Friday, April 23, 1999

Barebacking: Stop The Madness

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #102, April 23, 1999)

It’s not chic, it’s not rebellious, it’s suicide

Today’s specific topic is barebacking. Today’s general topics are AIDS and dying. Barebacking (anal intercourse without a condom) has become a fashionable way to have sex among certain groups of people in the Twin Cities and nationwide, and the resurgence of this practice has inspired heated debate. Proponents of barebacking seem to feel that AIDS is no longer the threat it once was, and the feel of non-latex sex is worth the risk. Opponents argue that unprotected anal intercourse is what fueled the AIDS epidemic in the first place, and it remains a very dangerous way to have sex because of the high risk of spreading the HIV virus as well as a host of other sexually transmitted diseases.

I have been hearing these discussions about AIDS and barebacking for awhile without contributing anything to the conversation. As a firm believer in safer sex, I knew barebacking was something I personally would never do, but it’s a free country—everyone is entitled to make their own choices, and everyone is responsible for the consequences of the choices they make. Who am I to tell people what to do or not to do?

Who am I? I’m someone who sees a déjà vu disaster in the making and cares enough to send up a warning flare. I can’t make everybody’s choices for them, but I can at least point out a few things that people might want to think about as they’re making those choices:

• The semen of an HIV-positive male contains the HIV virus and is therefore highly infectious. The semen of an HIV-positive male who is taking protease inhibitors may contain less of the HIV virus. But any virus contained in that semen is there because it’s been tough enough to resist protease inhibitors—these are the strongest strains, and therefore the most virulent. If you were to become infected with these strains you would probably be one of those people for whom those magical protease inhibitors don’t work.

• HIV infection is not a cumulative process of being bombarded with the virus many times and having one’s resistance worn down. Just one instance of unprotected sex can be enough to infect you. Enjoying barebacking or other unsafe sex “in moderation” is a meaningless and dangerous concept. Just as there’s no such thing as “a little bit pregnant,” there’s no such thing as “a little bit positive.”

• Some people see barebacking as a form of thrill-seeking, like skydiving, mountain climbing or driving race cars, and how dare anyone tell them they can’t pursue their thrills? Consider this: Part of what makes an experience thrilling is an element of high but survivable risk—being in an extreme situation but “stacking the cards” so that we come out of it alive. No one intentionally skydives without a parachute because death would be pretty much certain; what’s thrilling about that? I submit that with what we know today, having anal sex without a condom makes as much sense as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute; both can be temporarily exhilarating but ultimately fatal.

• The death rate for AIDS has fallen in recent years, a fact for which we can all be thankful. The HIV infection rate, however, has remained constant. Do you find this fact mind-boggling? Nonsensical? Infuriating? I do. In the early stages of the AIDS epidemic we knew people were dying but we didn’t know why—and we didn’t know what we could do to stop it. Now we know. AIDS is not yet curable, but it sure as hell is preventable. And yet, even after all the sharing of information and all the distribution of safer-sex supplies, the rate of new infections is the same. What’s it going to take to bring it down?

• To the young, and to those new to our community, please listen to an old-timer. I’ve seen the gay community, and the leather community, decimated by AIDS. I’ve seen an entire generation of gay men and leathermen removed from the face of the earth. I’ve seen many of my friends get sick. Some went quickly. Some endured years of agony before finally succumbing. Some are still here, living their lives around their illness. None of these scenarios has been at all pretty to watch, much less to live through and/or die from. As you think about barebacking, think about whether you’d prefer a quick death or a slow, painful one—not that you’ll probably be offered that choice, of course. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, rich or poor, pretty or average, experienced or virgin, male, female, or whatever—you are not immune. It can happen to you. And sooner or later, unless you take proper precautions, it will. And when it does, you won’t be able to undo it.

• To those in the community who have been living with the epidemic and are still negative: You’ve made it this far—now is not the time to give up. Yes, the battle fatigue is real. The safer-sex fatigue is real. But you don’t have to give in to it. Rather than barebacking, try new and creative sex options that are safer. Be inventive. You might also consider participating in the AIDS vaccine trial to possibly stop HIV transmission altogether. If you really feel tempted to do something unsafe, talk with a friend who’s living with HIV; ask them how they would feel about you taking risks or becoming infected.

• To those in the community who know they are positive: Do you hate the HIV virus? If you pass it on to someone else, that’s a win for the virus—and you’ve just become an accomplice to this thing you hate. But every time you take proper precautions and have sex without transmitting the virus, it’s a victory for all of us—and you’re a hero.

AIDS is often described as having “torn the fabric of the community.” But let’s not talk fabric for a moment, let’s talk leather. Anyone who has ever ripped their leather jacket or pants knows how difficult it is to repair. And even after being repaired, the damage is usually all too evident. In much the same way, the community is still trying to repair the damage inflicted by AIDS. There are some indications that the tribe is reviving, but nothing we can do will ever bring back that entire generation we’ve lost to AIDS. Why in the world would we want to put ourselves through the same nightmare again—only this time, knowing full well what we were doing while we were doing it?

Now, a disclosure: Your humble columnist believes strongly in remaining safe sexually (he doesn’t flag that black-and-white-checked hanky for nothing). As a matter of fact, he is so risk-averse that he doesn’t even suck cock without a condom, a viewpoint which seems to be rapidly going the way of the buggy whip. Perhaps the jury is still out on some things, so we can agree to disagree. But as far as I know, “safer barebacking” is an oxymoron. It cannot be done without being extremely dangerous.

Maybe that danger is what some people are looking for. They characterize barebacking as Russian roulette, gambling with your life. I say it’s not even gambling, it’s just plain suicide. Science has extended the lifespan of those infected with HIV, and the pharmaceutical companies and their advertising agencies have (almost perversely) glamorized living with HIV. Some people say it’s become a “manageable” disease like diabetes. But keep in mind that the drugs don’t work for everyone, and there’s still no cure. People keep dying—the AIDS Quilt has grown so big it no longer fits on the Mall in Washington, D.C. That should tell you something.

If you think barebacking sounds attractive or enticing, I mean this in the kindest and most caring sense: You should have your head examined. Literally. You have a death wish, my friend, and unless you do something, sooner or later it’s going to come true. Run, do not walk, to your nearest physician, psychotherapist, STD clinic, HIV prevention program or counseling center. Or call the Minnesota AIDS Line toll-free statewide at 1-800-248-2437 (all calls are held in strictest confidence). Another resource is the Centers for Disease Control’s National HIV/AIDS Hotline, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-342-2437 (English), 1-800-344-7432 (Spanish) or 1-800-243-7889 (TTY).

In gay camp parlance from years ago, if you wanted to indicate that something or somebody was really great, you said that either it or he was “to die for.” As the AIDS epidemic grew, the awful, uncomfortable reality of that phrase became apparent. Today, each of us has the power to make sure that sex can be great without being “to die for.”

PHOTO: Mario & Joshua with winning ticket

On April 11 Ms. Minnesota Leather 1999 Mario and Mr. Minnesota Leather 1999 Joshua Smith held their “Family Reunion” fundraiser at The Saloon to benefit Hope House and the Minnesota Leather Travel Fund. One of the highlights of the evening was drawing the name of the winner of the 1982 Suzuki motorcycle that was being raffled off; the winning ticket was sold in Chicago and the lucky winner lives in the Chicago area. Above left is Mario in dress, heels and makeup for the first time ever. Above right, holding the winning ticket, is Joshua Smith in not much more than his birthday suit (which was fitting, since the event was held on his birthday).

Mark Your Calendar

For events in the next two weeks, see the Out & About Calendar. Here are some other events planned for the weeks ahead:

May 8: Leather/Levi Dinner presented by the Atons, open to all. Location and time to be announced. Call the Atons Hotline for more information or to make a reservation.

May 16: Black Guard fundraiser. Put it on your calendar now, and check the next issue of Lavender for location and time.

May 21-23: Knights of Leather present Tournament 11, a pansexual run held at a private camp within a park. Workshops, demonstrations and fantasies will be presented. Call The Knights or e-mail for more information.

May 28-31: International Mr. Leather contest weekend in Chicago. Joshua Smith will be representing Minnesota, and the tenth anniversary of the Leather Pride flag will also be celebrated. Visit or call 1-800-545-6753 for more information.

May 30: The Atons present their traditional gathering for those who don’t make the journey to Chicago.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Friday, April 23

Mr. Minnesota Drummer/Minnesota Drummerboy Welcoming Beer Bust
7-10 PM, The Minneapolis Eagle
Meet the contestants and judges. $7 at the door.

Saturday, April 24

Mr. Minnesota Drummer/Minnesota Drummerboy Contest and Show
Club Metro Underground, St. Paul. Doors open 7 PM, contest starts at 8:30 PM, title awarded at 10:30 PM
Show features leather comedienne Ms. Michelle Balan. A fundraiser for the GLBT community produced by Minnesota Leather Productions in association with The Black Guard, The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Ice Castle, and members of Sober Leather. $15 at the door.

Saturday, April 24

Atons Road Trip to the Cell Block in Chicago
For more information call the Atons Hotline.

Sunday, April 25
Mr. Minnesota Drummer/Minnesota Drummerboy Victory Party
6-9:30 PM, The Saloon
$5 at the door.

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