Bareback is often an expression of the need for intimacy and an assertion of individuality.

The report's author Peter Keogh emphasises the point that safe sex is a matter of individual choice and that older gay men in his survey sample were sexually sophisticated, "fully aware of HIV and actively making choices around their sexual behaviour and avoidance of the virus." Although they "had clearly abandoned the principle of using condoms every time with all partners," they were experienced in negotiated sex: "What these men are practising is not risk avoidance but risk reduction."

Anecdotal evidence from health professionals indicates that the younger generation of gay men are no more at risk, or likely to take risks, than older gay men who have survived the first wave of AIDS. Safe-sex choices are more a matter of class and lifestyle: younger middle-class gay men are aspirational for their careers, and take care to plan for their future. If that means paying attention to sex and health matters, as much as their education and job, then they will factor decisions about safe sex into the lifestyle equation. Boys may still just wanna have fun, but the boys in the backroom are thinking with their heads as well as their dicks.

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