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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
News
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pricing Analyst

    £25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

    Data/ MI Analyst

    £25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

    Project Manager with some Agile experience

    £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

    Web Application Support Manager

    £60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style